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
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Wrong in one respect Robespierre was not the first mass murderer in the name of ideology, not by a long shot. However, before him, most of these types graduated towards religious ideology: Oliver Cromwell, Torquemada, and, of course, Mohammed. Robespierre was probably the first to secularize the genre.
It's hard to dislike Napoleon all that much since so many of the ideals he wanted Europe to adapt were and remain worthwhile.
Swim across the channel for a look backwards at anarchy as a bloody tool.
" Negotiation with such people can succeed only if we have overwhelming force on our side and have shown ourselves unsqueamish about using it."
semi-secularize. Robespierre seemed to think he himself was a god. And the Cult of the Supreme Being was a sort of deism. The Incorruptible indeed.
If you believe that Napoleon actually adhered to them and didn't merely use the ideals to cloak his megalomania and desire to turn Europe into his personal fiefdom.
The American attitude toward the French Revolution has been generally favorablenaturally enough for a nation itself born in revolution.
My undergraduate degree was in history - and I know of NO reputable historian or author who puts this idea forward. Those who don't read history get their ideas about it from The Scarlet Pimpernel and A Tale of Two Cities. The American attitude towards the French Revolution is essentially English (not surprising given our heritage) -- d$#n Frogs can't do anything right.
In fact socialism, the beginnings of which are in part found in the French Revolution, does tend to lead to murder and sometimes mass murder. It does this for the simple reason that socialism requires that all citizens must work toward a common goal. Apparently it's not much of a leap to just get rid of the ones who aren't working toward that common goal.
His Egomania cannot be doubted. Neither can his forward thinking ideas. He certainly doesn't deserve to be bunched with the Stalins and Maos of the world. Or the Robspierres for that matter. Then again this writer doesn't really do that.
Hey, I'm a fan of would-be world conquerors (really), and Napoleon is one of the best. Unquestionably brilliant. He may even have wanted the best for those he triumphed over. And he was a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. He did a lot for the people of Europe but also took much. I think a lot of his progressive ideas were just lip service, a tactic often employed (we don't want to conquer you for ourselves, but to spread liberty, equality, and fraternity).
Anyway, another reason to dislike Robespierre is that he was a lawyer.
Napolean was a peasant but a brilliant field commander. Too bad he thought he was more than that.
Robespierre could be called the first modern ideological extremist. Napoleon could be called the first modern dictator. One produced the other, setting a model that influenced others from Marx to Mao.
First modern dictator? There have been dictatorial regimes throughout history many much worse then Napoleon who really wasn't all that much more authoritarian then the canonized Queen Elizabeth who had Catholics put to death along with various other dissenters. Napoleon advocated religious liberty.
It must be remembered, however, that Napoleon's foremost ideal was the advancement of his own personal interests.
When Napoleon put his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne, Joseph Bonaparte, a rather idealistic fellow, took his job seriously and considered it his duty to do what was best for his Spanish subjects.
In turn, Napoleon sent Joseph a curt letter reminding him that, although he was indeed the King of Spain, his loyalties were first to Napoleon himself, then to France and then lastly to Spain and the Spanish people.
Queen Elizabeth certainly had her faults but it should be remembered that she was reacting to very real plots against her and the Northern Rebellion-before that she did have a policy of religious tolerance. She is still one of England's greatest monarchs and could have whipped Napoleon in a fair fight : )
[W]e must exterminate all our enemies with the law in our handsCan't you just hear Howard Dean saying these things?
the Declaration of Rights offers no safeguard to conspirators
the suspicions of enlightened patriotism might offer a better guide than formal rules of evidence.
Even if he had been innocent he had to be condemned if his death could be useful.
People are always telling judges to take care to save the innocent; I tell them . . . to beware of saving the guilty.
Any divergence between individual and general interest indicates the individuals immorality and irrationality. If any individual fails to see that his true interests are the same as the general interest, he must be forced to act as if he did see it, for his own good.
The rub: people work out what their axiomatic ideals are; those who diverge from those ideals are enemies thereof, and must be converted (in truth or in act) or eliminated. By denying any time to rationally discuss differences, and deeming accused divergence from ideals enough to warrant death, tyrants can rapidly mobilize the rabble against the opposition. The rabble, not understanding why but being satisfied by noble-sounding incomprehensible explainations, and being fearful of being the next accused and next beheaded, race each other in a stampede to support the tyrant and destroy the opposition. Note that a disarmed opposition, of course, cannot survive being on the wrong end of this stampede.
