Chateaubriand's memoirs, XX, 13

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XX, 12 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXI, 1


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XX, chapter 13
The meeting in Dresden – Bonaparte reviews his army and arrives on the banks of the Niemen



On the 9th of May 1812, Napoleon left for the Army and went to Dresden. It was at Dresden that he assembled the scattered resources of the Confederation of the Rhine, and that, for the first and last time, he set in motion that machine which he had created.

Among exiled masterpieces far from their Italian sun, a meeting took place between the Emperor Napoleon and the Empress Marie-Louise, the Emperor and Empress of Austria, and a crowd of sovereigns, great and small. These sovereigns aspired to form from their various courts subordinate circles to the leading court: they disputed over the vassalage; one wished to be cup-bearer to the second-lieutenant from Brienne, another to be his bread-bearer. The history of Charlemagne is recalled through the erudition of the German chancellery; the nobler one was the more one grovelled: ‘A Lady Montmorency,’ Bonaparte says, in Las Cases’ Mémorial, ‘would have hastened to lace up the Empress’ shoes.’

Whenever Bonaparte walked through the palace at Dresden to go to a reception which had been prepared, he went first, in advance, his hat on his head; Francis II followed, hat in hand, accompanying his daughter, the Empress Marie-Louise; the crowd of princes followed behind, randomly, in respectful silence. The Empress of Austria was missing from the procession; she said she was ill, and never left her apartments except in a sedan chair, to avoid giving her arm to Napoleon, whom she detested. What remained of noble sentiment had retreated to the depths of female hearts.

One king only, the King of Prussia, was first kept at a distance: ‘What does this Prince want of me?’ Bonaparte shouted impatiently. ‘Is he not importunate enough in his letters? Why does he want to persecute me further with his presence? I have no need of him.’ Harsh words warning of disaster, pronounced on the eve of disaster.

Frederick-William’s great crime, for the republican Bonaparte, was to have abandoned the royal cause. The negotiations between the court in Berlin and the Directory revealed in this Prince, said Bonaparte, a political timidity, self-interest, and lack of nobility, which sacrificed dignity and the common cause of kings to petty gain. When he looked at the new Prussia on a map, he cried: ‘Perhaps I have left that man too much land!’ Of the three allied Commissioners who conducted him to Fréjus, the Prussian Commissioner was the only one whom Bonaparte received discourteously and with whom he wished nothing to do. The hidden cause of the Emperor’s aversion for William has been sought; it has been located in one or other specific circumstance: in speaking of the death of the Duc d’Enghien, I think I have come closest to the truth.

Bonaparte waited at Dresden for his army columns to move by: Marlborough, in the same city, on his way to meet Charles XII, noticed on a map a line leading to Moscow; he guessed that the monarch would take that route, and would not join the war in the West. In not admitting his invasion plans aloud, Bonaparte was nevertheless unable to conceal it; for the diplomats he set out three grievances: the ukase (decree) of the 31st of December 1810, prohibiting certain imports into Russia, thereby destroying, by that prohibition, the Continental System; Alexander’s protest at the annexation of the Duchy of Oldenburg; and Russian re-armament. If one were not used to the abuse of language, one would be astonished to see the import procedures of an independent State, and the violation of a system that State has not adopted, being given as a legitimate reason for war. As for the annexation of the Duchy of Oldenburg and Russian re-armament, you can read that the Duke of Vicenza dared to point out to Napoleon the presumption of these reproaches. Justice is so sacred, it seems so essential to success that even those who tread it underfoot claim to act only by its principles.

However General Lauriston was sent to St Petersburg and the Comte de Narbonne to Alexander’s headquarters: carriers of dubious messages of peace and good will. The Abbé de Pradt had been despatched to the Polish Diet; he returned from there calling his master Jupiter-Scapin. The Comte de Narbonne reported that Alexander, neither despondent nor haughty, preferred war to a shameful peace. The Tsar always professed a naïve enthusiasm for Napoleon; but he said that the Russian cause was just, and that his ambitious friend was wrong. That truth, expressed in the Muscovite bulletins, caught the national mood: Bonaparte became the Antichrist.

Napoleon left Dresden on the 29th of May 1812, travelling to Posen and Thorn; there he saw the Poles plundered by his other allies. He descended the Vistula, stopping at Danzig, Königsberg and Gumbinnen.

Along the route, he reviewed his diverse troops: to the veterans, he spoke of the Pyramids, Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland; with the young men he concerned himself with their needs, their equipment, their pay, their officers: he delighted in this moment of benevolence.