Chateaubriand's memoirs, XX, 12

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XX, 11 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XX, 13


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XX, chapter 12
The Emperor undertakes his Russian expedition – Objections – Napoleon’s mistake



It was not without warning that Bonaparte insisted on war with Russia: the Duc de Frioul, the Comte de Ségur, the Duc de Vicenza, having been consulted, offered a host of objections to the enterprise: ‘It was pointless for him,’ the younger Ségur states courageously (Histoire de la grande armée) ‘while seizing a continent and even states belonging to the family of his ally, to accuse that ally of defecting from the Continental system. While the French army covered Europe, why reproach the Russians for their army? Did he need to throw away all those Germans, whose wounds on our behalf were not yet healed? The French already no longer recognised themselves, in the midst of a country without natural frontiers. Who then would defend the true France left behind? – My fame’ replied the Emperor, Medea provided his response: Napoleon brought tragedy upon himself.

He announced a plan to organise the Empire in cohorts by ban and arrière-ban: his mind was a confusion of memories and times past. To the objection that there were still opposing parties within the empire, he replied: ‘The Royalists dread my ruin more than they desire it. The most useful and difficult thing I have done was to dam the Revolutionary torrent: it would have swallowed up everything. You fear for my life in war? To kill me, that is impossible: have I yet accomplished the will of Fate? I feel as though I am being urged towards an unknown goal. When I reach it, an atom will be enough to destroy me.’ It was plagiarism still: the Vandals in Africa, Alaric in Italy, claimed they were yielding to a divine impulse: divino jussu perurgeri. The absurd and shameful quarrel with the Pope adding to the dangers of Bonaparte’s position, Cardinal Fesch begged him not to attract the enmity of heaven and earth at the same moment: Napoleon took his uncle’s hand, led him to the window (it was night) and said to him: ‘Do you see that star?’ – ‘No, Sire.’ – ‘Look carefully.’ – ‘Sire, I see nothing.’ – ‘Well I do, I see it.’

‘You too,’ said Bonaparte, to Monsieur de Caulaincourt, ‘will become Russian.’

Often one saw him (Napoleon),’ Monsieur de Ségur assures us, ‘reclining on a couch, plunged in profound meditation; then he suddenly wakes from it with a start, his features convulsed, exclaiming aloud; he thinks he hears his name and cries out: ‘Who calls me?’ Then he gets up, walks about in agitation.’ When Le Balafré met with disaster, he climbed to the battlements of a turret of the Château of Blois, called the Breton’s Perch: beneath an autumn sky, the empty countryside stretching far away, he could be seen walking with long strides in furious motion. Bonaparte, in his salutary moments of caution said: ‘Nothing around me is stable enough for me to wage war far away; it must be delayed for three years.’ He offered to declare to the Tsar that he would contribute nether directly nor indirectly towards the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Poland: old and new France both deserted that faithful and unfortunate country.

That desertion is one of the gravest of all the political errors Bonaparte committed. He declared, following that mistake, that if he had not moved to promote that re-establishment which was so strongly indicated, it was because he was afraid of displeasing his father-in-law. Bonaparte was a fine one to be constrained by family considerations! The excuse was so feeble that it merely led, when made, to a souring of his marriage with Marie-Louise. Far from feeling the same about the marriage, the Emperor of Russia exclaimed: ‘See me dismissed to the depths of my forests.’ Bonaparte was quite simply blind to the antipathy he possessed towards the freedom of nations.

Prince Poniatowski organised the Polish troops during the French Army’s first invasion; the body politic assembled: France maintained two successive ambassadors in Warsaw, the Archbishop of Malines and Monsieur Bignon. The French of the North, the Poles were brave and light-hearted like us; they spoke our language; they loved us like brothers; they died for us with a loyalty that breathed aversion for Russia. France had forgotten them in the past; there was an obligation to revivify them: was nothing owed to that nation which saved Christianity? I said this to Alexander at Verona: ‘If Your Majesty does not re-establish Poland, you will be obliged to eradicate it.’ To pretend that the country was condemned to occupation by its geographical position, is to grant too much to rivers and hills: a score of nations, possessed of courage alone, have maintained their independence, while Italy, defended by the Alps, has fallen beneath the yoke of whoever chose to cross them. It would be fairer to recognise another aspect of destiny, realising that warlike nations, inhabiting the plains, are condemned to conquer: the various invaders of Europe have overrun the plains.

Far from helping Poland, it was decided that her soldiers should wear the national cockade; poor as she was, she was charged with maintaining a French army of eighty thousand men; the Grand Duchy of Warsaw was promised to the King of Saxony. If Poland had been recreated as a kingdom, the Slavic race from the Baltic to the Black Sea would have regained its freedom. Even given the neglect with which Napoleon treated the Poles while making use of them, they asked to be sent to the front; they boasted that they alone could enter Moscow without us: an ill-timed suggestion! The armed poet, Bonaparte, had re-appeared; he wished to reach the Kremlin in order to poetise there and sign decrees regarding the theatre.

Whatever is said today in praise of Bonaparte, that great democrat, his hatred of constitutional government was overwhelming; it never left him even when he had entered the threatening wastes of Russia. Senator Wibicki brought to him, in Vilna, the resolutions of the Diet of Warsaw: ‘It is for you,’ he said, with sacrilegious exaggeration, ‘it is for you who dictate the history of the century, in whom the power of Providence resides, it is for you to support efforts of which you must approve.’ He came, Wibicki, to ask Napoleon the Great to pronounce these few words: ‘that the Kingdom of Poland exists’: and the Kingdom of Poland shall exist. ‘The Poles, will dedicate themselves to the commands of a leader before whom the centuries are but a moment, and space but a single point.’

Napoleon replied:

‘Gentlemen, deputies of the Polish Confederation, I have heard what you came to say to me with interest. As a Pole, I would think and act as you do: I would have voted with you in the Warsaw assembly. Love of country is the primary duty of civilised man.
In my position, I have many interests to reconcile and many duties to fulfil. If I had ruled during the first, second or third partition of Poland, I would have armed my nations to defend her.
I love your country! For sixteen years I have seen your soldiers at my side, on the battlefields of Italy, and those of Spain. I applaud what you have done; I authorise the efforts you wish to make; I will do all in my power to further your resolutions.
I have made the same speeches to you since I first entered Poland. I should add that I have guaranteed the Austrian Emperor integrity of his domains, and that I cannot sanction any manoeuvre, or action that might disturb his peaceful possession of what remains to him of the Polish provinces.
I will recompense this devotion shown by your land, which renders you so worthy of interest and wins you so great a title to my esteem and protection, with all that may be possible to me in the circumstances.

Crucified by this trading of nations, Poland has been abandoned; her passion has been open to insult; the sponge soaked with vinegar has been presented to her, while on the cross of liberty she has said: ‘Sitio, I thirst.’ ‘When Liberty,’ Mickiewicz cried, ‘shall sit on the world throne, she will judge the nations. She will say to France: I have called you, you have not heard me: go then into slavery.’

‘Must so many sacrifices, so many labours,’ said the Abbé de Lamennais, ‘prove sterile? Have the sacred martyrs only sown eternal slavery in the fields of the motherland? What do you hear in those forests? The sad murmur of the wind. What do you see passing over those plains? The wandering bird that seeks a place to rest.’