Today we see Islamofacists, radical Leftists, and Mexifornia secessionists trying to whip up their stampedes. Beware the day a real leader emerges among them, and begins their reign of terror. Remember that all such revolutions, once ignited, moved fast. BLOAT.
I have read somewhere that the political designations left and right originated in French Revolution times. The left being the "progressives" advancing their form of proto-socialism, the right being the conservatives. And has been the same ever since. Both sides physically sitting on the left or right in their parlimentary sessions.
Hence, the prototype. It has been the same ever since. My take on this: the Democrats follow the ideals of the French Revolution, anti-God, anti-Bible, anti-religion, hedonistic, mob/union goonism, anarchy, long haired hippyism, government tyranny, collectivism. The Republicans, the ideals of the American Revolution.
The Democrats have very little in common with the American ideal. They have the donkey for their symbol. In their donkey I see all the things I listed above.
Whenever any lefty says the Nazis were conservatives, I just say that the Jacobins were liberals.
Seriously though, if it was not for the French Revolution, does anyone think Britain might have tried to reconquer us around 1810-1820? Probably would have been in a stronger position to do so without all the resources Napoleon was taking up.
I know lots of seemingly decent people, myself among them, who would just question whether the horrors really were horrors. "Call no man decent until he is dead."
I'm not sure ideology and ideologue are useful categories for what the author is trying to describe and prevent.
Wow. This is a great post and thread.
As I read of the horrors, it reminded me of the great wisdom of our nation's Founders, particularly in their framing of the Second Amendment.
Ping. Good article.
but Robespierre has a good claim to being the firstI dunno. Seems to me Savonarola beat him to it.
Wikipedia has a pretty good biography of Robespierre.
Apparently, Robespierre was executed by guillotine, face up.
An ideology is a worldview that makes sense of prevailing political conditions and suggests ways of improving them. Typical ideologies include among their elements a metaphysical outlook that provides a Gods-eye view of the world, a theory about human nature, a system of values whose realization will supposedly ensure human well-being, an explanation of why the actual state of affairs falls short of perfection, and a set of policies intended to close the gap between the actual and ideal. This last componentcommitment to a political program and its implementationis what distinguishes ideologies from religious, personal, aesthetic, or philosophical systems of belief. Ideologies aim to transform society. Other systems of belief do not involve such a commitment; if they do, they become ideological.I'm thinking this one through to find a distinction between the French and American revolutions based upon it. What I can find is this:
...and a set of policies intended to close the gap between the actual and ideal.The American Revolution is based not upon an inconsistency between the actual and the ideal but upon the most ideal actuality. The American view starts with the ideal, and moves from there to the practical. The ideal is God's view. The practical is man's best attempt to make good upon it.
Big, big difference.
One of the great tragedies of modern history is that the template for violent political revolution is the French rather than the American revolution.
The French Revolution, with its Terror and guillotines and mass executions and Committees of Public Safety, is the father of what later came to be called genocide.
In contrast, the American Revolution--in a country where a full third of the population had Tory sympathies--is remarkable in its lack of Terror. The symbols of twentieth-century revolutions, with their Chekas and up-against-the-wall rhetoric, are all very familiar to students of the French Revolution.
Without the war, it would have been harder to mobilize the mob and paint the remaining aristocrats as enemies of the nation. Thanks to the war, the Jacobins could turn a questionable ideology into a matter or national survival.
In an atmosphere of rationing and inflation, it was also easy to direct popular anger against black marketeers and supposed war profiteers. Anyone who lived better than others could be painted as taking bread out of the mouths of children.
LOL! Beethoven's, to be precise, and he wasn't joking. The Eroica is still one heckuva symphony.
Publius, thanks for the ping. Robespierre is such a fascinating study, an example of the "great man" interpretation of history that is a case where the historical role was far, far greater than the individual fate decided to place in it. I do not honestly respect the man, and I do respect such excrescences as Stalin and Hitler, such as they were.
The real "hero" of the Revolution was probably equally distasteful to modern sensibilities, and that was a fellow named Marat. Charlotte Corday did him and I must say that was the best thing that ever happened in a bathtub. But it was this that left the field open to Robespierre, and what he did with that is better detailed by the likes of Carlyle and Schama - not an unclean pen but one more robust to atrocity than my own. Which is not, incidentally entirely unclean of itself - I can relate one historical trivium that may relate the mood of the Parisian mob - Marie Antoinette was presented with a portion of the poor Princesse de Lamballe stuck on a pike - her genitalia. There was a bestial nature to this that is difficult even for those of us inured to the atrocities of the 20th century to contemplate with equanimity.
