French Revolution

Very Short Reviews: Ruth Scurr’s _Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution_

Fatal Purity

The 222nd anniversary of Maximilien Robespierre’s execution is coming up (July 28, 1794 or 10 Thermidor Year II, according to the French revolutionary calendar), so One Thing after Another thought it would be appropriate to resurrect the Very Short Review series this summer with an excellent biography of Robespierre.

Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (New York: Holt, 2006).

  1. Scurr is primarily interested in delineating the relationship between Maximilien Robespierre and the French Revolution; as she puts it, “At what point exactly did the lawyer from Arras begin to believe in the image that the Revolution reflected back to him” and “Why did that image become so dangerously hypnotic, for him personally, for his contemporaries, and for posterity?”
  2. Like other biographers, Scurr detects the heavy influence of Rousseau in Robespierre’s thinking, particularly in the desire to create a virtuous society (which was not merely a means to an end, but an end in itself) and a belief in the supremacy of the General Will (not what the majority wanted but rather what was in the best interest of society as a whole).
  3. Scurr also emphasizes the impact of Robespierre’s religious ideas—while he saw the Catholic Church and its priests as enemies of the revolution, he was a man susceptible to religious feeling, who believed in God, and felt that religion would facilitate the development of virtue (which is why he supported the cult of the Supreme Being).
  4. Of course, Robespierre’s strange and paradoxical personality—he was aloof, principled, sensitive, incorruptible, dogmatic, paranoid, idealistic, and ambitious—shaped his political strengths (a capacity to stay “on message,” an ability to obtain tremendous moral force, an uncanny knack for detecting his opponents’ vulnerabilities, and a dogged perseverance) and weaknesses (a suspicion of other and a susceptibility to abstractions that divorced him from the messy reality of the French revolutionary politics and life in general).
  5. Robespierre saw no further into the future than others (e.g. in 1789, he had no inkling the monarchy would be overthrown in 1792, nor did he dare suggest such a thing), but he had a very good sense of how to seize the moment for political advantage.
  6. Robespierre’s great strength was as an articulator of ideas (the Comte de Mirabeau said of him, “He will go far because he believes everything he says.”) who could dominate an assembly, not as an executive politician who always knew how to navigate the complicated and overlapping Parisian centers of power: the chief executive (the Committee of Public Safety), the legislature (the National Convention), the factions within the legislature (Hébertistes and Dantonists), the municipal authority (the Commune and its many sections), and the various political clubs (the Jacobins and the Cordeliers).
  7. We see Robespierre’s strengths at work when he defeated Brissot and the Girondins on a number of issues (e.g. the execution of Louis XVI, the erection of revolutionary tribunals, and the trial of Marat) before literally destroying them.
  8. At the same time, though, Robespierre’s obsession with virtue and his conviction that conspiracies threatened the revolution that sought to implement that virtue led to a madness that revolved around the following question: “How can you tell a sincere man in politics?”
  9. Another important component in Robespierre’s destruction was his self-identification with the revolution that he believed had to be protected at all costs—it a) reinforced his unwillingness to compromise with others and, b) in the eyes of many, tainted him with its excesses.
  10. Calmly and without rancor, Scurr concludes that Robespierre was sincere and honest, but even a sincere and honest man can lack a sense of proportion, become detached from reality, and commit terrible crimes (the Law of 22 Prairial, to name one example).

Hugh Dubrulle

Assassin’s Creed, Robespierre, and the French Revolution

Assassin's Creed Unity

The following post is dedicated to Professor Dubrulle’s History 226: Modern Europe class. They know why.


