Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling (2007)

‘We are now launching into a wide and boundless field, puzzled with mazes and o’erspread with difficulties.’
George Washington, autumn 1779

At 680 larger-than-usual pages, this is a very long, very thorough and very heavy book.

I bought it under the misapprehension that it would explain the economic and political background to the American War of Independence, which was a mistake. Almost a Miracle is a highly detailed account of the arguments about military strategy held by both sides, and on the actual battles fought during the war. In this respect its focus on the nitty-gritty of military engagements large and small – it follows straight on from the couple of books I recently read about its immediate predecessor, the Seven Years War:

The Seven Years War (1756-63)

Put simply, the result of the Seven Years War was that the British Army and its colonial and Indian allies won Canada, seized its key city, Quebec, and expelled the French from their would-be North American empire – thus ensuring that America would be an English-speaking nation.

Britain won because:

  1. the British government threw many more men and resources at the war than the French
  2. the British colonists far outnumbered the French, 1.2 Brits million compared to 55,000 French

But the British government, led by William Pitt, had to borrow a lot to pay for these military campaigns and, as soon as the Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris, in 1763, lost no time in trying to recoup their money from the colonists. A range of new taxes were introduced – by the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act, the Townshend Revenue Act – and existing taxes were collected more stringently.

The colonists don’t like new taxes

The colonists didn’t like it. There was a long, steady rumble of complaint from the moment the new taxes were introduced in 1763 to the outbreak of war in 1775. A spectrum of dissenting opinion emerged among the colonists, from:

  • radicals like John Adams (b.1735) who early grasped the need for complete independence from Britain
  • moderates, who accepted British rule but wanted the taxes lightened or lifted
  • to Loyalists or so-called ‘Tories’, who accepted everything the British government demanded on the basis that they were loyal subjects of His Majesty and His Majesty’s government

Key way stations along the road to war were:

  • 1768 – the arrival of British troops in Boston, the most important port (and largest city) in the colonies, to support the collection of taxes
  • 5 March 1770 – ‘the Boston Massacre’, when an angry mob surrounded the British customs building, someone let off a shot, the soldiers panicked and killed five colonials
  • the 1773 Tea Act which aimed to promote tea from India in America and led to ‘the Boston Tea Party’ of 16 December, when American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped £9,000 of East India Company tea into the Boston harbour
  • the four ‘Intolerable Acts’ passed by the British Parliament in May and June 1774, which stripped Massachusetts of self-government and judicial independence following the Boston Tea Party
  • the first Continental Congress in September 1774 when delegates were sent from all 13 colonies to the town hall in Philadelphia to discuss their response to the Intolerable Acts

Although critics of Lord North’s administration in the British Houses of Parliament fiercely criticised many of the British measures, although many British politicians spoke and wrote pamphlets in favour of greater moderation and understanding of the Americans, and although most of the American politicians were themselves conservative and favoured reconciliation with Britain – nonetheless, reading any timeline of the build-up to war gives an overwhelming sense of inevitability – of the Titanic steaming unstoppably towards the iceberg.

The two points of view were just irreconcilable:

  • The British king and his ministry thought they had spent a fortune, and lost a lot of men, defending colonists who paid only a fraction of the taxes which their cousins in Britain paid: it was time they coughed up.
  • The Americans thought victory in what they called ‘the French and Indian War’ had owed a lot to their own men and blood; they didn’t owe anyone. Plus, they had all grown up paying minimal taxes, and so were outraged when the London government started imposing all kinds of new taxes and tolls on them and their imports.

American resentment crystallised into the expression ‘no taxes without representation’, meaning they refused to pay taxes imposed on them by a legislature 3,000 miles away, in which they had no say.

Because the outcome is so well-known, and because the extremists on both sides (especially the American patriots, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) went to to become such household names, it is most interesting to read about the moderates on both sides, those advocating for peace and compromise. I learned that the Loyalist members of Congress got together an Olive Branch Petition to send to George III. Their belief that America could quite easily remain within the British Empire, with just a few tweaks and adjustments, have – like the rational, carefully argued opinions of so many moderates throughout history – disappeared from view.

Studying them carefully – putting yourself in their place and trying out their arguments – gives you insights into the fate of moderates in so many revolutions – the French or Russian ones, to name the big two; and by extension, helps you understand the fate of moderates in modern political situations (America, Turkey, Britain, Iran).

The American War of Independence

This book, by its sheer length and the staggering accumulation of detail, really brings home that the American War of Independence was much longer than you tend to imagine – from first skirmishes to final peace treaty it lasted a surprising eight and a half years, from 19 April 1775 to 3 September 1783.

What should the Americans do?

I think the single most striking learning is that both sides didn’t know what to do or how to fight the war, an uncertainty which persisted right to the end.

Hostilities broke out because the British garrison in Boston was ordered out in April 1775 to confiscate munitions which Patriot militias had been building up in the towns and villages of Massachusetts. Patriot spies got wind of this and set off on horseback to warn the militias, who were therefore armed and prepared by the time the 700 or so British soldiers reached the small towns of Lexington and Concord. Small engagements broke out at both places, before the British regulars were joined by support and marched together back to the safety of Boston, shot and sniped at all the way. Their blood up, the local militias rallied across Massachusetts and set up a siege of Boston. The war had, in effect, begun.

On June 14 the Continental Congress voted to create the Continental Army and voted George Washington its commander-in-chief. When news of all this arrived back to London, the government sent a major force out under the command of General Howe. It was war.

But what should both sides do next? The biggest learning from the book is that both sides effectively made it up as they went along. I’m used to the Great War where the Allied aim was to defeat Germany on the Western Front, and the Second World War where the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. In both wars there were clear ‘fronts’ where the enemies fought, with the Allies pushing the Germans back from the Western Front, and then crushing Germany from east and west in the Second War, and pushing Japan back across Pacific islands towards her homeland.

But in this war, where was the American homeland? Where could a knock-out blow be delivered?

And what did the Americans aim to achieve? Was it best to meet the British Army in a head-on, traditional-style battle and defeat it? When you put it like that, you see how unlikely it was that an army made of volunteers who’d spent most of their lives working on farms, with officers and NCOs having been appointed just a few weeks earlier, would be able to defeat the well-armed, well-drilled professional Brits.

So the Americans tended to seek smaller engagements where they had the advantage of surprise and knowledge of the territory, and otherwise melted away. Washington early informed Congress that his would be a war of ‘posts’ (p.136) meaning small specific engagements, and that he would adopt the withdraw-and-fight-another-day tactics of the famous Roman general, Fabius Cunctator.

But not everyone agreed with Washington, and his headquarters was always riven by factions of officers arguing fiercely about strategy. It is the merit of a military history on this scale that it makes it quite clear that the American military command was riven by debates and arguments, sometimes quite bitterly, about what to do, where to strike, when to pull back. And, as it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over by Christmas, there were as fierce, and as partisan arguments in Congress, as there are today.

Not only were there divisions about how to fight but, more importantly, where. Were there ‘key colonies’ or areas which must not be ceded to enemy and, if so, where? Was it vital to hold Boston, or to retire if the army was imperiled? Ditto New York: should Washington’s army defend New York come what may or, again, make a tactical withdrawal in the face of superior British forces, and live to fight another day?

What should the British do?

But while the Patriot side was riven by indecision and infighting about where to defend, where to retreat, and how much of a big battle to engage in, it was, if anything worse, on the British side. In particular, there was a fundamental division between those who thought the British should fight with no quarter, ravaging and destroying the land as they went – as the Union army was to do in the Civil War – giving the retreating army nowhere to hide and wearing down the enemy’s agricultural infrastructure, teaching them who was boss – and others who thought that the only practical policy was to fight a civilised and limited war, in order to win the hearts and minds of men who were, in a sense, our cousins.

This is one of the main big learnings of the book –  that the men in charge of the British war effort hesitated and prevaricated over and over again, especially General William Howe, general in command of British forces from 1775 to 1777. At several points, for example when he had cornered the American Army on New York, Howe hesitated to push his advantage and so let the Americans escape.

Great Britain’s last best chance to destroy the Continental army and crush the American rebellion occurred in September 1776, but the opportunity slipped away through a series of monumental mistakes. (p.139)

Howe had been an MP in the Commons in the build-up to war, and had voted for conciliation and compromise with the rebels. While the hawks called for a slash and burn policy, Howe appears to have thought that the Americans were misled by a handful of fanatics and that, if only they could be dealt a bloody nose, the Congress and most of the population would realise the error of their ways, out down their weapons and accede to His Majesty’s very reasonable demands.

So although Howe defeated Washington in a series of encounters designed to drive him out of New York, he deliberately let slip a couple of sitting duck opportunities to surround and annihilate his opponent. History remembers Washington as a great general but he was fighting an opponent who was reluctant to really comprehensively defeat him.

Indecisive battles

And so both the British and the Americans hesitated among a variety of choices before embarking on anything coherent enough to be termed a ‘campaign’. What is then notable is how many of these campaigns failed – it seems to the untutored reader to have been a war of failures rather than successes.

Thus the engagements at Lexington and Concord led the Americans to besiege Boston, which sounds like a big bold thing to do. But General Howe threatened to burn the city to the ground unless he was allowed to sail away unscathed, the Americans reluctantly gave in, and Howe sailed off with all his men. Hardly a victory.

Similarly, the Americans launched a twin-pronged campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada, from the British, with Major General Richard Montgomery capturing forts up Lake Champlain while Major General Benedict Arnold led a force through the wilds of Maine, to join up in front of Quebec City. The section describing the appalling sufferings of Arnold’s men as they hacked their way through swamp and forest, drowned in makeshift rafts on rapids, and began to starve before finally blundering into settled territory in Canada was the most imaginatively gripping part of the whole book, reading like a gruesome novel of backwoods survival.

But the military point is that both the American forces were so weakened by the time they arrived and commenced the Battle of Quebec that their attack was a complete failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded in the attack, before the survivors were forced to regroup and retrace their way back to America. It had been ‘a calamity of epic proportions’ (p.111).

Similarly, Howe launched a great campaign to take New York City from Washington’s army and this involved a whole series of engagements as Washington slowly withdrew back through Long Island, then up Manhattan, and over into new Jersey. But the real story is that Howe missed several glaring opportunities to surround and exterminate Washington’s army, letting it live on.

Similarly, much is made of the Battle of Saratoga, a supposedly great victory by the Americans in October 1777. But when you read about it in as much detail as Ferling supplies, you first of all realise that it wasn’t a battle at all. British General Burgoyne had led an army down from British Canada, hoping to link up with General Howe’s army from New York, and another one coming east from Lake Ontario. Neither turned up and Ferling’s account shows how Burgoyne’s force was steadily weakened and depleted by small engagements along the way, loss of food and supplies, the necessity of leaving detachments to guard all the little forts he captured on the way south, and so on, so that by the time he approached the American stronghold of Albany, at the northernmost point of the River Hudson, his forces were depleted and short of ammunition and supplies. Eventually Burgoyne’s force was surrounded by outnumbering American forces and he surrendered. There was no battle.

A lot of American mythology surrounds the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led his forces across the half-frozen River Delaware to take by surprise detachments of German mercenaries stationed in the small town of Trenton, who were outliers of Howe’s larger British Army stationed in New Jersey. Yes, it was a daring pre-dawn raid, yes it caught the Hessians completely unprepared, and yes it led to the capture of almost all of them (22 killed, compared with just 2 dead on the American side). But its importance was far more psychological than military. The Americans had done nothing but retreat from New York for six months. Trenton wasn’t a victory at all, it just showed that the Americans weren’t completely beaten and still had some kick in them. It stemmed the tide of defections and desertions, and showed sceptics at home and abroad that American troops could win something.

There is much more like this. The really detailed (Ferling quotes lots of contemporary eye-witness testimony) accounts of so much marching – and of long gruelling campaigns like Arnold’s trek north or Burgoyne’s trek south – make up the majority of the text. The suffering and hardships, the climatic extremes, the lack of food and shelter, are quite difficult to read sometimes. I was particularly struck by the way many of the Continental soldiers had no shoes or footwear of any sort. On numerous marches their fellow soldiers followed the blood from bleeding feet left in the snow or mud. In fact the two Patriots who died at Trenton died from advanced frostbite, and thousands of American soldiers lost toes and feet due to lack of basic footwear.

Skirmishing aside, really large full-scale battles didn’t happen that often, but when they do Ferling’s accounts are appropriately gory and blood thirsty, over and again bringing out how war amounts to the frenzied butchering and dismembering, skewering, hacking and eviscerating of other human bodies.

War in the south

By 1779 and 1780 Washington was in despair because he didn’t know what to do next. Ferling makes it clear that right up to the last moments of the war, he was fixated, obsessed, with returning to fight a big battle for New York, despite the fact that the Americans never had enough men to retake it against Britain’s well-entrenched forces. That or maybe another stab at taking Canada from the British, another phantasm which haunted American military minds, despite the catastrophe of the Arnold campaign.

Washington’s obsession with the north meant that he missed the region where the war was eventually won, which was in the southern states. About half way through the book Ferling switches focus from New England, New York and Pennsylvania, to the southern states of Maryland, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

This second half feels different from the first half for two reasons: the French had got involved, and there was a lot more guerrilla and partisan fighting.

France and world war

American representatives had been in Paris since before the start of the war, negotiating trade deals etc. Once conflict broke out, Ferling devotes sections to describing in detail the lengthy negotiations between American representatives and the French government, with the former trying to persuade the latter to join in and support the revolution.

Both sides had many considerations to weigh up: some Americans worried that any victory with the help of the French would mean handing over territory in North America to them – maybe they’d want Canada back, and so become a threat to the young country from the north; or maybe the French would demand back the rights to Louisiana (at that point all the land along both sides of the Mississippi) and would thus block any further American expansion to the west. Risky.

Other Patriots worried that any even-handed military alliance with the French might mean that Americans would get dragged into France’s endless wars in Europe: having begun a war to get free of entanglements with Britain and her power politics on the Continent, the Americans might find themselves ending up worse off than they began.

Many on the French side weren’t that thrilled either, and the French minister who managed the war, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, was presented with a sequence of obstacles, opposition and unexpected dilemmas which Ferling presents with great clarity. I had no idea that, once the French had overtly allied with the Americans in 1778, they again began planning for one of their many attempts to invade England, and sent privateers to board and confiscate British shipping.

In the event, massive French loans to America enabled Congress to feed and clothe and supply its armies, and the fleet France sent turned out to play a vital role in ‘victory’.

British defeat

As 1780 dawned the British were as puzzled as the Americans about what to do next. A series of events led the British to conceive of mounting a ‘Southern strategy’ and General Henry Clinton (who had succeeded the indecisive General Howe in 1778) despatched General Charles Cornwallis to raise Loyalist forces across the south.

Cornwallis did attract Loyalist forces and – as Ferling brings out throughout his book – substantial numbers of slaves defected and/or ran away from their southern plantations to join the British forces who promised them their freedom. But it was never enough. Loyalist support was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 1780), and the British Legion, a cavalry force led by swashbuckling Banastre Tarleton, was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).

Cornwallis marched into North Carolina, gambling on a Loyalist uprising but it never materialised. He was shadowed by the American general Nathanael Greene who dominates the American side for these whole southern campaign and emerges (from my amateur perspective) as a much more energetic, successful and important American general than Washington, who spent all these last few years holed up in the north, fantasising about recapturing New York.

It was very typical of this prolonged and indecisive war that a key engagement was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781, where Cornwallis’s army beat Greene, but suffered large casualties in the process. As in so many battles of the American War of Independence, Cornwallis held the field but the other side had won.

It wasn’t a war of decisive victories; it was a war of attrition where the winner was the one who could wear down the other side. This describes the American failure at Quebec and the British failure at Saratoga – and that is how the war finally ended.

In 1781 the French arranged to send a significant fleet to the Americas. In fact it went first to the West Indies to secure French territories there, before asking where along the coastline it should be sent.

Cue feverish debate among the Americans and their French allies about whether it should be sent to New York to revive Washington’s endless dreams of recapturing the city. But in the end it went to Virginia, partly under the influence of the French officer Lafayette, who had been fighting alongside the Americans almost from the start, and was now embedded in Greene’s army.

Before he left North Carolina for Virginia, Cornwallis had been receiving confused orders from his commander-in-chief, Clinton, holed up in New York. At some moments Clinton asked him to come all the way back north to help protect the city, and in other despatches ordered him to stay where he was. The one clear message that emerged from this confusion was that Cornwallis should hunker down in a coastal port and await the Royal Navy.

So Cornwallis marched to Yorktown on the Virginia coast, built outworks, prepared for a siege and awaited relief. It never came. Instead the French fleet arrived and Nathanael Greene’s army was joined by a steady flow of Continental soldiers and militias from all across the south, steadily blocking off all Cornwallis’s escape routes.

As so often, there were several windows of opportunity when Cornwallis could have fled north or embarked at least some of his forces across the Cooper river to land east of the city. But he didn’t, he was soon completely surrounded and, with food beginning to run short, giving in to reality, Cornwallis surrendered his army on 17 October 1781.

The British give up

It cannot be emphasised too much that the Americans did not win the American war of Independence through a battle. They simply surrounded a British army which had let itself be taken by a series of accidents and bad judgements, and which decided to surrender. And the Americans couldn’t have done it without the French naval force which blockaded Yorktown, thus preventing any hopes of relieving supplies or escape.

When news of this disaster arrived back in London in late November 1781 the British government… gave up. The British still had 30,000 troops garrisoned in New York, Charleston, and Savannah, could have recruited more, and the war could have been prosecuted for another six years, if anyone had wanted to. But enough of the ruling classes were fed up to make it untenable.

Although the vote was obviously limited to male property owners, nonetheless Britain was a democracy of sorts, and on 27 February 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America by 19 votes. The minister responsible for conducting the war, Lord Germain, was dismissed and a vote of no confidence was passed against Lord North, who had led the government throughout. A new government led by the Whig party came to power and immediately opened negotiations for peace. Ho hum.

Conclusions

I’d never read an account of the American War of Independence before. It was a real eye-opener. There was:

1. a lack of focus, as both sides racked their brains to decide what they were trying to do

2. a lack of fighting – especially in 1779 and 1780 long periods passed with no fighting at all – I think Washington didn’t see any action at all in the final two years.

