Maximilien Robespierre, a bourgeois lawyer with sympathies for the working class, was one of the most ruthless revolutionaries to emerge from the notoriously brutal French Revolution. He achieved power and influence in the early 1790s and, by unleashing the Reign of Terror, led the revolution down a bloody path. These macabre yarns may change your perception of gay Paris; the next time you waltz its boulevards, imagine them running red with blood.
The French Revolution happened in stages. Though initially moderate, by 1793, it had taken a radical turn. Terror became the order of the day, as did sentencing political rivals - or anyone suspected of treason - to death by guillotine. But the chaos of the French Revolution could not sustain itself, and the Reign of Terror ended in 1794 - and with it, Robespierre's life. Eventually, another leader emerged: Napoleon Bonaparte, a military genius who took up some of the revolution’s ideas as he plunged Europe and its colonies into decades of war.
Before Napoleon's emergence, Robespierre directed the course of the French Revolution. Though most of his life was spent in the pursuit of interests outside despotism, actions speak louder than words. Brutal Maximilien Robespierre facts paint a picture of a troubled, single-minded historical figure. Tales of Robespierre’s remorseless violence are as chilling as they are tragic and ironic - Robespierre sincerely believed the best way to bring about civic virtue and elevated politics was by shedding blood.
By 1793, the Committee of Public Safety, a group of revolutionary leaders selected for terms of one month (without term limits) by the National Convention, on which Robespierre sat, had more or less taken control of the revolutionary government. Robespierre was just one man on the Committee, but he was, by far, the most vocal and influential member, and was able to steer it in a radical direction.
Thanks to his leadership, the Committee saw its job as defending the revolution and purging counter-revolutionaries. Thus, the Committee assumed autocratic control of the government. Under Robespierre, the Committee of Public Safety oversaw to the deaths of thousands of people across France. Many of them were sentenced to the guillotine, and many of them perished in prison. During the Reign of Terror alone, almost 17,000 capital sentences were meted out in France. Tens of thousands more - nearly a quarter-million if you include the war in the Vendée - perished violently for other reasons in this period.
Robespierre's ascendancy happened because he was able to challenge and break the rival Girondin faction. He brought that same cutthroat instinct to personal dealings with rival politicians. Most notable was Camille Desmoulins, a boyhood friend of Robespierre's. Georges Danton, another one-time friend and ally who condemned the Reign of Terror, quickly became Robespierre's enemy.
Both Danton and Desmoulins became victims of the violence they protested - they were guillotined in April 1794.
On September 17, 1793, Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety passed the Law of Suspects. The law gave local districts and communes across France the ability to arrest anyone on suspicion of acting treasonously. It virtually transformed revolutionary France into a surveillance state, and created a steady flow of men and women for the guillotine.
Historians estimate that upwards of 400,000 people were suspected of treason or treachery under this law.
After a supposed assassination attempt, Robespierre spent the final months of his life in a state of increasing paranoia, pushing through a law suspending rights to trial and legal assistance in order to hasten the elimination of his enemies. As a result of this law, 1,400 people were guillotined over the course of a month.
On July 26, 1794, Robespierre delivered an impassioned speech before the National Convention, alleging there was a conspiracy against him. To be fair, there was a conspiracy against him, and the Convention arrested him the very next day.