Chateaubriand's memoirs, XX, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XX, chapter 7
The War in Spain – Erfurt – The Emergence of Wellington

That fatality with which Bonaparte threatened kings threatened him also; almost simultaneously he attacks Russia, Spain and Rome: three doomed enterprises. You can read in The Congress of Verona, whose publication has preceded that of these Memoirs, the history of the invasion of Spain. The Treaty of Fontainebleau was signed on the 29th of October 1807. Junot, arriving in Portugal, declared that according to Bonaparte’s decree the House of Braganza had ceased to reign; to adopt the protocol: you will be aware that they still reign. They were so well informed in Lisbon as to what was happening in the world that John VI was only aware of this decree through an edition of the Moniteur carried there by chance, when the French army was already only three day’s march from the capital of Lusitania. It merely remained for the court to flee to those seas that welcomed Da Gama’s sails, and knew the verses of Camoëns.

At the moment that Bonaparte, to his misfortune, penetrated Russia in the north, the curtain rose in the south; other regions and scenes appeared, the sun of Andalusia, the palm trees of the Guadalquivir to which our grenadiers presented arms. Bullfights were on display in the arena, half-naked guerrillas in the mountains, and priests at prayer in the cloisters.

With the invasion of Spain, the character of the war altered; Napoleon found himself opposing England, his fatal genius; and it gave him a lesson in warfare: England destroyed Napoleon’s fleet at Aboukir, halted him at Saint-Jean-d’Acre, removed his remaining ships at Trafalgar, forced him to evacuate Iberia, seized the south of France as far as the Garonne, and awaited him at Waterloo: today they guard his grave at St Helena as they occupied his cradle of Corsica.

On the 5th of May 1808, the Treaty of Bayonne, in the name of Charles IV cedes all that monarch’s rights to Napoleon: the confiscation of Spanish possessions, shows Bonaparte only as an Italian Prince, in the style of Machiavelli’s, except for the enormity of the theft. The occupation of the Peninsula reduces his forces positioned against Russia, of which he is still ostensibly a friend and ally, but towards which at heart he bears a hidden animosity. In his proclamation, Napoleon said to the Spaniards: ‘Your nation has been destroyed. I have seen your ills, I am going to remedy them; I wish your most distant cousins to preserve the memory of me and say: he was the regenerator of our country.’ Yes, he was the regenerator of Spain, but he uttered words he ill understood. A catechism of those days, composed by the Spanish, explained the true meaning of his prophecy:

‘Tell me, my son, who are you? – A Spaniard, by the grace of God. – Who is inimical to our happiness? – The Emperor of France. – What is he? –A miscreant. – How many natures has he? – Two, a human nature and a diabolical nature. – What gave birth to Napoleon? – Sin. – What torment does a Spaniard deserve who fails in his duty? – The death and infamy due to traitors. – Who are the French? – Former Christians turned heretics.’

Bonaparte, after his fall, condemned his Spanish foray in unequivocal terms: ‘I embarked,’ he said, ‘on that affair, on quite the wrong basis. Immorality is revealed by excessive licence, injustice by excessive cynicism, and the whole thing appears quite vile to me since I succumbed; for that assault appears merely nakedly shameful, when deprived of all the great and numerous potential benefits which filled out my plan. Posterity would advocate it yet, if I had succeeded, and with reason maybe, given its great and fortunate results. That project did for me. It destroyed my moral standing in Europe, and created a training ground for English soldiers. That wretched Spanish War was a genuine wound, the original cause of France’s misfortunes.’

This confession, to re-deploy Napoleon’s phrase, is excessively cynical; but we are not deceived by it: in accusing himself, Bonaparte’s aim is to drive into the desert, under a curse, that devious assault, in order to summon up unreserved admiration for all his other actions.

With the battle lost to us at Bailén, the rulers of Europe, astonished at the Spanish success, blush at their own faint-heartedness. Wellington appears on the horizon for the first time, in the direction of the sunset; the English army disembarks on the 31st of July 1808 near Lisbon, and on the 30th of August the French troops evacuate Lusitania. In his satchel Soult had proclamations in which he titled himself Nicolas I, King of Portugal. Napoleon recalled the Grand-Duke of Berg from Madrid. He was pleased to effect a transmutation between his brother Joseph, and his brother-in-law, Joachim: he took the crown of Naples from the head of the former and set it on the head of the latter; with a flourish of his hand he deposited these adornments for the hair on the foreheads of two new kings, and off they went, in different directions, like two conscripts exchanging shakos.

On the 27th of September, at Erfurt, Bonaparte gave one of the last demonstrations of his power; he thought to have fun with Alexander and made him drunk on praise. One general wrote: ‘We gave a glass of tincture of opium to the Tsar and, while he slept, we occupied ourselves elsewhere.’

