Why Was Maximilien Robespierre Important?

Despite his unassuming appearance, Maximilien Robespierre came to symbolize both the brutality and idealism of the French Revolution. He was described by his contemporaries as either a tyrannical dictator or a revolutionary democratic leader. He led the Committee of Public Safety and was responsible for the Reign of Terror that began with the execution of Marie Antoinette and caused the deaths of 30,000 people.

Robespierre was called "the Incorruptible" by his peers, reflecting both his greatest virtues and flaws: he was highly moral but extremely inflexible, willing to uphold his beliefs to extremes. During the Reign of Terror he encouraged citizens to inform on each other, putting to death anyone who fell under suspicion of calling for counter-revolution. Eventually even his supporters turned on him. The radical Jacobins executed him, officially ending the Reign of Terror.

Although the French Revolution had multiple leaders responsible for the mass executions, Robespierre's inflexible politics dominated the discourse of the time and greatly influenced the severity of the punishments. Before he assumed control, executions were relatively rare, but historians theorize that he enjoyed being able to silence his opponents permanently and efficiently. His rise to power and subsequent downfall reflect the high-minded ideals of the Revolution as well as its corruption.