Episode 48 – Mao Zedong versus Maximilien Robespierre

Today we head on over to the Villains bracket where we pit the former leader of Communist China, a person under whose leadership, millions of people lost their lives, Mao Zedong. He goes up against one of the leaders of the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre.

My sources for today’s episode starting with Mao Zedong include two books by Simon Sebag Montefiore, Monsters and Titans of History and Mao Zedong by Whitney Stewart. For Robespierre, I also used Monsters and Titans of History, along with The Oxford history of the French Revolution by William Doyle and The French Revolution by Bosher.

The difficult thing I found with uncovering the background and history of Mao Zedong is having to wade through the immense amount of propaganda that has been built up over the years by the Chinese Communist Party. Trying to figure out what is real and what is a myth is almost impossible. The Wikipedia page sounds like it was written in Beijing in some parts and by a conservative anti-communist think tank in others. What I will try to do is do my best to share what I think are important and relatively reliable episodes in Mao’s life.

Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong was born on December 26, 1893, in the small town of Shaoshan in the Hunan province. This man, who would lead the Chinese Communist party to power decades later, was the son of a prosperous grain dealer. Early on, Mao would rebel against his authoritarian father who forced him to work the family farm, leaving them to educate himself in the Hunan capital, Changsa. It would not be the first time he would lead a rebellion in his long life.

Mao’s father, Rensheng, was supposedly a harsh man. He had many people working for him in exchange for a pittance and a ration of rice. It is said that once a month he would add an egg to their rice, but he never gave that to his son. Mao grew resentful, which helped mold his personality.

Schooling for peasant children was never more than a few years. Rensheng pushed his child to learn math so that he could help with the farm accounts. He also wanted Mao to learn Confucianism, which made the young boy hate the ancient Chinese philosopher. How much of this really happened is conjecture as this is the story Mao told along with a time when he fought his father. He claimed that instead of kneeling on the ground with both knees bent, Mao apologized on one bent knee. “Thus, the war ended. And from it, I learned that when I defended my rights by open rebellion, my father relented, but when I remained meek and submissive, he only cursed and beat me more… I learned to hate him.” 

When Mao was fourteen, he was forced to marry a twenty-year-old girl in an arranged marriage. While she moved into his family home as was the custom of the time, Mao never considered her his wife. Three years later, in 1910, Mao left his home.

In 1911, Mao would involve himself in a revolt against the decaying Manchu dynasty, a ruling family that was inept and incompetent in controlling China. Ten years later Mao decided to join the new c, coming on the heels of the successful Russian Revolution of 1917 and its Civil War which lasted from 1921 through 1924. While the Russian Civil War would cost the lives of millions of people, it would pale in comparison to what would happen in China under the leadership of Mao.

The coming years were tumultuous ones for China. The aging Manchu dynasty was crumbling, a republic under Sun Yat-Sen was trying to establish its control over an uncontrollable nation. All the while, Mao was writing anti-government essays. Here is a sample of one of his commentary’s, “Today, we must change our old attitudes… Question the unquestionable. Dare to do the unthinkable. Religious oppression, literary oppression, political oppression, social oppression, educational oppression, intellectual oppression, and international oppression no longer have the slightest place in this world. All must be overthrown for the great cry of democracy.”

Mao’s conversion into the communist way of thinking began in 1920 when he moved to Beijing for a short time. It is here that he read the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels. Mao also met Yang Kaihui, the daughter of one of his mentors. They were to marry later that year.

While Sun Yat-Sen was trying to rule the country, the capitalists under the Kuomintang helped the wealthy get richer without caring anything about the peasants and workers. Animosity was brewing between the groups on the top and bottom. Mao saw what had happened in Russia and believed that a Communist revolution could be replicated in China.

At this point, Mao became more and more involved in the Chinese Communist party. He moved up the ranks quickly even though the government, now run by General Chiang Kai-shek following the death of Sun Yat-Sen, began to arrest members of the party. Also, the country was rising up from the ashes of the Manchu leadership, and economically, things were getting better. 

In 1927, Mao attempted an uprising in Hunan but was met with defeat and arrested. Although he managed to escape, his failure damaged his reputation. Mao was removed from any position of power by his fellow Communists. He would not forget this afront.

Rising up from the ashes from his defeat, Mao led his growing number of followers against the Kuomintang forces. His leadership showed up time and time again as he defeated much larger groups sent against him. Finally, they sent in around five hundred thousand troops against Mao and his men. It was too much, so they decided to retreat. This would be known in Chinese history as the Long March. 

Starting on October 15, 1934, 85,000 soldiers, 15,000 communist officials and 35 women began the year-long march. The Communists walked 6,000 miles over mountains, crossing twenty-four rivers. Ninety-five percent of those who started the Long March died along the way. They were viewed as revolutionary martyrs. 

