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Actions speak louder than Words
on 16 June 2012
For most of the last century, Robespierre has generated mixed views amongst historians. He is revered by some for his principles and sense of purpose, hated by others as a cold-blooded, self-righteous fanatic. The problem is that very little is known of Robespierre's early life, and many of his private papers were destroyed after his execution. Robespierre himself remains enigmatic and writers can impose their own interpretations on his actions and create their own version of him. Ruth Scurr's book is a very interesting attempt to understand Robespierre from a study of his political and personal ideas and to examine how these developed over his adult life. This is not the first time that his political ideas have been examined (Alfred Cobban did so in 1948), but Scurr also attempts to examine both his personal ideals and his moral development over his lifetime. Her main problem is still the paucity of sources and her necessary reliance on his published political speeches, which need not fully reflect his deeply held beliefs.
Ruth Scurr has specialised in the history of ideas, and in her book she places more importance on Robespierre's ideas than his actions. However, she is scrupulous in setting out the reasons why she comes to a particular view, so that one can use the background she provides to form a different view. I felt that she was a little too sympathetic to Robespierre, and in two areas her sympathy may have misled her. She suggests that Robespierre and his associates only brought about the execution of the Girondins to pre-empt the Girondins eliminating them, but produces no evidence of any Girondin conspiracy, and makes much of Robespierre's early reluctance to see Danton condemned, but less of his actions in denying Danton even the semblance of a fair trial once he had decided Danton had to go.
On the whole this is a very well written and researched and balanced book, and certainly worth reading by anyone interested in the period or the man. However, at the end of it, Robespierre comes out as someone who from a fairly early age was not only convinced that he was right, but that anyone with a different view was not merely misguided but morally corrupt. From this perception, there is a consistent path to the paranoia of his later actions, which ultimately speak louder than what remains of his words.