I was really, really struck by the way that a handful of events from the first months of the war have become so mythical that even I have heard of them – Paul Revere’s Ride from Boston to warn the Patriots that the British were coming; the first shot fired at Concord which inspired Emerson’s poem:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

And the Battle of Bunker Hill. But all these happened within a few months of each other right at the very start. American history and mythology dwell on these early, idealistic, and entirely positive events, and then  the following six years of failure and stalemate, well… you hear less about them.

The exception is Washington’s night-time crossing of the Delaware river, ferrying his army across to launch his surprise dawn attack on Trenton, because it was a daring dashing event and it inspired a number of heroic paintings depicting the scene.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

But it’s as if the events of those first few months have become super-iconic, overflowing with revolutionary zeal and idealism and then…. as with all wars, it wasn’t over by Christmas and in fact dragged on for six long, gruelling years more, during which thousands of men died, thousands of citizens lives were destroyed by marauding militias or Indians, and the entire economy of America was undermined by a lack of supplies which led to galloping inflation, so… you don’t hear much about that.

Ferling’s long, detailed account shows the gruelling reality which lay behind the handful of mythical highlights which we remember.

3. Above all, there was a lack of inevitability. 

Again, I am used to the kind of war where ‘the tide turns’ and the Germans start to be defeated on the Western front or the Japanese are fought back across the Pacific, so that the conclusions of World Wars One and Two possess a grinding sense of inevitability.

But there was no decisive ‘turning point’ in this war and the end, when it comes, is oddly anti-climactic, almost an accident. Oh well. We’re surrounded. Better surrender, chaps.

This sense of contingency is heightened by the way Ferling, at all points, investigates very thoroughly all the arguments and logic underpinning everyone’s strategies. There was no inevitability to Cornwallis deciding to invade Virginia or deciding to retreat to Yorktown – in fact historians to this day struggle to account for it.

Indeed, for the last few years of the war, there was a mounting sense that either side might sue for international arbitration. This had happened in previous wars, where mediators such as Russia or Prussia were invited to arbitrate between the warring sides. As 1781 dawned all sides – American, French and British – were fed up with the war and wanted it to end somehow, but the Americans in particular lived in fear that an international peace treaty might be imposed on them, and that – as was traditional – territory would be allotted to whoever held it when the deal was signed.

This wish to hold on to territory partly explains why commander-in-chief Clinton was reluctant to leave New York, which would be a jewel in the crown if Britain was allowed to retain it, and also explains Cornwallis’s energetic attempts to clear the southern states of rebels, and raise Loyalist forces to keep them secure. If peace suddenly broke out, they would have been retained by the British Empire.

Ferling brings out how this nightmare scenario kept men like Washington and John Adams awake at night – the notion that after six years of sacrifice, and watching the American economy go to hell, the Patriots might end up rewarded only with the New England states and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while New York (which extends north to a long border with Canada) and the entire south would be retained by Britain.

Worse, if the French insisted on reclaiming Louisiana, the new American republic would be surrounded on all sides by enemies and barriers.

It was not to be – but it might have been – and it is one of the many pleasures of Ferling’s long and exhaustingly thorough account, that the reader develops a real sense of just how contingent and arbitrary this shattering war and, by extension, all human affairs, really are.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)


Related links

Reviews of other books on American history

John Ferling and the days of the American War of Independence

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Days by Philip Larkin

Historians deal with periods of time. Since these are generally longer than a few hours, they can or have to be measured in days, days which make up weeks, months, years and sometimes centuries. Nonetheless, when it comes to recording key events (births, marriages, deaths, battles, treaties), historians, like the rest of us, tend to think of them as happening on specific days. D-Day. Independence Day. Days are what we attach meaning to. Days are where we live.

How can you distinguish and separate out all the days which make up all of human history? How can you convey the passage of time, the passage of days, how can you make it more than a colourless recitation of numbers and dates?

Take the American War of Independence. There is debate both about when the war both started and when it ended. The consensus view is that hostilities began on April 19, 1775, when British regular forces tried to arrest rebel leaders in the Massachusetts villages of Concord and Lexington. This sparked skirmishes with Patriot militiamen, which escalated into a running battle as the British soldiers were forced to retreat back to their stronghold in Boston.

And, officially, the war ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783 (although after the British lost the siege of Yorktown in October of 1781 they decided not to continue hostilities and there was no full scale fighting after that date).

So the American War of Independence lasted about eight years and five months, ‘one hundred and four blood-drenched months’ – some 3,000 days to demarcate and distinguish.

A little way into John Ferling’s long and minutely-detailed military history of the American War of Independence, I began to notice how much attention he pays to the weather and to the quality of important days. Much of Ferling’s content is as dry and factual as any other historian’s, but he consistently slips in little descriptive phrases designed to convey the specificity of important days.

And particularly the crepuscular hours – of dawn or nightfall – the hours when the world seems more pregnant with meaning and possibility than usual.

  • The brilliant midday sun stood high in the sky over Pell’s Point, transforming the bite of dawn into a comfortable fall day. (p.9)
  • First light came at 4am on this historic day. Thirty minutes later, with streaks of orange and purple visible in the eastern sky, an advance party – six companies totalling 238 men – reached Lexington Common… (p.30)
  • As darkness gathered on September 12 [1775], twenty four hours after their departure from Newburyport, the last of the eleven vessels in Arnold’s armada reached Gardinerstown, Maine, a tiny village with a shipyard some thirty miles up the Kennebec. (p.90)
  • By around 7am, with day breaking under a grey snowy sky, the battle [of Quebec] was over and the Americans who could do so were on the retreat back to the Plains of Abraham, leaving their dead and wounded behind. (p.98)
  • As the dark stain of night gathered over Long Island, Howe, together with Clinton and guided by three Loyalists, set out with half his army over a maze of back roads leading toward the Jamaica Pass eight miles away. (26 August 1776, p.133)
  • When night tightened over Brooklyn, and the black storm clouds obscured the moon, the boats, manned by two Massachusetts regiments under Colonel Glover, and consisting almost exclusively of experienced mariners, were brought across the East River. [Washington’s army flee Long Island for Manhattan after their crushing defeat on 26 August 1776, p.136]
  • As the slanting shadows of late afternoon gathered, [General Howe] decided to wait until morning before launching his frontal attack. (p.147)
  • The British reached Hackensack on November 22 [1776]. The American army had departed twenty-four hours earlier, continuing to move to the west, crossing the Passaic River into Acquackononck Landing (modern Passaic), as the pale sun of the late day glinted off the water. (p.164)
  • The crossing out of New Jersey [by the retreating American army] began immediately and continued through the sullen night under an eerie orange-yellow illumination provided by giant fires  built on the shores, making for what a Pennsylvanian militiaman thought was ‘rather the appearance of Hell than any earthly scene.’ (p.170)

They’re like paintings, aren’t they, although paintings from a later era. Ferling brings an essentially romantic sensibility to what was still a pre-Romantic, eighteenth century world.

  • To preserve secrecy [for their surprise attack on German mercenary forces at Trenton], the Americans could not stir until darkness gathered, leaving much to be accomplished in a short period before morning light streaked the eastern sky. (p.176)
  • Washington had divided his forces about three miles west of Trenton. Greene led a division along the northern road to the village. It consisted largely of veterans of the long retreat across New Jersey. Sullivan, who for the most part commanded the men that Lee had brought down from New York, proceeded along a southerly artery near the river, the frozen breath of men and horses visible in the early morning light. (p.177)
  • Time and again the Americans ambushed the British, waging time-consuming firefights before melting away to take up new positions further down the road, from which they opened up yet again on their prey. At one juncture, rebel pickets tied down the enemy for two precious hours. When the lead elements in Cornwallis’s force finally reached the [river] Assunpink, the long, sloping black shadows of late day swaddled the landscape. (p.182)
  • The last lonely streaks of daylight slanted through the leafless trees as the Continental army entered Morristown, New Jersey, on January 6. 1777. (p.204)
  • [General St Clair] ordered the withdrawal [of the American army from Fort Ticonderoga] to begin in the wee small hours of the morning, when the landscape, under a new moon, would be shrouded in sooty darkness. (p.220)
  • The surrender of 5,895 men [after the British General Burgoyne’s ill-fated march south from Canada to the river Hudson ended in total defeat] took time, more than four hours. When the last man had departed the field of surrender, [American General] Gates hosted an outdoor dinner on this sun-soft autumn afternoon for Burgoyne and his brigade and regimental commanders… When the meal was done, and the shadows of late day stretched over the idyllic fields that recently had witnessed untold agony, the British and German officers stood, stiffly said their goodbyes, mounted their horses, and rode off to join their men in the march to Boston and an uncertain future. (p.241)

Ferling is careful to give a pen portrait of each of the many military leaders who appear in these pages, the generals and brigadiers and colonels on both sides. We are told the biography and character of scores of leading military men. But it is to the weather, the light and the mood of key days, that he pays particular attention. Sometimes his description of the light is more persuasive than his description of the people.

  • The men gathered early under a soft linen-blue sky and marched smartly to their designated spots where they stood in the delectable sunshine listening as the summary of the treaties [with new ally, France] were read out… (p.294)
  • After fighting for three hours or more in ‘weather… almost too hot to live in’, as one American soldier put it, the British abandoned their bloody charges and for two final hours, until 6pm, when the evening’s cooling shadows swaddled the bloody landscape, the battle morphed into an artillery duel. (p.306)
  • Three days later, in the pale sunshine of winter, the bulk of the British invasion force entered Richmond unopposed. (p.478)
  • About 5.30am in the last throes of the dark, starry night, [Tarleton’s cavalry] splashed across muddy Macedonia Creek to the cups of Cowpens. As they began to organise in the still, cold darkness – the temperature was in the low to mid-twenties – the first low purple of day glazed the eastern sky. (p.483)
  • Around noon on March 15, a gloriously cool day, the rebels heard, then spotted, the first column of red-clad soldiers as it emerged through a cuff of leafless trees and marched grandly up New Garden Road, awash with the soft, spring sun… (p.497)
  • Washington got all that he wanted [from the French delegates in March 1781] and at sunset on March 8, as he and Rochambeau stood shoulder to shoulder on the cold wind-swept shore watching, the [French] squadron sailed off into the gathering darkness. (p.502)

Ferling includes some 40 paintings and illustrations in the book, but when I came to analyse them I realised that only four are illustrations of actual battles – a few are technical pictures of contemporary ships, but the great majority, over 30, are portraits of the many military men and political leaders on both sides – emphasising the care he takes to give portraits of all the key military leaders.

But then I noticed that, whereas the military portraits are all contemporary i.e. drawn or painted from life in the 1770s and 1780s, the battle pictures are from over a century later, painted at the height of late-Victorian realism (1898, 1903, 1898), in the style of boys adventure stories — almost as if the history had to wait for a sufficiently ‘manly’ painting style to develop to depict the tough heroism of those days.

Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga by artist Percy Moran (1911)

Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga by artist Percy Moran (1911)

Or as if only paintings of the late-Victorian style can match Ferling’s own romantic feel for the weather, for the mood, for the changing light, for the fogs and blazing sunshine, and first dawns and quick-falling nights with which his enthralling account is laced.

He rode through the afternoon and most of the following day, one of the last soldiers yet on the road home from this war. At last, as the sun hung red and low in the sky on Christmas Eve, George Washington, private citizen, emerged through the bare trees and onto the path that led to the front door of Mount Vernon. The War of Independence was truly at an end. (p.561)


Related links

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet and Architecture @ the National Gallery

This is a staggeringly brilliant exhibition for a number of reasons.

1. It is about an aspect of Monet’s work – the importance of all kinds of buildings to his art throughout his career – which has never been explored before but turns out to shed fascinating light on his art.

2. It brings together 78 works loaned from an astonishing variety of galleries across America and Europe to create a unique opportunity to see so many, and so varied, Monets together in one place. Sometimes big exhibitions are based largely on a gallery’s own collection, but not here: I counted over forty galleries and collections that works have been borrowed from. And not only that; almost a quarter are loaned from private collections. This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so many works – from all round the Western world – all in one place.

3. Monet really was a genius. The first three or so rooms are interesting and contain good things, but the last two rooms, full of the works of his maturity, are quite stunning – spaces in which you feel you should be on your knees praying to the more-than-human brilliance of this complete master of oil painting.

4. They’ve really gone to town on the extras for the exhibition, with not only a fascinating audioguide but in the cinema room off to one side, a long film explaining the importance of architecture in Monet. The free printed guide contains not only a detailed timeline of Monet’s life but maps of France, Italy, London and Venice showing the precise locations where many of the paintings were made.

And the gallery has co-operated with Google Arts to produce a dedicated website / online experience which allows you to see the paintings in digital clarity, alongside text explaining their creation, all playfully titled Monet Was Here.

Seven rooms

There are seven rooms. The first three look at different ways Monet used rural and village buildings, buildings set in landscapes, to point and focus the composition. The next two look at his depictions of Paris and the Paris suburbs, from the smoky railway station of the Gare St Lazare, to the new bridge being built at Argenteuil, to busy scenes at seaside resorts, to some wonderful street scenes in Paris.

Then the last two, the Temples of Monet – the penultimate room has a wall of paintings depicting the facade of Rouen cathedral in changing light with, opposite them, a wall of wonderfully atmospheric paintings of London, Waterloo bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

And the final room is devoted to ten shimmering, magical paintings of the queen of the Adriatic, Venice.

The village and the picturesque

At the start of his career Monet used strong designs, powerfully constructed. In this example, bright colours (green grass, aquamarine sea) boats and distant smoke, but all crystallised by the hut in the foreground.

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

In the 1870s Monet visited Holland where he played with the influence of the great 17th century Dutch painters of landscapes and interiors. This is a rare example of a Monet where the viewer is entirely enclosed by buildings.

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Thus the first few rooms explore numerous aspects and experiments with buildings, in townscapes, by the sea, amid fields, from close up, seen on a shimmering horizon, playing with the impact and focus they bring to a composition.

By the sea

All through his life Monet painted sequences showing the same view, or different views of the same subject, like a chemist repeating the same experiment, trying to get at the core of a reaction.

Monet spent a lot of 1882 on the Normandy coast and painted a number of works which feature a modest custom officer’s cottage on the cliffs. Sometimes centre stage, sometimes tucked away or almost hidden, the exhibition includes three of these works to show how Monet took a building as the central focus around which he could experiment. In two of them it dominates the composition but – can you see it in this picture?

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

In 1888 Monet travelled to the south of France, staying at Antibes which he painted from the spit or ‘cap’ across the bay. This vantage point allowed endless experimentation with the effect of the shimmering sunlight on the blue Mediterranean.

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

These Antibes paintings include recognisable landmarks – the tower of the cathedral and the medieval castle of the Grimaldi family – but the commentary points out how, in many of his paintings, Monet very deliberately chose not to include more modern elements. For example, there’s a cluster of paintings he made of the picturesque Italian town of Bodighera, which he visited and painted in 1884, and from which he quietly excised newly built holiday homes or the new railway line.

Mist and snow

But Monet isn’t all Mediterranean sunlight. One very vivid painting is a depiction of his home village of Giverny, a few miles west of Paris, in the snow.

Monet is always conscious of the effet, the effects of changing light and weather and even of the clarity or mistiness of the air. In this snowscape it is the dimly visible buildings of Giverny, the architectural elements, which give the painting a sense of depth and volume, and the composition a focus for the eye, while the paint does the work of creating a mood.

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Impressions not precision

At about this point I should mention that Monet isn’t a particularly accurate painter of architecture. His buildings are not mathematically precise renditions of the squares and angles which modern buildings and bridges must necessarily consist of.

I recently visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s excellent exhibition of Edward Bawden and I very much enjoyed the way that, whether he’s doing a watercolour of his back garden or a linocut print of Covent Garden market, Bawden’s lines are all clearly defined and mathematically precise.

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Monet’s buildings are never this precise, even when he is painting bridges or railways stations or other highly engineered structures.

Monet’s buildings, like his trees and other elements, are created by shimmering and often vague daubs of paint, overlaid and juxtaposed to create an atmosphere, a mood, an impression, rather than efforts at precise delineation.

Because I, personally, tend to like clear defined lines, I felt ambivalent about the series of big paintings Monet did of the new Gare St Lazare in Paris in 1877, a cluster of which hang here.

The commentary makes the clever point that they are a subtle subversion of the landscape genre, with a metal and glass roof replacing the sky and the shimmers of steam replacing the foliage of trees.

Maybe so. But after looking for some time I realised that I actively dislike the inaccurate draughtsmanship of the engineered roof, lamps and above all of the beautiful and ornate steam engines. All this is a kind of lost opportunity to show gleaming metal, precisely engineered structures, rivets, pistons and coupling rods. They seem to me a kind of acknowledgement of modernity which somehow misses the point of modernity.

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

Monet’s use of urban motifs

Monet’s use of contemporary urban subjects in a manner more appropriate to his style is demonstrated in The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris painted in 1873.

The commentary makes the interesting point that the painting captures the view from the first floor of the building where the first ever Impressionist Exhibition was to be held the following year, and where this very painting would be exhibited. Always interesting to learn snippets of art trivia.

And I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a large amount of L.S. Lowry in the way Monet paints his people, or at least his crowds of tottering nine-pin-like figures.

But the real visual interest is obviously in the shadow which casts a great diagonal line across the composition. It is the contrast between light and shade which really pulls Monet’s daisy, the drama it gives to the composition, the way your eye is pulled in by the great diagonal and then wants to explore the different effets of shade and direct sunlight.

So much so that if you look closely at the big buildings on the opposite side of the boulevard, you notice that they are leaning backwards – they are not accurately and strictly vertical. Architectural accuracy is not what he’s about.

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

This slight wonkiness is a feature of many of the paintings. It was apparent in one of the earlier seaside paintings where an enormous white cliff seemed to be bulging out and threatening to collapse onto the beach below. The walls of the rural buildings in a number of the early village scenes seemed to meet at odd angles as if about to topple over. There’s a striking early painting of rural houses with Dutch gables reflected in the river (Houses on the Banks of the Zaan, Zaandam) where the wall of the left is leaning outwards at a perilous angle. In all of them the lines are wonky and unvertical, hazy, not ‘true’ in the engineering sense.

The point is – who cares, when he paints like this?