In January 1935, Mao became one of the members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the party. General Zhu De and Zhou Enlai shared military command. Mao was beginning to taste power for the first time.

After Japan invaded China in 1937, Chang Kai-shek was forced to work with Mao, but the communist leader undermined the joint force. At the same time, Mao decided that he had to take complete control of the party. His method of achieving it according to a number of historians was the use of poison. Mao also would put one official against another, a technique that Stalin used so effectively in the Soviet Union. As Nikita Khrushchev commented years later, “I look at Mao, I see Stalin, a perfect copy.”

Post-World War II, Stalin aided Mao and his communist forces against Chang’s incompetent leadership, so by 1949, the People’s Republic of China was created. The mass-murder of Chinese citizens was about to begin.

In the first year of its existence, three million people were murdered. It was followed in 1951 and 52 with Mao’s Three-Anti and Five-Anti campaigns, which was to rid China of the “bourgeoisie.” While everyone was forced to sacrifice for the country, Mao lived life on the high side with 50 estates and numerous concubines.

In 1958-9 the Anti-Rightist Campaign began with hundreds of thousands executed or sent to labor camps. This was followed up with the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62 which pushed people to create small forges to make steel. These were utterly worthless pieces of equipment, but Mao didn’t care as he wanted to industrialize China at any cost. What followed was the greatest famine in history with an estimated 38 million people dying of hunger.

This suffering led many Mao’s allies to question his decision making, leading to several purges. This is such a mirror of what Stalin did in the Soviet Union but on a scale far more significant than his mentor.

Next up was the Cultural Revolution, another terror to attack perceived enemies. Mao appealed to the young Red Guards to ferret out anyone who was seen to be against the Communist party. Three million people were killed with millions more deported and tortured.

One of the positive notes during his last years of power was his meeting with Nixon in 1972. This was a counter to the deteriorated relationship China had with their communist counterpart, the Soviet Union. 

When Mao died in 1976, his health had been deterioration for years. He was a chain-smoker with whisper’s that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease or even ALS. His legacy remains to this day, with his image revered throughout China despite all the suffering and death that followed him from his early years in 1921.

Time to move on to our next villain.

Maximilien Robespierre
Maximilien Robespierre

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre was born in the town of Arras in the old French province of Artois. The oldest of four children of François Maximilien Barthélémy de Robespierre and Jacqueline Marguerite Carrault, he was born on May 6, 1758. 

When I look back at the early lives of people for the podcast, especially in the Villains bracket, I wonder how they became the person that history remembered them as. With Joseph Mengele, I really couldn’t find much that would point out why he became the sadistic murderer, but with Robespierre, there is a hint of what made him who he was.

While his family was reasonably well to do financially, his father was an abusive drunk, and his mother died when he was just six years of age. A few months after her death, Robespierre’s father abandoned his four children. The young boy was taken care of by his maternal grandparents, along with his brother. Another issue that you might say scarred him was his height, which was 5 feet 3 inches at adulthood. Even though that wasn’t very short for the times, it was something that bothered him a great deal.

Robespierre was an excellent student and voracious reader, soaking in the classics along with the works of the great French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This is where his ideas of revolution and the rights of man over the monarchy began. Following his early education, he became an attorney and then was appointed as a member of a five-man judicial panel. In a bit of what could be called irony, Robespierre resigned his post over his objection to the death penalty, something we shall see shortly, he had no trouble with, in the future.

According to the website city-journal dot org, “Robespierre never married. He was not known to have had any love affairs. Nor did he have any interest in sex, money, food, the arts, nature, or indeed anything but politics.” They further go on to say, “His habitual expression seemed to his friends melancholy, and his enemies arrogant; sometimes he would laugh with the immoderateness of a man who has little sense of humor; sometimes the cold look softened into a smile of ironic and rather alarming sweetness.” With his shrill, rough voice, “his power as a speaker . . . lay less in the manner of his delivery, than in the seriousness of what he had to say, and the deep conviction with which he said it.”

After French King Louis XVI fled Paris in 1791, it was Robespierre who called for his trial and after he was captured and the trial was on-going, he Maximilien called for his execution. This hypocrisy from a man who resigned a judicial position because of his opposition to the death penalty is just one example of this hypocritical behavior.

Following the king’s execution, Robespierre, now a member of the Commune of Paris and a representative of the capital city at the National Convention, he called for more bloodshed. In 1793, he called for an indictment of twenty-nine moderates who accused him of acting like a dictator. Robespierre than called for a militia to carry out another revolution to attack anyone opposed to his regime and anyone found to horde grain. Thousands of people were slaughtered in what was a prelude to a greater terror to come.

A decree was announced to rid the country of so-called enemies of the state, nobles, churchmen, and anyone suspected of “wrongdoings” were to be executed. This was the beginning of the Reign of Terror. On September 17, 1793, the Law of Suspects was passed which pretty much allowed the Committee of Public Safety to execute anyone they pleased. As Robespierre put it, “A river of blood will now divide France from its enemies.”

