J.-P. Bertaud, Napoléon et les Français (Philip Dwyer)
Francia-Recensio 2015/2 Frühe Neuzeit –
Revolution – Empire (1500–1815)
Jean-Paul Bertaud, Napoléon et les Français. 1799–1815,
Paris (Armand Colin) 2014, 543 p., XVI p. de pl., ISBN
978-2-200-24975-5, EUR 24,50.
rezensiert von/compte rendu rédigé par
In this historical tour de force, Bertrand Bertaud gives us the end product of decades of thinking and writing about the French and Napoleon. Not only is »Napoléon et les Français« a synthesis of the latest research into the »imperialist generation«, it also presents the reader with a considerable amount of original archival research.
The book consists of twelve chapters divided into three equal parts – a very French way of structuring a work – respectively titled, »Order without Liberty«, »The Dictatorship of War«, and »The Society of Inheritors«. Roughly put, they deal with the ways in which the French were controlled, the French wars, and the economic and social consequences of the wars. Under these headings, the reader is presented with a relatively new way of looking at the Empire, through an analysis of the cultural, political and economic evidence at our disposal.
From the very first chapter, we pretty much know where Bertaud stands on Napoleon and the Empire. In what he dubs the »glaciation démocratique«, Bertaud traces the rise of Napoleon in a country in which an »electoral comedy« was being played out. In other words, Bertaud comes down on the side of those historians, such as Isser Woloch and Yves Coppolani, who see the democratic process being undermined during the Directory. Bertaud also focuses on the rather lukewarm support the Empire initially received among the people. Napoleon was so concerned by this apparent lack of enthusiasm for the foundation of the Empire that he used religion, and the Pope, to help legitimate the coronation and to capture the popular imagination. What Bertaud fails to explain, however, is the transformation from monarchy to Revolution and from Republic to Empire. It is not enough to assert that the coronation was an attempt to »renouveler la mort de l’ancienne monarchie«(p. 177). It was much more complex than that. The Empire could not have happened without the support of the political and military elite.
One of the underlying themes running through the book is the hold of the state over the social and political structures that emerged from the Revolution. A whole chapter is thus devoted to »la dictature policière«. French society is depicted as one that was riddled with »mouches«or spies, in which French subjects were only allowed to circulate in France with a passport, as though they were »foreigners in their own country«, and in which people judged »dangerous«were deported far from home or locked up in state prisons. This is true, but the extent to which France had become a »police state« is probably somewhat overstated. Passports were nothing new, and were an attempt on the part of the centralising state to control movement from the periphery to the centre. Moreover, we know from the work of Michael Sibalis the types of practices that were used to contain political undesirables in Napoleonic France, and we also know the extent to which the Napoleonic police system served as a model for other European powers in the aftermath of the wars (Clive Emsley and Michael Broers have worked on the police and the gendarmerie). Napoleonic France was certainly better surveyed and controlled than before the Revolution, and possibly more harshly as thousands more people were sent to »les bagnes« than during the Ancien Régime. However, all of this arguably falls within the logic of the centralising state. Placed within the larger context of absolutist Europe (but not monarchical Britain), one can legitimately question whether the French imperial state was any more or less repressive than Austria, Prussia or Russia?
Bertaud does not get into a comparative history, but one thing is certain. For him, Napoleon was an autocrat, surrounded by mediocre courtiers who fed his megalomania, a dictator whose government was characterized by an arbitrary police (p. 57). It is just that, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the French were noticeably less ‘sensitive’ to certain aspects of that dictatorship. Of course, the French were lulled into thinking that things were much better than they actually were through the state’s tight control of the press. Suicides were never mentioned, nor were ordinary crimes (p. 145) in the newspapers of the day. The foundation of the cult (the object of chapter 4), outlines how Napoleon held the French together. But Napoleon’s power was not only founded on propaganda. It was founded on the support of the people, and in particular on the army, an army that was also the cause of Napoleon’s downfall (p. 167).
The question of the wars, the subject of chapters 7 and 8, really centres on the extant to which they were the result of Napoleon’s personal ambition or whether they coincided with the aspirations of a large section of public opinion. They could be both, of course, but Bertaud’s interpretation relies on the notion of a ‘glorious peace’, one that Napoleon inherited from the Directory, and which plagued him till the end of the Empire. A number of ideas were intertwined here – glory and peace, victory and war – but they all became inextricably linked in Napoleon’s mind to the point where he failed to negotiate a peace with the Allies in 1814, despite having his back to the wall. A glorious peace was not possible, according to Napoleon, by giving up territories that had been won at the cost of French blood.
In the second and third parts of the book Bertaud is able to deftly negotiate the military and the social, the political and the economic approaches to the history of this era, so that one feeds into the other. If the army became the tool through which Napoleon attempted to forge a new society, it was also the instrument many young men attempted at all costs to avoid. Bertaud knows the cultural-military aspects of the empire particularly well for having written about it on a number of occasions. He does not shy away from describing some of the more pernicious aspects of the wars and their impact. But he also goes on, especially in the third part of the book, to give us an account of every facet of life in Napoleonic France, from midwifery to pharmacology, from the economic implications of the Civil Code to the poor, from inoculations against smallpox to the peasantry.
The third part in particular is an economic assessment of the Empire. No one can argue any longer, for example, that the Continental System completely destroyed the French economy. It may have made France more agrarian than it had been for over fifty years, but it also obliged French commerce and industry to turn away from the Atlantic coast where it had been concentrated for over a century, towards the Rhine, where most of French industry lays to this day. After Napoleon, the French economy began to look more modern. This is a more nuanced assessment of the impact of the Continental System.
What then is Bertaud’s assessment of the Empire? Everything, it would appear, hinged on conscription, which ‘obsessed’ the imperial administration. Conscription was necessarily tied to the wars fought by Napoleon, which led to a ‘progressive militarisation of the state’. It leads Bertaud to conclude, perhaps in somewhat exaggerated terms, that ‘absolute despotism’ was the fundamental driving force of the Empire (p. 494). In 1799, the French wanted order and security; they got it, but at the price of their freedom. They were not even ‘equal’ anymore, another principal of the Revolution that foundered on Napoleon’s despotic rock, since French society was dominated by an elite that, if not entirely closed to renewal, was at least difficult to access.
It is extremely difficult to say anything new about Napoleon and the Empire, and this is not in any event Bertaud’s objective in writing this work. What we do get, however, are shades of grey, a work that adds layers to our understanding, and that should further help dispel whatever misconceptions still predominate in the French public about Napoleon and the Empire.
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