Absolute power corrupts absolutely

This is my review of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr.

This very readable account of the momentous, chilling, chaotic events of the French Revolution distinguishes itself from the many previous versions through its focus on one of the arch-villains – the coldly fanatical and ruthless Robespierre. The author points out the many contradictions in this complex figure: although he believed that even those too poor to pay tax should have the right to vote, he became a dictator who suppressed free speech and people's right to defend themselves; despite his dislike of bloodshed, he pushed through new laws to speed up the process of guillotining "traitors"; although he lacked qualities of leadership, was reclusive, made sick by tension and was not a naturally good speaker, he was quick to identify and exploit opportunities to gain power; he prided himself on being morally "incorruptible", yet fell prey to jealousy of talented revolutionaires such as Danton, and saw them as rivals who must be destoyed.

Ruth Scurr provides somes explanations for his personality and behaviour – the death of his mother when he was still very young, the influence of the College where he was "indoctrinated" with ideas of the republic in classical Rome and Greece. Yet, it remains unclear to what extent his ideas became more extreme over time, or whether he suppressed his fanaticism until there was a chance to exercise power. I was particularly struck by the way he rejected the atheism which you might expect to arise from the revolution, and the great arrogance with which he concocted single-handed the "new religion" of worship of "The Supreme Being".

As the book progressed, I became more convinced that Robespierre was mentally unstable and psychopathic, often changing his mind, indulging in very exaggerated language, and turning rapidly against former colleagues for whom he appeared to feel no empathy.

Ruth Scurr has done a good job overall, and obviously has to demonstrate her academic credentials. In general, I could have done with less detail and more emphasis on key events, players and their relationships. At times, I realised too late that a faction or individual was important, and had to use the index to search back and refresh my memory, only to find that e.g. the "Hébertistes" weren't explained as clearly as I would have liked. The important coverage of Robespierre's final bloodthirsty summer and his own death seemed too rushed. I also found irritating the author's tendency to imagine Robespierre doing or thinking in a certain way e.g. her analysis of his final scream seemed a bit "over the top".

Despite a few reservations, this book left me wanting to read more about the French Revolution and some of the other characters who fell by the wayside before Robespierre – Danton in particular caught my interest.

So, I recommend this biography to anyone wanting to increase their understanding of a fascinating period in history. If you are pressed for time, the author's introduction gives you quite a useful summary of Robespierre as a person.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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