A river of blood is what followed. Here is an account, from the book Tyrants by Nigel Cawthorne, of what occurred after there was a rebellion against the Jacobins, the group that Robespierre belonged to, in the city of Lyon.

“The guillotine became overworked. On 11 Nivose, according to the scrupulous accounts the Jacobins kept, thirty-two heads were severed in twenty-five minutes. A week later, twelve heads were severed in just five minutes and the residents of the rue Lafont where the guillotine was set up kept complaining about the blood overflowing from the drainage ditch that ran under the scaffold.”

He further goes on to write, “Mass shootings took place. As many as sixty prisoners were tied in a line with ropes and shot with cannon. Those who were not killed outright were finished off with bayonets, sabers, and rifles. The chief butcher, an actor, named Dorfeuille, wrote to Paris boasting that he had killed 113 Lyonnais in a single day. Three days later he butchered 209, and he promised that another four or five hundred would expiate their crimes with fire and shot. This was an underestimate. By the time the killing had stopped, 1,905 were dead – and the victims were not restricted to the rich, the aristocratic and the clergy. The unemployed were also liquidated, along with anyone the Revolutionary Tribunal decided was a fanatic.”

Gruesome means of killing a large number of people were used, including drowning men and women in boats that were sunk while they were tied together. This would be called a republican baptism or national bath. All over the country, mass executions, rapes, and torturing of men, women, and even children were commonplace. While Robespierre publicly condemned the atrocities, he had no shame in doing the same in Paris.

Whole families were slaughtered via the guillotine in this feeding frenzy. The way the Terror was carried out would be studied intently by another group who successfully carried out a revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks. Joseph Stalin believed the Terror was a blueprint for how he would deal with his perceived enemies. He, in turn, would teach Mao Zedong the lessons learned from Robespierre.

Things began to get out of hand when Robespierre had one of the heroes of the revolution, George Danton, arrested for calling for an end to the Terror. Danton was sentenced to “look through the Republican window” a nice way of saying that your head would be put through the frame of the guillotine.

Robespierre’s downfall would begin on July 26, 1794, when he made a speech in his own name calling for more enemies to be executed. This broke protocol as it was custom to speak for the collective leadership and not as an individual. As one member of the council put it when Robespierre was unable to defend his actions, “See the blood of Danton chokes him.”

Three days later, Robespierre and his supporters were arrested. Before he was captured, he tried to shoot himself, but he missed and shattered his jaw. The next morning, he was led to the guillotine, had the bandage around his jaw ripped off and was killed by the very means he so happily sent others to their deaths. 

The Reign of Terror claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, many of whom were guilty of nothing more than being alive. As Montefiore puts it in his book Monsters, “Some see Robespierre as one of the founding fathers of social democracy, his revolutionary excesses occasioned by his championing the cause of the people. Many more though view him as a brutal dictator who manipulated he Parisian mob for his own ends – a hypocritical despot whose terror was the precursor of the totalitarian butchery of Hitler and Stalin in modern times.

Now its time to see which of these two villains move on to the second round.

First off, we have the fifteen points for how long they were evil. With Mao Zedong, we begin in 1949 when he took control of China until his death in 1976 for a total of 27 years. With Robespierre, we have a much more compressed time period for his immoral behavior starting in 1793 and ending with his execution in 1794 for a total of two years. Mao with 15 points, the Frenchman, 2.

The next twenty points are for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. Mao changed his world in numerous ways, with one example being the intervention in Korea when he sent in hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops into the north to oppose the south and their UN allies. Mao would also help the North Vietnamese in their conflict with the United States as well.  With Robespierre, we see him predominantly operating within Paris, so his global effect was minimal. Again, another overwhelming win for the Chinese leader 20 to 5 over Robespierre.

Next up is the twenty-five points for their lasting effect on world history. While Mao’s China remains a Communist nation, it is a far cry from what the Chairman’s vision of his country. It is a nation of wealth and commerce as opposed to the agrarian paradise Mao sought out. Robespierre has influenced countless evildoers from Stalin to Hitler with his Reign of Terror. He also set the stage for Napoleon’s rise, which would have global, especially in redrawing the borders of Europe. For these reasons, I give the French dictator 25 points to Mao’s 10.

Next up is the forty points for how bad or evil they were to their country in their lifetime. Both men did incredibly horrific things to their country, but not all bad. Mao did create a China that now is an industrial powerhouse as well as a military power. Robespierre unleashed his Reign of Terror on hundreds of thousands of people, but it paled in comparison to what Mao did. For these reasons, Mao Zedong receives the 40 points with Maximilien Robespierre receiving 30. 

The final total is 85-67 for the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Mao Zedong who will face off against Rudolph Höss. 

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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