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

In this, as in several other seaside paintings shown side by side, the point is not the mathematical precision of the booth on the left, or the hotels on the right, of the steps down to the beach or of the planking of the boardwalk – these are all elements which go to create the overall effet.

In both boardwalk paintings the important thing is not the precision but the tremendous dynamism given by the plunging perspective of the boardwalk itself, which draws you quickly right into the heart of the painting which is all about vibrant colour, space and life.

Rouen, London, Venice

The previous five rooms have contained 50 or so good and sometimes outstanding paintings – for me the Trouville paintings and Giverny in the snow stood out, and there’s a painting of the Japanese bridge over Monet’s world-famous lily pond for fans of his garden paintings – all accompanied by fascinating and insightful commentary.

But walking into the last two rooms is like walking into a different world. Here you are brought face to face with half a dozen examples each of his famous series of paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral, opposite a selection of the series of paintings he made of the Thames in London, before you enter the final room devoted entirely to his late paintings of Venice – and it is as if you have died and gone to art heaven.

I have rarely felt so overwhelmed and awed by such an array of astonishingly beautiful artworks.

Rouen

By the 1890s Monet had perfected his technique of having multiple canvases of the same view on the go at once, and painting each of them at a specific time of the day, switching to the next one at the clock moved on, the sun rose, and the play of light and shadows changed.

Cities were easier to do this in since he needed the space to house quite a few wet canvases and all his equipment, somewhere he could leave it all overnight. The three cities represented here – Rouen, London, Venice, were all tourist resorts famous for their great architecture.

Monet painted some 30 canvases in Rouen, between February and April 1892 and the same months of 1893. He rented various rooms from shop owners opposite the cathedral which explains why there are two distinct points of view. The five massive paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral show that slight difference in vantage point but above all Monet’s godlike ability to capture the changes in light and colour on this elaborate and detailed architectural facade, with quite stunning results.

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

London

Monet first stayed in London in 1870-71 to escape from the violence of the Franco-Prussian War and the civil war in Paris which followed (a historical moment documented by the recent Tate Britain exhibition Impressionists in London).

In September-October 1899 he returned and stayed on the 6th floor of the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames Embankment, returning for another visit in January to April 1902. In total Monet made an impressive 100 canvases of London.

He painted the view from the Savoy he painted the view west towards Waterloo Bridge. Later he got permission to paint the houses of Parliament from the newly built St Thomas’s Hospital on the opposite bank of the Thames. In both views what interested him was the play of light.

This was made much more interesting but sometimes frustrating, by the high level of pollution in London’s air not to mention the erraticness of the English weather which made capturing exactly the same light at the same hour on successive days a challenge.

This section about London included one of the many half-finished canvases Monet made, a strikingly vague sketch of the Embankment including Cleopatra’s Needle. The commentary points out that with his London paintings, as with those of Rouen cathedral and Venice, Monet developed the paintings up to a certain point, alongside extensive sketches and notes, and then finished the paintings back home at Giverny.

Two of the Parliament paintings really stood out for me, one where the sun is flaming red and the Thames is on fire. Right next to it the exact same view at night with the moon a divided into fragments by cloud and reflecting shivers of silver all over the river surface.

But the one I really couldn’t tear myself away from was this stunning painting of an orange sun struggling through the London smog to glimmer and fleck red-gold highlights on the Thames. The painting is all about light and colour, it is a masterpiece of what oil painting can do to fill the visual cortex with pleasure – and yet the vague architectural structure of London Bridge with its neat arches, just barely visible through the smog, is a vital part of the composition in the way it enables the light to exist, to function, to perform.

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Venice

Monet visited Venice in 1908, staying for two months in apartments on the Grand Canal. The floating city under a Mediterranean sun was crying out to be depicted by the greatest impressionist of all. He produced 37 canvases, of which nine are on show here.

No people. No human activity is portrayed. Just the play of unearthly pink and eggshell blue in this watery paradise. (On a practical note, observe how the buildings on the right have the characteristic Monet lean; to my eye all of them look out of ‘true’, bulging out slightly over the water – but, as mentioned before, who cares.) they are quite staggeringly, luminescently transcendent works of art.

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Scholarly conclusion

The rational, historical, art scholarly conclusion is that Monet used a very wide range of buildings, more than has previously been recognised, as motifs in his paintings:

  • as the basis of designs and patterns and compositions
  • as symbols of modernity and the bustling city
  • or to emphasise rural tranquility or isolation

In all cases using buildings to create, point and highlight his subtle emotional and psychological effects. Then, later in his career, he uses buildings as the subjects of some of his most dazzling, experimental and awe-inspiring works, the London, Rouen, Venice paintings.

Emotional conclusion

Often by the end of an exhibition I’m full to overflowing with facts and impressions and a little relieved to walk back out onto the street, but I found it genuinely difficult to leave this one, in particular to leave the room full of Monet’s London paintings.

I spent a good ten minutes looking from one to another and back again, walking out the room then finding myself drawn back in, to marvel all over again at Monet’s unprecedented handling of paint and the breathtaking creation of gorgeous, transcendent, shimmering works of art.

I’ve rarely encountered such a feeling of pure, unalloyed beauty and wonder in an art exhibition.

Exhibition videos

This is an introduction to the role of architecture in Monet’s life by Christopher Riopelle, The Neil Westreich Curator of Post 1800 Paintings at the National Gallery in London.

And here is Richard Thomson, exhibition curator and Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh, introducing The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Napoleon III A Life by Fenton Bresler (1999)

Fenton Bresler, who died in 2003, was a barrister, newspaper columnist, television pundit and author of many books. He was a popular author rather than a historian, so the tone of this book isn’t scholarly but very much focuses on the personalities, the experiences and feelings of the people involved.

Occasionally this leads the tone to drop into sentimentality or cliché, but for the most part it makes for an entertaining, easy-going and often very illuminating read.

I’m especially glad that Bresler dwells at such length on the origins of Napoleon III’s family: it makes Napoleon III’s relationship with his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, much clearer, and also, in the early pages, amounts to a touching portrait of Napoleon himself and his family circle.

The Napoleonic background

Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power in post-revolutionary France emerging as the Republic’s ablest military leader in its war against its European enemies which had broken out in 1792.

In 1799 Napoleon carried out a coup against the so-called Directorate, the five-man government of France, and had himself declared First Consul. He had married Josephine de Beauharnais, a divorcée, in 1795. Josephine came with two children by her first marriage – Eugène born in 1781 and Hortense born in 1783. As Napoleon grew in power, declaring himself Emperor of the French in 1804, it became more pressing that he have a male heir, but Josephine failed to give him one. Thus, in 1810, he divorced her and married an Austrian princess, who soon bore him the much-wanted male child, who Napoleon appointed ‘King of Rome’.

Napoleon had four brothers and, at the height of his power, allotted all of them positions of power on the thrones of the various European countries he had conquered. He also arranged marriages for them with European princesses, in order to expand the family’s reach and power.

One of these plans was to arrange the marriage of his younger brother, Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland, to Hortense, daughter of his first wife, Josephine, in 1806, when she was 23 and he was 28.

The couple didn’t get on but managed to have three children, all boys – Napoléon Louis Charles Bonaparte who died at the age of four, Napoléon Louis Bonaparte (1804 – 1831), and Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873)  – who was to become Napoléon III, the subject of this book.

After Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated in 1814, Hortense and her two surviving sons returned to Paris where she was protected by Alexander I of Russia. However, when Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba and returned to rule France for 100 days before being finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Hortense loyally supported her step-father during his brief resumption of power, and was punished for it when the Allies re-occupied Paris for the second time.

Amid a White Terror, in which aristocrats settled scores with defenders of the old regime, amid a climate of lynchings, murders and executions, Hortense and her two sons – the future Napoleon III being just six years old – fled to Switzerland and began years of exile, moving from country to country around central Europe.

Within a few months of their flight Hortense’s estranged husband, Louis, by now the ex-King of Holland, demanded custody of the eldest son, Napoléon Louis. From then on it was just Hortense and Louis-Napoléon, wandering Europe for six years before finding a semi-permanent home in Switzerland. Mother and small son formed a very close bond, Louis’ wife later complaining that he never stopped venerating his mother, even long after her death.

Hopefully, the diagram below makes things a bit clearer. it shows how Napoleon’s parents Charles and Letizia had five sons and three daughters, their dates and who they married. It shows how Napoleon (second from left) married Josephine, who already had Eugène and Hortense, how he persuaded his younger brother Louis to marry Hortense, and they had two sons, the younger of which (and the only one shown here) became Napoleon III. Napoleon divorced Josephine and married Marie of Austria by whom he had his only legitimate son, Napoleon, ‘King of Rome’, later referred to as Napoleon II, who died aged only 21 in 1832.

Napoleon III's family tree

Napoleon III’s family tree

Years of exile

Young Louis-Napoléon spent the 1820s subject to a string of overbearing tutors. He grew into a handsome man, a bit on the short side, but dashing in his army uniform, more intelligent than the other men in his family and, as this book shows in some detail, a great seducer of women. All through his life he seduced and bedded almost every woman he came into contact with.

The family tree I gave above may seem like unnecessary detail but it turns out to be vital in several ways.

By focusing on the ambience and influence of Napoleon on all his family Bresler really conveys the sense of entitlement to royal treatment and to a grand destiny which shaped Louis’ life. By giving all his siblings such exalted roles and royal marriages Napoleon I had created an extraordinarily complex web of relations across European royalty and aristocracy. These uncles and aunts and cousins didn’t just disappear when Napoleon fell from power, but their sense of imperial entitlement continued to exert an influence on Louis right up to the end of his life.

Bresler’s vividly written book does what more academic histories often fail to do – it powerfully conveys the real sense of conviction and motivation which fueled Louis. For Mike Rapport or Gareth Stedman Jones or Karl Marx, Louis-Napoleon was a joke, an empty man who believed nothing and was pushed to the surface by the failure of all the other factions of society and politics, a faute de mieux man.

Bresler’s book – personal and sentimental though it often is, wearing its amateur status with pride – nonetheless embeds you right at the heart of this extraordinary family and has you seeing the world from Louis’ point of view, as a theatre onto which he was irresistibly destined to rise to glory and to lead France.

The extraordinary thing is – that it happened just as he dreamed, exactly as he was so convinced that it would.

Death of the other heirs

Louis-Napoléon’s first political involvement was with the Carbonari, the secret society dedicated to achieving unity and independence for the then-fragmented Italy. His brother joined him in the cause, but caught measles on campaign and Bresler paints the affecting scene where Louis-Napoléon holds his elder brother in his arms as he died. It was 1831.

After Waterloo, Napoleon I’s one legitimate son, Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, the so-called ‘King of Rome’, had been taken by his mother back to Austria. Here he was raised as a prince of the royal blood but in virtual house arrest, given the new name Franz, Duke of Reichstadt. Although he just about remembered his father before he went off to fight at Waterloo and never returned, the young prince was forbidden to speak French or even to mention his father’s name.

When Napoleon died in 1821, in exile on the island of St Helena, he bequeathed his son a load of priceless memorabilia but the Austrian Chancellor, Metternich, prevented any of it from reaching the boy. As an Austrian prince Franz was raised to join the army and in 1832 given a battalion to command, but soon afterwards he caught pneumonia and died, aged just 21.

The significance of the early deaths of these two young men was that their removal made Louis-Napoleon the heir to the Napoleonic throne (there were two remaining brothers of Napoleon I, who lived in affluent retirement, but neither had any interest in returning to public life). So from this point – 1832 – onwards, through thick and thin, Louis was convinced that it was his destiny to one day rule as his grandfather had. Everyone who met him reported that he had an unalterable conviction that his destiny was to restore the Napoleonic name and rule France.

Napoleonic writings

Napoleon I spent his years of exile on St Helena dictating his memoirs. These are famously economical with the truth, tending to gloss over the fact that his rule saw Europe wracked by 15 years of bloody warfare, and preferring to position himself to posterity as a champion of the revolutionary values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

His grandson followed in the Emperor’s footsteps and, once he was the heir apparent, published the first of what became a series of political pamphlets, starting with Rêveries politiques or ‘political dreams’ in 1833 at the age of 25. This was followed in 1834 by Considérations politiques et militaires sur la Suisse (‘Political and military considerations about Switzerland’) and in 1839 by Les Idées napoléoniennes (‘Napoleonic Ideas’).

Wordy and pompous, Louis’s books boil down to two central ideas:

  • the primacy of a national interest which transcended all particular class or factional interest
  • and universal (male) suffrage which would allow ‘the people’ to vote for a strong ruler who would implement ‘the advantages of the Republic without the inconveniences’

Napoleonic referendums

I hadn’t realised that the first Napoleon felt it necessary to call a plebiscite in 1804 to approve his move in status from First Consul to ‘Emperor of the French’. Nor that the vote was so overwhelmingly positive, with 99.93% (3,521,675) in favour and only 0.07% (2,579) against.

This was to be Louis’s strategy: it was universal (male) suffrage which got him elected president in 1848, and which he then appealed to again to support his declaration of himself Emperor in 1852. Both times he won by huge majorities.

So one of the fascinations of Bresler’s book is to learn that government by plebiscite, or referendum, was a well-established reactionary strategy for appealing over the heads of the metropolitan (liberal and bourgeois) elite, to the generally more conservative, and uneducated, population at large.

Quite thought-provoking, given the pickle Britain is in following the 2016 EU Referendum…

The advantage of Bresler’s in-depth accounts

The outline of Louis’ biography in the 1830s and 40s is simply stated: he attempted two ‘coups’ designed to raise the army behind his legendary name and to overthrow the then-king, Louis-Philippe – one at a barracks in Strasbourg in 1836, then again in Boulogne in 1840.

Whereas other histories dismiss both these events in a paragraph or so, Bresler goes into as much detail as possible, describing the elaborateness of the preparations, and then how they both unravelled into farce. He drills right down to descriptions of how the conspirators entered the barracks, what Louis said and did, how they tried to persuade the head of each barracks to join them, the misunderstandings, the retreats, the squabbles between the conspirators. He tells us that he has visited the exact sites of both events and walked through the action. Bresler makes it feel like a thriller.

Same goes for all the other key moments in Louis’ career. You might not get the kind of detailed socio-economic or political analysis which you might get from academic history books, but Bresler’s more personal approach not only makes a welcome change, it puts you right there, right on the spot at some of the crucial turning points in French history.

Louis-Napoleon goes to prison

After Louis’ first coup attempt, the government of King Louis-Philippe indulgently exiled Louis to the United States, from where, in fact, he quite quickly returned to be with his dying mother, Hortense, in Switzerland. After the 1840 attempt, however, they lost patience and Louis was tried and sentenced to prison in perpetuity.

Bresler’s account of this imprisonment is absolutely fascinating. He was held in a run-down chateau in the town of Ham in the Somme district of north-east France, along with his loyal doctor and valet. He was kept in a small room at the end of a corridor, with holes in the floor and ceiling and only paper flaps to cover the window, with primitive toilet facilities down the hall. Here he built himself shelves to hold up his books, and spent a lot of time reading.

Louis and the loyal friends who had assisted at the coup and so been sentenced alonside him (General Montholon and Doctor Conneau) were the only inmates. A garrison of 200, of whom 60 soldiers were on duty at any time, was devoted just to oversee them.

One of the most flabbergasting things Bresler tells us is that Louis and the general were both allowed to have their mistresses move in and live with them. How very French! Louis’ mistress, Alexandrine moved in and, over the course of the six years, bore him two illegitimate children, Eugene and Louis, both of which were farmed out to the Cornu family in Paris to look after.

The size of the garrison guarding Louis makes it all the more amazing that in 1846 he managed to escape. Builders had arrived to finally do up the crumbling chateau and Bresler gives a characteristically detailed and nail-biting description of the plan the General, the doctor and the valet concoct, to have Louis disguise himself as one of the workmen and simply walk out the main gate. Which is what he did.

1848 to 1852

I have described the events in France of 1848 to 1852 in my reviews of:

Briefly, King Louis-Philippe of France was overthrown by a popular uprising in February 1848 and a Republic was declared, but there was then a prolonged period of chaos and uncertainty. Liberals tried to form a national government but, when they shut down the workshops which had given work and a dole to the unemployed of Paris, the working men set up barricades which led the government to appoint a general to retake the city which he did during a week of merciless violence in June 1848. Not only were thousands slaughtered but the entire far left / socialist leadership was rounded up and imprisoned.

This helped the drift in both practical politics and the national mood towards the right. His prison sentence having lapsed with the abolition of the old regime, Louis-Napoleon managed to find a new home, and his supporters raised the money for him to stand for election to the new Chamber of Deputies. To everyone’s surprise but his own, he was elected.

In the debates that ensued, Louis was wisely understated and restrained but – in line with his writings – supported the idea of universal (male) suffrage. As the action-packed year of 1848 drew to a close, Louis-Napoleon stepped up from his modest activity in the assembly, to stand in the election for France’s first ever president, running against General Cavaignac, the man responsible for the massacre of the ‘June Days’, and various liberals.

To everyone’s amazement Louis-Napoleon stormed home, with five and a half million votes compared to his nearest rival, the general, who got only one and a half million.

Louis spent the next three years conspiring to convert the four-year presidency to ‘rule for life’, succeeding in December 1851, when he staged a coup against the National Assembly. He followed this up by holding a plebiscite to appeal of the entire male population of France in December 1852, which approved of him declaring himself Emperor Napoleon, taking the number III in memory of Napoleon’s only son who, although he never ruled a country, was now given the posthumous title Napoleon II.

The great strength of Bresler’s book compared to conventional political histories is that they all start from the present – they start from a modern perspective in which the liberal opposition, or even the French socialists – are taken as standard bearers for what we now know ended up happening over the long term i.e. the development of parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, limiting the power of the rich and aristocracy, introduction of the welfare state, right to work, right to strike, trade unions, pensions and so on.

From this perspective Napoleon III was a freak, an inexplicable anomaly, an apparent step backwards to the pomp and trappings of Napoleon I.

But Bresler shows you the world from a completely different perspective, from the perspective of the extremely upper-class sections of French society, not to mention the very cream of European royalty, and the world of privilege and entitlement they inhabited.

