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Posts Tagged ‘reign of terror’

Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794)

Trained as an advocate and elected to the Estates General in 1789 by Artois he joined the left wing and became darling of the mob. He was looked up as a savior for the wrong reason and killed for having lost to the march of events that had outwitted the Moderate and Extreme factions alike. He was Gladstone of sans culottes. Like the liberal Prime Minister across the channel the mob liked the cant. But how long?
His life is a fitting example how man is a pawn in the hands of events,- saint and the devil alike.
In 1791 Robespierre carried the motion that no member of the present Assembly should be eligible for the next, and was appointed public accuser. Next followed the flight of the Royal family to Varennes (June 21) but were stopped and brought back. Events moved swiftly. Among these we follow Lafayette’s last effort to control the right of insurrection on the Champ-de-Mars (July 17), the abject terror of Robespierre, his hysterical appeal to the Club, the theatrical oath taken by every member to defend his life, and his conduct home in triumph by the mob at the close of the Constituent Assembly (September 30). The Girondist leaders were for sparing the lives of the royal couple.
He was elected first deputy for Paris to the national Convention, where the bitter attacks upon him by the Girondists threw him into closer union with Danton. Robespierre vigorously opposed the Girondist idea of a special appeal to the people on the king’s death, and Louis’s execution on January 21, 1793, opened up the final stages of the struggle, which ended in a complete triumph of the Jacobins on June 2.
The first Committee of Public Safety was decreed in April 1793, and Robespierre, elected in July, was now one of the actual rulers of France (along with the rest of the Twelve). Next came the dark intrigues and desperate struggles that sent Hébert and his friends to the guillotine in March 1794, and Danton and Camille Desmoulins in April. The next three months Robespierre reigned supreme. He nominated all the members of the Government Committees, placed his men in all places of influence in the commune of Paris, and assumed complete control of the Revolutionary Tribunal.
However, as his power increased, his popularity waned.
Reign of Terror followed next while public finance and government generally drifted to ruin, and Saint-Just demanded the creation of a dictatorship in the person of Robespierre. On July 26, the dictator delivered a long harangue complaining that he was being accused of crimes unjustly. The Convention, after at first obediently passing his decrees, next rescinded them and referred his proposals to the committees. That night at the Jacobin Club his party again triumphed. At the Convention the following day, Saint-Just could not obtain a hearing, and Robespierre was vehemently attacked (the 9th of Thermidor). A deputy proposed his arrest; at the fatal word Robespierre’s power came to an end.
He fled to the Common Hall, whereupon the Convention declared him an outlaw. The National Guard under Barras turned out to protect the Convention, and Robespierre had his lower jaw broken by a shot fired by a gendarme. The next day (July 28, the 10th of Thermidor), he was sent to the guillotine along with Saint-Just, Couthon, and nineteen others.
The reign of terror created its recoil and death of Robespierre was its result.Only with the advent of Napoleon the Republic became stable and it since then had one article of faith ‘glory’ that in practice would prove as a poison chalice.

Revolution and Napoleon

External threat from several European states in a way brought the citizens already heady with revolutionary fervor to fight as one. French Revolutionary Wars of 1792-1802 could be said as the baptism of fire that brought the fledgling Republic to manhood. In 1793 France suffered severe reverses at first. They were driven out of the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium), and serious revolts flared in the west and south of France. One of these, at Toulon, was the first serious taste of action for an unknown young artillery officer named Napoleon Bonaparte.
It had a positive effect on the course of the Revolution. What undermined the Incorruptible Robespierre but lack of fresh ideas? He had none except bloodletting that went on. Meanwhile Napoleon’s success in defeating the European coalition gave the Republic a new hope.

The aim of European coalition was to restore the French Monarchy and there were besides the external threat, France faced simultaneously civil war and counterrevolutionary guerillas between royalists and republicans. Their success in the military campaigns in 1794 brought a change in the public mood, and sealed the fate of Maximilian Robespierre. Royalists tried to seize power in Paris but were crushed by Napoleon in 1795. A new constitution placed executive power in a Directory of five members. The war and schisms in the Directory led to disputes that were settled by coups d’état, chiefly those of 1797 and in 1799, in which Napoleon abolished the Directory and declared himself leader of France. He would crown himself as the emperor in 1804 after he defended France brilliantly in the second coalition war, the treaty of Amiens in 1802 is generally considered to be the point of transition between the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.
The First French Republic, starting from a position precariously near occupation and collapse, had defeated all its enemies and produced a revolutionary army that would take the other powers years to emulate. With the conquest of the left bank of the Rhine and domination of the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy, the Republic had achieved nearly all the territorial goals that had eluded the Valois and Bourbon monarchs for centuries.

This glory factor however shortchanged the true spirit of the Revolution from being absorbed into the body politics. Napoleon’s empire was a distraction which would explain the debacle of Sedan 1871. Bismarck was adamant to cut the French Army to size and prove their talk of glory was hollow. It happened in the Franco-Prussian war and finally played out in 1940 when the army of Hitler walked over in six weeks to Paris.

