It is tempting to take sides for or against the characters in history. It is usually just as much fun, afterwards, to go back and revise these judgements: to find the flaws in the heroes and to achieve some understanding of why the villains behaved as they did. But where do you start with Maximilien Robespierre? Ruth Scurr takes on one of the most enigmatic of historical figures, in this thoroughly researched, well-written biography.
Carlyle's famous description of her subject, "the sea-green Incorruptible", highlights the dilemma. On the face of it, Carlyle is doing no more than to manufacture a soubriquet out of the colour of Robespierre's favourite coat' "The Incorruptible" was the title given to him by his contemporaries. Most politicians would be proud to bear the name "Incorruptible" (though it would be tempting fate today)' but adding the epithet "sea-green" has, as Carlyle intended, a slyly subversive effect: it evokes something from the depths, something slimy, something reptilian. And since Robespierre presided over the most bloodthirsty period of the French Revolution, the idea of him as The Incorruptible comes to suggest, not so much the decency of a politician who could not be bribed or deflected from his goals by self-interest, but other, quite different extremes: implacable, immovable, inflexible, inhuman... This is the "fatal purity" of Ruth Scurr's title.
It was not that he enjoyed killing' indeed, one of the mysteries of the man is knowing what he did enjoy. His private life, as far as anyone can tell, was a pretty barren region. As for the mass executions of the Terror (around 2,200 heads in Paris in the five months of Robespierre's ascendancy) seem to have made him, quite literally, sick: there were episodes of illness, especially in the last year of Robespierre's life, which can be read as a psychosomatic reaction to events, particularly the factional struggles at the height of the Terror, in 1794. The only time he got close to the guillotine itself was when his own turn came to go under the Instrument, so in that respect he resembled Heinrich Himmler, who also personally found mass murder distasteful. The difference is that ideals that drove Robespierre were fine and genuine: ideals of democracy, human rights and social justice. Admittedly, they were couched in the language of his time, with much talk of virtue overcoming vice, of le peuple, la nation and lapatrie. But there is no doubt about the essence of Robespierre's political programme or its sincerity, for example, when he proclaimed that he wanted morality in place of egotism, honesty in place of an aristocratic concept of honour, behaviour governed by principle rather than convention and the rule of reason rather than the tyranny of fashion. Many politicians have said that they seek power, not for its own sake, but in order to achieve some great goal' Robespierre, as far as one can tell, actually meant it.
Of course, this doesn't exonerate …