What mattered in this world was not the press or the horribly common deputies in the National Assembly: it was the opinion of Louis-Napoleon’s mother or wife or his cousin the arch-duke and so on, an extremely small, closely-knit society. And within this world there was always the expectation that royalty or imperial values would ultimately triumph. It was God’s will. It was inevitable. And Bresler helps you really appreciate how this fondness for Empire, pomp and grandeur, was shared by millions of ordinary Frenchmen.

What, to the secular liberal writers of history appears a freakish accident appears, from the perspective Bresler gives us, quite natural and almost inevitable.

He also makes the point that Louis-Napoleon was good with people. He may have been a poor public speaker – he had a flat metallic voice and a pronounced German accent – so he came over badly in the National Assembly and among the metropolitan elite of journalists and commentators.

But he had a highly developed sense of the importance of people out there and Bresler describes Louis’ very modern campaigns or ‘charm offensives’ in which he toured virtually all of France, getting on easily with crowds and individuals of all stations of life, in towns and villages the length and breadth of the land. Having been an exile on the run and a prisoner himself living in very reduced circumstances, Louis may have insisted on imperial protocol, but as a person was always modest and approachable. Queen Victoria expected to dislike him but was charmed on their first meeting. Everyone was.

Thus, in 1851, while the deputies and political theorists squabbled in Paris, Louis-Napoleon toured the country and was rewarded with a plebiscite confirming his claim to the title Napoleon III – 7.4 million in favour to 641,000 against.

The Empire of Napoleon III

Domestic

I hadn’t realised that the 1851 coup led to such violence and repression. The population of Paris brought out the barricades (again) which the army quickly stormed with the loss of up to 400 lives. But it was the political repression afterwards which surprised me. About 26,000 people were arrested, mostly members of the left-wing opposition, some 4,000 in Paris alone. The 239 inmates who were judged most severely were sent to the penal colony in Cayenne, 9,530 political opponents were sent to Algeria, 1,500 were expelled from France, and another 3,000 were given forced residence away from their homes.

Louis-Napoleon – painted by Bresler as essentially a mild man – set up a commission to review the sentences and some 3,500 were eventually reprieved.

Imprisonment of the left opposition was accompanied by strict press censorship: No newspaper article dealing with political or social questions could be published without the permission of the government, fines for breaches were increased, and the list of press offenses was greatly expanded. After three warnings, a newspaper or journal could be suspended or even permanently closed.

On the plus side, the 18 years of the Second Empire are remembered for the growth of the French economy and boom times, especially in Paris. Having spent time in exile in Britain, Napoleon III had seen the power of the industrial revolution and he encouraged the expansion of the French railway network and the diversification of the French economy into iron and steel works.

Probably the most famous development of his time was the extensive remodelling of Paris by the architect Hausmann, responsible for creating the broad, straight boulevards which cut through Paris’s squalid slums and created the airy, sunny Paris which survives to this day. Bresler shows how closely Louis followed these plans for a new imperial capital.

The Emperor selected the Elysée Palace as his Paris residence and the palace remains to this day the official seat of the French President. He inaugurated a calendar of weekly balls and concerts at which all the great and good could meet and mingle, intrigue and do business.

A new Opera House was built, amid an outpouring of fine arts and gilded decoration. The Second Empire almost exactly corresponds with the output of Offenbach, creator of witty entertaining operettas such as Orpheus in the Underworld and the Tales of Hoffman.

The Emperor Napoleon II in his pomp by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

The Emperor Napoleon III in his pomp by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Foreign Policy

The Crimean War 1853-56 Napoleon III supported Britain and Turkey in their bid to halt Russian expansion into the Balkans, the reason war broke out. After the long grinding war, horribly mismanaged on the Allies’ side, the conference which agreed the peace was held in Paris, a diplomatic coup for Napoleon.

Mexican adventure Less successful was the scheme Napoleon III was persuaded to support, of sending a European monarch to rule over chaotic Mexico. France along with Britain and Spain had invaded the Mexican Republic in the winter of 1861 in order to reclaim the foreign debts which the Republic had inherited from the monarchy it had just overthrown. Once the money was paid Britain and Spain withdrew but the French decided to stay on and, though his contacts with the Austrian royal family, Napoleon managed to persuade Maximilian, younger brother of the Austrian emperor Francis, to take the ‘throne’ of Mexico, as Emperor Maximilian I.

This bizarre situation was only possible with the backing of the most reactionary elements of Mexican society and due to the simple fact that Mexico’s neighbour, the United States, was bogged down in its own brutal civil war (1861-65).

But:

  1. Maximilian turned out to be a ‘modern’ ‘liberal’ emperor, much to the disgust of the Catholic, landowning autocracy who, therefore, never gave him the unstinted support he required
  2. Even with the backing of over 30,000 French troops, Maximilian was never able to defeat the Republican forces of the republican President Benito Juárez
  3. Once the American Civil War was over, the Americans began to actively support Juárez

Facing increasing opposition at home, Napoleon withdrew the last of France’s army in 1866. Maximilian’s ’empire’ collapsed, and he was captured and executed by the Mexican government in 1867.

True to form, Bresler concentrates less on the international power politics of the tale and more on the personal experiences of those concerned. Before the end, Maximilian’s wife, Carlotta, sailed to France and insisted on an audience with Napoleon III, by this time a sick man, and begged for military help to be sent to her husband. She apparently broke down in front of Napoleon and his wife, before travelling on to see the Pope to beg for help, in front of whom she began raving that everyone was trying to poison her. By this stage seriously unhinged, Carlotta was committed to a lunatic asylum in Belgium where she lived for a further sixty years.

Here, as in so many other places, Bresler really brings history alive by going beyond the dates and geopolitical events to show you the characters and suffering and personalities of the people involved.

The Franco-Prussian War and overthrow

I’ve covered the events of the Franco-Prussian War in other blog posts:

Bismarck tricked Napoleon III into declaring war on Prussia. This was just the patriotic war which Bismarck had been seeking in order to persuade the still-independent states of southern Germany to unite with the North German Confederation which Bismarck had forged under the leadership of Prussia.

It worked beyond his wildest dreams. Not only did Napoleon III declare war on Prussia but the French Chamber of Deputies rose to their feet acclaiming the war, and mobs marched round French provincial towns singing the Marseillaise.

What idiots. Within weeks the main French Army was surrounded and neutralised at Metz and the army marching to their relief was cornered and annihilated at Sedan. The Germans had better weapons, better logistics and better leadership. Many French soldiers were still trying to figure out where they were being deployed to when the decisive engagements of the war were over.

Napoleon, now quite ill with very painful bladder stones, made the quixotic decision to go to the front and lead by example like his grandfather. Except he was nothing like his grandfather. Bresler quotes the accounts of exasperated generals that Louis made and reversed judgements, confusing everyone until he eventually handed over authority to the general on the spot just in time to be captured along with the wreckage of his army at Sedan.

Once peace was made, Louis was accompanied through the lines to parley with his former colleague, the German King Wilhelm I. Must haven been an embarrassing conversation. Bismarck, who Napoleon had entertained at the French court only a few years earlier, was there with his army, and also spent some time condoling with the tired old man.

Napoleon III was moved to a castle in Germany, before being sent into exile in England. He wasn’t in France to see the catastrophe which followed, namely the French government refusing to capitulate and fighting on from Bordeaux while the Germans surrounded and besieged Paris. They eventually broke the siege, fought their way into the capital and the government finally capitulated.

The Germans marched about the place with characteristic arrogance and the German leaders assembled in the Palace of Versailles where King Wilhelm of Prussia was crowned Kaiser of the new German Empire which had been created by Bismarck. The new German Reich was built on the humiliating defeat of France.

And then, when the Germans withdrew, Paris collapsed into chaos as far left socialists declared a socialist republic and started executing the rich and Catholic priests. The new national government responded by embarking on a second siege of Paris – this time by French forces – who, after more privation and hunger, themselves finally broke into the city, the cue for vicious street fighting, in which the enraged government forces were encouraged to take revenge on the ‘communards’ for all the atrocities they were said to have committed, including executing the archbishop of Paris. It is still stunning to read that French forces killed 20,000 of their own people in just one week.

Napoleon III missed all this. He was in England, at Chislehurst. Bresler shares with us his entertaining investigations which tend to suggest that as far back as 1860, Louis – who had spent his entire childhood in exile and six years in prison – had been making plans in case the same thing happened again. Thus a British agent probably acting for him had used a large amount of money to buy Camden Place, a fairly modest (for an emperor) mansion in Chislehurst overlooking a wide expanse of grass and woodland (now home of the Chislehurst Gold Club).

Here he joined his wife, Eugénie, who had fled Paris with their son before the Prussians arrived, and here he was to live for the last three years of his life until his death in January 1873 from complications after an operation to remove his painful bladder stones.

 The Empress Eugénie and her son by James Tissot (1878)

The Empress Eugénie and her son in the grounds of Camden Place, five years after the death of her husband, by James Tissot (1878)

A medical indictment

The last chapter in the book is a surprisingly fierce indictment of the British doctors who, in Bresler’s opinion, killed Napoleon III. The Emperor had suffered from stones in the bladder for some years, which caused him a lot of pain. This ailment flared up severely during the height of the Franco-Prussian War so that even as he attempted to guide the army he was sweating with pain.

Bresler goes into full barrister mode to marshal evidence for the prosecution from two modern specialists in ailments of the bladder – James Bellringer and Sir David Innes Williams.

Bresler met, interviewed and corresponded with these witnesses and uses their testimony to assemble an argument that the procedure to destroy the stone in the bladder – inserting a device down the urethra which grasps and attempts to crush the stone so that the minuscule fragments can be passed in urine – should never have been carried out. What happened was his English doctors carried out a first procedure, but less than half the stone was destroyed and passed. After a few days’ recovery, another procedure took place in January 1873, but again the stone proved bigger than anticipated.

All was in readiness for a third procedure when the Emperor suddenly flagged, weakened, and died of heart failure. According to the modern doctors this was almost certainly due to sepsis i.e. the bladder was infected by the blockage and the medical procedure the English doctors carried out dislodged some infected bladder tissue which got into the circulation and infected the heart, causing it to fail.

Apparently, the Emperor’s death at the hands of ‘incompetent’ British doctors was a source of bitterness among French doctors and a subject of dispute between the two nations’ medics for years afterwards.

All this is fairly interesting but the revelation for me was that Napoleon submitted to these painful operations because he was planning another coup. Elaborate arrangements had been made; he was to join a cousin in Switzerland then ride with supporters to Lyon, recruiting support along the way, raising the Imperial flag and so on., just as he had tried in 1836 and 1840.

But the crucial element in raising the troops was that Napoleon should be able to ride a horse. Over the previous few years this had become pretty much impossible because of the acute pain in his bladder caused by the horse’s jogging movement. So the immediate cause of his death might have been medical ‘incompetence’. But the ultimate cause was his relentless, obsessive refusal to be denied what he saw as his pre-destined fate, to rule France and to hand on the Empire to his son.

This is not quite so completely bonkers as it sounds because Bresler explains how the Third Republic, created after Napoleon’s fall, remained deeply unpopular for years, so much so that there was even talk of restoring the grandson of Charles X, the king who had fled the throne back in 1830, the 60-year-old Comte de Chamborde.

The sensible academic histories I read make history sound like an inevitable unfolding of socio-economic trends. Bresler’s book reinserts the element of populism and mass psychology which combine with the fanaticism or abilities of specific individuals to remind us just how weird and contingent history often is. These apparently anachronistic sentiments of both royalists and imperialists, were to play a role in helping bitterly divide France during the long drawn out Dreyfus Affair and beyond. Reading Bresler’s book helps you understand their strong and abiding emotional appeal to large sectors of the French public.

A personal history

Bresler wears his personal approach on his sleeve. Rather than quote the latest academic texts, he prefers to reference very old previous biographies of Napoleon III, including some he was lucky enough to find in second hand bookshops in Paris.

He tells us about his own personal visits to various key sites in the story, and the chats he has with the local tourist board officials. For example, he shares with us his surprise that the tourist chaps in Boulogne didn’t seem to realise the shattering importance of Napoleon III’s botched coup there. Why isn’t there some plaque or guide to the precise events and locations, things which Bresler recreates for us in dramatic detail?

At another moment he stands on the very same quayside where the Emperor Maximilian reluctantly took ship to set off for his adventure in Mexico and is as affected as a sentimental novelist.

I have stood on the landing stage at Miramar from which they embarked and it seemed as if an air of melancholy still lingers upon the scene. (p.314)

Bresler visits as many of the exact locations where Napoleon lived throughout his life as he can (including a trip to the remains of the Chateau d’Ham where he was imprisoned), and especially all the houses in London which he rented. Lastly of course he visits the grand Camden Place where Louis and the Empress spent their last years in exile – and which stands to this day, as the headquarters of Chislehurst Golf Club.

This is all rather sweet and endearing, a refreshing change from the earnest, statistical and geo-political accounts of history I’m used to reading. Much closer to the personalised way in which most people actually experience life.

A verbal tic or token of Bresler’s very personal involvement with his hero is his repeated use of the word ‘sad’. Academic historians rarely express emotion, and then it’s at most the cliché that this or that decision was ‘tragic’ – but Bresler again and again takes the kind of soft, sentimental and rather naive point of view epitomised by the word ‘sad’.

The two boys [the illegitimate sons of Napoleon III], then aged fifteen and thirteen, were taken away from her [their mother, Lizzie Howard] and sadly, with the callousness of youth, soon forgot her. (p.275)

In later years, Margot married a Prussian named Kulbach and died at the sadly early age of forty-five. (p.322)

As for Louis, he would be a prisoner-of-war (albeit in the soft comfort of the new German Emperor’s summer palace) soon to be released to his last sad exile at Camden Place, with his health so badly deteriorated that he had become a pale, indecisive and sad version of the witty, commanding and assured man he had once been. (p.323)

I believe that two other factors, apart from his ill-health, led to his sad deterioration. (p.328)

Sadly [these criticisms] also apply to Louis himself. (p.332)

The year 1865 began on a sad note for Louis. (p.334)

The sad news of Maximilian’s death was much more in keeping with the reality of French life and the circumstances of Louis’ rule than all the fine uniforms and magnificent spectacles.

Sadly, they were all living in a fool’s paradise. (p.353)

Mathilde’s entry in her diary for that day makes sad reading. (p.366)

And much more in the same ilk. The ghost of Barbara Cartland floats over many of these pages.

Imperial sex

Everything we were brought up to believe about the French is confirmed by this book. The amount of infidelity, adultery, prostitutes, procuring, pandering and debauching taking place among the French upper classes is mind boggling.

Napoleon I had many ‘flings’ and a number of illegitimate children. Josephine had a number of lovers. But their grandson and his peers far outdid the older generation. Louis loved sex and he had it with as many women as possible. I’ve mentioned the lover he had while imprisoned at Ham but she’s just a drop in the ocean. Soon after he became Emperor he realised he needed an Empress and so married the Spanish aristocrat, Doña María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox y KirkPatrick, 16th Countess of Teba, 15th Marchioness of Ardales – Eugénie for short.

But that didn’t stop him having an ‘official’ mistress – Bresler relishes the way the French have a phrase for top mistress, maitresse de titre – who was for a while the Englishwoman Lizzie Howard, but also a steady string of other young ladies who were presented to him at the numerous balls and concerts which Napoleon arranged.

There was a well-established process. After (or even during) the ball, a flunky brought the potential victim into Napoleon’s private study at the Élysée Palace. The Emperor made a quick visual assessment. If he wasn’t interested, he chatted politely for a few minutes then said that his papers called him, the flunky reappeared, the young lady retired, presumably counting her blessings. But if Napoleon liked what he saw, he dismissed the flunky and then, after a bit of chat, took the young lady up some hidden backstairs to a bedroom. Here a servant was waiting who helped the lady disrobe and then led her into the Imperial Bedroom where Napoleon was waiting, also naked.

Bresler includes quite a few gory descriptions of Napoleon’s love-making which was quick and to the point, his point anyway. One young lady recorded that she had barely had time to make a few coy protestations before he grabbed her in an intimate place, manhandled her onto the bed and was in like Flynn. There were a few minutes of grunting noises and – one victim leaves a wonderful detail – the carefully waxed ends of Napoleon’s moustache began to melt and wilt with the heat of his exertion before, with a final grunt and grimace it was all over, the Emperor stood up and the lady was despatched back to the changing room, helped back into her upper class costume, and led away..

For a while the maîtress en titre was the slender, sexy Virginia Castiglione who, Bresler reveals, was very probably a spy sent to seduce Napoleon (not very difficult) and report back on his thoughts about Italian unification to the canny Prime Minister of Piedmont, the Count of Cavour. How novelish this all is!

A propos of Italy, Bresler gives an entertaining description of the surprising crudity of King Victor Emmanuel, who ended up becoming the first king of united Italy. He was once at the Paris opera as a guest of Napoleon’s and pointed out a particularly tasty ballet dancer. ‘How much for the little girl?’ he asked. ‘I’ve no idea,’ replied Napoleon. ‘For your majesty,’ quickly interjected Napoleon’s fixer and procurer, Bacciochi, ‘five thousand francs.’ ‘That’s damn expensive,’ grunted Victor. ‘Never mind,’ said Napoleon turning to Bacciochi. ‘Put it on my tab.’

There’s a strong flavour of Harvey Weinstein about Napoleon III.

From 1863 to 1864 Napoleon’s maîtress en titre was Marguerite Bellanger, a bouncing 23-year-old country girl who catered to Napoleon’s every whim, eventually giving birth to yet another illegitimate child, Charles Jules Auguste François Marie. But none of us get any younger. On one occasion Napoleon returned to the Imperial Palace so exhausted by a prolonged session with Margot that he collapsed and had to be carried to bed – at which point the Empress Eugénie stormed round to Margot’s house in person and shouted that she was killing the Emperor – to which Margot tartly replied that if he got enough at home he wouldn’t have to play away.

(Eugénie emerges as not exactly likeable but as a very tough, independently-minded woman. She caused lots of ructions among Louis’ advisers by insisting on sitting in on Cabinet meetings and, in some of the most fraught decisions, casting the deciding vote. She was, for example, all in favour of declaring war on Prussia in 1870. After meeting the French Cabinet in 1866, Bismarck had described Eugénie as ‘the only man in his Government’, though just as able as all the men to make a catastrophically bad decision – p.340).

