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Useful Notes / Maximilien Robespierre

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Citizens, do you want a Revolution without a Revolution?

"Our revolution has made me feel the full force of the axiom that history is fiction and I am convinced that chance and intrigue have produced more heroes than genius and virtue."

Maximilien Marie Isidore de Robespierre (6 May 1758 – 28 July 1794) was a major figure of The French Revolution. To this very day, he remains one of the most controversial figures in the history of France and Europe.

When Louis XVI convened the meeting of the Estates-General, Robespierre became one of the many young deputies who found a career in political office open to them for the first time. Before the Estates-General was called, Robespierre was a rising, well-respected young attorney in the provincial town of Arras. Originally appointed a judge in a local criminal court, Robespierre actually resigned because of his principled opposition to the death penalty, and if that sounds like a bit of ironic foreshadowing, well, congratulations on reading ahead.

At the Estates-General, Robespierre, while not initially a very important figure, pretty much always stood on the left, and he gained some renown for his firm sense of rectitude and principal. Later he was among the signatories of the Tennis Court Oath. In the National Assembly, Robespierre became notable for criticizing limited suffrage and for condemning a constitutional defense of slavery. He became popular among Parisian Radicals for advocating universal male suffrage, rights for minorities (Jews, Protestants, Blacks), abolition of slavery and the death penalty. He also attained prominence in the newly formed Jacobin Club and played a major role in taking the nominally bi-partisan club to a radical direction after the Champ de Mars massacre.

During the short lived constitutional monarchy, many revolutionaries, including the moderate Girondins, advocated going to war in order to spread the ideas of the French Revolution. Robespierre, who was not seated in the newly formed Legislative Assembly due to a rule that he pushed for which banned members of the National Assembly from serving in the new legislative body, took a hardline stance against the war. But his position was unpopular at the time, and war was declared and fully backed by the King and Queen (which Robespierre pointed out was enough reason to be skeptical of the entire project). He regained prominence after the August 10, 1792 Insurrection against the King, when he became one of many deputies elected, for the first time via universal male suffrage, to the National Convention.

Robespierre's notoriety begins with his participation in the debate on the trial of King Louis XVI. He famously reversed his former protest against the death penalty, citing the King's treason as grounds for immediate summary execution and his death justifiable as a war measure. The mismanagement of the war and the mounting paranoia among Parisian street radicals led to bitter factionalism, culminating in a second insurrection against the Girondins, which made the Jacobins the majority party in the Convention. In the fifth year of his political career, Robespierre gained true political power as one of the 12 members (and the most publicly known and prominent) of the Committee of Public Safety. Citing wartime conditions, they suspended the newly written 1793 Constitution (the most radical document of The Enlightenment era) and instituted a policy they called "the Terror".

Robespierre was never actually the dictator or in any way the sole leader of France. He was the intellectual and moral backbone for the Committee while it ran the country; however, his influence within the Committee was subject to the machinations of other members and tended to ebb and flow. While he is usually portrayed (and not without reason) as the personification of the worst excesses of the Revolution, he actually fought as ferociously against radicals as he did royalists. He also played a role in recalling brutal and corrupt mission representatives such as Joseph Fouche, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, Jean-Lamber Tallien and Paul Barras. His own political position, while radical left, favored the emerging middle class of artisans and small businessmen (who he subsidized during the Terror), geared towards wealth redistribution and what we would call, today, the welfare state.

Robespierre's fastidious, self-righteous nature, while often winning him loyal support from the Parisian working class, could also be intensely alienating, especially since people who offended his moral sensibilities tended to get their heads removed from their bodies. And as the early months of 1794 passed, his increasing fanaticism and willingness to kill all who stood in the way of creating his precious Republic of Virtue began alienating just about everyone. Robespierre's tolerance for dissent and disagreement was, at this point, utterly non-existent, and he saw conspiracy and treason on all sides. He believed there was one true path to Virtue, and it was an extraordinarily narrow path, to the extent that he saw all those on either the right or the left of that path as traitors and spies.

All of this led to a schism and fall-out with erstwhile Jacobin allies such as Hebert and even personal friends like Danton and Desmoulins. He sent all of these men to the guillotine, though, in the case of Danton, he tried desperately to avoid such an action. His downfall resulted from the fact that he had alienated virtually all his former allies — moderates, extremists, the National Convention, and even the radical Paris Sections. In trying to "defend" the revolution, he effectively made himself into the enemy everyone rallied against.

