State terror, the unflinching and cruel liquidation of any and all opposition, real and perceived, is a benchmark of what gave the twentieth century the sharpness that continues to enthrall historians and casual readers well into the twenty-first century

indeed it is hard to point to a period of the twentieth century where the terroristic knife-edge was not used by  regimes of every political and religious stripe. terror as a weapon of State instruction then has many fellow travelers. Men and women have grasped at the hilt of this weapon with an odd mix of fervor and silent resignation.

but while many state actors have played this role to frighteningly brutal ends, there is one man who stands out mainly because he was  the first to understand that the State was not merely the playgrounds of landed aristocracy or clergy. molded to the right form, it is the most powerful weapon in a leaders arsenal.

Maximilien Robespierre, a lawyer from northeastern France, was that first man.

this is in no way to belittle men and women who would later in the twentieth century play roles in creating a monstrous death wagon that eclipses most if not all of Robespierre’s murderous accomplishments. Robespierre stands alone merely because he was the first to articulate a position so groundbreaking in its eloquence and in its barbarity.

I took my time working through Ruth Scurr’s brilliant text, “Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution” primarily because it is a work that requires and intense amount of focus. while not particularly long by history standards, (it stands at 448 pages), it covers a great many people and themes, tilting on the axis of Robespierre’s own understanding of himself.

in order to engage with a character that a reader would be well within his or her rights to label an authoritarian criminal worthy of the foulest punishments conceivable,  Scurr employs a tactic Simon Schama has attempted utilizing before: namely the use of personal remembrances by those who knew the subject, correspondence between the subject and others, and any historical record available.

through this, the reader discovers a France divided at nearly every turn. Industrial progress and the absence of a plague had swelled the country’s cities and towns. Support of the American Revolution and the absence of a reasonable (by modern standards) tax policy, created a tinder box of economic and social ruin.

one of the more memorable criticisms of Robespierre in his early days in the National Assembly, (few would be alive to speak against him in short time anyways), was his slavish devotion to the works of Jean Jeac Rousseau. Rousseau, whose complex utopia can perhaps be most easily explained to the unitiated as, “man is born free, and everywhere in chains”. I paraphrase of course, but the important takeaway of this quote is to understand that Robespierre, as well as his more radical Jacobin brothers, believed to a varying extent that by unmooring French society from its traditional bench posts, (i.e. the Catholic Church, the Monarchy, the feudal system in general), that real and sustainable progress would be achieved and a new age of mankind would be brought about.

arguably many skeptics would scoff at the impression that men create ‘ages’ willy-nilly. yet this is how Robespierre saw his actions, as though they were justified by history. there are junctures where you could intersplice Robespierre’s ruthlessness with that of Trotsky, Stalin or Franco.

Scurr is adept at never letting Robespierre’s own journal entries or letters act as a kind of balm to the wounds he inflicts on his enemies as well as friends.

When Georges Danton was sent to the scaffold, Scurr notes Robespierre was safely sequestered in his lodgings several blocks away. He never entertained that his bloody announcements meant the spilling of others ‘own.

further, Scurr is better than say a Schama at not attempting to simplify arguments or positions of the various political factions. Between the Commune in Paris, the Girondins, the Montangard, and the Jacobins to name just a few, many of those mentioned quarelled what appear to be minor points at the time but play into a sort of Mommsen-esque cumulative radicalization.  It should be appreciated that any of one issues Scurr touches upon in her narrative are not immediately resolved. this element of unresolved drama could be perilous to most historians, but Scurr manages to weave it into the sense of broader social conflict within france.

combined with full and remarkable characters, Scurr’s work ought to become the gold standard by which future discussions of Robespierre as a person and the origins of state terror are judged. devoid of simplistic posturing, Scurr challenges readers

Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr. Holt Paper backs 2006 448 pages. Purchased copy.

Recommended for experienced readers of Western European history.