After this pointless slaughter came the restoration of the same corrupt regime that the Revolution overthrew. Aside from immense suffering, the upheaval achieved nothing. He knew exactly what he was doing, meant to do it, and believed he was right to do it. He is the prototype of a particularly odious kind of evildoer: the ideologue who believes that reason and morality are on the side of his butcheries. They are the characteristic scourges of humanity in modern times, but Robespierre has a good claim to being the first.
Understanding his motives and rationale deepens our understanding of the worst horrors of the recent past and those that may lurk in the future. H istorians distinguish three phases of the French Revolution. The last, the Terror, ran roughly during — As the Jacobins gained control of the Committee of Public Safety, which in turn controlled the legislature the Convention , the disputes among their factions sharpened. After an interregnum of shared power, Robespierre became dictator, and the Terror started in earnest.
It took the form of the arrest, show trial, and execution of thousands of people, including the leaders of the Girondins and the opposing Jacobin factions, who were suspected of opposing—actively or passively, actually or potentially—the policies Robespierre dictated. Large parts of France were hardly involved; for most people, life went on during the Revolution much as before.
Robespierre and his followers incited them to action whenever political expediency called for it. But even when unincited, having nothing better to do, they formed the crowd that watched the public executions, jeered and abused those about to die, rejoiced at the severed heads, adulated the leaders temporarily in power, and cursed them after they fell. Like flies, they were everywhere as the Revolution went on its bloody way. Their enraged, expectant buzzing formed the ghastly background of the slaughter of the innocents.
The descriptions that follow are only a few among many that could be given. On the morning of the third, the prison of La Force was entered and here took place the murder of the Princesse de Lamballe. The frenzy of the crazed and drunken murderers appears to have reached its highest pitch at La Force. Cannibalism, disembowelment and acts of indescribable ferocity took place here. The Princess. She was dispatched with a pike thrust, her still beating heart was ripped from her body and devoured, her legs and arms were severed from her body and shot through cannon.
The horrors that were then perpetrated on her disemboweled torso are indescribable. It has been loosely assumed. Very few victims were, in fact, of the former nobility—less than thirty out of the fifteen hundred who were killed. Each perpetrated the terror to frighten opponents into abject submission and establish himself more firmly in power.
Having secured Paris, in Robespierre appointed commissioners to enforce his interpretation of the Revolution outside the capital. A number of the condemned, then, were executed in mass shootings. Those who were not killed outright by the fire were finished off with sabers, bayonets, and rifles.
By the time that the killings. Holes were punched in the sides of. Prisoners were put in with their hands and feet tied and the boats pushed into the center of the river. Estimates of those who perished in this manner vary greatly, but there were certainly no fewer than two thousand. Women were routinely raped, children killed, both mutilated. At Gonnord. Thirty children and two women were buried alive when earth was shoveled onto the pit. Its enemies had to be exterminated without mercy because they stood in the way.
As the ideologues saw it, the future of mankind was a high enough stake to justify any deed that served their purpose. There is no crime, no murder, no massacre that cannot be justified, provided it be committed in the name of an Ideal. The ideal, however, was simply what Robespierre said it was. And the law was what Robespierre and his followers willed it to be.
They changed it at will and determined whether its application in a particular case was just. The justification of monstrous actions by appealing to a passionately held ideal, elevated as the standard of reason and morality, is a characteristic feature of political ideologies in power. For the Communists, it was a classless society; for the Nazis, racial purity; for Islamic terrorists, their interpretation of the Koran. The shared feature is that the ideal, according to its true believers, is immune from rational or moral criticism, because it determines what is reasonable and moral. What is the remedy?
To punish the traitors. We must exterminate those miserable villains who are eternally conspiring against the rights of man. Thompson in his biography of Robespierre. To any right-minded or merciful man such procedure must seem a travesty of justice.
See a Problem?
Empowered by this model republican justice, the Revolutionary Tribunal sent to death 1, people in nine weeks, as many as during the preceding 14 months. R obespierre was born in in the town of Arras. His father was a feckless lawyer; his mother, the daughter of a brewer, died in childbirth when Robespierre was six. A few months after her death, the father deserted his four young children. Robespierre and his brother went to live with their maternal grandparents. At 11, not an unusual age in those days, Robespierre won a scholarship to the University of Paris.
After ten years there, he emerged with a law degree, returned to Arras, and started to practice law. In early , he won election to the Convention as a representative of the Third Estate in Arras. Beginning as a fairly radical democrat, he became, as the Revolution unfolded, more and more radical. Robespierre never married.
