What if Maximilien Robespierre stayed in power?

“How does Robespierre legitimize violence as a means to achieve revolutionary goals?” Teaching unit on the French Revolution

1. Study group

1.1 Description of the learning group

The E-phase course consists of 23 students[1] and consists of 10 girls and 13 boys. I have been teaching the class since the beginning of the second half of the 2016/17 school year. Lessons take place weekly in two individual lessons, on Tuesdays and Fridays in the fifth period.

Even one year after I took over the class, the level of performance of the course is very heterogeneous. Overall, however, an increase in performance and a broader participation in classes can be observed. Pupils who belonged to the extended group of high-performing students in the last school year have established themselves as further performance peaks. The improvements of the above-mentioned pupils can be clearly classified in the area of ​​text comprehension and the associated analysis competence for sources and representations. Especially with regard to source work, they are now much better able to work out the central statements and also to embed them in the historical context (judgment competence for continuity and change in time). Pupils were able to maintain their already strong level.

The mid-level range of the course is now also broader. It includes pupils. Overall, a development towards more frequent participation in lessons can be seen here, which began and continued towards the end of the last school year. I attribute this to the increased use of cooperative forms of learning, which have given the pupils more security. There are still deficits in the understanding of the text and, above all, in the area of ​​judgment.

Pupils show themselves to be rather poorly performing. In these pupils, the problem of poor understanding of the text and language is particularly evident. Answers remain at a very low language and proficiency level and usually show that the majority of the texts to be read were not understood. Nevertheless, even here at least pupils show a higher participation in class than in the last school year, which I also gave them positive feedback.

The class climate and social behavior can be described as very good. Discipline problems do not play a major role.

1.2 Learning starting point

A large part of the course continues to show deficits in text comprehension, which occur above all in the area of ​​analytical competence in dealing with sources. The pupils tend to move too far away from the source text and to generalize concrete statements and examples mentioned in the text. The lack of language skills also poses problems, especially for the poorly performing pupils. Difficult words are therefore clarified in the plenary session or explained on the worksheets. Improvements could be achieved in the area of ​​editing descriptive texts.

The greatest difficulties are found in the area of ​​judgment. On the one hand, this became apparent in the last exam, and on the other hand, it was reported back to me in writing by the pupils.

When making assessments, the pupils often tend to argue directly on a value judgment level by applying their own standards and, for example, disregarding moral or value concepts at the time of the historical object (keyword "understanding others"). This is a deficit that will have to be worked on, especially in the advanced phases of the next few hours.

1.3 Level of learning

The lesson to be shown is the seventh in the series on the French Revolution. So far, the pupils have dealt with the political and social structures of the ancien regime on the eve of the revolution and learned what causes the revolution to break out. You know about the claim to power and the demands of the Third Estate, have understood the declaration of human and civil rights as a revolutionary act and examined to what extent the constitution of 1791 fulfilled the demands of the Third Estate. They know the reasons that led to the radicalization and destabilization of the revolution and can name the events during the time of the Convention's rule.

2. Factual analysis

With the establishment of the National Convention and the abolition of the parliamentary monarchy in September 1792, the third phase of the French Revolution began. If the second phase was already marked by increasing radicalization, due to domestic and foreign policy reasons, we date the beginning of the so-called "reign of terror" with the election of Maximilien de Robespierre (07/27/1793) as chairman of the welfare committee established in April 1793 Terreur. This time was marked on the one hand by restrictions on civil rights, revolutionary tribunals that sentenced tens of thousands to death, but also by the promulgation of a number of social policy measures such as the right to work and education or the setting of maximum prices for grain.

Even if Robespierre's reign of terror took on dictatorial features, it was "at no time a dictatorship without institutional counter-resistance, but rather a dictatorship with parliamentary legitimation"[2]. The fears of the convention, triggered by the civil war in their own country and the war against the absolutist powers of Europe, resulted largely in the conviction that this rule of the Terreur is necessary to save the revolution. With the decree of October 10, 1793, which the Provisional Government through the Welfare Committee declared to be revolutionary until peace, the Terreur finally elevated to the principle of government and thus also the personal rule of Robespierre established.

At the end of 1793, Robespierre began to legitimize his tyranny. For him the revolution was the "war of freedom against its enemies"[3]. Only with the successful end of this war does the constitution begin as the "rule of victorious and peaceful freedom"[4]. With his speech to the National Convention on February 5, 1794, Robespierre expanded his theory. Based on the Enlightenment concept of reason, he brought the concept of virtue into play. For him this was “the fundamental principle of democratic government” and he understood virtue as “the love of the fatherland and its laws”, which also included the principle of political equality. As a special means of enforcement of virtue in the times of the revolution, it was necessary Terreur. In doing so, he sets out a declaration of the connection between justice and violence, which reference is made to the present day.[5] Hans-Ulrich Thamer explains that the function of violence, as it was expressed in Robespierre's reign of terror, is still hotly debated and forms a “controversial point of reference for the political orientation and formation of tradition in the present”.[6]