But it wasn’t just Louis who was at it. Almost every French figure of note seems to have had a mistress, and quite a few of these were married women whose husbands didn’t mind because they had their own harem of lovers. The atmosphere was rampant with infidelity, and the text is cluttered with countless love children being farmed out or given away.

It all makes quite a contrast with the unimaginative faithfulness of the stiff Prussian Bismarck or the sweet uxoriousness of Victoria and Albert, and goes a long way to explaining the reputation for sexual licence which France, and especially Paris, enjoyed well into the period of my youth.

(In W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Christmas Holiday, which I’ve just read, young Charley’s family assume that his main motivation for going to Paris to see his university chum will be to have the kind of sexual adventures i.e. sex, which were considered impossible and unacceptable in the England of the time – and that was published in 1939.)

La gloire

One last point. In accounts of the Franco-Prussian War, the Great War, and then of France’s colonial disasters in Algeria and Indo-China, again and again I’ve come across the obsession of the French military and political class with la gloire – glory.

Glory is an important part of French cultural history and political discourse. Again and again the French have behaved recklessly and stupidly because obsessed with retaining or winning la gloire for la patrie.

Bresler suggests this delusion started with the first Napoleon – within a decade of his fall, many Frenchmen had forgotten the misery of the non-stop wars he’d engaged in, let alone the fact that he was militarily defeated – twice – and become dazzled by the vague blurry memory of the ‘glory’ of the days when France had a land Empire which controlled most of Europe.

‘I swear to rule for the interests, happiness and glory of the people of France,’ said Napoleon as part of his Coronation Oath; and he had used that same vital ‘glory’ when accepting his earlier nomination as Consul for Life.

These two appeals to ‘glory’ are an indication of the psychological appeal of Napoleon I, and later of Napoleon III, to the French nation: it appealed to the average French person’s desire, above all else, for national glory; for France to be perceived as the finest, the best, in whatever context she is engaged. General de Gaulle trumpeted the same message in the 1960s. Even today’s French politicians use it as an essential part of their platform. By contrast, no British politician has ever promised glory to the electorate. It has never been part of a British sovereign’s Coronation Oath to swear allegiance to the achievement of glory as a sacred mission. No British sovereign or politician would dream of making a similar claim but to Napoleon I and Napoleon III such boasting came easily.

‘Boasting’. That’s the word. This will-o’-the-wisp gloire explains much of France’s preposterous pomposity and yet is so weirdly at odds with France’s miserable military record of the past 200 years.

  • Napoleon – defeated and exiled – twice, 1814, 1815
  • 1830 revolution overthrows Bourbon King Charles
  • 1848 democratic revolution – defeated, leads to constitutional chaos, then autocracy
  • Napoleon III – humiliating failure in Mexico 1867, crushing defeat in Franco-Prussian War 1870
  • The Commune – Red Terror then government reprisals lead to massacres in Paris 1871
  • Dreyfus Affair 1894-1906, twelve year long humiliating revelation of corruption and lies in the French army and government
  • First World War 1914-1918 – French narrowly escape defeat thanks to the British – epic mutinies at Verdun and elsewhere in 1917 shame the army
  • Between the wars – political chaos
  • Second World War – defeat and occupation by the Nazis, widespread collaboration, national humiliation
  • 1950s – humiliating failure in Indo-China leading up to catastrophic defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu
  • 1950s – humiliating failure in Algeria, leading to French Army attempts to assassinate the French president
  • 1958 the French Army plans a coup d’etat against the government
  • 1968 – chaos leading to near revolution

A few years ago I took the kids to Paris and visited the traditional tourist sights. It was when inspecting the Arc de Triomphe really closely, reading the dates and names of battles, that it began to dawn on me – the history of the French Army for the past two hundred years, 1815 to 2015, is a history of unending defeats.

This is what makes the French obsession with la gloire, with boasting about their ‘achievements’, all the more amusing.

No one has ever lost popular support in France by reminding people of their eternal glory. (p.250)

Bresler’s book is a highly entertaining, insightful, emotional and personal account of the strange life and enduring legacy of this most unlikely of political figures.


Related links

Related blog posts

 

1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008)

1848 became known as ‘the year of revolutions’ and ‘the springtime of nations’ because there was political turmoil, fighting and unrest right across Europe, resulting in ministries and monarchies being toppled and new nation states proclaimed.

Causes

The underlying causes were agricultural, economic and demographic.

1. Agricultural failure

From 1845 onwards grain harvests across Europe were poor, and this was exacerbated when the fallback crop, potatoes, were hit by a destructive blight or fungal infection which turned them to mush in the soil. The result of the potato blight in Ireland is estimated to have been one and a half million deaths, but right across Europe peasants and small farmers starved, often to death. Hence the grim nickname for the decade as a whole, ‘the Hungry Forties’.

2. Economic downturn

This all coincided with an economic downturn resulting from industrial overproduction, particularly in the textile industry. Textile workers and artisans were thrown out of work in all Europe’s industrialised areas – the north of England, the industrial regions of Belgium, Paris and south-east France, the Rhineland of Germany, around Vienna and in western Bohemia.

3. Population boom

Hunger and unemployment impacted a population which had undergone a significant increase since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Countryside and cities alike had seen a population explosion.

The surplus of population was across all classes: it’s easy to see how an excess of many mouths to feed in a countryside hit by bad harvests, or in towns hit by economic depression, would result in misery and unrest. A bit more subtle was the impact of rising population on the middle classes: there just weren’t enough nice professional jobs to go round. Everyone wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or to secure a comfortable sinecure in the labyrinthine bureaucracies of the autocracies – but there just weren’t enough vacant positions. And so this created a surplus of disaffected, well-educated, middle-class young men who found roles to play in the new liberal and radical political movements.

If the surplus poor provided the cannon fodder in the streets, the surplus professional men provided the disaffected theoreticians and politicians of liberal reform and nationalism.

Inadequate response

As usual, the politicians in charge across Europe didn’t fully understand the scale of the poverty and distress they were dealing with and chose the time-honoured method of trying to repress all and any expressions of protest by main force.

Rapport’s book describes massacres in cities all across Europe as the garrisons were called out and soldiers shot on marching protesters in capital cities from Paris to Prague. This had an inevitable radicalising effect on the protesting masses who set up barricades and called on more of their fellow workers-urban poor to join them, and so on in a vicious circle.

However, these three underlying problems (population, hunger, slump) and the repressive response by all the authorities to almost any kind of protest, did not lead to one unified political movement of reform in each country. Instead the most important fact to grasp is that the opposition was split into different camps which, at the moments of severe crisis formed uneasy coalitions, but as events developed, tended to fall apart and even come to oppose each other.

There were at least three quite distinct strands of political opposition in 1848.

1. Liberalism

Of the big five states in 1840s Europe – Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia – only France and Britain had anything remotely like a ‘democracy’, and even in these countries the number of people allowed to vote was pitifully small – 170,000 of the richest men in France, representing just 0.5% of the population, compared to the 800,000 who were enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act in Britain (allowing about one in five adult British men the vote).

Despite the small electorates, both Britain and France at least had well-established traditions of ‘civil society’, meaning newspapers, magazines, universities, debating clubs and societies, the theatre, opera and a variety of other spaces where views could be aired and debated.

This was drastically untrue of the three other big powers – Prussia, Austria and Russia had no parliaments and no democracies. They were reactionary autocracies, ruled by hereditary rulers who chose ministers merely to advise them and to carry out their wishes, these moustachioed old reactionaries being Czar Nicholas I of Russia, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Frederick William IV of Prussia.

Therefore, while liberals in Britain merely wanted to expand the franchise a bit, and even the radicals were only calling for complete manhood suffrage (encapsulated in ‘the Great Charter’ which gave the movement of ‘Chartism’ its name and whose collection and presentation to Parliament amounted to the main political event of the year in Britain) and whereas in France liberals wanted to see expansion of the suffrage and the removal of repressive elements of the regime (censorship) – in the three autocracies, liberals were fighting to create even a basic public space for discussion, and a basic level of democracy, in highly censored and repressive societies.

In other words, the situation and potential for reform in these two types of nation were profoundly different.

But to summarise, what marked out liberals across the continent is that they wanted constitutional and legal change, effected through what the Italians called the lotta legale, a legal battle (p.43).

2. Nationalism

Sometimes overlapping with liberal demands, but basically different in ambition, were the continent’s nationalists. Italy and Germany are the obvious examples: both were geographical areas within which the population mostly spoke the same language, but they were, in 1848, divided into complex patchworks of individual states.

In 1806 Napoleon had abolished the 1,000 year-old Holy Roman Empire, creating a host of new statelets, kingdoms, duchies and so on. Some thirty-nine of these were formed into the German Confederation. The German states were a peculiar mix of sovereign empires, kingdoms, electorates, grand duchies, duchies, principalities and free cities. The German Confederation was dominated by the largest two states, Prussia in the North and the Austrian Empire in the south.

Italy was arguably even more divided, with the two northern states of Lombardy and Piedmont under Austrian rule, the central Papal States under control of the Pope, while the south (the kingdom of Sicily and Naples) was ruled by a bourbon king, with other petty monarchies ruling states like Tuscany and Savoy.

1848 was a big year for the famous Italian nationalists, Garibaldi and Mazzini, who attempted to stir up their countrymen to throw off foreign rule and establish a unified Italian state. It is an indication of how dire Italy’s fragmentation was, that the nationalists initially looked to a new and apparently more liberal pope to help them – Pope Pius IX – the papacy usually being seen as the seat of reaction and anti-nationalism (although the story of 1848 in Italy is partly the story of how Pope Pius ended up rejecting the liberal revolution and calling for foreign powers to invade and overthrow the liberal government which had been set up in Rome.)

So 1848 was a big year for nationalists in Italy and the German states who hoped to unite all their separate states into one unified nation. Far less familiar to me were the nationalist struggles further east:

  • the struggle of Polish nationalists to assert their nationhood – after 1815 Poland had been partitioned into three, with the parts ruled by Prussia, Russia and Austria
  • as well as a host of more obscure nationalist struggles east of Vienna – for example:
    • the struggle of Magyar nationalists – the Hungarians – to throw off the yoke of German-speaking Vienna
    • the Czechs also, attempted to throw off Austrian rule
    • or the struggle of Ukrainian nationalists to throw off the domination of their land by rich Polish landowners

Many of these movements adopted a title with the word ‘young’ in it, hence Young Italy, Young Germany, Young Hungary, Young Ireland, and so on.

Map of Europe in 1848. Note the size of the Austrian Empire but also the deep penetration into Europe of the Ottoman Empire

Map of Europe in 1848. Note the size of the Austrian Empire in blue, but also the deep penetration into Europe of the Ottoman Empire (Source: Age of the Sage)

Rapport shows how nationalists in almost all the countries of Europe wanted their lands and peoples to be unified under new, autochthonous rulers.

N.B. It is important to emphasise the limits of the 1848 revolutions and violence. There were no revolutions in Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden-Norway, in Spain or Portugal or in Russia. The Springtime of Nations most affected France, Germany, Italy and the Austrian Empire.

3. Socialism

After liberalism and nationalism, the third great issue was the ‘social question’. While the rich and the upper-middle class seemed to be reaping the benefits from the early phases of the industrial revolution – from the spread of factory techniques for manufacturing textiles, the construction of a network of railways which helped transport raw materials and finished goods and so on – a huge number of rural peasants, small traders, and the urban working class were living in barely imaginable squalor and starving.

The paradox of starvation in the midst of plenty had prompted a variety of theoretical and economic analyses as well as utopian visions of how to reform society to ensure no-one would starve. These had become more prominent during the 1830s. It was in 1832 that the word ‘socialism’ was first coined as an umbrella term for radical proposals to overhaul society to ensure fairness and to abolish the shocking poverty and squalor which so many bourgeois writers noted as they travelled across the continent.

So ‘socialist’ ways of thinking had had decades to evolve and gain traction. Rapport makes the interesting point that by 1848 Europe had its first generation of professional revolutionaries.

The great French Revolution of 1789 had propelled men of often middling ability and provincial origin into high profile positions which they were completely unprepared for. By contrast, 1848 was a golden opportunity for men who had devoted their lives to revolutionary writing and agitating, such as Louis-August Blanqui and Armand Barbès.

(As Gareth Stedman Jones makes clear in his marvellous biography of Karl Marx, Marx himself was notorious to the authorities as a professional subversive, and his newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung became the bestselling radical journal in Germany, but he had little impact on the actual course of events.)

The various flavours of socialists were united in not just wanting to tinker with constitutions, not wanting to add a few hundred thousand more middle-class men to the franchise (as the liberals wanted) – nor were they distracted by complex negotiations among the rulers of all the petty states of Italy or Germany (like the nationalists were).

Instead the socialists were united in a desire to effect a comprehensive and sweeping reform of all elements of society and the economy in order to create a classless utopia. For example, by nationalising all land and factories, by abolishing all titles and ranks and – at their most extreme – abolishing private property itself, in order to create a society of complete equality.

A crisis of modernisation

Rapport sums up thus: The revolution and collapse of the conservative order in 1848 was a crisis of modernization, in that European economies and societies were changing fast, in size and economic and social requirements, but doing so in states and political cultures which had failed to keep pace and which, given the reactionary mindsets of their rulers and aristocracy, were dead set against any kind of reform or change. Something had to give.

1848

Rapport tells the story of the tumultuous events which swept the continent with great enthusiasm and clarity. He gives us pen portraits of key reformer such as the nationalists Mazzini and Garibaldi and the socialist Blanqui, and of arch conservatives like Klemens Metternich, Chancellor of Austria, the young Bismarck of Prussia, and the sneering Guizot, unpopular premiere of France.

This is a great cast to start with but quite quickly the reader is overwhelmed with hundreds more names of radicals, republicans, liberals, reactionaries, conservatives and monarchists, ordinary workers and emperors – Rapport clearly and effectively presenting a cast of hundreds of named individuals who played parts large and small during this tumultuous year.

The first and decisive event of the year was the overthrow of King Louis Philippe in France and his replacement by a hastily cobbled-together Second Republic, in February 1848. This was a genuine revolution, and in what many took to be Europe’s most important nation, so news of it spread like wildfire across the continent, emboldening radicals in Italy, Austria, Prussia and further east.

Rapport describes events with a keen eye for telling details and the key, often accidental incidents, which could transform angry hunger marchers into an revolutionary mob. For example, the outraged citizen of Milan who knocked a cigar out of the mouth of a preening Austrian officer, sparking a street fight which escalated into a ‘tobacco riot’, prompting the city’s Austrian governor to call out the troops who then proceeded to fire on the mob, killing six and wounding fifty Italian ‘patriot and martyrs’. That is how revolutions start.

There is a vast amount to tell, as Rapport describes not only the turmoil on the streets, but the complex constitutional and political manoeuvrings of regimes from Denmark in the north to Sicily in the south, from Ireland in the west to Hungary, Ukraine and Poland in the east. I didn’t know so much happened in this one year. I didn’t know, for example, that in the Berlin revolution, in March, one day of epic street fighting between liberal reformers, backed by the population against the king’s army, resulted in 800 dead!

Fierce streetfighting around Alexanderplatz in Berlin on the night of 18-19 March 1848

Fierce fighting at the Alexanderplatz barricade in Berlin on the night of 18-19 March 1848

It was eye-opening to be told in such detail about the scale of the violence across the continent.

I knew that the ‘June Days’ in Paris, when General Cavaignac was tasked with using the army to regain control of all the parts of the city where revolutionary barricades had been set up, resulted in vast bloodshed, with some 10,000 killed or injured. But I didn’t know that when Austrian Imperial troops retook Vienna from the liberal-radical National Guard in the last week of October 1848, the use of cannon in urban streets contributed to the death toll of 2,000 (p.287).

There were not only soldiers-versus-workers battles, but plenty of more traditional fighting between actual armies, such as the battle between the forces of the king of Piedmont and Austrian forces in north Italy leading to the decisive Austrian victory at Custozza on 25 July 1848.

But it was the scale of the urban fighting which surprised and shocked me.

In another example, for a few months from April 1848 the island of Sicily declared its independence from the bourbon king of Naples who had previously ruled it. However, the king sent an army by ship which landed at Messina, subjecting the city to a sustained bombardment and then street by street fighting, which eventually left over two thirds of the city in smouldering ruins (p.260).

The social, political but also ethnic tensions between native Czech republicans and their overlord Austrian masters, erupted into six days of violent street fighting in Prague, June 12-17, during which Austrian General Windischgrätz first of all cleared the barricades before withdrawing his troops to the city walls and pounding Prague with a sustained artillery bombardment. Inevitably, scores of innocent lives were lost in the wreckage and destruction (p.235).

So much fighting, So much destruction. So many deaths.

New ideas

Well, new to me:

1. The problem of nationalism The new ideology of nationalism turned out to contain an insoluble paradox at its core: large ethnically homogenous populations were encouraged to agitate for their own nation, but what about the minorities who lived within their borders? Could they be allowed their national freedom without undermining the geographical and cultural ‘integrity’ of the larger entity?

Thus the Hungarian nationalists had barely broken with their Austrian rulers before they found themselves having to deal with minority populations like Romanians, Serbs, Croats and others who lived within the borders the Hungarians claimed for their new state. Should they be granted their own independence? No. The Hungarians not only rejected these pleas for independence, but went to war with their minorities to quell them. And in doing so, split and distracted their armies, arguably contributing to their eventual defeat by Austria.

Meanwhile, Polish nationalists were dead set on asserting Polish independence, but in Galicia quickly found themselves the subject of attacks from the Ruthenian minority, long subjugated by Polish landowners, and who claimed allegiance to a state which they wanted to call Ukraine. Like the Hungarians, the Poles were having none of it.

Thus nationalism spawned mini-nationalisms, sub-nationalisms, and ethnic and cultural conflicts which began to look more like civil wars than struggles for ‘independence’.

As a result, two broad trends emerged:

1. The chauvinism of big nations Nationalists from the larger nations developed an angry rhetoric castigating these troublesome little minorities as culturally less advanced. Rapport quotes German nationalists who criticised the Slavic minorities for their alleged racial and cultural inferiority – a rhetoric which was to have a long career in Germany, leading eventually to the Nazis and their Hunger Plan to starve and enslave the Slavic peoples.