Although not a gamer, One Thing after Another knows that the latest edition of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, just came out on November 11. Set during the French Revolution, the game has already attracted much attention and some controversy, as this article from The Atlantic indicates:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/11/let-them-play-assassins-creed/382818/

More than anything, it has been Jean-Luc Melénchon’s comments that have drawn attention to the game. A former Socialist who founded the Left Party in 2008 (and later became a major player in the Left Front, a coalition consisting of the Communist Party, the Left Party, and the Unitarian Left), Melénchon ran in the French presidential election of 2012, finishing in fourth place. Melénchon has complained that the game portrays the “treacherous” Louis XVI and his wife, the “cretin” Marie Antoinette, as innocent victims of the revolution. Meanwhile, it depicts the French people as “bloodthirsty savages.” Furthermore, according to Melénchon, Maximilien Robespierre, who headed the Committee of Public Safety, the National Convention’s executive body during the revolution’s most radical phase, the “The Terror” (1793-1794), comes out looking like a “monster.” For more details about Melénchon’s comments, take a look at the following article from the Daily Telegraph:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11231217/Assassins-Creed-Unity-makes-travesty-of-the-French-Revolution.html

The Atlantic is spot on with a number of observations. To start with, the controversy does raise the much-debated question of what responsibility the media bears for representing past events “truthfully.” Le Monde produced a list of seven ways Assassin’s Creed: Unity gets history wrong:

http://www.lemonde.fr/pixels/article/2014/11/16/assassin-s-creed-unity-ou-le-petit-jeu-des-7-erreurs-historiques_4524347_4408996.html

Ubisoft, the maker of the game, has mounted a variety of defenses, none of which are mutually exclusive. First, it has argued that Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a game, not a history lesson. Second, Ubisoft has asserted that it did hire historical consultants to create an accurate period feel. Third, and most interestingly, it has claimed that it compromised historical accuracy in the game for the sake of enhancing the experience of gamers. For example, Ubisoft made conscious decisions to have the tricolor flag appear in 1789 and the “La Marseillaise” sung in 1791–even though these artifacts of the revolution did not appear until later–because gamers would have found it strange to see historically accurate flags and not hear “La Marseillaise.” For more information on what Ubisoft was thinking, see Le Monde‘s interview with Antoine Vimal du Monteil, one of the game’s designers:

http://www.lemonde.fr/jeux-video/article/2014/11/13/assassin-s-creed-unity-est-un-jeu-video-grand-public-pas-une-lecon-d-histoire_4523111_1616924.html

Of course, all of these defenses do not necessarily counter the argument that contemporary media ought to get the past right lest it warp perceptions of great events. Certainly, Melénchon and Alexis Corbière, the secretary general of the Left Front, suggest that there is, perhaps, a sinister political plot behind Ubisoft’s portrayal of the revolution.

One need not subscribe to conspiracy theories to see that various versions of history are linked to different political positions. As The Atlantic points out, Assassin’s Creed: Unity has revived a 200-year-old political debate over whether or not the French Revolution, particularly its radical phase, was a good or bad thing. Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the revolution knows it sparked a great deal of resistance within France itself among those who sought to preserve different elements of the old regime. It also led to the emergence of modern conservatism: Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which was extremely critical of the revolutionaries, is widely considered one of the founding texts of this political movement. The Left, and this would include people like Melénchon, sees the revolution in a very different light. From this perspective, the revolutionaries, particularly Jacobins like Robespierre, appear as heroes and models of virtue. The political debate between Right and Left has found their way into the historiography of the French Revolution. It should come as no surprise (and One Thing after Another generalizes here) that French historians are somewhat more forgiving of the revolution’s excesses than the “Anglo-Saxons”–that is, English-speaking scholars from the United States and Britain. After all, Americans have tended to be somewhat forgiving of their Founding Fathers even if these men had flaws of their own.

This blog must admit that it has a small soft spot for Robespierre: One Thing after Another‘s great-great-great-grandfather was born in the same parish of Arras within a year of Robespierre’s birth. One Thing after Another, however, is not blind to Robespierre’s faults. Moreover, One Thing after Another suspects that contemporary left-wing French politicians have fallen into a tradition of invoking  “the Incorruptible” for the sake of burnishing their socialist credentials. This invocation can make one sound edgily revolutionary without demanding too much in the way of concrete action. In this context, The Atlantic‘s quote from Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being is quite apposite:

If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no-one. There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.

In other words, it is easy to refer to Robespierre as a hero because such a reference is ultimately meaningless; he died over 220 years ago, and his days will not come back. In all likelihood, politicians like Melénchon would shrink from the acts that Robespierre committed. Robespierre invested himself in The Terror; Melénchon is whining about a video game.