‘Monster’ of Revolution gets modern diagnosis

A defender of the poor who upheld the values of French Revolution or a monster who slaughtered thousands. Opinion on Maximilien de Robespierre has always been divided, but forensic scientists are now able to provide a new insight into the controversial figure.

'Monster' of Revolution gets modern diagnosis
Robespierre, the monster of the French Revolution has been given a moden diagnosis. Photo: Sabin Paul Croce/Flickr

Depending on what you read, Maximilien de Robespierre was a defender of the poor and downtrodden — "the Incorruptible" who defended the values of the French Revolution to the end.

Or he was a monster who slaughtered thousands for revolutionary crimes, a lawyer who opened up the path of legalised terror later trod by Hitler and Stalin.

Now, with the help of 21st-century tools, forensic scientists are providing insights into a figure who left such a deep but contested imprint on history.

Robespierre, they say, probably suffered from a crippling auto-immune disorder called sarcoidosis – a disease that may have played an indirect role in his downfall.

In 1794, the ultra-radical would have been severely weakened when his terrified foes mustered the courage to rush him to the guillotine, they say.

"He was killed by the guillotine but he was already exhausted by the political battle, his insomnia and his own frenetic personality," said Philippe Charlier, one of Europe's leading forensic anthropologists.

"But he was also weakened by this disease, which debilitates and tires the body," Charlier said in a phone interview with AFP.

In sarcoidosis, the immune system goes haywire and attacks the body's own tissues. Its signature is patches of reddened, swollen tissue called granulomas, but the inflammation also causes knock-on problems in organ

Charlier, of the University of Versailles, and Philippe Froesch of the Parc Audiovisual de Catalunya in Barcelona, write up their conclusions in a letter to The Lancet medical journal, published on Friday.

Death mask clue

They build the diagnosis on a reconstruction of Robespierre's face, contemporary portraits, a death mask made by Madame Tussaud – now known for the famous waxworks museum in London – and eyewitness accounts.

The list of known symptoms is long: vision difficulties; nose bleeds so extreme "he covered his pillow with fresh blood each night"; yellow skin, a sign of jaundice; suppurating leg ulcers; and permanent twitching of the eyes and mouth.

He also had frequent outbreaks of skin disease, in addition to deep facial scars that resulted from smallpox.

"The retrospective diagnosis that includes all these symptoms is diffuse sarcoidosis," extending to the upper respiratory tract, the eyes and either the liver or pancreas, they write.

"The disease worsened between 1790 and 1794."

In the early stages of the 1789 French Revolution, Robespierre, inspired by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, carved out a reputation as a defender of universal human rights and the "sans-culottes," France's under class.

As France descended into paranoia, fuelled by suspicions among the Revolutionaries of plots to restore the monarchy, Robespierre became more more and more powerful.

The turning point came in 1793, when deputies passed laws authorising the revolutionary government to suspend peacetime legal safeguards against the use of coercion and violence.

It was the start of "La Terreur," the first known time in history that terror became enshrined as a legal tool to achieve a higher political goal.

Robespierre played a key role in framing the law and in the bloodbath that followed. More than 16,000 people around France were guillotined after trials that were often little more than a legal figleaf.

As many as several hundred thousand more, according to some estimates, died in in summary killings or in atrocities, particularly in the royalist Vendee region.

During this time, Robespierre started to pick off his rivals one by one. But after a four-week absence from the Paris political scene in which, sick and depressed, he never left his home, his surviving enemies rallied against
him and his followers.

He was beheaded on July 28 1794 at the age of 36, suffering a pistol wound to the jaw – either self-inflicted or fired by a gendarme during his arrest the night before – that left him tortured and grotesque-looking, according to contemporary accounts.

The cheers resounded around the Place de la Revolution – the Place de la Concorde today – as his head was shown to the public, and the Terreur ended.

Historians have long differed over Robespierre's place.

Some say he was a scapegoat for the Terreur and should be honoured for his principles and incorruptibility. Others revile him as a tyrant who stained the Revolution's ideals with blood.

In 2011, a bid by Communist councillors in Paris to name a street after Robespierre was vetoed by the city's Socialist-led majority.

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Don’t ask Google, ask us: Why are the French always surrendering?

In this mini series, The Local answers common questions that comes up when you start typing questions with "France" or "the French" into the Google search engine.

A French Special Operation Forces trains local soldiers in Mali.
A French Special Operation Forces trains local soldiers in Mali. France's overall military record is not as bad as many believe. (Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP)

Why are the French . . . always surrendering?

“How do you confuse a French soldier? Give them a rifle and ask them to shoot it.”

One of the most enduring clichés about the French is that they are always surrendering. The long historical record of the French military suggests that this is a slightly unfair stereotype, but we will explore where its origins nonetheless.

That the French always surrender when the going gets tough is one of the most enduring stereotypes about the country

This sentiment was encapsulated perfectly in a 1995 episode of The Simpsons in which the French are described as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”. 

The consensus among historians is that this trope comes from the French capitulation to the Nazis in WWII. Within a matter of weeks, Hitler was able to capture Paris and force the French into submission. 

In 1940, during the Battle of France that preceded the French surrender, France had more men mobilised than at the start of WW1 in 1914. It also had one of the strongest naval fleets in the world, which could have feasibly evacuated the majority of the troops to Britain or North Africa. Instead, chaos reigned and most of the military hardware fell into the hands of the Nazis. 

In July 1940, after the surrender, Britain asked French admirals in North Africa to surrender their fleet to avoid it being taken by the Germans. When the French refused, the Brits blew up this fleet. 

The myth that France had been under-prepared for war was propagated by the leader of the collaborationist Vichy government, Marshall Philippe Pétain, and persists to this day.

In reality there were multiple reasons for the sudden French collapse, including the surprise German attack through the Ardennes. 

While there were pockets of resistance to the Nazis under occupation, a substantial proportion of the French population collaborated with the Germans. The Vichy government and French police forces actively took part in the Holocaust. 

The eventual outcome of the war means it is easy, but perhaps unfair, to look back at the past and regard French surrender to the Nazis as a cowardly decision, but France was far from the only country to fall to the Nazi war machine. 

Setting the record straight

Despite their reputation for surrender, a long view of history reveals a track record of grit and at times, victory for French military. 

The Eiffel tower stands in a park known as the Champs de Mars. This site is named after the Roman god of war and marks the spot where some believe the Parisi tribe, ancient settlers of Paris, made a stand against against the Roman army during the conquest of Gaul. History suggests that they were promptly massacred – but at least they tried. 

Fast forward nearly 1,000 years to the medieval period and France had become one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe. The Normans, an ethnic mix of Scandinavian vikings and Western Franks, even went on to conquer Britain in 1066. 

Moving on to the 18th century under the reign of Louis XV and France was one of the world’s dominant powers, with vast territories extending into large parts of what are now the United States and Canada. France eventually ceded much of this land away but during the American war of independence, France was decisive in kicking Britain out of North America, sending more troops than Britain and the 13 colonies combined. 

The French military conquered huge swathes of the world in the 19th century, creating a colonial empire that stretched from Africa, to the Caribbean to Southeast Asia. 

During WW1, France couldn’t have emerged victorious without the support of Britain and the United States but was nonetheless instrumental in winning the war and suffered close to 2 million military and civilian casualties. 

Today, France spends a greater proportion of GDP on defence than most other NATO members, has the largest military force in the EU and the sixth largest armed forces in the world. It has been involved in military interventions in at least nine countries since 2001. 

France is progressively withdrawing its forces from Operation Barkhane, a counter-insurgency operation led by French forces in West Africa.