2. Austro-Slavism In response to the breakaway aspirations of Hungary, the Hapsburg (Austrian) monarchy developed a strategy of Austro-Slavism. This was to appeal directly to the many minorities within the empire, and within Hungarian territory in particular, and guarantee them more protection within the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire than they would receive in one of the new, ethnically pure, nationalist states. ‘Stay within our multicultural empire and you will be better off than under repressive monoglot Hungarian rule.’

Thus when representatives of the Slovaks asked the new Hungarian Parliament (which had been created in March 1848 as a concession from Vienna) to allow the teaching of the Slovak language and the flying of the Slovak flag in Slovak regions within the new Hungary, the Hungarians vehemently refused. They accused the nationalists of ‘Pan-Slavic nationalism’ and of wanting to undermine the integrity of the new Magyar (i.e. Hungarian) state. Not surprisingly when, later in the year, open war broke out between Austria and Hungary, many Slovak nationalists sided with Austria, having made the simple calculation that they were likely to have more religious, racial and linguistic freedom under the Austrian Empire than under the repressively nationalistic Hungarians.

3. The threshold principle of nationalism The threshold principle is an attempt to solve the Nationalism Paradox. It states that a people only ‘deserves’ or ‘qualifies’ to have a state of its own if it has the size and strength to maintain and protect it. Surprisingly, Friederich Engels, the extreme radical and patron of Karl Marx, espoused the threshold principle when it came to the smaller nationalities in and around Germany. Being German himself he, naturally enough, thought that Germany ought to be unified into a nation. But the Czechs, Slovaks and other ‘lesser’ peoples who lived within the borders of this new Germany, Engels thought they didn’t deserve to be nations because they didn’t come up to ‘German’ standards of culture and political maturity. (Explained on page 181).

This was just one of the problems, paradoxes and contradictions which the supposedly simple notion of ‘nationalism’ contained within itself and which made it so difficult to apply on the ground.

Nonetheless, 1848 marks the moment when nationalism clearly emerges as a major force in European history – and at the same time reveals the contradictions, and the dark undercurrents latent within it, which have dominated European politics right down to this day.

4. Grossdeutsch or Kleindeutsch? Uniting the 39 states of Germany sounds like a straightforward enough ambition, but at its core was a Big Dilemma: should the new state include or exclude Austria? The problem was that while the Austrian component of the Austrian Empire spoke German and considered themselves culturally linked to the rest of Germany, the Hapsburg monarchy which ruled Austria had also inherited a patchwork of territories all across Europe (not least all of Hungary with its minorities, and the northern states of Italy): should those obviously non-Germanic part of the Austrian empire be incorporated into Germany? Or would Austria have to abandon its empire in order to be incorporated into the new Germany?

Exponents of a Grossdeutsch (Big Germany) option thought it ridiculous to exclude Austria with its millions of German-speakers; of course Austria should be included. But that would mean tearing the Austro-Hungarian empire in half because obviously you couldn’t include millions of Hungarians, Romanians and so on inside a ‘German’ state (the Kleindeutsch, or Little Germany, position).

Or could you? This latter thought gave rise to a third position, the Mitteleuropäisch solution, under which all of the German states would be incorporated into a super-Austria, to create a German-speaking empire which would stretch from the Baltic in the north to the Mediterranean in the south, a bulwark against Latins in the west and south, and the Slavic peoples to the east and south-east, promoting German culture, language and way of life across the continent, by force if necessary. (pp.298-300)

Comical and hypothetical though this may all sound, it would prove to be at the centre of world history for the next century. It was the ‘German Problem’ which lay behind the seismic Franco-Prussian War, the catastrophic First World War, and the global disaster of the Second World War.

The European Economic Community, established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, at bottom was an attempt to settle the ‘German Problem’ i.e. to tie the German and French economies so intricately together that there could never again be war between the two of them.

Some people think the ‘German Problem’ was only really settled with the reunification of the two Germanies in 1990, but others think it still lives on in the disparity between the rich industrial West and the mostly agricultural and impoverished East.

And the question of German identity, of who is or isn’t Germany, has been revived by Angel Merkel’s over-enthusiastic acceptance of a million refugees in 2017, which has led to the widespread popularity of far right political parties in Germany for the first time since the Second World War.

All of which tends to suggest that the virus of nationalism, unleashed in 1848, can never really be cured.

Results

It takes four hundred pages dense with fact and anecdote to convey the confused turmoil of the year 1848, but Rapport had already spelled out the overall results in the opening pages.

Although all the protesters hated the reactionary regimes, they couldn’t agree what to replace them with. More specifically, the liberals and socialists who initially found themselves on the same barricades calling for the overthrow of this or that ‘tyrant’ – once the overthrow had been achieved or, more usually, a liberal constitution conceded by this or that petty monarch – at this point these temporarily allied forces realised that they held almost diametrically opposed intentions.

The liberals wanted to hold onto all their property and rights and merely to gain a little more power, a little more say for themselves in the way things were run; whereas the socialists wanted to sweep the bourgeois liberals out of the way, along with the monarchy, the aristocracy, the church and all the other tools of oppression.

It was this fundamentally divided nature of the forces of ‘change’ which meant that, as events worked their course, the forces of Reaction found it possible to divide and reconquer their opponents. Almost everywhere, when push came to shove, middle-class liberals ended up throwing in their lot with the chastened autocracies, thus tipping the balance of power against the genuine revolutionaries.

The high hopes of 1848 almost everywhere gave way to the resurgence of the autocracies and the restoration of reactionary regimes or the imposition of old repression in new clothes. Nowhere more ironically than in France where the overthrown monarchy of Louis Philippe gave way to the deeply divided Second Republic which staggered on for three chaotic years before being put out of its misery when the canny Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte – who had gotten himself elected president right at the end of 1848 – carried out the coup which brought him to power as a new Emperor, Napoleon III, in 1851.

Rapport’s account also makes clear that the violence and turmoil wasn’t limited to 1848 – it continued well into 1849:

  • in Germany where the newly established ‘national’ parliament was forced to flee to Frankfurt and, when the Prussian king felt strong enough to surround and close it, its suppression sparked a second wave of uprisings, barricades, vicious street fighting and harsh reprisals in cities all across Germany e.g. Dresden where Richard Wagner took part in the insurrection, whose violent suppression left over 250 dead and 400 wounded.
  • and in Italy where the republics of Rome and Venice were besieged and only conquered after prolonged bombardment and bloodshed. (It is a real quirk of history that the Roman republic was besieged and conquered by French troops, ordered there by ‘President’ Napoleon. Why? Because the French didn’t want the approaching Austrians to take control of Rome and, therefore, of the Papacy. Ancient national and dynastic rivalries everywhere trumped high-minded but weak liberal or republican ideals.)

More than anywhere else it was in Hungary that the struggle for independence escalated into full-scale war  (with Austria) which dragged on for several years. By the end, some 50,000 soldiers on both sides had lost their lives. When the Austrians finally reconquered Hungary, they quashed its independent parliament, repealed its declaration of rights, reimposed Austrian law and language and Hungary remained under martial law until 1854.

The Hungarian revolt led to the establishment of an independent parliament in 1849 which seceded from the Austrian Empire. Unfortunately, this was crushed later in the year by a combination of the Austrian army which invaded from the west, allied with Russian forces which invaded from the East. The parliament was overthrown, Hungary’s leaders were arrested, tried and executed, and the country sank into sullen acquiescence in the Austro-Hungarian Empire which lasted until 1918, when it finally achieved independence.

None of the ‘nations’ whose nationalists were lobbying for them to be created ended up coming into existence: both Italy and Germany remained patchwork quilts of petty states, albeit some of them reorganised and with new constitutions. Italy had to wait till 1860, Germany until 1871, to achieve full unification.

Polish nationalism completely failed; Poland didn’t become an independent nation state until 1918.

Same with the Czechs. They only gained nationhood, as Czechoslovakia, in 1918 (only to be invaded by the Nazis 20 years later).

Only in France was the old order decisively overthrown with the abolition of the monarchy. But this, ironically, was only to give rise to a new, more modern form of autocracy, in the shape of Napoleon III’s ’empire’.

It is one among many virtues of Rapport’s book that he explains more clearly than any other account I’ve read the nature of Napoleon’s widespread appeal to the broad French population, and the succession of lucky chances which brought him to the throne. Karl Marx dismissed Napoleon III as an empty puppet who made himself all things to all men, not quite grasping that this is precisely what democracy amounts to – persuading a wide variety of people and constituencies that you are the solution to their problems.

Everywhere else the European Revolution of 1848 failed. It would be decades, in some cases a century or more, before all the ideas proclaimed by liberals came into force, ideas such as freedom of expression and assembly, the abolition of the death penalty (1965 in Britain), of corporal punishment and censorship (Britain’s theatre censorship was only abolished in 1968), the emancipation of minorities and the extension of the franchise to all men and women (in the UK it was only in 1928 that all men and women over the age of 21 were allowed a vote – 80 years after 1848).

Order over anarchy

The political and economic situation had certainly got bad enough for a constellation of forces – and for hundreds of thousands of alienated urban poor – to mobilise and threaten their rulers. But none of the reformers who inherited these situations could command the majority needed to rule effectively or implement their plans before the Counter-Revolution began to fight back.

The failure of the French Second Republic, in particular, made clear a fundamental principle of advanced societies. that the general population prefers an able dictatorship to the uncertainty and chaos of ‘revolution’.

(This is also the great lesson of the wave of anarchy which swept across Europe after the Great War, described in by Robert Gerwarth’s powerful book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923.)

Again and again, in different countries, Rapport repeats the lesson that people prefer order and security, albeit with restricted political rights, to the ‘promise’ of a greater ‘freedom’, which in practice seems to result in anarchy and fighting in the streets.

People prefer Order and Security to Uncertainty and Fear.

When faced with a choice between holding onto their new political liberties or conserving their lives, their property and their communities against ‘anarchy’ or ‘communism’, most people chose to sacrifice their freedom for the sake of security. (p.191)

A simple lesson which professional revolutionaries from Blanqui to our own time seem unable to understand. It is not that people are against equality. If asked most people of course say they are in favour of ‘equality’. It’s that most people, in countries across Europe for the past 170 years, have time and time again shown themselves to be against the anarchy which violent movements claiming to fight for equality so often actually bring in their train.

P.S.

I get a little irritated by readers and commentators who say things like, ‘the issues in the book turn out to be surprisingly modern, issues like freedom of speech, constitutional and legal reform, the identity of nations and their populations’.

Rapport himself does it, commenting that many German states expressed ‘startlingly modern-sounding anxieties’ (p.337) in response to the Frankfurt Parliament’s publication of its Grundrechte or Bill of Basic Rights, in December 1848.

This is looking down the telescope the wrong way. All these themes and issues aren’t ‘surprisingly relevant to today’. What phrases like that really express is that, we are still struggling with the same issues, problems and challenges – economic, social and cultural – which have dogged Europe for over 200 years.

The past isn’t surprisingly ‘relevant’. It is the world we live in that is – despite all the superficial changes of clothes and cars and techno-gadgets – surprisingly unchanged. We are still struggling with the problems our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and their parents and grandparents, failed to solve.

If you’re of the tendency who think that handfuls of people living a hundred or two hundred years ago – early socialists or feminists or freethinkers – were ‘prophets’ and ‘surprisingly relevant’ it’s because this way of thinking tends to suggest that we standing tip-toe on the brink of solving them.

I, on the contrary, take a much more pessimistic view, which is that this or that thinker wasn’t a startlingly far-sighted visionary, simply that they could see and express problems and issues which over the past two hundred years we have completely failed to solve.

When so many better people than us, in more propitious circumstances, have failed, over decades, sometimes centuries, to solve deep structural issues such as protecting the environment, or how to organise states so as to satisfy everyone’s racial and ethnic wishes, or how to establish absolute and complete equality between the sexes – what gives anyone the confidence that we can solve them today?

All the evidence, in front of the faces of anyone who reads deeply and widely in history, is that these are problems intrinsic to the human condition which can never be solved, only ameliorated, or fudged, or tinkered with, in different ways by different generations.


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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)

She still was not happy – she never had been. What caused this inadequacy in her life – why did everything she leaned on instantly decay? … Oh if somewhere there were a being strong and handsome, a valiant heart, passionate and sensitive at once, a poet’s spirit in an angel’s form, a lyre with strings of steel, sounding sweet-sad epithalamiums to the heavens, then why should she not find that being? Vain dream! There was nothing that was worth going far to get: all was lies! Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a misery. Every pleasure brought its surfeit; and the loveliest kisses only left upon your lips a baffled longing for a more intense delight. (Madame Bovary, Part three, chapter six)

Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert is one of the most famous novelists of the 19th century, in any language. Born in 1821 in Normandy, he went to Paris to study law but dropped out after being afflicted by a mystery illness, probably epilepsy. He returned to Normandy and spent the rest of his life living off a modest private income in the remote village of Croisset, devoting himself to literature.

His early (unpublished) novels are lyrical and romantic. As he matured he reined in his tendencies to lush romanticism in order to create a new kind of studied realism.

Madame Bovary

Flaubert is most famous for his first published novel, Madame Bovary (1857) the low-key, realistic depiction of the life of a small-town woman, Emma Rouault, originally the daughter of a farmer, who marries the well-meaning but dull local doctor, Charles Bovary, but soon yearns for something more.

She has an affair with a stylish local landowner, Rodolphe, who, after several years of dallying, dumps her when she shows signs of wanting to leave her husband and getting serious. As a result Emma has a nervous breakdown and takes months of being tenderly cared for by her husband to recover. Sone years later she develops a passionate and sensuous affair with young Leon the law clerk from her small town, who has moved on to bigger things in Rouen. With him she arranges weekly meetings for days of unbridled sensuality.

Nemesis comes not as a result of these affairs, but through Emma’s equally wanton way with money. The village haberdasher, Lheureux, preys on her over the years, selling her all kinds of luxury knick-knacks she doesn’t really need, making her consolidate her debts into large promissory notes, renewing these at extortionate interest, and finally handing the lot over to a rack-renting debt collector who announces that  she is bankrupt and that he is going to impound and sell off all the good doctor’s belongings and house to pay off the debts.

On this last, climactic day, Flaubert shows Emma desperately running round the village, begging everyone she knows for money. She begs the haberdasher himself, the local lawyer, then goes out to the chateau of her old lover Rodolphe, in a vain attempt to rekindle his interest and get him to lend her money. She takes the coach into town to beg Leon to get the money for her from a friend and then suggests that he steals the money from his employer. One by one all the men reject her.

Finally, in a delirium of despair, Emma goes in the back of the local chemist’s shop, persuades his biddable young assistant to fetch her a jar of arsenic (whose existence we’d learned about in an unrelated scene years earlier, but which she now remembers) and stuffs her mouth with it.

She staggers back home and there follows a protracted death bed scene, at which Charles her husband is distraught and calls for a set of more senior doctors to come and help. Quickly the two local ‘experts’ realise there’s nothing they can do for her and so they take up the offer of Homais, the chemist, to repair for a slap-up dinner at his house (his wife fussing and fretting that she doesn’t have anything special to hand). Back in the sick room, Emma coughs and pukes her last breaths, while the local curé struggles to administer the sacraments. She dies.

The trial of Emma Bovary

Because it was so matter of fact and realistic in its depiction of Emma’s affairs (for its day, 1857) Madame Bovary was seized by the authorities, and Flaubert and the publisher of the magazine it was serialised in were prosecuted for ‘insulting public morals and offending decent manners’.

The trial lasted one day and the defendants were acquitted, although Flaubert was reprimanded by the court for his use of graphic detail concerning ‘adulterous and corrupt affairs’.

The trial, as well as his devotion to the art of writing, which became apparent when Flaubert’s wonderfully colourful and thoughtful correspondence was published after  his death (1880), made Gustave a kind of patron saint of serious literary types, both writers and critics.

Realism

The appeal, the pleasure, of realism is in the precision of the descriptions. Flaubert excels at interiors.

A young woman in a blue merino dress with three flounces came to the threshold of the door to receive Monsieur Bovary, whom she led to the kitchen, where a large fire was blazing. The servant’s breakfast was boiling beside it in small pots of all sizes. Some damp clothes were drying inside the chimney-corner. The shovel, tongs, and the nozzle of the bellows, all of colossal size, shone like polished steel, while along the walls hung many pots and pans in which the clear flame of the hearth, mingling with the first rays of the sun coming in through the window, was mirrored fitfully. (Part one, chapter two)

One day he got there about three o’clock. Everybody was in the fields. He went into the kitchen, but did not at once catch sight of Emma; the outside shutters were closed. Through the chinks of the wood the sun sent across the flooring long fine rays that were broken at the corners of the furniture and trembled along the ceiling. Some flies on the table were crawling up the glasses that had been used, and buzzing as they drowned themselves in the dregs of the cider. The daylight that came in by the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace, and touched with blue the cold cinders. Between the window and the hearth Emma was sewing; she wore no fichu; he could see small drops of perspiration on her bare shoulders. (Part one, chapter three)

Light is important in these prose paintings. They have the still, pregnant precision of interiors by Vermeer.

The precisely rendered descriptions extend to finely observed accounts of humans and their surfaces.

In bed, in the morning, by her side, on the pillow, he watched the sunlight sinking into the down on her fair cheek, half hidden by the lappets of her night-cap. Seen thus closely, her eyes looked to him enlarged, especially when, on waking up, she opened and shut them rapidly many times. Black in the shade, dark blue in broad daylight, they had, as it were, depths of different colours, that, darker in the centre, grew paler towards the surface of the eye. His own eyes lost themselves in these depths; he saw himself in miniature down to the shoulders, with his handkerchief round his head and the top of his shirt open… (Part one, chapter five)

And Flaubert deploys the same forensic skills in his descriptions of human behaviour.

When shy Charles marries sentimental Emma, their wedding feast is an opportunity for Flaubert to satirise the behaviour of the small-town Normans he himself lived his whole life among.

