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.