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Among the great Polish filmmakers—Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Zanussi, Agnieszka Holland, Roman Polanski—Andrzej Wajda remains unique in the way he has explored in his films the tortuous path his nation had to take. The question of her national identity: what sort of Poland do the people want in the post war produced the Ashes and Diamonds a classic. Between his fifties war trilogy and his most recent film, Katyn (2007) we have Danton a minor classic where the themes do find echo in what was taking place in Poland.

‘The film was based on the play The Danton Affair, by Stanisława Przybyszewska, first performed in 1931. Przybyszewska was a Communist whose sympathies lay with the radical Robespierre. Wajda revived the play in 1975, but he turned it on its head, making a hero out of the more moderate Danton. By 1980, the high point of the Solidarity liberation movement, he had arranged to make his version of the play into a film, a Polish-French co-production with Gaumont. Studio scenes were to be done in Poland, while location scenes were to be shot in France. Martial law was imposed on December 13, 1981, however, in a coup directed by the Soviet Union: General Jaruzelski was installed, Solidarity outlawed, communications cut, a curfew introduced, and production in Poland became impossible. The whole project was then transferred to Paris, with Wajda taking some of his Polish actors, including Wojciech Pszoniak, who plays Robespierre, and a small group of co-workers. As a result, Wajda, this most Polish of directors, was forced to become an émigré, only returning from exile in 1989, when the Jaruzelski government fell. (He went on to receive his adopted country’s highest film honor, the César, for best director in 1983.)’(Quoted from Leonard Quart/Criterion Collection news)
Wajda’s tale of the struggle between two factions spearheading the French Revolution is not an isolated event. Political fall out of an ideal produces factions and we see it in the solidarity movement and in the soviet backed government of General Jaruzelski. This we saw in the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky for the mantle of Lenin. Beyond this parallel what was happening in Poland in the early 80s was altogether different. Danton and Robespierre represent two factions, one moderate and the other all out radical just as their personalities are opposites to one another. Danton is larger than life, venal and easy while Robespierre the lawyer from Arras is austere and chaste. Danton (Gérard Depardieu) and Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak) were close friends and fought together in the French Revolution, but by 1793 Robespierre had become the ruler and in order to wipe out opposition he ordered for a series of mass executions that became known as the Reign of Terror. Danton, well known as a spokesman of the people, had been living in relative solitude in the French countryside, but he returned to Paris to challenge Robespierre’s violent rule and call for the people to demand their rights. Robespierre, however, could not accept such a challenge and tries to win him over to his side.

There is much more than a tacit understanding to the reign of terror at stake. While Danton realizes the path he had set out has gone off the rails the other is all the more for bloodletting. Danton knows from events played out around him Revolution has become like Saturn devouring it own children. Robespierre takes advantage of Danton’s vacillation to outmaneuver him and arrest him. Thus five years after the fall of Bastille it is the will of Robespierre, Saint- Just et al that overrides the voice of restraint.

There is a telling scene that takes place in the studio of Jacques Louis David where the dictator in waiting the incorruptible Robespierre is sitting for the painter. When he is handed a palm he refuses it since it reminds one of martyr’s palm. He also insists erasing his enemies from the group painting and it echoes Stalin’s purge of history of Bolshevik revolution. (In that famous photo Lenin on return from exile harangues people where Trotsky the organizer of the Red Army stands next to the podium. Stalin on taking control had him airbrushed from history albeit pictorially. )

Both factions hold however one component common to their cause. Both are maneuvering in the name of the people. Robespierre who, as Danton would point out at a crucial one to one meeting shrinks from all contact, – and in all probability had never laid, speaks of man on the street as matter of his right. Yet Robespierre who holds the trump cards says: ‘We want Danton’s death.’
Judge Fouquier: ‘I am not your private executioner.’
Robespierre the ‘incorruptible’ of course wants him to effect the order of the Committee just the same as ‘people’s executioner.’
It is an irony of all blood baths that the dictators unleash are in the name of the people.
The earthy ‘larger than life’ Danton and the puritanical Robespierre fight like whores for their favor.
Danton: ‘A political trial is a duel. If the government accuses we can accuse them.’ The idea is to create doubts in the minds of people. The same ploy the government also uses in making Danton and other ‘conspirators’ sit along with the criminal like common thieves and pimps. .
Themes, which figure in Danton, are both political and ethical and are timeless.
The irrefutable fact that Danton set up the Tribunal does not mean he was above that. The hero of August 10 was evidently consumed by his own creation and also took Robespierre within three months.
The trouble with revolutions is that you don’t control insurrection with words once the blood is drawn whether in the streets or in the bedchamber.
Danton whose voice was like thunder shaking the very dome but as essayed by Gerard Deperdiue could not raise it beyond a whimper. The same could be said of the film Danton.
‘In addition to Mr. Depardieu and Mr. Pszoniak, the excellent cast includes Patrice Chereau as Danton’s journalist-friend, Camille Desmoulins; Angela Winkler as Lucille Desmoulins, Camille’s wife who followed him to the scaffold; Boguslaw Linda, as Saint Just, and Roger Planchon, who is partciuarly good as Fourquier Tinville, who prosecuted Danton and his associates in a rigged trial’ (quoted from NY Times review. Wajda’s ‘DANTON,’ Inside the French Revolution by Vincent Canby; Sept 28, 1983)

benny

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