Skip to comments.Why Robespierre Chose Terror - The lessons of the first totalitarian revolution
Posted on 04/17/2006 5:51:06 PM PDT by Tailgunner Joe
The American attitude toward the French Revolution has been generally favorablenaturally enough for a nation itself born in revolution. But as revolutions go, the French one in 1789 was among the worst. True, in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity, it overthrew a corrupt regime. Yet what these fine ideals led to was, first, the Terror and mass murder in France, and then Napoleon and his wars, which took hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe and Russia. After this pointless slaughter came the restoration of the same corrupt regime that the Revolution overthrew. Aside from immense suffering, the upheaval achieved nothing.
Leading the betrayal of the Revolutions initial ideals and its transformation into a murderous ideological tyranny was Maximilien Robespierre, a monster who set up a system expressly aimed at killing thousands of innocents. 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. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot are of the same mold. 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.
Historians distinguish three phases of the French Revolution. The last, the Terror, ran roughly during 179394. It began with the fall of the moderate Girondins and the radical Jacobins accession to power. 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 opposingactively or passively, actually or potentiallythe policies Robespierre dictated.
Robespierres constituency outside the Convention was the mob, roaming the streets of Paris, the center of the Revolution. Large parts of France were hardly involved; for most people, life went on during the Revolution much as before. The mob in Paris consisted largely of destitute sans-culottes (without knee breeches), who maintained themselves by a mixture of crime, prostitution, begging, and odd jobs. 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.
Historical distance and revolutionary rhetoric must not be allowed to obscure the Terrors savagery. The descriptions that follow are only a few among many that could be given. Stanley Loomis writes in Paris in the Terror that, in the September massacres of 1792, the bloody work went on for five . . . days and nights. 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 . . . refused to swear her hatred of the King and Queen and was duly handed over to the mob. 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 . . . that most of the other victims were, like herself, aristocratsan assumption that for some curious reason is often supposed to mitigate these crimes. Very few victims were, in fact, of the former nobilityless than thirty out of the fifteen hundred who were killed.
What Robespierre had unloosed were the most depraved urges of societys dregs. The resulting anarchy temporarily served his purpose, much as the Kristallnacht served Hitlers, the purges Stalins, and the cultural revolution Maos. Each perpetrated the terror to frighten opponents into abject submission and establish himself more firmly in power.
Having secured Paris, in 1793 Robespierre appointed commissioners to enforce his interpretation of the Revolution outside the capital. In the city of Lyon, writes Simon Schama in Citizens, the guillotine began its work, but it was found to be a messy and inconvenient way of disposing of the political garbage. . . . A number of the condemned, then, were executed in mass shootings. . . . [A]s many as sixty prisoners were tied in a line by ropes and shot at with cannon. Those who were not killed outright by the fire were finished off with sabers, bayonets, and rifles. . . . By the time that the killings . . . had finished, one thousand nine hundred and five people had met their end. The commissioner in Nantes supplemented the guillotine with . . . Ωvertical deportations.≈ . . . Holes were punched in the sides of . . . barges. . . . Prisoners were put in with their hands and feet tied and the boats pushed into the center of the river. . . . [The] victims helplessly watched the water rise about them. . . . [P]risoners were stripped of their clothes and belongings . . . [Y]oung men and women [were] tied naked together in the boats. Estimates of those who perished in this manner vary greatly, but there were certainly no fewer than two thousand.
In the Vendéan massacre, recounts Schama, Every atrocity the time could imagine was meted out to the defenseless population. Women were routinely raped, children killed, both mutilated. . . . At Gonnord . . . two hundred old people, along with mothers and children, [were forced] to kneel in front of a large pit they had dug; they were then shot so as to tumble into their own grave. . . . Thirty children and two women were buried alive when earth was shoveled onto the pit. In Paris, Loomis writes, Robespierre ordered the kangaroo court, known as the Revolutionary Tribunal, to be as active as crime itself and conclude every case within twenty-four hours. The victims were shepherded to the courtroom in the morning and, no matter how many of them there might be, their fate was settled by no later than two in the afternoon of that same day. By three oclock their hair had been cut, their hands bound and they were in the death carts on their way to the scaffold. Between June 10 and July 27  . . . 1,366 victims perished. Most of these people were innocent of any crime and were unable to defend themselves against accusations of which they were not even informed.
These atrocities were not unfortunate excesses unintended by Robespierre and his henchmen but the predictable consequences of the ideology that divided the world into friends and less-than-human enemies. The ideology was the repository of the true and the good, the key to the welfare of humanity. 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. As Loomis puts it, [A]ll who played a role in the drama . . . believed themselves motivated by patriotic and altruistic impulses. All . . . were able to value their good intentions more highly than human life. . . . 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.