He was not known to have had any love affairs. Nor did he have any interest in sex, money, food, the arts, nature, or indeed anything but politics. He was about five feet three inches tall, with a slight build, a small head on broad shoulders, and light chestnut hair. Robespierre made no secret of his convictions. He expressed them in several crucial speeches, of which copies, written in his own hand, remain.
In his August speech, Robespierre said that France was living through one of the great events in human history. But a serious obstacle barred the way. France is the theater of this terrible combat. The object of every political association is to safeguard the natural and imprescriptible rights of men. Freedom is the right of every man to exercise all his faculties at will. Its rule is justice, its limits are the rights of others, its source is nature, its guarantee is the law.
Any law which violates the imprescriptible rights of man is essentially unjust and tyrannical. How did Robespierre actually interpret these principles? T he inconsistency between the Declaration, providing the basis of the constitutional guarantee of equal rights for all citizens, and the actual policies that Robespierre dictated and that his followers enforced, was so blatant as to require an explanation. This Robespierre provided in a speech in December The first befits a time of war between liberty and its enemies; the second suits a time when freedom is victorious, and at peace with the world.
But internal enemies threatened the successful completion of this struggle. There was, therefore, no inconsistency between the Declaration and the Terror. The Terror was merely the means to it, forced on the revolutionary regime by enemies who prevented the realization of the constitutional regime. This piece of sophistry was then new, but to those who look back on the twentieth century it is depressingly familiar from the use that many murderous regimes have made of it.
They all claimed that their aim was human well-being, but that incorrigibly wicked enemies, who have disguised their true nature and conspired against the noblest of aims, threatened its achievement. Community Reviews. Showing Rating details. More filters. Sort order. Nov 18, Paul Bryant rated it really liked it. It was a week, he said, In which a bunch of loser jihadists slaughtered innocents to prove the future belongs to them rather than a civilization like France. Cutting edge science. World class medicine. Fearsome security forces. Nuclear power.
Versus what? Beheadings, crucifixions, amputations, slavery, mass murder, medieval squalor, a death-cult barbarity that would shame the Middle Ages. I think the outcome is pretty clear to everybody but you. Whatever atrocities you are currently capable of committing, you will lose. How instructive, then — how cruelly instructive — it has been to read the biography of Robespierre, at this time, and to descend into the gruesome maelstrom that was the French Revolution, and rediscover that no nation, however cultured, is immune from the belief that the death of a few thousand of the right people is not only necessary but good.
He was against the death penalty for two reasons : first, its injustice; second, its ineffectiveness as a deterrent. At the same time he was arguing for the end to all forms of censorship, even for pornography, which was a flourishing underground trade. He also wanted the National Assembly to be housed in a building which would have facilities for up to ten thousand spectators.
Ruth Scurr comments In this way, he anticipated by two hundred years the televising of parliaments in the democratic world.
Nice one, Ruth. For 31 years he was a provincial buried in a small town called Arras. He became a lawyer. He was quite poor and socially awkward. He was no ladies man. Then he buzzed around and got himself elected to the new Estates General which was where the King had run out of money and has to call this parliament as we might put it to ask them to bail him out. They bailed his ass all right. So this shy provincial lawyer arrived in France and after doing very little for 31 years he did everything in the next four years, to the point where he became the living personification of the Revolution.
Perhaps this is not saying a great deal. I propose my own assassination! I too am a man of virtue! Liberty will win in the end! But he was so influential, and busy in so many capacities — head of this and that Committee, president of the Jacobins club, constantly speechifying and writing — that he was perceived as a dictator. They call me a tyrant. If I were one, they would grovel at my feet. On 17 September the Convention passed the Law of Suspects — you could now be guillotined if your conduct, words or writings showed you to be a supporter of tyranny, of federalism or to be an enemy of liberty.
That was when the Terror began in earnest and the tumbrils began rolling every day.
Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution
During the 9 months which followed around 16, people were condemned to death, mostly not in Paris, and there were many lynchings too. He initiated the law that menaced absolutely everyone, on the most spurious grounds, and without recourse to any form of defence. Usual amount of time taken between denouncing a citizen for a crime and the execution of the citizen: three days. Well, he was only around years ahead of his time. Even more peculiarly, he was surrounded by others who also believed in this coincidence between Robespierre and the Revolution. How does it help a man if you persuade him that blind force presides over his destiny, and strikes at random, now at the virtuous, now at the criminal?
