The latest Assassin’s Creed: Unity video game allows you, the player, to roam freely around an ancient city as part of its usual, incomprehensible plot about assassins, conspiracy, and revenge. But this time, the game is set in Paris during the French Revolution, and the game is sparking controversy in France for its depiction of perhaps the defining event of modern European history.
The former leftist French presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, called it “propaganda against the people, the people who are [portrayed as] barbarians, bloodthirsty savages,” while the “cretin” that is Marie-Antoinette and the “treacherous” Louis XVI are portrayed as noble victims. “The denigration of the great Revolution is a dirty job to instill more self-loathing and déclinisme in the French,” he told Le Figaro (link in French). The secretary general of the Left Front, Alexis Corbière, said on his blog (link in French):
To all those who will buy Assassin’s Creed: Unity, I wish them a good time, but I also tell them that the pleasure of playing does not stop you from thinking. Play, yes, but do not let yourself be manipulated by those who make propaganda.
Ubisoft, the maker of the Assassin’s Creed series of video games, which has been going since 2007 and has sold more than 70 million copies, is in fact French. One of the makers of the game replied (link in French) that Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a “consumer video game, not a history lesson” but did say that his team hired a historian and specialists on the Terror and other aspects of the Revolution. Le Monde lays out seven errors in the game here (in French).
In fact, the debate over who are the heroes and villains of the Revolution goes back to the 1790s. British counter-revolutionary thought often focused on the suffering of the monarchy in their stories, such as the King’s tearful goodbye to his family before his execution on Jan. 21st, 1793 or Marie-Antoinette’s perhaps apocryphal last words to her executioner after stepping on his foot just before her head was cut off: “Pardon me sir. I did not mean to do it.”
Like the video game, many scholars also focus on the revolutionaries’ violence. “Bloodshed was not the unfortunate by-product of revolution, it was the source of its energy,” the historian Simon Schama wrote in his book Citizens (paywall), published in 1989 to mark the bicentennial of the French Revolution, which he said depended “on organized killing to accomplish political ends.”
These stories ignore the fact that 80% of France’s citizens before 1789 were peasants, living in absolute squalor while a disconnected monarchy partied in Versailles, which often shocked foreigners who visited pre-revolutionary France. “The vast majority of French people who were not destitute lived under constant threat of becoming so, and were prepared to use violence to avoid such a fate,” said William Doyle in his book, The Oxford History of the French Revolution. The sans-culottes were violent—but they had their reasons.
Mélenchon is also offended by the depiction of Maximilien de Robespierre in the game. “And the man who was our liberator at a certain moment of the Revolution … is presented as a monster,” he said. Robespierre rose from his beginnings as a humble provincial lawyer to become one of the central figures of the Terror, a period where anyone perceived to be an enemy of the Revolution was viciously beheaded. And that was a lot of people.
"Was he a good man who deteriorated under the pressure of events, or was it only in the extreme situations thrown up by the war that he was able to show what was latent in him, for better or worse?” asks Hilary Mantel, who wrote a wonderful novel of the events of 1789 onwards, in the London Review of Books (paywall). Many do consider Robespierre a monster, though he himself said he opposed much of the worst that happened. “Obliging persons have been found to attribute to me more good than I have done in order to impute to me mischief in which I had no hand,” Robespierre said. Inevitably, the Terror turned on him and Robespierre’s jaw was blown off by a pistol before he was beheaded without trial in 1794.
The truth about the French Revolution is that it encompasses everything: from an all-powerful monarchy, to violent street protests and regicide, to acts of mass murder by the revolutionary government, to the plunge of Europe into the Napoleonic Wars. As such, opinions over who is right and wrong during the Revolution often say more about the person making the claim than the events themselves. In his novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Milan Kundera reflects on what the passage of time does to history:
If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no-one. There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.