Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Robespierre and Memory in France: Reflections on a Debate

Robespierre circa 1790 (image is in the
public domain)
Maximilien Robespierre's role in the French Revolution has fascinated historians, ideologues, politicians and history buffs for a long time. He has been the subject of serious scholarly works and has been represented in popular culture. This past June, a sharp-edged debate arose in the French press over Robespierre's place in the Revolution, specifically during the Reign of Terror. To Americans reading the back-and-forth in Le Figaro, France's center-right daily newspaper, it might seem like a tempest in a teapot. To the French, who have witnessed the current Republic struggle with questions about the future of the European Union, the plight of the sons and daughters of immigrants living on the fringes of the nation's cities, shocking acts of terrorist violence and a resurgent right-wing Front National, the question of what Robespierre's participation in the Terror should mean has been taken seriously.

How did this recent debate over Robespierre's place in the national memory begin? It was through an avenue that French public intellectuals have used to engage the nation since the late nineteenth century -- through a public declaration addressed to a person in power. In this case, it was a June 14 letter to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo that was signed by thirty scholars and teachers calling for a street, place or square in the capital to be named in Robespierre's honor. What is central to this request is its determination to combat the ill-repute to which Robespierre's name has been held for a long time.

The signatories of the letter refer to twentieth century politics as the starting point to argue that Robespierre deserves this recognition. At the end of World War II when the Paris city government was in the hands of the socialists and communists, both parties supported the idea of creating a "Place Robespierre." The return of the right to power in 1951 scuttled the plan, leaving Robespierre's memory to be disconnected from that of  Republican heroes like Jean Jaurès. The result, in their view, has been unfortunate, since it has amounted to a rejection of France's revolutionary history. They argue that other major cities in France, like Marseille, have established places or streets carrying Robespierre's name. They simply ask, "Why not Paris?"

The controversial nature of the French Revolution has been a mainstay of French political and academic life for over two centuries. The signatories seek to correct misperceptions of Robespierre and insist that he was never a "dictator" or "deus et machina" (this term and italics belong to the signatories) of the revolutionary drama, asserting that "...Robespierre had defended, with his partisans, a real political project founded on the will to defend and to construct a Republic of which the first principle had to be social equality." Besides, in their view, controversial actors from both sides of the revolutionary drama, including King Louis XVI and Danton, have been honored with "bridges, avenues and squares" that "transmit their memory."

The letter places Robespierre within the intellectual history of the eighteenth century. He was an admirer and "heir" of the Enlightenment who believed that the principles of liberty and equality could be balanced; he was a stringent opponent of arbitrary behavior of functionaries of the state; he was in favor of the rights of Jews and against slavery; he was against capital punishment. In addition, he was, according to the letter, "a product of the contradictions and complexities of the times," but was also dedicated to "genuine republican convictions that should be made known to the public." This last point is echoed in the final plea to "reconcile" Robespierre's place within the First Republic with that of ordinary Parisians.

In an interview published a week after the letter to Hidalgo was published, Patrice Gueniffey provided a rebuttal of the claims made in the letter. Gueniffey is an academic at the L'Ecole des hautes etudes en science sociales (EHESS). He was asked questions that gave him the opportunity to highlight the cleavages in the politics, intellectual culture and historiography of the Revolution that have roiled generations: "What place does Robespierre occupy in the Republican memory?" "Do the petitioners who demand a street in Robespierre's name reflect a classic vindication of the communists?" "Was Robespierre responsible for the Terror?" "Would you say that the Great Terror was a proto-totalitarian experiment?" The questions played into preconceived notions of Robespierre held by many in the media and in academia.

Gueniffey's response began with a nod to the historiography of the late nineteenth century, when a "republican consensus" was formed that was based "on the exclusion of Robespierre from the pantheon of the great men of the decade 1789-1799." In his view, this consensus on the Revolution placed men like Robespierre and his ally turned nemesis Georges Danton into two camps: the first being comprised of those who defended the nation from invasion by the Prussians and Austrians and who resisted Robespierre (Danton and others) and the second including only Robespierre, who "embodied" the civil war and the Terror. For his efforts, Danton was thereby honored with a statue in Paris in 1889, the centennial of the Revolution. Robespierre was then declared to be at fault for the Revolution's most extreme failures.

Robespierre was a singular force in the events of the Terror in Gueniffey's intepretation. For example, Robespierre was responsible for Law of 22 Prairial (10 June 1794), which suppressed due process for those accused of crimes. The Great Terror originated at this point and let loose the guillotine. Gueniffey insists that the Great Terror was the "direct will" of Robespierre whereby it became "an inherent part of the Revolution," having become less an instrument of punishing enemies but was now meant only to "paralyze the opposition."