A hut had been transformed into a theatre; two armchairs were placed in front of the orchestra for the two potentates; to left and right, fancy chairs for the monarchs; behind were benches for the princes: Talma, king of the stage, played before stalls full of kings. At the line:

‘A great man’s friendship is a blessing from the gods.’

Alexander took his great friend’s hand, bowed and said: ‘I have never felt it more deeply.’

To Bonaparte’s eyes, at that time, Alexander appeared a fool; he made a laughing-stock of him; he admired him only when he considered him deceitful: ‘He is a Greek of the Later Empire,’ he would say, ‘one must set him at nought.’ At Erfurt, Napoleon affected the bold effrontery of a conquering soldier; Alexander dissimulated like a conquered prince: cunning grappled with lies, Occidental politics and Oriental politics maintained their masks.

London evaded the overtures of peace, and the Vienna ministry deceitfully decided on war. Abandoned once more to his imagination, Bonaparte made this declaration to the Legislative Corps, on the 26th of October: ‘The Emperor of Russia and I met one another at Erfurt: we are of one mind, and unalterably united in peace as in war.’ He added: ‘When I appear on that side of the Pyrenees, the terrified Leopard will seek the Ocean to escape disgrace, defeat or death.’ But the Leopard appeared on this side of the Pyrenees.

Napoleon who always believed what he wished, thought he would return to Russia, after having achieved the submission of Spain in four months, as has since happened to the Legitimacy, consequently he retired eighty thousand of the veterans of Saxony, Poland and Prussia; he himself marched on Spain; to the deputation from the city of Madrid he said: ‘There is no obstacle which can long delay the execution of my wishes. The Bourbons can no longer reign in Europe; no power under the influence of England can exist on the Continent.’

It was thirty-two years ago that this oracle was proclaimed, and that the taking of Zaragoza, on the 21st of February 1809, announced universal deliverance.

All that French gallantry was of no avail; the forests armed themselves, the bushes became enemies. Reprisals prevented nothing, because in those regions reprisals are expected. The business of Bailén, the defences of Girona and Cuidad-Rodrigo, signalled the resurrection of a people. La Romana, at the far end of the Baltic, sent his regiments to Spain, as formerly the Franks, fleeing the North Sea, landed triumphantly at the mouths of the Rhine. Conquerors of superior forces in Europe, we shed blood of lesser ones with that impious rage that France acquired from Voltaire’s buffooneries and the atheistic madness of the Terror. Yet it was those militias of the cloister who put an end to the success of our experienced soldiers; they did not wait to encounter these monks, on horseback like fire-breathing dragons, among the burning timbers of the Zaragoza buildings, loading their blunderbusses amidst the flames, to the sound of mandolins, to the rhythm of the bolero, and the requiem mass for the dead: the ruins of Saguntum applauded.

But nevertheless the secret of the Moorish palaces, changed into Christian basilicas, was penetrated; the pillaged churches lost their masterpieces by Velásquez and Murillo; fragments of the bones of Rodrigo at Burgos were disinterred; men were so filled with glory they did not fear to rouse the Cid’s ghost against them, just as they did not fear to irritate the shade of Condé.

When, on leaving the ruins of Carthage, I travelled through Hesperia before the French invasion, I found the Spaniards still protected by their ancient way of life. The Escorial revealed to me, in a single site and a single set of buildings, Castilian severity: a barracks for coenobites, built by Philip II in the shape of a martyr’s grid, in remembrance of one of our disasters, the Escorial was built on rocky ground among gloomy barrens. It contained royal tombs, filled or to be filled; a library on which the spiders had set their seal; and masterpieces by Raphael mouldering away in an empty sacristy. Its eleven hundred and forty windows, three quarters of them broken, opened on silent reaches of earth and sky: the Court and the Hieronymites, gathered there formerly, expressed their epoch and their distaste for their epoch.

Near that redoubtable edifice, like an aspect of the Inquisition driven into the desert, was a park scattered with broom and a village whose smoke-stained buildings revealed the ancient passage of man. This Versailles of the barrens was only inhabited during intermittent royal visits. I saw a redwing, thrush of the heath, perched on the roof at dawn. Nothing could be more imposing than that sombre religious architecture, invincible in its faith, noble in its expression, taciturn in its history; an irresistible force drew my eyes to the sacred pilasters, stone hermits carrying religion on their heads.

Farewell, monasteries, which I have gazed at in the valleys of the Sierra Nevada, and on the coast of Murcia! There, to the tolling of a bell which soon will chime no more, under crumbling archways, among lauras without anchorites, voiceless tombs, the shade-less dead; in empty refectories, and abandoned courtyards where Bruno has left behind his silence, Francis his sandals, Dominic his torch, Charles his crown, Ignatius his sword, Rancé his hair-shirt; there, at the altar of a dying faith, one became accustomed to despising time and life: if one still dreamed of the passions there, your solitude lent them something which well suited the vanity of dreams.

Among these funereal buildings, one saw the shade of a man in black pass, that of Philip II, their creator.