Was Maximilien Robespierre (1758-94) a heroic martyr of the French Revolution, or a ruthless tyrant? In his new biography Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life, Peter McPhee combines new research and a deep understanding of the French Revolution to provide a fresh and nuanced portrait of one of history’s most controversial figures. Here the author discusses Robespierre, and explains the challenges in writing a ‘human’ biography of this divisive man.
Author article by Peter McPhee
Maximilien Robespierre is one of the most controversial figures in history. I have been intrigued by him ever since, as a student, I pondered how it could be that someone who articulated the highest principles of 1789 could come to be seen as the personification of the ‘Reign of Terror’ in 1793–94. Was this a tragic case of the dangers of ideological and personal rigidity, as powerful literary dramatizations taught me? Or was it rather an extreme example of how great leaders may be vilified by those they have served and saved? Or was it something quite different?
Historians and biographers of contrasting sympathies have seen him as the embodiment of the French Revolution. For some he was responsible for the Revolution’s heroic struggle to defend itself against fearsome odds of counterrevolution and military invasion. For others he was responsible for the descent of a popular revolution into tyranny and mass killing in the ‘Reign of Terror’.
Despite the comparatively limited loss of life during the one year 1793–94 in which Robespierre was a member of the government, historians have drawn preposterous parallels with Mao, Pol Pot, and even Stalin and Hitler. He reminds Hilary Mantel, author of a major novel set during the Terror (A Place of Greater Safety), of ‘the conviction of [Islamic] militants, their rage for purity, their willingness to die’; for others, he resembles President Ahmedinejad of Iran. He has been likened both to Tony Blair and George Bush and to their enemy, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. For Slavoj Žižek, in contrast, he has become the ideological vehicle through which the perceived crisis of western capitalist democracy may be discussed. For Žižek, Robespierre’s refusal to compromise highlights the failings of current western liberalism and hesitant leadership faced with urgent crisis.
Was Robespierre the first modern dictator, inhuman, fanatical and dictatorial, an obsessive who used his political power to try to impose his rigid ideal of a land of Spartan ‘virtue’? Or was he a great revolutionary martyr who succeeded in leading the French Republic to safety in the face of overwhelming military odds? Were the controls on individual liberties and the mass arrests and executions of ‘the Terror’ the necessary price to pay to save the Revolution? Or was this year a time of horror, of unnecessary death, incarceration and privation?
My biography combines an understanding of society and politics at the time of the French Revolution with a new approach to Robespierre. It is a ‘human’ biography which understands Robespierre as a remarkable young man living through an unpredictable and tumultuous revolutionary crisis. It is a tragic but heroic story. Unlike earlier biographies I place great emphasis on Maximilien’s difficult childhood and youth, asking how they formed the young provincial lawyer who arrived in Versailles in 1789. Maximilien was conceived outside wedlock, and was subject to cruel taunts about illegitimacy throughout his life. His response was to develop a backbone of steel but also to fearlessly advocate the rights of all children.
Was he the emotionally cold, even stunted, dictator of legend, incapable of intimate relationships? Robespierre emerges in my biography as a man of passion, with particularly close but platonic relations with women. Robespierre was also physically vulnerable, succumbing with increasing frequency to lengthy periods of physical and nervous collapse, closely correlated with moments of political crisis in the Revolution. Did he descend into madness in 1794? This biography explores the sad and tragic inability of Robespierre to step away from the crushing burdens of leadership.
The polarity of the images of Robespierre highlights the peculiar nature of biography. The writer is necessarily drawn into a shifting dialogue with someone who cannot respond to the author’s questioning or prejudices. This dialogue is intensely personal. In the words of Sylvia Plath’s biographer, Janet Malcolm, ‘it really isn’t for me to say who is good and who is bad, who is noble and who is faintly ridiculous. Life is infinitely less orderly and more bafflingly ambiguous than any novel … Every character in a biography contains within himself or herself the potential for a reverse image. … The distinguished dead are clay in the hands of writers …’
My great challenge in writing the biography is that relatively little is known of the first thirty-one of Robespierre’s thirty-six years of life, and few biographers have lingered over such evidence as we do have: it is the five years of Revolution that beckons. We possess eleven solid volumes–some 5,660 pages in all–of his works, but these consist overwhelmingly of his speeches and journalism during the revolutionary years. We have little by way of private papers: a few personal letters and poems written in his twenties. He never reflected publicly on his life and its meaning: he died suddenly and young. The reflections of others–from the lengthy accounts of his sister Charlotte and a master at his secondary school in Paris to the many comments by participants in the Revolution–are all coloured by the circumstances in which they were written. My biography nevertheless seeks to dissolve some of the barriers between the public and private in Robespierre’s life, necessarily constrained by the gaps in what we know.
Robespierre’s life cannot be reduced to the years of the French Revolution. The young revolutionary was formed by his childhood, schooling and working life, most of it spent in Arras, the small provincial centre of a distinctive region of northern France. This is a biography which therefore seeks to be as much about the ‘making’ of Maximilien Robespierre as about his revolutionary career. Who was this man who arrived in Versailles in 1789, just a few days before his thirty-first birthday?
Peter McPhee is a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne, where he was the university’s first provost. He has published widely on the history of modern France, including most recently Living the French Revolution, 1789-1799. He lives in Abbottsford, Australia.
Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life is available now from Yale University Press.