Why I’d wear a bonnet rouge for Robespierre

In the following Christine Evans-Appleyard reflects on her experiences of being a mature student, studying history, and what she made of the enigmatic figure of Robespierre. 

There’s something about an idealistic male leader who carries an air of vulnerability that’s very attractive to women. Robespierre was one such man. Physically unimpressive and not much on the looks front either – his fellow-revolutionary, Saint-Just, trounced him in both those departments – Robespierre nevertheless had many female admirers of all ages.

Inevitably, his complete indifference to almost all of them only served to fuel their interest. The more politically impassioned he became and the more he appeared to suffer as a consequence, the more they wanted to wrap him up, take him home and feed him oranges.

220px-labille-guiard_robespierreI have to hold my hand up here and admit that it was these same qualities which not only first drew me to Robespierre but which sustained my interest in him as a female, final-year History undergraduate taking the Enlightenment, Terror and Revolution module at Kingston.

Who was this man whom some historians had labelled a monster and a tyrant? Had he really been a cold-bloodied psychopath or was it true, as others suggest, that he was simply misunderstood – the victim of a double tragedy which ruined his childhood and a strictly religious education which, together, conspired to render him an emotionally needy and desperately driven adult? As a mature student, I felt I had life experience on my side and I wanted to get to the bottom of it. Only one thing was certain: Robespierre was a man who could simply not be ignored.

As anyone who has ever studied the French Revolution can tell you, there is no shortage of literature on the topic. What’s more, the historiography is generally as lively as its subject matter. From the work of Mathiez and Lefebvre through to the present day, historiography doesn’t often get more passionate than it does about Robespierre, with historians not afraid to take sides and hurl ammunition.

As a student starting out in No Man’s Land you just have to remember to duck occasionally so that you don’t get caught in the crossfire. Fortunately, at Kingston, we have one of the most forward-thinking contemporary French Revolution historians, Marisa Linton, leading the course, which – in my opinion – is one very good reason for taking the module. Not only has Marisa Linton written numerous books and journal articles that have won the admiration of her peers (see David Andress’s review of Marisa’s latest book, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2013) at http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1478 but, on a practical level, she is consummate at guiding her students effectively through the diversity and depth of reading that the module – like any final year course – demands.

As a late returner to education, I had never studied 18th century history before and so, for me, the course represented quite a challenge and meant learning from scratch. I can admit now that I started by reading internet content aimed at school students as well as entry-level books, including Introducing the Enlightenment: A Graphic Guide, by Spencer and Krauze (Faber and Faber, 2013) and The French Revolution – A Very Short Introduction, by William Doyle (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Once I understood the basic sequence of events I was able to progress to the interpretation and was soon reading the likes of Furet and Chartier. One of the most useful books I read was Peter McPhee’s The French Revolution, 1789-1799 (Oxford University Press, 2002). Peter McPhee has an easily accessible writing style which makes him a good friend to students. I also had the pleasure of hearing him speak, with Marisa Linton, at a University event in Kingston at the end of my second year. It was this event, with both experts challenging the way history has traditionally presented Robespierre, which inspired my initial interest in learning more about the French Revolution and its Jacobin leader in particular. From that moment onwards it was a matter of reading and viewing all I could about him – from books and journal articles to online archives, films and forums.

What I soon realised was that there is no point in looking at historic figures simply as one-dimensional characters based on big events. In the ordinary everyday they were as complex and as human as you and I, and just as susceptible to influence – good or bad. The second thing I learned was to treat both primary and secondary sources with caution – just because a document is ancient and revered doesn’t mean it is without bias or sub-text, just as a book written by a famous historian isn’t definitive.

220px-robespierreSo, did I manage to tease out the truth behind the awful stories that surround Robespierre? On the basis of the evidence, I would say he was far from being a monster, and even less a tyrant.

For a start, the evidence shows he hated violence, opposed war and even tried to ban the death penalty. Even during the period of the Terror, he never had the authority to act alone.