Until night they ate. When any of them were too tired of sitting, they went out for a stroll in the yard, or for a game with corks in the granary, and then returned to table. Some towards the finish went to sleep and snored. But with the coffee everyone woke up. Then they began songs, showed off tricks, raised heavy weights, performed feats with their fingers, then tried lifting carts on their shoulders, made broad jokes, kissed the women. At night when they left, the horses, stuffed up to the nostrils with oats, could hardly be got into the shafts; they kicked, reared, the harness broke, their masters laughed or swore; and all night in the light of the moon along country roads there were runaway carts at full gallop plunging into the ditches, jumping over yard after yard of stones, clambering up the hills, with women leaning out from the tilt to catch hold of the reins. (Part one, chapter four)

He’s good at crowd scenes. As well as the wedding feast, he really goes to town in his description of the annual Agricultural Show in the novel’s main setting, Yonville. There’s a sumptuous and vivid set-piece description of a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at Rouen. And Emma’s funeral is another opportunity for Gustave to show his skills at large-scale compositions, the prose equivalent of the large canvases of his contemporary realist, the painter Gustave Courbet.

Flaubert’s characters

Flaubert applies the same wry, detached attitude to his characters.

We get a detailed account of the upbringing of Charles Bovary – which amounts to him being spoiled as a boy by his mother and encouraged to run around in the woods to become ‘a man’ by his father, all of which creates his easy-going, lazy personality. Charles drops his medical studies in Rouen and flunks his exams; then gives them another go, scrapes through to qualify as a doctor, and his doting mother finds him a nice, quiet, rural job as doctor in Tostes (a town near the river Seine, about ten miles south of Rouen).

At first we see Emma only through Charles’s eyes when he goes to treat her father, a worthy old farmer, Monsieur Rouault. Her physical beauty and stillness in the dark parlour entrance him. It’s only after they’re married, that Flaubert gives us a chapter describing Emma’s background and we begin to realise she is not at all what she seemed to simple Charles.

Only now are we told that Emma Bovary née Rouault is shallow, sentimental and silly, having been raised on a diet of romantic novels and sentimental religion at a convent school. It turns out that her poise and stillness conceal a mind consumed by the worst clichés of cheap fiction.

She thought, sometimes, that, after all, this was the happiest time of her life – the honeymoon, as people called it. To taste the full sweetness of it, it would have been necessary doubtless to fly to those lands with sonorous names where the days after marriage are full of laziness most suave. In post chaises behind blue silken curtains to ride slowly up steep road, listening to the song of the postilion re-echoed by the mountains, along with the bells of goats and the muffled sound of a waterfall; at sunset on the shores of gulfs to breathe in the perfume of lemon trees; then in the evening on the villa-terraces above, hand in hand to look at the stars, making plans for the future. It seemed to her that certain places on earth must bring happiness, as a plant peculiar to the soil, and that cannot thrive elsewhere. Why could not she lean over balconies in Swiss chalets, or enshrine her melancholy in a Scotch cottage, with a husband dressed in a black velvet coat with long tails, and thin shoes, a pointed hat and frills? (Part one, chapter seven)

Thus Flaubert, skewering the shallow tropes of popular fiction.

Emma hoped the confident amiable young doctor had come to take her away from a life of rural boredom. Instead she finds herself trapped in an arguably even worse life of small-town boredom.

Perhaps she would have liked to confide all these things to someone. But how tell an undefinable uneasiness, variable as the clouds, unstable as the winds? Words failed her – the opportunity, the courage. If Charles had but wished it, if he had guessed it, if his look had but once met her thought, it seemed to her that a sudden plenty would have gone out from her heart, as the fruit falls from a tree when shaken by a hand. But as the intimacy of their life became deeper, the greater became the gulf that separated her from him. (Part one, chapter seven)

A trajectory of alienation which continues throughout the book, until Emma comes to loathe and detest everything about Charles.

Banality

What Flaubert hated, what terrified him most, was banality. Life is banal and, oh God, people are so trite and shallow. In their different ways, Charles and Emma are almost spiteful portraits of dullness.

Charles’s conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everyone’s ideas trudged past, in their everyday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams.

And poor Emma, the heroine around which these four hundred pages rotate, is an embodiment of the inchoate longing for adventure, for romance, for something, in the mind of a silly, shallow, provincial young woman, trapped by her narrow upbringing, limited life opportunities and her own trite personality.

Life in 1840s rural France seems almost unbearably dull to us, reading the book in the 21st century – but was doubly so for women who lived virtually under house arrest. Of course, she could go out whenever she liked, except that, in the dull little towns where the couple lived, there was almost nothing to do and no-one to see.

The thought of having a male child afforded her a kind of anticipatory revenge for all her past helplessness. A man, at least, is free. He can explore the passions and the continents, can surmount obstacles, reach out to the most distant joys. But a woman is constantly thwarted. At once inert and pliant, she has to contend with both physical weakness and legal subordination. Her will is like the veil on her bonnet, fastened by a single string and quivering at every breeze hat blows. Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains. (Part two, chapter three)

Inevitability

The story of this small-town tragedy unfolds with a kind of grim inevitability. Flaubert pinpoints with surgical precision the moments where Emma slowly realises she doesn’t love Charles, then chafes at her restricted life, then begins to dislike Charles, then ends up passionately hating him.

This makes her ill, stressed and unhappy. She loses appetite. Charles and his domineering mother, blissfully unaware of her feelings, decide a change of scene is called for and they move to a different town, the (fictional) rural town of Yonville. This is the setting of most of the story.

Against the rhythms of rural and small town life, against the backdrop of the Wednesday market and the Agricultural Show attended by the Department Prefect (part two, chapter 8), we watch Emma:

  • get pregnant, desperately hope it will be a boy who she can project her wish for freedom onto, and sink into despair when it is a girl, who she resents and never bonds with
  • has an almost wordless, touchless, intense passion with a young law student, Léon Dupuis, who shares her naive love of literature and music – perversely she doesn’t return his obvious admiration and he leaves to study in Paris, plunging her deeper into despair

It is then that she is spotted by Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy local landowner and experienced womaniser. With cold calculation he sets out to seduce Emma and add her to his list of conquests.

If he is what we nowadays call a ‘sexual predator’, Emma is far from helpless victim. She is depicted as self-centred and heartless – her lack of affection for her own little girl is quite upsetting to anyone who’s been a parent.

And Flaubert depicts with quite haunting insight the development of their affair, its ups and downs, as both parties are by turns genuinely carried away with love and lust, or have moments of doubt and repulsion, return to the fray willing it to remain heady and romantic, become slightly hardened… and so on.

In other words, there are no heroes or villains, everyone is portrayed with a clinical detachment, sometimes with tones of compassion, sometimes broad satire (the chorus of gossipy townspeople), sometimes bordering on contempt.

Style

Stupid young married woman is seduced by cynical womaniser, has further affairs, runs up huge bills  – then kills herself. It’s not a novel you read for the plot. Instead, it’s a book you can open at any page and immediately enjoy for the precision and deftness of its style. God, it’s good writing, even in translation. Here are the household servants.

‘Let me alone,’ Felicity said, moving her pot of starch. ‘You’d better be off and pound almonds; you are always dangling about women. Before you meddle with such things, bad boy, wait till you’ve got a beard to your chin.’
‘Oh, don’t be cross! I’ll go and clean her boots,’ replied Justin.
And he at once took down from the shelf Emma’s boots, all coated with mud, the mud of the rendezvous, that crumbled into powder beneath his fingers, and that he watched as it gently rose in a ray of sunlight. (Part three, chapter twelve)

Composition

And the conception, the composition, feels so right. If the plot isn’t exactly original, it unfurls with a kind of stately orderliness and clarity. Although it is categorised as a ‘realist’ novel, there are in fact many scenes which seem pregnant with an almost medieval sense of allegory and deeper meaning.

In part two, chapter six, Emma hears the church bell of Yonville ringing and is suddenly overcome by the need to confess and unburden herself. She bustles along to the church but there follows an excruciating scene where she tries to hint and convey to the curé that all is not well, but he is hopelessly distracted by a class of unruly young boys he is trying to teach the catechism. Eventually Emma leaves having said nothing, with all her frustration redoubled and bottled up. Back at the house she sits in an agony of frustrated unhappiness while her poor little daughter, Berthe, comes tugging at her skirt, wanting to play. Emma tells her to go away but like all toddlers she comes back and then Emma snaps and pushes her hard with her elbow. With perfect inevitability, Berthe falls backwards and cuts her cheek against the curtain holder, at which Emma snaps out of her misery and panics, shrieking for the maid and then for Charles who comes running. All are impressed by Emma’s doting hyper-care for the child; only we, the reader, have any idea at all of the raging turmoil in her mind which drove her to be so thoughtless.

The whole incident unfolds with the heavy inevitability of a Greek tragedy yet at the same time is entirely naturalistic. There’s nothing forced or symbolic or precious about it. This, you feel, is how life is, made up of silly frustrations, unhappinesses, angers and accidents.

But the way Flaubert chooses and selects these moments is almost breath-taking. ‘Realism’ sounds like it ought to be dull, but Flaubert’s selection of just the right psychological and emotional moments from this tawdry story means that every single scene is alive with meaning and intensity.

And the words. The extremely careful phrasing of every sentence which is used to depict all these charged scenes.

The furniture in its place seemed to have become more immobile, and to lose itself in the shadow as in an ocean of darkness. The fire was out, the clock went on ticking, and Emma marvelled at this calm of all things while within herself was such tumult. But little Berthe was there, between the window and the work-table, tottering on her knitted shoes, and trying to come to her mother to catch hold of the ends of her apron-strings.
‘Leave me alone,’ said Emma, putting her from her with her hand.
The little girl soon came up closer against her knees, and leaning on them with her arms, she looked up with her large blue eyes, while a small thread of pure saliva dribbled from her lips on to the silk apron.
‘Leave me alone,’ repeated the young woman quite irritably.

The ticking clock, the spool of spittle, all scream out Emma’s unbearable unhappiness. Character, mood and emotion is portrayed with stunning brilliance on every page. This is what makes Madame Bovary a masterpiece. Here is Charles, alone by the body of Emma, after she’s died and been dressed for her funeral by the village women.

It was the last time; he came to bid her farewell.

The aromatic herbs were still smoking, and spirals of bluish vapour blended at the window-sash with the fog that was coming in. There were few stars, and the night was warm. The wax of the candles fell in great drops upon the sheets of the bed. Charles watched them burn, tiring his eyes against the glare of their yellow flame.

The watering on the satin gown shimmered white as moonlight. Emma was lost beneath it; and it seemed to him that, spreading beyond her own self, she blended confusedly with everything around her – the silence, the night, the passing wind, the damp odours rising from the ground.

Comedy

If Flaubert is harsh on the self deceptions of the lovers – Emma herself, the calculating cad Rodolphe, the genuinely intoxicated young Leon – and gives an unflinching portrait of Charles’s dull obtuseness and the bossiness of his domineering mother, always ready to stick her oar in – an under-appreciated aspect of the book is its broad humour.

Comedy is harder to quote or pick out of a novel than its countless serious strands and issues. It generally needs more context or build-up. But there’s a kind of Dad’s Army, warm humour about Flaubert’s depictions of the inhabitants of the Norman village. If they can be caught out in petty hypocrisies or pompous speeches or absent-minded behaviour or gossiping, they will be.

A lot rotates around the figure of Homais, the pompous village chemist, who fancies himself as a scientific pioneer, quietly breaks the law by giving medical consultations on the side, and also largely writes the little local paper. Flaubert gives us big quotes from this august journal, allowing us to judge for ourselves its pompous provincial quality.

There’s a classic scene which takes a bit of explaining: Charles’s father dies of a stroke. Charles is so upset he deputes Homais to tell Emma. Homais, in his self-important way, writes a long speech (tearing up numerous drafts in order to arrive at just the right slow revelation of this tragic occurrence.)

And so Homais sends his boy to fetch Emma and tell her it’s important. She is walking by the river, but when the boy tells her something serious has happened and she must come to Monsieur Homais’ at once, she is understandably panic-stricken. But – and here’s the comic denouement – when Emma arrives breathless and anxious, she finds Homais in a fury because his assistant has gone into his inner sanctum and meddled with his chemistry equipment. Emma repeatedly asks what is the important message, while Homais rants and shouts at his poor cowering assistant.

Finally, in a paroxysm of anger, Homais turns to Emma and declares ‘Charles’s father has died,’ then returns to chastising his assistant. See, it’s not very funny when I write it down here. But if you are properly absorbed in the world of the book and its characters and the flow of the narrative, I found it very funny and it is clearly intended to be funny.

Similarly, at the end of the book, as Emma lies slowly dying, Charles sends messages for help to the two most senior doctors in the neighbourhood. After quickly examining the patient, the most senior one concludes there is no hope (he is correct) and, none of them wanting to be associated with death (bad for business), they eagerly take up Monsieur Homais’s invitation to cross the road to his house for a slap-up lunch – which is the point where his wife begins fussing that she doesn’t have fine food suitable for such eminences and sends out in a fluster for some luxury fare.

I grew up in a village. I have kids of my own and a network of family, cousins, in-laws, all with their foibles and peculiarities. My parents have died, friends have died, I’ve seen people behave very oddly around bereavements and funerals: the strongest collapse in tears, the weakest turn out to be brilliant at organising the funeral, some just can’t face it, can’t face death.

Without trying very hard I’ve come across commentary on the internet describing the behaviour of Homais and the doctors as ‘despicable’ and ‘contemptible’, but this seems to me much too harsh, simplistic and judgmental. Their behaviour is human, all-too-human. The judgers obviously haven’t learned from Shakespeare that something can be intensely tragic and howlingly funny at the same time – the message also conveyed 400 years later by Samuel Beckett. And maybe they haven’t been at many death beds or attended many funerals.

In fact, at a pinch, this could be taken as the humanist message of ‘literature’ – that people are complex, really complex, that what outsiders regard as ‘positive’ traits, can be mixed in with ‘negative’ traits, that people’s feelings and motivations fluctuate from moment to moment. It is as if modern readers took the moment when Emma pushes her daughter over as the one and only moment which Defines Her Character and condemn her as a Bad Mother.

That is to take a legalistic, social worker-cum-Nazi informer view of human nature, where one chance action or one chance remark against the Great Leader, condemns a person for life.

Literature – or some kinds of relatively modern literature – are intended to work precisely against simple-minded judgementalism and to show human beings in all their contradictoriness. The public prosecutor in Rouen didn’t understand this, and saw only a story about an immoral woman. It is disheartening, but not that surprising, that in our own hyper-judgmental times, many teachers and students of literature take a similarly one-dimensional, judgmental view of Flaubert’s characters.

Not that he’d have been surprised. It is exactly what he’d have expected.

Translations

As befits such a classic, Madame Bovary has been translated into English numerous times.

Madame Bovary, 1886 by Eleanor Marx-Aveling
Madame Bovary, 1928 by James Lewis May
Madame Bovary, 1946 by Gerald Hopkins
Madame Bovary, 1950 by Alan Russell
Madame Bovary, 1957 by Francis Steegmuller
Madame Bovary, 1959 by Lowell Bair
Madame Bovary, 1964 by Mildred Marmur
Madame Bovary, 1965 by Paul de Man
Madame Bovary, 1992 by Geoffrey Wall
Madame Bovary, 2010 by Lydia Davis
Madame Bovary, 2011 by Adam Thorpe

I read the old 1950 Penguin translation by Alan Russell, but I’ve quoted from the only version which seems to be available online, the one by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx-Aveling.

Gustave Courbet

Here’s a depiction of a rural funeral by the great pioneer of realism in painting, Gustave Courbet. In its sense of a) composition with large number of figures b) its emphasis on the quirks and individuality of the people depicted – their boredom, itchy noses and distracted looks, in among the expressions of genuine grief and remorse – it is very much the visual equivalent of Flaubert’s all-encompassing vision.

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)


Related links

Flaubert’s books

Karl Marx’s prose style

My daughter is studying sociology and I get to help her with her homework and read her textbooks. The flat, dull tone of would-be scientific writing is enough to drive you mad.

The prose style of Karl Marx, according to some people the founder of modern sociology, is the exact opposite.

It is a constant surprise how rhetorical Marx is: pithy poetic phrases, bombastic generalisations, baggy lists, nifty antitheses, classical references, all these are deployed in a tone dominated by sarcasm and satire – Marx constantly expects the ‘bourgeoisie’ to do its worst and is rarely disappointed.

This blog post simply aims to highlight the importance of techniques of rhetorical persuasion in Marx’s writings.

It’s based on a close reading of Karl Marx Political Writings Volume 2: Surveys from Exile edited by David Fernbach – specifically from Marx’s two long essays about the political turmoil in France between 1848 and 1852, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Page numbers refer to the 1973 Pelican paperback edition.

Insults 

For a start Marx is not respectful. He doesn’t feel any inhibitions about abusing and insulting all his enemies, from the bourgeoisie in general to the hollow trickster, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who he calls

  • a grotesque mediocrity
  • a ludicrous, vulgar and hated person
  • the adventurer who hides his trivial and repulsive features behind the iron death mask of Napoleon

The Provisional Assembly which replaced the French king in February 1848, had the bright idea of declaring universal male suffrage i.e. all adult men were empowered to vote, most importantly in the election for a new president to replace the abdicated king. 1. The urban liberals in their idealism overlooked the fact that by far the biggest single part of the electorate was the millions of peasants, who outnumbered the populations of all French cities and towns several times over. 2. By the time the presidential election was held in December 1848, the political landscape had changed out of all recognition. The result was an overwhelming victory for the buffoonish figure of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte.

Thus Marx not only doesn’t like Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, he actively despises the backward, clumsy, ignorant peasants who voted for him.

The symbol that expressed the peasants’ entry into the revolutionary movement, clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery and an indecipherable hieroglyphic for the understanding of the civilized – this symbol bore the unmistakable physiognomy of the class that represents barbarism within civilization.

But his strongest vituperation is, of course, reserved for the hated ‘bourgeoisie’.

The mortgage debt burdening the soil of France imposes on the French peasantry an amount of interest equal to the annual interest on the entire British national debt. Small-holding property, in this enslavement by capital toward which its development pushes it unavoidably, has transformed the mass of the French nation into troglodytes. Sixteen million peasants (including women and children) dwell in caves, a large number of which have but one opening, others only two and the most favored only three. Windows are to a house what the five senses are to the head. The bourgeois order, which at the beginning of the century set the state to stand guard over the newly emerged small holdings and fertilized them with laurels, has become a vampire that sucks the blood from their hearts and brains and casts them into the alchemist’s cauldron of capital. (p.242)

Note how solid factual analysis (of the results of debt on French peasants) is inextricably entwined with highly alarmist and exaggerated similes and metaphors – of enslavement, troglodytes and vampires. Abuse and insults are an intrinsic part of Marx’s analysis, not an accident, not a removeable element – bitter hatred of the bourgeois enemy is a key part of Marx’s worldview.