Does it help him to believe his soul is nothing but a thin vapour that is dissipated at the mouth of the tomb? Will the idea of annihilation inspire him with purer and higher sentiments than that of immortality? If the existence of God and the immortality of the soul were nothing but dreams, they would still be the most beautiful conceptions of the human spirit.
They denounced the Dantonists, their heads rolled. And it was that easy. Old woman to Robespierre on the way to the guillotine : Monster spewed up from hell — the thought of your punishment intoxicates me with joy.
Well, Robespierre was a curious beast. You can be amazed at his progressive ideas and then chilled at his ruthlessness. No one was spared, no one was pitied if they got in the way of what he thought the Revolution was. It was to be entirely for the poor, not the rich. His whole political dream was to make life bearable for the poor. It was a good intention and it was one of the many roads to a particular type of hell. Caption : Robespierre, having guillotined everyone in France, now guillotines the guillotiner.
View all 14 comments. Ruth Scurr manages to sidestep the polemics that seem natural to a subject like hers. She has that most valuable gift of the historian: implacable impartiality. Her equanimity goes a long way to give her book credibility; if all you know of Robespierre comes from "The Scarlet Pimpernel", this will complicate the issue- in a good way. As with many such impartial books, however, Scurr's greatest failing is that she tends to vagueness. No substantial analysis of contemporary political doctrine is pr Ruth Scurr manages to sidestep the polemics that seem natural to a subject like hers.
No substantial analysis of contemporary political doctrine is provided- a real handicap, especially if you're new to this period of history. It is often easy, throughout the course of the book, to forget why Robespierre did what he did, what ideology drives the events of the narrative. Robespierre was responsible for the deaths of many, and he saw mercy as traitorous to his radically democratic views; that we are never given a clear understanding of the ideas that inspired such deadly devotion is a major failing of this book.
The prose, likewise, manages to be colorless and dry, though perhaps this is a result of her impartiality. The book, on the whole, is too general and broad to stand on its own. I would recommend this to a reader already well-grounded in pertinent history; unfortunately such a reader is likely already familiar with this material.
Jan 25, Karen Cox rated it it was amazing. This is the first book I've ever read on the French Revolution that actually explains what happens in what order. I've read a lot of history of this period, but most of the books start with the assumption that the reader knows what a Girondist is or that the Holy Roman Emperor invaded France in Not only does Scurr explain Robespierre, she also gives the most succinct description of the events between the calling of the Estates General and the rise of Napoleon that I've ever read. Feb 03, Rebecca rated it really liked it.
The number of French Revolution themed books on my goodreads is getting embarrassing This book is one of the more serious offerings on the subject which was regularly popping up as a suggested read, so I decided to give it a go. Like, I suspect many others, I've been kind of deeply fascinated by Robespierre since I read Hilary Mantel's characterization of him in "A Place of Greater Safety," and this biography only solidified my fascination.
Scurr does a pretty good job of making him out to b The number of French Revolution themed books on my goodreads is getting embarrassing Scurr does a pretty good job of making him out to be extremely empathetic, without turning him into a totally sympathetic character and rightly so, since he was more or less directly responsible for a few thousands state sanctioned murders. Scurr's Robespierre starts life as a politically ambitious country lawyer, who is as deeply sensitive to perceived slights against himself as he is to injustices suffered by the poor.
He is also, very much against the death penalty. Scurr chronicles his rise to power and increasing isolation and paranoia, which leads him to make more and more extraordinary and extra-legal decisions in the name of keeping the Revolution alive. At the heart of it, Scurr's book-and Robespierre's life is a study of idealism gone horribly astray and ultimately, completely detached from reality.
As many people have said, much more articulately than I can in a late night goodreads review, his is really the first in a series of modern experiments with social restructuring that may have started in a lofty place, but which finished with a blood bath. View all 3 comments. Jun 28, Lauren Albert rated it liked it Shelves: biography-autobiography , history-european. I think Scurr falls on the side of focusing on the times at least the revolutionary part of it. But I think that both sides lost out to some extent by giving cursory treatment.
Perhaps the book should simply have been longer so Scurr had more time to fill in the historical and biographical details and do justice to both. The book is very readable and interesting and it is a shame that Scurr couldn't have spent more time on both participants in the actions of the book--Robespierre and the Revolution.
View 1 comment. Explicitly stated in the foreword, Ruth Scurr attempts in this biography to present an unbiased documentary of the life of Maximilien Robespierre, one of the principal architects of the French Revolution. This key period in his life is a short eternity, just five years from the Revolution's inception to his execution, but packed with extremely dramatic events such that the entire makeup of the Revolution seems to change from week to week and day to day.