Robespierre was a deep thinker and he cared about the things that a lesser man would disregard. As a young lawyer he represented the under-dog and often worked for nothing in return. As a politician he promoted freedom, equality and fairness. It’s true that, later on, he acted irrationally, but there’s no evidence of evil intent. Essentially, Robespierre was an idealist, an egalitarian and well-meaning: a young lawyer from rural France who simply wanted to make life better for people – including, unusually for the time, women. What’s not to like?

Christine Evans-Appleyard graduated with a BA in History and Sociology at Kingston University in July, 2016.


Christine with books, bonnet and oranges

Christine has just won a national prize for an essay entered in the French Revolution Essay Competition, held by the Society for the Study of French History, in August, 2016.

Her winning essay was on Maximilien Robespierre and posed the question, ‘The Man who Ruined the Revolution or The Man who was Ruined by the Revolution?’


Posted in Blogging, European History, French History, Media history, Oxford University Press, Public History, Teaching, World History | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ministers and the Media: New evidence from the 1980s

The latest batch of British Government files from the 1980s, released to the National Archives (TNA) at Kew, south London, last month, include some interesting new evidence for historians on relations between government Ministers and media experts over questions of openness during times of war, and how this should be interpreted.

The latest set of files, now available for public scrutiny, includes PREM 19/1883, a government file from the year 1982, which is entitled ‘House of Commons Defence Committee Falklands Inquiry’. This contains secret information from within the heart of Whitehall about the extent to which officials kept the Prime Minister up-to-date on possible future areas of contention over issues of openness, control and censorship. ‘PREM’ is the category given to the records of the Prime Minister’s Office and, in this case, the PM was – of course – Margaret Thatcher, whose administration had just led Britain to victory in an operation to recapture the Falklands Islands from Argentina in the South Atlantic.

The National ArchivesThe file concerns two academic studies that were commissioned in late 1982 by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) into aspects of relations between government and the media in wartime. The research was commissioned by the MOD following the then very recent Falklands conflict, which had been the country’s most significant war since the Suez invasion of 1956, and had seen some notably tight control of news coverage of the war in Britain by MOD censors.

The academic studies were undertaken for the MOD by Kings College, London, and the Centre for Journalism Studies at University College, Cardiff. The study by Kings College concerned ‘Unofficial commentary in the media on military aspects of the Falklands campaign 1982’. The study commissioned from University College, Cardiff, was on the ‘Relations between Governments, Armed Services and the media in times of armed conflict’.

Although not a large file as such, what PREM 19/1883 does reveal for the historian is some brief but tantalising new evidence on how Ministers have often in the past sought to influence and control the ways in which journalists and academics have researched into, and interpreted, the nature of news in wartime, especially in the aftermath of any armed conflict. Included in the file is some hitherto secret correspondence between the MOD and the Office of Number Ten, Downing Street, in which the MOD explains to the PM and her staff the background context to the two academic studies. The MOD appears to express some frustration with one of the studies, flagging up some of the possible problems it might raise.

Documents stacks in a repository at The National Archives (WikiCommons)

Documents stacks in a repository at The National Archives (WikiCommons)

On the Kings College study, the MOD briefed the PM that: ‘Though short, it is an important piece of work and it is uncontentious’. On the other hand, when it came to the University College, Cardiff, study, the MOD was clearly less happy. The Cardiff study, which ran to 250,000 words in two volumes (one volume was on the British experience in Suez and the Falklands, and the other volume covered Vietnam, Israel’s occupation of the Lebanon, and Grenada), drew heavily in its first volume on interviews with those directly involved in the Falklands campaign, including serving and past Ministers, and various civil servants and military personnel.

As the MOD’s letter put it: ‘Some of the comments and conclusions of the study are contentious’. Moreover, according to the MOD, ‘difficulties’ had arisen with the authors of the Cardiff study, who had ‘been reluctant to delete from their report certain items of information which, though classified, they do not consider to be of real security sensitivity’. In addition, the MOD pointed out to the PM that one of the authors of the Cardiff study had leaked to The Observer newspaper the existence of an ‘understanding’ between the Government and the BBC. Although this was, in the MOD’s view, a prima facie breach of the U.K.’s Official Secrets Act, ‘the Law Officers decided in the event that no legal action should be taken’.