A detailed study of this is beyond the limitations of this post, but briefly I submit that Robespierre happened on the power of class warfare in a place where class was precisely defined enough to make it practicable. There is a dehumanizing aspect to this that Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot understood full well - the politically besotted will treat other human beings with astonishing brutality as long as they may be presented as representatives of a hated class, as symbols rather than people. The cutting of the hair of the victims of the guillotine is a case in point - not only does it enhance the accuracy of the blade, it reduces the victim to a creature less likely to evoke empathy from the onlookers. The keepers of the Spanish Inquisition learned that lesson long before this.
This is more than symbolic, it is what the proponents of class warfare would do to all of their opponents. Their greatest fear is that these opponents will appear as individuals to be pitied. It is one thing to butcher a symbol, quite another to butcher a political opponent who is a person. Beware the people who treat other people as symbols. They are the executioners, the bombers, the terrorists, the ones who can justify to themselves the unjustifiable. They are less than human because they make themselves that way.
Which political, ideological or moral side do you take today in the battle for human survival?
The answer to this fundamental question seems to be hidden in the heart of every man. The question can be answered by explaining that well know emotion we all know as hate. It's been around since the beginning of the ages.
No one, no nation, peoples, political class or ideology have been able to contain it. Everyone claims their nation or party does not have it and everyone claims they are the victims of it. Everyone believes they have the perfect solution for it and yet it lives on.
Through the need for the survival of the species we all build up or defenses and war against the chosen enemies of today who we define as the perpetrators of this eternal hate.
Who is this enemy? Is it really just a person or group of persons? Of course we say, most certainly it must be that other person, country, or party, not us. It was the one who struck first. It was their fault. But who really is the one who struck first? Can we recall a real beginning point to this hate?
I say it will take until the end of time to try to stop it. Hate must be in the air we breath. It cannot possibly be part of me so it must be in you because I know it is there and I cannot place my hand on it.
Will you accept that someone must pay for the hate? Will it be you or me? It must be stopped. We all know it must be stopped.
I do not want to pay for hate. Will you please pay the price of it for me? No you say, I must be the one, my people and my children. Sorry, I am not that strong. Find someone else.
And so we will go forward searching for the true evil in each other, on and on and on, feeding the insatiable desire to defeat the real enemy. Mankind is destined forever to look from one place to the other for the one to blame today for yesterday.
Won't someone please volunteer to pay so we can just stop this insanity? Is there no one who is willing? Not even for the whole world?
Surely that person will be worshiped for saving us, but no, even if that person did pay for us we would not recognize it, all we have ever known and have been taught is hate. We know how to deal with it. Blame someone else.
How can we live without hate now? We all worship the familiarity of it and take comfort that we have correctly identified who or what the enemy is. We feed the need for freedom from todays enemy daily with wars and clashes of all kinds and will forever and ever until the end when we all pay hate it's due.
Choose you this day the "side" that will ensure your survival. There has never been another choice available but to choose.
Plus ca change, plus le meme chose.
Yes. For example, Tom Paine's reputation in America was greatly damaged by his association with the French Revolution, especially the anti-religious aspect of it.
The more ca changes, the more the meme thing.
"The more things change, the more they stay ( or remain ) the same."
It's a VERY well known saying; even in just the French. At least it used to be. LOL
Loved "humanity" but hated people. How typical of all these totalitarian types.
The roots of the V Republic in the Terror explain much of what is happening in France today. Mob rule.
So many innocent people were slaughtered under Robespierre. It is said that the guillotine in the Place de Revolution, now la Place de la Concorde in central Paris ran 24/7 for almost a year.
Our great American hero, Lafayette, lost his entire family to the terror. His in-laws in their 80's were marched to the guillotine and executed in the name of Liberté,Egalité,Fraternité.
I have been having a really hard time relearning it.
Excellent point. Never forget that one of the main credos of the French Revolution was anti- church. Atheist,anti-Christian,anti-church.
Churches were sacked and pillaged, clerics tortured and executed. What a wonderful world they created.
The Act of Choosing a "Side"
"Plus ça change, plus ça reste la meme chose"
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Ok..everyone knows it but me. I hang my head in humiliation..hehehe. It is so true.
Bon chance, with your attempt to learn/relearn it.
Gads..High school? I've been trying to learn it on my own. For some reason I have a unexplainable block. Guess I had better get a tutor. Are you available? LOL :)
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