The politics of postwar France also factor in Gueniffey's response to the letter. In his view, the French Communist Party and its followers (he seems to be implying that all of the petitioners fall into this category) not only are driving the call for recognition of Robespierre but are also responsible for creating a "paradox" in their argument: "...these petitioners belittle the historical role of the Incorruptible in order to defend him. They shrink [his role in the Revolution] in order to render him more presentable." In short, he believes that they are embarking on a "rehabilitation" of the Terror without taking responsibility for it. This point allows Gueniffey to make the broader claim that the debate around Robespierre carries deeper ideological ramifications, the most forceful being that Robespierre presented a model that was copied word-for-word by Lenin and the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution: "the rhetoric regarding the [need for a] scapegoat, the punitive tribunals, a system of surveillance and of informing [on the citizenry]." The only factor that separates Robespierre from Lenin and the Bolsheviks is the fact that the Jacobins failed "to form a homogenous and centralized party."

Le Figaro has done a service to both sides by publishing the letter to the mayor in support of recognition of Robespierre and the response from a prominent opponent (the downside being that the content of the interview questions Patrice Gueniffey answered were leading and were not of a dispassionate nature). At the very least, this controversy should open up new avenues for reevaluating Robespierre's place in France's national memory. A superficial glance at responses to the current debate on Twitter reveals that the French have overwhelmingly internalized the generalizations made by Gueniffey. A sampling of attitudes on Twitter does not amount to a scientific study, but it does point to a general mood that prevails regarding Robespierre.

The petitioners make the better case that Robespierre's role in the Revolution and in the national memory should be reconsidered. Of course, naming a street or place after the revolutionary leader is the immediate goal of the letter's signatories and the recognition of this by the mayor's office would be an important start toward providing an intellectual space for a new narrative of Robespierre to emerge that would challenge the superficiality of Gueniffey's interpretation.

One way to view this problem is by considering how both sides reference the chronology of the Revolution to make their respective cases. The letter to Mayor Hidalgo is a call to consider Robespierre within a broader context that would include his intellectual grounding in Enlightenment thought  and his politics before the Terror, which included stances against the death penalty and slavery. In this interpretation of revolutionary events, Robespierre's pre-1789 life would have to be taken into consideration as a starting point if a fair analysis is to be drawn. Certainly, the petitioners would have to explain Robespierre's role in the Terror, but would be able to do so more convincingly if the full scope of the revolutionary drama was folded into the recognition that those in leadership positions were driven in many respects by events far outside of their control. If Robespierre used a particular ideological framework to make sense of the whirlwind around him, that does not make him an unusual historical figure. But that is only part of the story.

The problem with the Gueniffey's argument is that he pins his interpretation of Robespierre on a tiny sliver of chronology--1793 to 1794--that strains to support generalizations that rest on an assumption that ideas (dangerous in regards to Robespierre) float freely throughout history regardless of specific political, cultural and social contexts. This allows him to place Robespierre and Lenin in the same category and to conflate the French and Soviet revolutionary traditions. The result of the mixing and matching of two complex revolutionary eras obscures the origins of modern totalitarianism and makes it appear to be based upon decisions made by one French revolutionary during a tumultuous, violent period of the late eighteenth century.

Curiously, Robespierre's standing as a historical figure gets a major boost though Gueniffey's argument. He sees Robespierre as ten feet tall; he was the driver of the Terror and is responsible for its most egregious excesses (in contrast to his claim that the petitioners have had to denigrate Robespierre's role in the Terror in order to save his reputation). The problem here is that the complexity of the Terror goes underappreciated if one places such a large degree of responsibility on the shoulders of one prominent member of the Committee of Public Safety.

The debate over Robespierre's legacy will not be over even if Mayor Hidalgo decides to ignore the letter of June 14. However, a positive response on her part would provide a space within which a discussion can ensue about how the Revolution and Republic should be memorialized. Such a debate should include and transcend the question of whether or not Robespierre deserves a street or public place in Paris.

Works Cited:

Corbière, Alexis. "Madame Hidalgo, une rue de Paris doit porter le nom de Robespierre," Le Figaro (14 juin 2016).

Perrault, Guillaume, "Gueniffey: 'Robespierre incarne d'une façon chimiquement pure l'idée de la table rase,'" Le Figaro (20 juin 2016).

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