3. Didactic considerations

3.1 Didactic considerations for the lesson series

The treatment of the French Revolution as a subject is formulated in the core curriculum for upper secondary school as a binding topic and plays a central role in the subject area "Roots of the European self-image and the emergence of the modern world" a.[7] The focus of the series is the consideration of the events of the French Revolution in relation to the historical-scientific dimensions “ Rule and political participation “, „ economy and society " as " social and cultural worlds “.[8][9] Due to its character as a people's revolution, the French Revolution became the model for all later revolutions, which also shows the exemplary importance of the series topic. The series focuses on the one hand in examining the causes that led to the outbreak of the revolution and thus the end of French absolutism, and on the other hand in considering the extent to which the guidelines of the revolution (“freedom, equality, fraternity) were implemented and where the implementation reached its limits or even encountered contradictions.

The implementation of the series is based on the basic concept Continuity and change in time, which offers the learner an orientation framework in order to recognize the historical development of phenomena in the past and present.[10] The basic concept moves away from the approach of a holistic, chronological representation of historical events and chains of events and aims at a problem-oriented procedure. A problem context is formulated within the subject areas, and the above-mentioned content-related aspects should help to answer this.[11]

In the foreground of the series are the promotion of perception and judgment skills for continuity and change in time.

3.2 Didactic considerations for the lesson

The focus of the lesson is the question of how Maximilien de Robespierre, as leader of the revolutionary government, legitimizes the use of force as a political means to achieve revolutionary goals. This central question is about assessing whether such an approach can be justified on the basis of its democratic objectives and the revolutionary framework. With the overriding question of the extent to which violence can be legitimized as a political means, the hour touches on a central key problem[12] human society and thus makes a valuable contribution to the political education of the pupils. Further links to the key problems formulated by Klafki can be found in the areas Rule and democratization as Realization of human rights.[13]

The didactic focus of the lesson is on promoting judgment. By first taking into account the historical context and from Robespierre's point of view, the pupils read Robespierre's statements (Understanding others), they should arrive at a well-founded and differentiated factual judgment as to whether and to what extent the violent political measures can be understood. Here the lesson also offers an excellent opportunity to build on the previous knowledge of the pupils. In this way, clear references can be made to Niccolò Machiavelli's theory of the state, which focused on the question of whether the end justifies the means.

Following on from the factual judgment, the pupils arrive at a value judgment. Here, above all, the reference to civil and human rights should be established. If the pupils are of the opinion that political violence may be used under certain circumstances (e.g. to protect freedom and security), the Declaration of Human Rights speaks against it. If, on the other hand, they position themselves against the use of force regardless of the situation, this may endanger the freedom and protection of people. The complexity and difficulty of the topic becomes evident once more.

In terms of content, the subject of the lesson has both exemplary significance and significance for the present.[14][15] Establishing a connection between justice and violence in order to legitimize the use of violence or even to present it as meaningful is a common argument of both historical actors and current discourses. The significance of the present is also based on this, since the relevance of the current discourse, e.g. in view of the so-called "anti-terrorist measures" that sometimes violate human rights, has lost none of its relevance.


[1] In the following, pupils are referred to simply as SuS.

[2] Thamer, Hans-Ulrich: The French Revolution. Munich 2013 (4th edition). P. 76.

[3] From a speech by Robespierre of December 25, 1793. See: Horizonte. History introductory phase. Braunschweig 2016. p. 270.

[4] Ibid

[5] Hirsch, Alfred: Right to violence? Traces of the philosophical justification of violence according to Hobbes. Munich 2004. p. 116.

[6] Thamer p. 10.

[7] Core curriculum for upper secondary school. Hesse. P. 23.

[8] Ibid p. 26.

[9] For Bernhardt, Gautschi and Mayer the historical-scientific dimensions represent one of the "three perspectives of the offer", which should be used as a basis for finding a topic. See: Ulrich Mayer / Peter Gautschi / Markus Bernhardt: Determination of topics in history lessons in secondary schools. In: Michele Barricelli and Martin Lücke (Hrsg.): Handbuch Praxis des Geschichtsunterrichtes. 2012. p. 383.

[10] Core curriculum for upper secondary school. Hesse. P. 13.

[11] See: Ulrich Mayer / Peter Gautschi / Markus Bernhardt: Guter Geschichtsu] Ibid p.14.

[12] nterricht - principles. In: Michele Barricelli and Martin Lücke (Hrsg.): Handbuch Praxis des Geschichtsunterrichtes. 2012. p. 331.

[13] Ibid

[14] Cf. Gautschi, Peter: Teaching history. Bern 2005 (3rd edition). P. 36f.

[15] See also: Core curriculum for upper secondary school. Hesse. P. 21: "The definition of the subject areas is legitimized by their relevance for the present and possible future of the learners".

End of the reading sample from 18 pages