During his arrest, he ended up shot in the jaw, either in a failed attempt at suicide or by someone who came to arrest him. When he was brought to the scaffold, the bandage holding his shattered jaw was removed, reducing him to a madman who shrieked in agony in his final moments.

The events of his downfall (occurring on 9 Thermidor of the French Revolutionary Calendar) has since become proverbial as Full-Circle Revolution. While it marked the end of the radical and violent phase, it also ended the reform and progressive initiatives undertaken in the same period (which included price ceilings, widespread government participation, meritocracy and the abolition of slavery). The largest mass guillotine execution in the Revolution happened the day after Robespierre's death, when 77 loyalists were beheaded in a single day.

In the aftermath, Thermidorians gave him and other radicals (which had formerly included themselves) a Historical Villain Upgrade as a "bloodthirsty dictator" that endures to this day. Already in the post-revolutionary era, later observers, from Cambaceres to Napoléon Bonaparte, (including the ones who turned on him such as Barere and Billaud-Varenne) questioned this narrative and noted how his reputation and influence was greatly exaggerated. Others such as Gracchus Babeuf, a Hebertist who had initially welcomed the "death of the tyrant", lamented how Poor Communication Kills, noting, "To awaken Robespierre is to awaken democracy itself."

A highly controversial person, Robespierre became in the 19th and the early 20th Century the personification of the Knight Templar radical for whom Utopia Justifies the Means, combining personal probity (he was called "The Incorruptible" and it wasn't ironic in any way) with a vindictive, self-righteous streak. He became in Lord Acton's words, the most hateful character in the forefront of history since Machiavelli reduced to a code the wickedness of public men. Later critics argue that Robespierre set a precedent for the likes of Vladimir Lenin and one of his most recent biographies is entitled "Fatal Purity." Other critics have questioned this reading and argue that his life and actions was subject to a smear campaign in the vein of Richard III, making him the The Scapegoat for revolutionary excesses. There are groups of historians and organizations who hope to rehabilitate his reputation to a more balanced level. The vast majority of fictional depictions, however, subject him to a Historical Villain Upgrade.

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • The Dandy: Robespierre was a clothes horse in real life, and once the Revolution took hold he enjoyed letting loose and dressing as he wished. Most fictional portrayals of Robespierre lean into this, while rather inaccurately alleging that it meant he was a Sissy Villain and wannabe aristocrat. In fact, dressing in fancy clothes was actually a radical act at the time, as pre-Revolutionary society had strict rules and expectations for how members of the Third Estate were expected to dress.
  • Historical Domain Character: As the most famous and well known of all revolutionaries outside France (eclipsing the likes of Lafayette, Mirabeau, Danton, Saint-Just and Marat), works about the Revolution tend to feature him or refer to him in some way or form.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: It's incredibly uncommon of course, especially in Anglophone works. One surprising recent exception is Eric Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke (2001), where the film's lead Grace Elliot, an actual historical figure (a Scottish noblewoman trapped in France during the Terror), is hauled before the revolutionary tribunals and is harassed by one judge who wants to guillotine her, until Robespierre himself intervenes and tells the guy to do something useful and let her go.note  It's telling that being accurate becomes this trope with regards to Robespierre.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: In most works, especially adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which being that it's set during the Terror features him as the Greater-Scope Villain. 20th Century films on the Revolution especially after the 30s (The Black Book, Danton) tend to conflate Robespierre with fascist and communist dictatorships. The latter is understandable since the Soviet Union did look up to him and the Jacobins, though in the case of the former, it must be repeated that Robespierre was fairly anti-racist, whatever his other flaws.note  Neil Gaiman has him as the villain in one issue of The Sandman, but interestingly he also acknowledged that Robespierre could just as easily have been the protagonist of the issue. "I could have written something about how Robespierre was a great man too, but that wasn't the tale that I was telling; I needed a story in which he wasn't."
  • Shrouded in Myth: After his execution, Robespierre's personal papers and correspondence were burnt by the Thermidorians. Partly as a result, his public reputation remains buried by two centuries plus worth of misinformation.
    • Andrzej Wajda's Danton portrays Robespierre as a Stalin-like despot who demands that Jacques-Louis David remove pictures of political opponents from paintings. Others portray Robespierre personally ejecting Mirabeau from the Pantheon after learning of the latter's corruption. In either case, Robespierre effected no such policy of damnatio memoriae, and in the case of the latter, Mirabeau was removed from the Pantheon after Robespierre's downfall.
    • Works like Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier (especially a 2016 production) attributes a specious quote that Robespierre signed the death warrant of French poet Andre Chenier by saying "Even Plato banned the poets from his Republic". Not only has this quote not been traced to Robespierre, but Robespierre couldn't possibly have signed Chenier's death warrant since he was absent from the Committees for a month before his death and he had no direct hand in any of the executions in the month leading to his downfall and death.note 
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Robespierre famously loved oranges, a fact which shows up in various fictional portrayals (often as an example of his supposed hypocrisy — the "man of the people'' enjoying luxury fruit while Parisians barely scraped by).
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: The common portrayal of an idealist who would kill to achieve his perfect world, an archetype that really took off in the Romantic era (as a scapegoat of the Enlightenment-inspired man), was highly inspired by memories of Robespierre and the Terror, which remains a byword for excessive idealism well into the 21st Century. This also inspires most fictional depictions, including Neil Gaiman's Thermidor, where Johanna Constantine accuses him of being ready to kill everyone in the world if they don't meet his ideals.

