Robespierrre, a powerful figure in the French Revolution, is desperately looking for his black book, a death list of those marked for the guillotine and his key to the French dictatorship. It would mean his death if it fell into the wrong hands. He hopes that his agents will recover it, but if it falls in to the wrong hands, it would mean his ruin. Written by
The question will never be really answered: What was the exact set of goals of Maximillien Robespierre, lawyer from Arras, France, who was (from July 1793 to June 1794) the central figure of public attention in France and the apparent dictator of the country? We won't know because he failed in the end - in possibly the most satisfactory fall from power of any dictator in modern history. His secrets died with him.
Robespierre has been painted as the great "green-eyed" monster of the Revolution. That was the phrase used by Thomas Carlyle in describing Robespierre in Carlyle's classic history of the revolution. A prissy, powder-wigged figure, who never found a kind word to say about anybody who was in power - and so undermined several rivals while he grew more powerful. He did give lip service to the Revolution's ideals, but apparently was more in love with the concept of mankind, than in individual men and women. He spoke about a cult of pure reason (an idea he gathered from the philosophes, especially Jean-Jacques Rousseau)and even held a festival for the cult shortly before he fell from power. Not really much to say about his program, except that his proscription made the Reign of Terror what it was.
But was he blown out of size? Some historians in the 20th Century feel that he was not all powerful. He was elected head of the Jacobin Club, and he was a member of the Committee of Public Safety - with eleven other men. The Committee was actually a committee set up with extraordinary powers by the National Assembly, and was supposed to run the war effort against Europe, and keep a lid on the problems on the home front. The historian R.R. Palmer (in "Twelve Who Ruled") makes a good case that Robespierre was not the only one with authority, but that all these men did valuable work. In particular, Louis Lazare Carnot, an amateur who turned out to be one of military history's most amazingly, unexpected geniuses. Carnot built the great French Revolutionary armies that were to be the weapon that Napoleon and his marshals used to conquer most of Europe.
But it was Robespierre (along with his two closest allies on the Committee: Robert Couthon and Antoine St. Just) who was the most fanatical in searching for hidden internal enemies. Their standards are the model for later similar "witch hunters", like Heinrich Himmler, Laventi Beria, and Senator Joseph McCarthy - you find a weak point, spread a lie, and then pound the lie into everyone until it becomes the truth. Robespierre did this with the Royal Family, the Girondists (moderates), General Lafayette (fortunately in an Austrian prison when denounced), General Dumouriez (who decided to surrender himself for safety sake to the Prussians), and then the radicals. He did not have to go after all his rivals. Jean Paul Marat would be stabbed by Charlotte Corday (the Girondists later said they wished she had consulted with them, they would have pointed out another target). But he did confront and destroy his right of center moderate rival Georges Danton, and later his far left rival Hebert.
There are, oddly enough, very few films dealing with this story. Robespierre does show up at the end of "Marie Antoinette", and is Chauvin's boss in "The Scarlet Pimpernel". The various versions of "A Tale Of Two Cities" do not need him (he's not in Dicken's novel). Only two films deal with him that I am aware of. A French film, "Danton", deals with his duel to the death with the great moderate and orator (played by Gerard Depardieu), and how Danton warns the country of the dangers of Robespierre's policies and personality but is unable to avoid being proscribed and executed.
Then there is this film. Directed by Anthony Mann, it paints a dismal view of the Paris of the months of May - June 1794, and how Robespierre finally is brought down. Played (very well) by Richard Basehart, his Achilles heel is a book of names of allies and enemies, and when he will destroy them to achieve total power. Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl, with a cynical assist from Arnold Moss (as Joseph Fouche, Napoleon's future secret police chief) demolish Robespierre by getting the book into the right hands.
Did the book exist? We don't know. Stanley Loomis, in his interesting "Paris In The Terror" shows that it did not need to actually be in existence. Robespierre always had a proscription list in mind, and had he been smart he could have revealed it and reassured many who would not have stood in his way. But he was too arrogant and refused to do so. Fouche, who was an enemy of Robespierre, spread the word to almost every member of the National Assembly that they were on the hit list. Robespierre was shouted down when he tried to finally explain his plans, and was shot in the mouth just before he was arrested. On July 11, 1794 ("Thermidor" on the French Revolutionary Calender), he, Couthon, St. Just, and a dozen close associates were all guillotined. Although conservative, reactionary "White Terror" occurred in 1795, it was short and not as wholesale. Robespierre's Reign of Terror cost about 14,000 lives in France...and don't forget it was planned to continue for quite a while afterward. As Loomis writes in his study, the Terror died with him.
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