Chateaubriand's memoirs, XX, 11

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XX, 10 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XX, 12

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XX, chapter 11
Plans and preparations for the War on Russia – Napoleon’s embarrassment

Bonaparte had run out of enemies; not knowing where to find any more empires, for want of anything better, he took the kingdom of Holland from his brother. But an inimical reservation concerning Alexander, which went back to the time of the Duc d’Enghien’s death, remained in the depths of Napoleon’s heart. Rivalry over power inspired it; he knew what Russia could achieve and what price he had paid for the victories of Friedland and Eylau. The meetings at Tilsit and Erfurt, the suspension of hostilities, a peace that Bonaparte’s character found insupportable, the declarations of friendship, the handclasps, the embraces, the fantastic projects for conquering cities, all this was merely an adjournment of dislike. One of the continent’s countries, one of its capitals remained which Napoleon had not yet entered, an empire opposing the French Empire; the two colossi were forced to re-assess each other. By dint of extending France, Bonaparte came up against Russia, as Trajan, in crossing the Danube, encountered the Goths.

A natural placidity, sustained by sincere piety, since his return to religion, inclined Alexander towards peace: he would never have broken it if others had not sought to do so. All of 1811 passed in preparation. Russia invited a tamed Austria and a trembling Prussia to join with her in case of attack; England arrived bringing its wealth. The Spanish example had aroused the nations’ sympathy; the League of Virtue (the Tugendbund) was being formed, which little by little encompassed the nascent Germany.

Bonaparte negotiated; he made promises; he allowed the King of Prussia to hope for possession of the Russo-German provinces; the King of Saxony, and Austria, flattered themselves with the hope of obtaining further possessions among which was Poland; the Princes of the Confederation of the Rhine dreamed of territorial change working to their advantage; it was not only France which Napoleon thought to enlarge, though it already extended across Europe; he claimed the addition of Spain in his name. General Sébastiani asked him: ‘And your brother?’ Napoleon replied: ‘What about my brother! Does one give away a kingdom like Spain?’ The master with a royal command disposed of that which had cost Louis XIV so much pain and sacrifice; but he did not hold it as long. As for nations, no man has taken less account of them or held them in greater contempt than Bonaparte; he threw the scraps to the pack of kings whom he led in the hunt, whip in hand: ‘Attila,’ Jornandes claims, ‘led a crowd of tributary princes around with him who waited in fear and trembling for a sign from that master of kings to carry out their orders.’

Before marching on Russia, with his allies Austria and Prussia, and with the Confederation of the Rhine composed of kings and princes, Napoleon wished to secure his flanks which touched the borders of Europe: he negotiated two treaties, one in the south with Constantinople, the other in the north with Stockholm. These treaties failed.

Napoleon, during his Consulate, had renewed contact with the Porte: Selim and Bonaparte had exchanged their portraits; they maintained a secret correspondence. Napoleon wrote to his accomplice, from Ostend, dated the 3rd of April 1807: ‘You show yourself the worthy descendent of Selim and Suleiman. Tell me what you need: I am still as powerful and as interested in your success, as much through friendship as policy, that I will refuse you nothing.’ A charming effusion of tenderness between two Sultans talking beak to beak, as Saint-Simon would have said.

Selim having been overthrown, Napoleon returns to the Russian plan and dreams of sharing Turkey with Alexander; then, overwhelmed yet again by a new cataclysm of ideas, he decides on his invasion of the Muscovite empire. But it is not until the 21st of March 1812 that he requests Mahmud’s alliance, suddenly asking him for a hundred thousand Turks on the banks of the Danube. For this army, he offers the Porte Wallachia and Moldavia. The Russians had anticipated him; their treaty was at the point of agreement, and was signed on the 28th of May 1812.

In the north, equally, events overtook Bonaparte. The Swedes might have been capable of invading Finland, as the Turks threatened the Crimea: with that combination of attacks Russia, with two wars on hand, would have found it impossible to unite its forces against France; there would be such large scale political dealings today, if the world were not morally and physically more compact due to the flow of ideas and the railroads. Stockholm, retreating to a nationalist position, came to an arrangement with St Petersburg.

After losing Pomerania in the French invasion of 1807, and Finland to Russia in 1808, Gustaf IV had been deposed. Gustaf, loyal but unstable, has added to the number of kings wandering the earth, and I, I gave him a letter of recommendation to the Fathers of the Holy Land: he found solace at the tomb of Jesus Christ. Gustaf’s uncle replaced his deposed nephew. Bernadotte, having commanded the French Army Corps in Pomerania, was drawn to Swedish notice, they cast their eyes over him; Bernadotte was chosen to fill the void left by the Prince of Holstein-Augustenburg, hereditary Prince of Sweden, newly elected, who had died. Napoleon viewed the election of his erstwhile comrade with displeasure.

The enmity between Bonaparte and Bernadotte reached new heights: Bernadotte had been opposed to the 18th Brumaire: later, he had contributed, by his animated conversation and the intellectual ascendancy he held, to those disunities which brought Moreau before a court of justice. Bonaparte took revenge in his own way, by seeking to ruin a man of character. After the judgement against Moreau, he presented Bernadotte with a house on the Rue Anjou, taken from the condemned general; due to a then common weakness, Joseph’s brother-in-law dared not refuse this dishonourable gift. Grosbois was given to Berthier. Fate having put the sceptre of Charles XII into the hands of a compatriot of Henri IV, Charles-Jean thwarted Napoleon’s ambitions; he thought it would be safer to have Alexander, his neighbour, as ally, than Napoleon as his distant enemy; he declared neutrality, advised peace and offered himself as mediator between Russia and France.

Bonaparte enters in a rage; shouts: ‘That wretch, he gives me advice! He wants to lay down the law to me! A man who owes all to my generosity! What ingratitude! I shall know how to force him to obey my sovereign will!’ Following this violent display, on the 5th of April 1812, Bernadotte signed the treaty of Petersburg.

Do not ask by what right Bonaparte called Bernadotte a wretch, forgetting that he, Bonaparte, had come from no more elevated a source, and no different an origin: the Revolution and the military. This insulting language reveals neither hereditary pride in rank, nor grandeur of soul. Bernadotte was not ungrateful: he owed nothing to Bonaparte’s generosity.

The Emperor had become transformed into an old style king who claimed all for himself, talked only about him self, and thought to reward or punish merely by saying that he was satisfied or discontented. A host of centuries spent under a monarchy, a long series of tombs in Saint-Denis, are still no excuse for such arrogance.

Fate brought two French generals, from the United States and Northern Europe, onto the same field of battle, to make war on a man against whom they had been united from the first, and who had parted them. Soldier and king, neither thought it had been a crime then to wish to overthrow the oppressor of liberty. Bernadotte triumphed, Moreau died. The men who vanish in youth are the vigorous travellers; they quickly find a path that weaker men only achieve with slow steps.