It happened today - July 13, 2016
Speaking of assassination not changing the course of history, on July 13 of 1793 Charlotte Corday assassinated Jean-Paul Marat in his bath. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving victim. Yet it did no good. In fact it did almost nothing.
Marat, you will recall, was a journalist, doctor, amateur scientist and leading French revolutionary firebrand. In some ways this particular Jacobin is a poster child for the danger of intellectuals in politics: cold, bitter, abstract in a shallow way, a deformed and hideously ugly dabbler who made the personal the political in the most unattractive way imaginable, violent and untroubled by scruples. A passionate and intemperate zealot, his solution to almost everything was to kill somebody he didn’t like, and no sooner was one person or group dead than he began ranting about the need to exterminate another.
Indeed, the woman who assassinated him was a sympathizer with the more moderate “Girondin” revolutionary faction who, in characteristic fashion, Marat could not disagree with without demanding they be murdered. Once the Girondins were defeated, even such maniacs as Robespierre began edging away from Marat.
On July 13 of 1793, as he was taking one of the medicinal baths necessary to deal with a painful and debilitating skin condition, Corday asked to see him, claiming to have evidence against those Girondins who had escaped arrest. Naturally Marat had her admitted and promised that they would be apprehended and of course killed. At which point Corday pulled out a knife and killed him instead.
It didn’t work. Well, it did in the sense that he died. But though Corday said during her trial that “I killed one man to save 100,000” the assassination whipped up the Revolutionary Terror to even more horrible heights in which thousands of Girondins and others were executed. As was Corday. And, reasonably shortly thereafter, Robespierre himself.
For some strange reason the assassination made Marat a hero. The painter Jacques-Louis David, an avid revolutionary, painted a famous picture of Marat languidly and glossily dead in the tub. The whole National Convention attended his funeral, at which the eulogy was delivered by, of all people, the Marquis de Sade, who compared him favourably to Jesus, not someone I would have thought either held in high regard. (De Sade had been a political ally of Marat, fittingly, and also fittingly Marat was apparently in the process of plotting his ally’s demise when he was himself struck down on the grounds that even de Sade was starting to find the Revolution brutal and bloodthirsty and was duly imprisoned for the egregious offence of “moderatism”.)
Mercifully, Marat’s coffin was removed from its honored spot in the Panthéon while various commemorative busts were destroyed. But the Bolsheviks couldn’t get enough of him; they named children Marat and renamed the Tsarist battleship Petropavlovsk the Marat in 1921.
So yes, he certainly deserved to die and the sooner the better. But assassinating him did nothing to solve the problem of Revolutionary terror. Indeed, despite serving as a pretext to intensify it, it probably did very little to affect it either way. Once again, oddly, an apparently significant assassination seems to bounce off history.