Great European of the Week: Maximilien de Robespierre

Radical democrat or proto-totalitarian dictator? James Bartholomeusz examines one of the French Revolution’s most iconic figures.


In a sense, the beginning of modern Europe can be traced to the summer of 1789. The events of those months – the calling of the Estates-General, the Storming of the Bastille, the Declaration of the Rights of Men and Citizens – struck the first blows of the French Revolution and modern democracy. The election of non-aristocrats to the National Constituent Assembly brought together the Revolutionary figures who would become famous and infamous in the following decade. Among them was a man whose name would become synonymous with the Reign of Terror: Maximilien de Robespierre.

Robespierre was born in 1758, at the height of the European Enlightenment. His early career as a lawyer led on to his election as both a Third Estate deputy and later a member of the Assembly. Becoming president of the Jacobin Club in 1790, his popular agitation and stirring oration meant that he was perfectly situated to exploit the tensions in post-1789 France and drive the Revolution into more radical territory. In September 1792, the Girondins seized power; in June 1793, the Jacobins staged a second coup and Robespierre became the de facto national dictator.

King Louis XVI had been executed in January of that year, after an inflammatory speech given by Robespierre to the National Assembly in which he charged the monarch with conspiring with other European powers to unseat the Revolution, and recommended that the king’s right to a trial should be suspended given the circumstances. From June onwards, the Reign of Terror began proper; with threats to the Revolution inside and outside France, the Jacobins – through the Committee of Public Safety – instigated a bloody purge of suspected traitors with the backing of the radical Parisian demos. Yet, only thirteen months later, Robespierre himself stood on a scaffold. With the external threat to France diminished but Robespierre’s penchant for the guillotine remaining unabated, accusations of despotism began to take hold. On 27th July 1794, he was arrested, and the following day was guillotined. The Terror was over.

After Robespierre’s death, the Revolution lost its radicalism, moving into the period of the Directory and then to Napoleonic rule. Yet the lead Jacobin’s influence was far from spent. For many – despite his excesses – Robespierre was a champion of the people, governing in the interests of the poor majority and, at least temporarily, breaking the stranglehold held over the Revolution by the affluent bourgeoisie. However, in Robespierre we can also see the first expression of what would later become known as totalitarian dictatorship. It is this view of him that has prevailed; the image of a man, nicknamed “l’incorruptible“, whose fanatical commitment to a rational and just society led that very society’s citizens to the slaughter.

Perhaps Robespierre’s greatest legacy is that he stands as a warning – a warning to all those who wish to radically reshape society, that democratic idealism can too-easily mutate into autocratic repression.

Image: ‘Robespierre vs Spiderman’ courtesy of MazetMan via Flickr, released under Creative Commons.

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