As a number of her biographers have noted, Margaret Thatcher was never really that much of a fan of ‘academics’, and one can imagine that what she read here probably reinforced her prejudices. All in all, though, the newly-released file offers a fascinating glimpse into some of the tensions that could occur between the State and academia.

Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University. His Level 6 module Britain, America and the World in the 20th Century, includes a case study of the 1982 Falklands War.

Posted in Archives, British history, Media history, Public History, Teaching, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Evil and banality: Himmler’s lost office diaries found

The historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase ‘banality of evil’ in her study of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the men appointed by SS boss Heinrich Himmler to carry out the Final Solution. Eichmann seemed ‘ordinary’ and unoriginal, rather like a bland civil servant, yet his dedicated attention to bureaucratic detail helped in the efficient murder of millions of people.

It is now clear that the same phrase could also be applied to Himmler himself. News has emerged from Germany that the lost office diaries of the Nazi SS chief have been discovered in a Russian archive. Himmler’s service diaries for the years 1938, 1943 and 1944 were discovered in the archive of the Russian Ministry of Defence in Podolsk, near Moscow.

HimmlerAstonishingly, they had been placed there and then forgotten about after being seized by the Russian Red Army in the last days of the Second World War. Filed under the single word ‘Dnewnik’ (meaning ‘Diary’ in Russian), there are apparently more than 1,000 pages of entries in the diaries. Historians are particularly interested in the diaries for 1943 and 1944, two crucial years when Hitler’s Germany was at war and the Nazi state was engaged in systematic mass murder in the territories it had conquered, and on a scale never seen before.

As many historians know, used carefully, diaries – whether personal or just everyday work ‘service’ ones – can be invaluable primary sources. Thus, researchers from the German Historical Institute in Moscow have spent months sifting through the Himmler diaries, and extracts have now been published for the first time in the German newspaper Bild. The British press also carried some detailed coverage of the diaries on August 2nd.

The service diaries reveal a level of detail about Himmler’s everyday routine that arguably provide some genuine insights into the life he had carved out as head of the SS and architect of the Holocaust. His average working day often found him concerned about what he was going to have for lunch or where he would eat, or with when he would find time to ring his wife and daughter (the diaries have frequent references to ‘Puppi’, his nickname for his daughter Gudrun); at the same time, he recorded details about the regular execution orders he issued and the increasingly frequent meetings he had with Hitler, especially in 1943 and 1944, the highpoint of the Holocaust.

His diaries also show that he engaged in rather incongruous activities in the evenings, such as watching a film, or playing cards, or gazing at the stars, while taking a close bureaucratic interest in the Nazi institutional machine’s industrial-scale murder during the day. There are also more obscure references in his diaries to him being ‘in transit’, which historians suggest was a code for him secretly visiting his mistress, Hedwig Potthast, with whom he had a long affair.

Himmler 2The journalist who helped track down the diaries for Bild, Damian Imoehl, commented to one British newspaper: ‘The most interesting thing for me is this combination of doting father and cold-bloodied killer. He was very careful about his wife and daughter, as well as his affair with his secretary. He takes care of his comrades and friends. Then there is the man of horror. One day he starts with breakfast and a massage from his personal doctor, then he rings up his wife and daughter in the south of Germany and, after that, he decides to have ten men killed or visits a concentration camp’.

The head of the German Institute in Moscow, Nikolaus Katzer, explained to the British media that the authenticity of the Himmler diaries had been verified by checking them with other records and service diaries, and he commented: ‘The importance of these documents is that we get a better structural understanding of the last phase of the war. It provides insight into the changing role of Himmler and insight into the SS elite, and overall into the entire German leadership’.

It’s all very chilling, of course, but it remains vital for scholars to continue to analyse such material if we are to better understand the nature of the individuals who carried out such horrific crimes.

Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

Posted in Archives, Blogging, European History, Fascism, German History, Media history, Public History, Russian History, Teaching, World History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment