French Revolution: Was Robespierre a tragic figure? A misunderstood figure? A tyrant? Something else?

My limited understanding of Maximilien Robespierre is he started out as not a bad guy at all. Indeed, he was very liberal for his day and wanted to get more rights to the populace. He even argued against the death penalty.

And then…he got really murdery.

Was he a good guy gone bad? Caught up in events beyond his control and spiraled ever deeper to become a tyrant? Always an evil schemer?

I am not supporting one view or another here. I am really curious. He seemed such a decent guy at the start and then…reign of terror. Seems quite a turnaround.

He was an evil man who used the language of virtue as the means manipulate the masses and gain power. He’s probably a unique anomaly in that regard.

Robespierre was a zealot. He reminds me a bit of Cromwell. Robespierre’s murdery rampage follows directly from his fanatical beliefs.

What beliefs of his were fanatical? (really asking)

Didn’t Robespierre found the cult of the supreme being? I remember he was very against atheism, and had notable atheist revolutionaries executed.


Some good ideas for his day, I’d say, but power corrupted him and he became a monster.

For more:

Agreed. He had very good ideas and his beliefs were pure at heart much like America’s founding fathers. And while ours had personality flaws (like how they couldn’t see slavery for the evil it was), Robespierre had personality disorders and as you note, was wholly corrupted by power. Cromwell is a good comparison. Many people in France and the UK still admire Robespierre and Cromwell respectively despite their insane murdery-ness.

Literal personality disorders? As in, clinically defined personality disorders? Or he was just a dick?

I don’t want to derail the thread, but I wouldn’t call Cromwell an insane murderer. Like Robespierre, he was caught up in the problem that there was no sufficiently broad and secure basis of agreement for a lasting political system that could accommodate different factions: but they dealt with the problems very differently.

I would compare Robespierre to Lenin. They both believed they were creating an ideal society which would benefit everyone. And they both justified doing horrible things as a means of reaching that goal.

Power didn’t change them. Power just enabled them.

If only Louis XV hadn’t made little Robespierre stand in the rain when he was a schoolboy. It’s childhood humiliations that don’t fully break a kid entirely yet bends them in a distorted direction for lIfe that often does it.

Louis XV was the real villain for whom XVI and XVII paid the price. Like Jack Woltz in the Godfather, he needed ever-younger women for his flagging libido, until he was down to the kiddies. The turning point in public opinion was the torture execution of Robert-François Damiens.

When his own time came, they took care to see Robespierre off as unpleasantly as possible: tore the blood-glued bandage off his jaw, laid him face-up so he’d see the blade coming down.

In histories favored by Catholics, the turning point was the guillotining of the Martyrs of Compiègne, 16 nuns whose order, ironically, had fled to France from England to avoid persecution by Henry VII/Thomas Cromwell.

back when the SDMB was more tolerant of bad taste, I’d posted that Robespierre’s theme sone was “you kill 16 nuns, what do you get?

I’ve never quite understood why French society could not settle on anything to replace the monarchy. I mean sure, there were going to be winners and losers and the losers didn’t want to, well, lose. But once the revolution occurred you would think everyone would be pulling more one way than another.

I guess not.

Perhaps not surprising…the US certainly had its own trouble getting enough people to agree on some form of government.

Yeah to me the fact he did apparently have those principles earlier I’m his career makes him even more culpable IMO. He wasn’t some amoral thug, he understood what he was doing when he initiated the terror, and thoughtfully planned out things like the mass murder (verging on genocide) in the Vendee.

I have heard the argument that he actually had a mental breakdown in the later stages of the terror, when things really went off the rails. But don’t buy it myself.

Lord Acton was thinking of Robespierre (among others, mainly popes) when he penned: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?’
George Orwell

My favorite variant: “Power corrupts, and absolute power is actually pretty neat.”

Yes I recall that being coined by Regan’s SecNav John Lehman, who out-Potemkin Villaged the same nation who filmed the Battleship Potemkin, to the misery of the actual swabbies in both navies.

Compare the civil wars in Britain in the 17th century.

Charles I was executed and the monarchy was abolished. Then the Commonwealth turned into a dictatorship with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. The monarchy was re-established under Charles II. Then the Glorious Revolution resulted in James II and VII being deposed and replaced by William, and a constitutional monarchy was established.

Monarchy, Theocracy, anarchy, Communism, dictatorship, etc. France or its regions has tried or at least flirted with pretty much everything.

Somewhat different in many respects.

With the execution of Charles I the Westminster Parliament asserted its supremacy, which other than the brief time of the Protectorate has never again been seriously questioned. Charles II was also likely brought back in part to make it easier to govern Scotland, as the Scots had named him King upon Charles I’s execution and most of the Scottish people still viewed him as King-in-Exile. There were a number of policies in which Charles II was overruled by Parliament or otherwise had his hand forced. His efforts to normalize the treatment of Catholics in the country had failed sufficiently that his brother James II/VII was largely setup for failure, as the Parliament’s lack of real acceptance for James’s religion was the core reason Parliament and James could never get on. When James fled the country Parliament made clear it was now the Kingmaker, and things have continued apace along that line ever since.

France on the other hand:

Pre-1789: Absolute Monarchy
1789 - 1792 - Functionally a Constitutional monarchy (although not officially declared one until 1791)
1792 - 1804 - A Republic with varying forms of government, including a quasi-dictatorial executive council, and later a “Consulship” (under Napoleon), ended when Napoleon declared himself Emperor
1804 - 1814 - Absolutist Empire
1814 - 1815 - Constitutional monarchy (with strongish monarch)
1815 - 1815 - Absolutist Empire
1815 - 1830 - Constitutional monarchy (with strongish monarch)
1830 - 1848 - Constitutional monarchy (with weakish monarch)
1848 - 1852 - Republic
1852 - 1869 - Absolutist Empire
1869 - 1870 - Parliamentary constitutional monarchy
1870 - 1940 - Republic
1940 - 1944 - Puppet-State Dictatorship
1944 - 1946 - Democratic “Unity Government” (interim)
1946 - 1958 - Republic (parliamentary Republic)
1958 - Present - Republic (semi-Presidential Republic)