Norman Hampson notes in his biography of Robespierre that the revolutionary tribunal . . . had become an undiscriminating murder machine. . . . Imaginary . . . plots and absurd charges were everyday events. As Robespierre put it, Let us recognize that there is a conspiracy against public liberty. . . . What is the remedy? To punish the traitors. Hampson writes: Robespierre took the attitude that clemency . . . was a form of sentimental self-indulgence that would have to be paid for in blood. He declared: There are only two parties in France: the people and its enemies. We must exterminate those miserable villains who are eternally conspiring against the rights of man. . . . [W]e must exterminate all our enemies.
Robespierre, recounts Schama, rejoiced that a river of blood would now divide France from its enemies.
The result of this climate of hysteria was Robespierres Decree of the 22nd Prairial. It expressed in principle the views of the whole Committee [of Public Safety], writes J. M. Thompson in his biography of Robespierre. The Committee was fanatical enough to approve, and the Convention powerful enough to enforce, as a New Model of Republican justice . . . a law which denied to prisoners the help of counsel, made it possible for the court to dispense with witnesses, and allowed no sentence except acquittal or execution; a law which, at the same time, defined crimes against the state in such wide terms that the slightest indiscretion might bring one within the article of death. To any right-minded or merciful man such procedure must seem a travesty of justice.
Empowered by this model republican justice, the Revolutionary Tribunal sent to death 1,258 people in nine weeks, as many as during the preceding 14 months. The inescapable fact about Robespierre, notes Hampson, is that under a judicial system which he initiated and helped to direct . . . a government of which he was, perhaps, the most influential member, perpetrated the worst enormities of the Terror. . . . [N]o defence is possible for the wholesale massacres . . . in which . . . an average rate of thirty-six [persons] a day were sent to the guillotine.
Robespierre became as incapable of distinguishing right from wrongnot to say cruelty from humanityas a blind man is of distinguishing night from day. Let us now try to understand his frame of mind.
Robespierre was born in 1758 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 1789, 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. He had nervous spasms which occasionally twisted his neck and shoulders, and showed themselves in the clenching of his hands, the twitching of his features, and the blinking of his eyelids, says Thompson. He dressed fashionably and wore glasses, which he was in the habit of pushing up onto his forehead . . . when he wished to look anyone in the face. His habitual expression seemed to his friends melancholy, and his enemies arrogant; sometimes he would laugh with the immoderateness of a man who has little sense of humor; sometimes the cold look softened into a smile of ironic and rather alarming sweetness. With his shrill, rough voice, [h]is power as a speaker . . . lay less in the manner of his delivery, than in the seriousness of what he had to say, and the deep conviction with which he said it.
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 1792 speech, Robespierre said that France was living through one of the great events in human history. After an initial period of stumbling, the Revolution of 1789 became in August 1792 the finest revolution that has ever honored humanity, indeed the only one with an object worthy of man: to found political societies at last on the immortal principles of equality, justice and reason. The Revolution was the finest ever, because, for the first time in history, the art of government aimed not at deceiving and corrupting man but at enlightening them and making them better. The task of the Revolution was to establish the felicity of perhaps the entire human race. The French people seems to have out-distanced the rest of the human race by two thousand years.
But a serious obstacle barred the way. Two opposing spirits . . . [are] contending for domination . . . [and] are fighting it out in this great epoch of human history, to determine for ever the destinies of the world. France is the theater of this terrible combat. The conflicts between the friends and the enemies of the Revolution are merely the struggle between private interests and the general interest, between cupidity and ambition on the one hand and justice and humanity on the other. All the current political choices, consequently, were choices between good and evil, allowing Robespierre to demonize his opponents.
Note that in declaring his aim to be a society in which the immortal principles of equality, justice and reason would prevail, Robespierre simply dropped liberty and fraternity, substituting whatever he regarded as justice and reason. The justification of the massacres was that those killed were enemies of the republic, counterrevolutionaries who had conspired against that equality, justice, and reason whose realization would establish the felicity of perhaps the entire human race. The pivot on which all turned was those principles of equality, justice, and reason, which Robespierre spelled out in a declaration that formed the basis of the Constitution of 1793. Some extracts: Article 1. The object of every political association is to safeguard the natural and imprescriptible rights of men. Article 3. . . . rights belong equally to all men, whatever their physical and moral differences. Article 4. 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. Article 6. Any law which violates the imprescriptible rights of man is essentially unjust and tyrannical.
How did Robespierre actually interpret these principles? He said: [W]e must exterminate all our enemies with the law in our hands; the Declaration of Rights offers no safeguard to conspirators; the suspicions of enlightened patriotism might offer a better guide than formal rules of evidence. Commenting on an execution, he said: Even if he had been innocent he had to be condemned if his death could be useful. In a letter advising the Revolutionary Tribunal, he wrote: People are always telling judges to take care to save the innocent; I tell them . . . to beware of saving the guilty.
Collot, the official commissioner he personally appointed to supervise the massacres, expressed succinctly their shared interpretation of the principles enshrined in the Declaration: The rights of man are made, not for counter-revolutionaries, but only for sans-culottes.
Saint-Just, Robespierres closest ally, said: [T]he republic consists in the extermination of everything that opposes it.
The 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 Decembe