The story of this period and of this man w Explicitly stated in the foreword, Ruth Scurr attempts in this biography to present an unbiased documentary of the life of Maximilien Robespierre, one of the principal architects of the French Revolution. The story of this period and of this man was as thrilling as I thought it would be.
However, I do not agree with the project of this book or the essential idealistic way in which Scurr presents Robespierre's story. I feel like this trend of "unbiased history" is a new one and in most cases, as here, it is mislabeled. Rather than unbiased I would say that this book is very anxious about presenting itself as impartial and objective. What this results in is Scurr questioning Robespierre's complicity in terrible actions while never giving solid evidence of his clemency. The most she can muster in his defense are things he said or things he was supposed to have said.
If Robespierre ever actually opposed the atrocities of the Terror he never did anything effective about it, and despite Scurr's desire to assure us that Robespierre was not a tyrant or a dictator, he certainly had the influence to curtail these excesses had he believed it necessary.
I find Robespierre, rather than being a noble champion of justice, to be a consummate coward and a reprobate. A clear theme throughout this book, one that Scurr does not try to hide but instead to explain away, is Robespierre's tendency to set dangerous lines of thought in motion but keep his hands out of the blood.
He preferred to control from removed positions of influence such as the Jacobin Club rather than to acquire meaningful powers that required his direct application. Scurr makes much out of Robespierre's reluctance to attend the executions he ordered, but I find nothing admirable about a man who is squeamish about his own justice.
I make these points because these are things that I believe Scurr does her best not to face. And in saying this I think that her unfortunate stand hurts the prose of this book, which is the strongest part of it by far. Scurr does not attempt to be an "artist" but she refrains from dryness and memorization. She ebbs and flows as needed by her topic, keeping a general temporal sensibility but making sure details that are necessary are always at hand.
It's a very well-compiled book and, in seeing the lengths to which she's tried to exonerate Robespierre, I have no doubt that it is a very good history of Robespierre's part in the French Revolution. The only thing I'd say is read between the lines. I have tried to be his friend and to see things from his point of view.
Robespierre and the Terror
Well, if there's an historical figure who can incarnate such a saying to perfection it's Robespierre, the man whose name ultimately became infamously associated with the Terror. Indeed, modest lawyer not foreign to philanthropic and humanitarian deeds, once his ferv 'Though Robespierre died over two hundred years ago, he still makes new friends and enemies among the living.
Indeed, modest lawyer not foreign to philanthropic and humanitarian deeds, once his fervent idealism and fanatic obsession with virtue got sucked up into the turmoil of the French Revolution it's a great deal of the French revolutionary ideals themselves that went down to hell with his regime! How to make sense of all that? Utopia hand in hand with dystopia, ruled over by the same man? Ambitious and cynical, possessed by a will to serve the weakest and poorest but animated by unforgiving and blind self-righteousness, endowed with a strong reputation for being incorruptible yet playing willingly with mob violence and political dissensions to better his career and accrue his power, the man was far from easy to understand!
Sadly, we don't get out of this book anymore enlightened about his motives and true character than upon opening it. Whatever your opinion about such an elusive man indeed idealist do-gooder who lost it in trying to set an utopia in motion or, bloodthirsty tyrant at the head of a terrorist regime chances are, 'Fatal Purity' is so well-balanced it will not challenge it much.
What it does very well though, is to narrate through Robespierre's ascension to power the unstoppable and chilling descent of France into tyranny -the September massacres, the death of the king, the Law of 22 Prairial and the spreading Terror engulfing the country This in itself makes for an enthralling read.
Now, the Terror is still an era up for debates let alone Robespierre! Ruth Scurr is pretty clear in not seeing in him a proto-Communist… make it difficult to navigate through such an historical minefield! Such a balanced yet straightforward account is therefore more than welcome to put things back into perspective. If you have any sort of interest in the French Revolution, you cannot miss this book! May 30, Jonathan rated it liked it. This book takes a look at how an awkward, very self conscious, and moralistic individual was transformed by and also greatly changed the French Revolution.
Early in his life, Robespierre greatly struggled with harming anyone.
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An attorney by trade, he became physically sick when he condemned a guilty man to death. Early in the French Revolution, he criticized the individuals whom promoted violent means. However, he justified his change in attitude, when he said that the King must die so that the This book takes a look at how an awkward, very self conscious, and moralistic individual was transformed by and also greatly changed the French Revolution. However, he justified his change in attitude, when he said that the King must die so that the Republic can live.