Appears in the following works:

  • 7th Sea, while not having the actual person as a character, has an obvious No Historical Figures Were Harmed version in Arnaud du Charouse, who plays much the same role in the Montaigne Revolution.
  • 1789
  • Victor Hugo's 93
  • Assassin's Creed: Unity
  • Not directly, but in Aviary Attorney it can be revealed that the character Jayjay Falcon, who changed his name to avoid recognition is his grandchild.
  • The Black Book
  • Carry On Pimpernel — a Carry On Scarlet Pimpernel parody.
  • Le Chevalier d'Eon
  • Danton (1921)
  • Danton (1983), played by Wojciech Pszoniak.
  • The Danton Case / Thermidor
  • In Dies Irae he doesn't appear but is mentioned as part of the backstory for Bois de Justice, the guillotine said to have been used during the revolution.
  • The Doctor Who serial "The Reign of Terror".
  • Fate/Grand Order, appearing as a ghost in the interlude for Chevalier D'Eon that has to be put to rest.
  • The Gods are Thirsty
  • Hark! A Vagrant - Several Appearances alongside Danton and Saint-Just.
  • history of the entire world, i guess: Robespierre's Reign of Terror is a small highlight in the series, and his attempt to turn his Cult of Supreme Being into a religion is poked fun at.
  • Honor Harrington has the Havenite political leader Rob(ert) S.(/tanton) Pierre running the Committee of Public Safety.
  • The Lady and the Duke (2001, Cameo at the end)
  • Look to the West (Though it's actually an Alternate History "brother", Jean-Baptiste Robespierre)
  • Referenced in the Looney Tunes film "Porky Pig's Feat" as Daffy Duck punches the hotel Manager's calling card into paper dolls:
    "You've had your coffee ration for this week, Robespierre!"
  • The Takarazuka Revue and Frank Wildhorn musical A Passage Through the Light ~Maximilien Robespierre, the Revolutionary~.
  • Mentioned in Moriarty the Patriot, though he is a historical figure at the time the series takes place. He is revealed to not only be an ancestor of the Holmes brothers, Sherringford Holmes, but also a British spy who deliberately orchestrated the Reign of Terror in order to become a Greater-Scope Villain that both sides would willingly join forces to defeat
  • Mr. Peabody & Sherman - Along with being one of the historical figures Peabody and Sherman visit while time-traveling, he also appears during the climax as one of the time-displaced people running amok on present day New York.
  • Napoléon (1927)
  • Napoleon (2023) features him twice in early scenes, first when he justifies Marie Antoinette's execution, then when his faction is overthrown (he shoots himself in the jaw while attempting suicide). He's played by Sam Troughton.
  • Name-dropped in Al Stewart's "The Palace of Versailles", basically about the French Revolution:
    "We burned out all their mansions / In the name of Robespierre"
  • A Place of Greater Safety
  • Anthony Mann's Reign of Terror (or The Black Book), played by Richard Basehart.
  • Requiem Vampire Knight as one of the highest-ranking vampires, along with the likes of Attila the Hun, Nero, Elizabeth Báthory, and Vlad Țepes.
  • La Revolution Francaise (1989)
  • Naturally a central figure of Season 3 of Revolutions by Mike Duncan, as that season focuses on the French Revolution. He also makes a cameo appearance in Season 4 (the Haitian Revolution), as events in France had a major effect on what was happening in its colony (albeit on a six-week delay).
  • The Rose of Versailles
  • Innocent Rogue
  • The Sandman (1989), "Thermidor"
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel
  • The Snow Palace
  • The Time Machine Series book "Blade of the Guillotine".
  • Les Visiteurs: Bastille Day