It started as a push for more rights and liberties for the vast majority of the French people. It was a long and drawn out affair that eventually used violence to crush any opposing views. In the end, Robespierre overstepped his power, and he condemned too many people as enemies. They then turned on him, and he met his end at the guillotine. Robespierre never compromised his values. Oh Robespierre You were always strangely attractive to me when I first studied the French Revolution at school. And now that I have learned that you were neurotic, self-righteous, serious, bookish, paranoid and obsessive, you are even more obsessive.
I felt the author was unsympathetic to you, but clearly she is not worthy of your genius. Feb 05, Alejandro Ramirez rated it it was amazing. So many dramatic moments in just a handful of years! Think of young Robespierre, a model student on a top Jesuit school: he was selected to give the welcome speech for Louis XVI's visit to the school. But it was pouring rain and the king didn't even left his carriage, leaving Robespierre standing, waiting, drenched a few meters away, his speech wasted.
A few years later, when Louis XVI was on his way to the guillotine, Robespierre, now leader of the Jacobins and master of the king's destiny went on about his daily routine and didn't even open his bedroom window to see the king on his way to the execution. Or the summer of terror, when the guillotine had ran out of royalist supporters, and went on beheading the ones that were not revolutionary enough. One morning climbs to the guillotine 19 year old Emile Sainte-Amaranthe, described by many as the most beautiful woman of France; the crowd goes completely silent, speechless as if they've seen an angel, the only sound to be heard was the blade falling off to sever her head.
Her crime was to have married a royalist sympathizer. Perhaps at that moment the people started thinking if Robespierre was going too far. He himself never thought he was going too far. Nicknamed "the incorruptible" for his monastic lifestyle and fanatic adherence to his principles. He was so committed to The People as an idea that he was willing to sacrifice any and all of them. The period was packed with fascinating characters: larger than life Danton, who could start a revolt based just on his charisma; Lafayette just back from the american revolution Ah, such a disturbing and fascinating figure!
Living on 4 hour sleep because he was always listening and helping the poor and destitute, permanently sick and in pain, yet the most rabid and radical of journalists, the one who wasn't afraid to call for beheading of the royal family since day one. Whenever Marat spoke even his allies tried to tone him down, like no one he saw the revolution needed blood, like no one he declared that the revolution will fail, and it would take 50 years and a dictator to bring it back There is the cleric turned politician abbe Sieyes, the most lucid political theoretician from whom it was said "the explosion of a talent that, long concealed, at length appears in all its splendor, arrests attention, and extorts applause" There is even a cameo by Goethe.
Goethe was on the loosing side at battlefield when the French republic's army defeated the first foreign support for the monarchy and was smart enough to declare "here and today a new epoch in the history of the world has begun" But the pivotal moment has multiple candidates: was it when Louis XVI was guillotined? When the people took over The Bastille? For me it may be the day when The Third Estate decided to abandon the royalty and the clergy and made the Tennis Court oath, which would mark the conception of the republican constitution.
Or perhaps when the Jacobins realize that Catholicism is one of the regressive forces that threatens the revolution, but instead of going for full humanistic atheism as Fouche wanted , they instead come up with this Supreme Being cult, as ambitious as short lived. Robespierre as quasi-priest of this Supreme Being celebration is one of the most bizarre images of the period. The contradictions: the guillotine was really invented as an instrument of compassion and not by Dr. Guillotine, but by a different Doctor ; Robespierre was really against dead penalty.
Louis XVI was a really noble man who truly wanted to do what was best for his people. And yet, history made guillotine an instrument of terror, Robespierre a butcher, and Louis XVI decapitated by his own people. How these things came to be is fascinating. But beyond the personalities, the events, the quotes, the ideas that the period are proxy for the most universal conundrums, that are as applicable today as in Just how far does the pendulum needs to swing when it has been too long and too far in one direction?
What does destitute have right to take away from those who have something? What rights and obligations have those who willingly or not benefited from an oppressive system? There is just too much that I want to write about the ideas of this period, I'll need more time. And the worst paradox of all of this, is that Robespierre kept fighting even when he tough it was a lost cause.
Excerpt from his diaries: edited "What is our aim? The use of the constitution for the benefit of the people. Who is likely to oppose us? The rich and the corrupt When will the people be educated? When the rich and government identify their own interest with those of the people" And when will that be? Dec 05, Cody Rowe rated it it was amazing Shelves: french-revolution , history. I love learning about this guy, and this book is a tidy little way of doing that.
Nov 15, Vanessa rated it really liked it. I'd been looking for a while for something about this period in French history, and overall I think this was a good choice.