Rhetorical repetition 

Marx uses rhetorical repetition, often in the time-honoured form of the three clauses trick.

Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not of fleeing from its solution in reality; of finding the spirit of revolution once more, not of making its ghost walk about again.

Bonaparte represented the peasant’s superstition, not his enlightenment; his prejudice, not his judgement; his past, not his future.

Antitheses 

He likes antithesis, or the repetition of an idea with variations – ideally a straight inversion – to produce a snappy phrase.

The republic had announced itself to the peasantry with the tax collector; it announced itself to the republic with the emperor.

The December 10 Society was to remain Bonaparte’s private army until he succeeded in transforming the public army into a December 10 Society.

This tendency is more important than it seems because it indicates the underlying fondness for neat patterns of Marx’s thought. He thinks that History moves in neat antitheses, just like his prose (just like the neatly antithetical prose he learned as a student at the feet of the classically trained Idealist philosopher, Hegel).

Repetition of phrases

Sometimes Marx uses repetition with variation (as above). On other occasions he uses simple repetition, its flatness and bathos indicating the batheticness of the actors he attributes it to, in this case the charlatan, Louis-Napoléon. The use of deadpan repetition reminded me of modern stand-up comedy.

As a fatalist, [Louis-Napoléon] lives by the conviction that there are certain higher powers which man, and the soldier in particular, cannot withstand. Among these powers he counts, first and foremost, cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage. With this in mind, to begin with, he treats officers and non-commissioned officers in his Elysée apartments to cigars and champagne, to cold poultry and garlic sausage.

Out of context this comes over as a bit flat, but in the warmth of his ongoing text this little trick comes as a moment of comic relief. Boom, boom.

Lists

There is nothing so glorious as a long, ragbag, rollercoaster of a list.

On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpenproletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section being led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole organization. Decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, rubbed shoulders with vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel keepers, portes, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole of the nebulous, disintegrated mass, scattered hither and thither, which the French call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the December 10 Society…

Having conjured up this vivid Dickensian mob, Marx proceeds in his characteristic tone of High Sarcasm to reveal the ‘real’ motives of such bourgeois shams, and uses a panoply of rhetorical tricks to ram home his contempt for Louis.

… A ‘benevolent society’ – in so far as, like Bonaparte, all its members felt the need to benefit themselves at the expense of the labouring nation. This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief of the lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in the scum, offal and refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrase. An old crafty roué, he conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade where the grand costumes, words and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery.

Note the use of three clauses to build rhetorical power. Note the insult words (scum, refuse). Note the ad hominem attack on Louis-Napoléon (a crafty old roué with a vulgar sense of theatre). Rhetoric and insults are central.

Conjuring ghosts and spectres

The word ‘conjure’ appears five times in the Brumaire, ‘ghost’ eight times, ‘spirit’ 16 times. Circe and her ‘black magic’ are mentioned.

The opening sentence of The Communist Manifesto is bold and memorable – ‘A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of communism’ – but reading further into Marx, you realise that the use of imagery connected to ghosts, spirits, conjurors and magicians is not that exceptional. It is a routine fixture of his imagination and his rhetoric.

Even a mere Vaisse [a deputy in the national assembly] could conjure up the red spectre… (p.212)

The social republic appeared as a phrase, as a prophecy, on the threshold of the February Revolution. In the June days of 1848, it was drowned in the blood of the Paris proletariat, but it haunts the subsequent acts of the drama like a ghost… (p.234)

All the ‘Napoleonic ideas’ are ideas of the undeveloped small holding in the freshness of its youth; they are a contradiction to the outlived holdings. They are only the hallucinations of its death struggle, words transformed into phrases, spirits transformed into ghosts. (p.244)

1. The frequency of ghost imagery reminds you that Marx the writer grew to maturity in the 1830s, the heyday of High Romantic writing, of plays and operas about the supernatural, especially in Germany, and so it’s no surprise that there is a certain Gothic quality to his imagination, teeming as it is with ghosts and spectres.

2. It worryingly reminds you that Marx was above all a writer, given to conjuring up words, classes, nations, conflicts with the stroke of a pen, without a second thought. Historical eras, sociological classes, leading politicians, can all be made to appear or disappear in a puff of smoke by Marx, the political prestidigitator.

The constitution, the National Assembly, the dynastic parties, the blue and red republicans, the
heroes of Africa, the thunder from the platform, the sheet lightning of the daily press, all the other publications, the political names and the intellectual reputations, the civil law and the penal code, liberté, egalité, fraternité, and the second Sunday in May, 1852 – all have vanished like a series of optical illusions before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not claim to be a magician. (p.151)

So we find his compadre, Engels, writing in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions with the optimistic hope that all the reactionary types who had helped to crush the uprisings (specifically, in the Austrian empire) would be swept away.

The Austrian Germans and Magyars will be set free and wreak a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians. The general war which will then break out will smash this Slav Sonderbund and wipe out all these petty hidebound nations, down to their very names. The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward. (The Magyar Struggle in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 13 January 1849).

Unfortunately, their descendants in the Marxist-Leninist line of ideology would take them at their word and, instead of merely textual flourishes, would make real people in the real world and – in Stalin and Mao’s cases – entire groups of people (the kulaks, the urban intelligentsia), disappear with the stroke of a pen into freezing gulags or mass graves.

The language of theatre

The language of magic and conjuring is intimately linked with the lexicon of drama, theatre, comedy, masquerades, costumes and stage with which these texts are drenched.

Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to
success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds,
ecstasy is the order of the day. (p.152)

The opening pages of the Brumaire are famous for stating an enormous theory of history, which is that current political actors always clothe themselves in the names and values of previous ones. This allows Marx to compare all of the actors, throughout the book, with their predecessors in everywhere from ancient Israel to the Jacobin Revolution via the Rome of the Caesars.

Whether Marx’s theory that history repeats itself with modern political pygmies dressing up in the clothes of Great Men of the Past has any factual validity, as an imaginative and rhetorical trope it creates a vast sense of a) historical knowledgeableness, and of b) intellectual spaciousness – we feel we are privy to a mind which understands all of human history.

If we consider this conjuring up of the dead of world history, a salient difference is revealed immediately. Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases, the task of unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society.

The first ones smashed the feudal basis to pieces and mowed down the feudal heads which had grown on it. The other created inside France the only conditions under which free competition could be developed, parcelled landed property exploited and the unchained industrial productive power of the nation employed; and everywhere beyond the French borders he swept the feudal institutions away, to the extent necessary to provide bourgeois society in France with a suitable up-to-date environment on the European Continent. Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian Colossi disappeared and with them resurrected Romanity – the Brutuses, Gracchi, Publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself.

This long quote demonstrates the way Marx thought of politics as intrinsically theatrical, and the way his imagination constantly recurs to Great Men of the (real or legendary) past.

But he is not only pointing out the way that modern political actors often invoke the shades of the Great Protagonists of the past to bolster their authority – there is also a deeper reference in this idea to Marx’s fundamentally Hegelian worldview: the worldview that History is moving through inevitable phases to an inevitable conclusion. The Jacobins ‘performed the task of their time’; Napoleon ‘swept the feudal institutions away’: both prepared the way for the triumph of ‘free competition’. Marx’s view of History is profoundly teleological; the basis of his entire position is that human History is moving along a pre-determined course towards a pre-determined end.

And if History is heading towards an inevitable conclusion, it must follow that we are all to some extent actors on a stage, playing parts in a drama which is already written. This premise maybe explains Marx’s fondness for theatrical metaphors.

The first act of his ministry was the restoration of the old royalist administration. The official scene was at once transformed – scenery, costumes, speech, actors, supers, mutes, prompters, the position of the parties, the theme of the drama, the content of the conflict, the whole situation.

The revolution made progress, forged ahead, not by its immediate tragicomic achievements but, on the contrary, by the creation of a powerful, united counterrevolution…

Marie’s ateliers, devised in direct antagonism to the Luxembourg, offered occasion, thanks to the common label, for a comedy of errors worthy of the Spanish servant farce…

Instead of only a few factions of the bourgeoisie, all classes of French society were suddenly hurled into the orbit of political power, forced to leave the boxes, the stalls, and the gallery and to act in person upon the revolutionary stage!

The people cried: À bas les grands voleurs! À bas les assassins! when in 1847, on the most prominent stages of bourgeois society, the same scenes were publicly enacted that regularly lead the lumpenproletariat to brothels, to workhouses and lunatic asylums, to the bar of justice, to the dungeon, and to the scaffold.

The terrible attempt of April 16 furnished the excuse for recalling the army to Paris – the real purpose of the clumsily staged comedy and for the reactionary federalist demonstrations in the provinces.

In the many places where Marx invokes the theatre, we join him in the audience watching a political drama which has already been written, assimilated and analysed: while the poor political actors take their parts in the farce or tragedy totally seriously, we, the privileged spectators, understand what is really going on behind the sham of bourgeois rhetoric and in the drama of History.

The rhetoric of both these long essays encourage in the reader a sense of superiority to other commentators and analysts, to the politicians and moralists who are taken in by the play. We are not taken in. We know what is really going on. We are the only ones who understand that all human existence, all human history and all political events are based on class conflict, that this dizzying vaudeville of political acts are all combinations on the theme of the ‘bourgeois’ control of power – and that the entire giddy play will one day come tumbling down when we, the clever ones, and the workers, rise up in revolution.

It is in the opening lines of the Brumaire that he expresses most pithily the idea that History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. (p.147)

Taken in isolation this has the crisp appeal of an Oscar Wilde witticism. But I hope I have provided enough context to show that it is just one among many examples of Marx’s highly theatrical way of thinking about history, and of his very dramatic and rhetorical way of writing.

It isn’t, in other words, the one-off insight it is so often painted as being.

On the contrary, this pithy quote is a key which opens up Marx’s entire imaginative worldview of the world as being a stage, a platform on which a pre-scripted drama is unfolding towards its preordained end and we, his readers and the members of his ‘party’ – sitting by his side – are privileged to be in on the secret of the plot, we are the cognoscenti, we have a front row seat at the great drama of History.

Summary

There are plenty more examples, and I could have elaborated a bit more on the connection between rhetorical tropes and his actual ideas – but I wanted to keep this blog post short and sweet.

The point is simply that, whenever you read that Marx founded a form of ‘scientific’ socialism, invented the objective ‘scientific’ analysis of society, of its economic and class basis and so on – you should also remember that he did so in texts notable for their sustained irony, ad hominem abuse, rhetorical play and theatrical melodrama.


Related links

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Karl Marx

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how,during the Spanish Civil War, the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party turned on its left-wing allies – specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was a member of – and how Orwell, having fought bravely for the Republic, was forced to flee the country, only just escaping arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

Communism in England

The New Sobriety: Art and Politics in the Weimar Period 1917-33 by John Willett (1978)

Willett was born in 1917. He attended Winchester public school and then Christ Church, Oxford (the grandest and poshest of all the Oxford colleges). He was just beginning a career in set design when the Second World War came along. He served in British Intelligence. After the war he worked at the Manchester Guardian, before becoming assistant to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, writing scores of reviews and articles, until he went freelance in 1967.

He had travelled to Germany just before the war and become fascinated by its culture. He met and befriended Bertolt Brecht whose plays he later translated into English. As a freelance writer Willett authored two books about the Weimar period. This is the first of the pair, published by the well-known art publisher Thames and Hudson. Like most T&H art books it has the advantage of lots of illustrations (216 in this case) and the disadvantage that most of them (in this case, all of them) are in black and white.

The New Sobriety is divided into 22 shortish chapters, followed by a 30-page-long, highly detailed Chronological Table, and a shorter bibliography. There’s also a couple of stylish one-page diagrams showing the interconnection of all the arts across Europe during the period.

Several points:

  • Though it has ‘Weimar’ in the title, the text is only partly about the Weimar Republic. It also contains lots about art in revolutionary Russia, as well as Switzerland and France. At this point you realise that the title says the Weimar Period.
  • The period covered is given as starting in 1917, but that’s not strictly true: the early chapters start with Expressionism and Fauvism and Futurism which were all established before 1910, followed by a section dealing with the original Swiss Dada, which started around 1915.

Cool and left wing

The real point to make about this book is that it reflects Willett’s own interest in the avant-garde movements all across Europe of the period, and especially in the politically committed ones. At several points he claims that all the different trends come together into a kind of Gestalt, to form the promise of a new ‘civilisation’.

It was during the second half of the 1920s that the threads which we have followed were drawn together to form something very like a new civilisation… (p.95)

The core of the book is a fantastically detailed account of the cross-fertilisation of trends in fine art, theatre, photography, graphic design, film and architecture between the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany.

In the introduction Willett confesses that he would love to see a really thorough study which related the arts to the main political and philosophical and cultural ideas of the era, but that he personally is not capable of it (p.11). Instead, his book will be:

a largely personal attempt to make sense of those mid-European works of art, in many fields and media, which came into being between the end of the First War and the start of Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933. It is neither an art-historical study of movements and artistic innovations, nor a general cultural history of the Weimar Republic, but a more selective account which picks up on those aspects of the period which the writer feels to be at once the most original and the most clearly interrelated, and tries to see how and why they came about. (p.10)

‘Selective’ and ‘interrelated’ – they’re the key ideas.

When I was a student I loved this book because it opened my eyes to the extraordinary range of new avant-garde movements of the period: Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and then the burst of new ideas in theatre, graphic design, magazines, poetry and architecture which are still influential to this day.

Although Willett doesn’t come across as particularly left wing himself, the focus on the ‘radical’ innovations of Brecht and Piscator in Germany, or of Proletkult and Agitprop in Soviet Russia, give the whole book a fashionable, cool, left-wing vibe. And if you don’t know much about the period it is an eye-opening experience.

But now, as a middle-aged man, I have all kinds of reservations.

1. Willett’s account is biased and partial

As long as you remember that it is a ‘personal’ view, deliberately bringing together the most avant-garde artists of the time and showing the extraordinary interconnectedness (directors, playwrights, film-makers travelling back and forth between Germany and Russia, bringing with them new books, new magazines, new ideas) it is fine. But it isn’t the whole story. I’m glad I read Walter Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture just before this, because Laqueur’s account is much more complete and more balanced.

For example, Laqueur’s book included a lot about the right-wing thought of the period. It’s not that I’m sympathetic to those beliefs, but that otherwise the rise of Hitler seems inexplicable, like a tsunami coming out of nowhere. Laqueur’s book makes it very clear that all kinds of cultural and intellectual strongholds never ceased to be nationalistic, militaristic, anti-democratic and anti-the Weimar Republic.

Laqueur’s book also plays to my middle-aged and realistic (or tired and jaundiced) opinion that all these fancy left-wing experiments in theatre (in particular), the arty provocations by Dada, the experimental films and so on, were in fact only ever seen by a vanishingly small percentage of the population, and most of them were (ironically) wealthy and bourgeois enough to afford theatre tickets or know about avant-garde art exhibitions.

Laqueur makes the common-sense point that a lot of the books, plays and films which really characterise the period were the popular, accessible works which sold well at the time but have mostly sunk into oblivion. It’s only in retrospect and fired up by the political radicalism of the 1960s, that latterday academics and historians select from the wide range of intellectual and artistic activity of the period those strands which appeal to them in a more modern context.

2. Willett’s modernism versus Art Deco and Surrealism

You realise how selective and partial his point of view is on the rare occasions when the wider world intrudes. Because of Willett’s compelling enthusiasm for ‘the impersonal utilitarian design’ of the Bauhaus or Russian collectivism, because of his praise of Gropius or Le Corbusier, it is easy to forget that all these ideas were in a notable minority during the period.

Thus it came as a genuine shock to me when Willett devotes half a chapter to slagging off Art Deco and Surrealism, because I’d almost forgotten they existed during this period, so narrow is his focus.

It is amusing, and significant, how much he despises both of them. The chapter (18) is called ‘Retrograde symptoms: modishness in France’ and goes on to describe the ‘capitulation and compromise’ of the French avant-garde in the mid-1920s. 1925 in particular was ‘a year of retreat all down the line’, epitomised by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes exhibition which gave its name to the style of applied arts of the period, Art Deco.

Willett is disgusted that dressmakers sat on the selecting committees ‘alongside obscure establishment architects and rubbishy artists like Jean-Gabriel Domergue’. Not a single German artist or designer was featured (it was a patriotic French affair after all) and Theo van Doesberg’s avant-garde movement, de Stijl, was not even represented in the Dutch stand.

Willet hates all this soft luxury Frenchy stuff, this ‘wishy-washy extremely mondain setting’ which was the milieu of gifted amateurs and dilettantes. It was a hateful commercialisation of cubism and fauvism, it was skin-deep modernism.

What took place here was a diffusing of the modern movement for the benefit not of the less well-off but of the luxury consumer. (p.170)

It’s only because I happen to have recently read Andrew Duncan’s encyclopedic book about Art Deco that I know that there was a vast, a truly huge world of visual arts completely separate from the avant-garde Willett is championing – a world of architects, designers and craftsmen who built buildings, designed the interiors of shops and homes, created fixtures and fittings, lamps and tables and chairs and beds and curtains and wallpapers, all in the luxury, colourful style we now refer to as Art Deco.

Thousands of people bought the stylish originals and millions of people bought the affordable copies of all kinds of objects in this style.

So who is right?

When I was a student I also was on the side of the radical left, excited by Willett’s portrait of a world of hard-headed, functional design in homes and household goods, of agit-prop theatre and experimental film, all designed to mobilise the workers to overthrow the ruling classes and create a perfect world. Indeed the same chapter which dismisses French culture and opens with photos of elegantly-titled French aristocratic connoisseurs and patrons, ends with a photo of a parade by the Communist Roterfront in 1926. That’s the real people, you see, that’s real commitment for you!

But therein lies the rub. The radical, anti-traditionalist, anti-bourgeois, up-the-workers movement in architecture, design, film and theatre which Willett loves did not usher in a new workers’ paradise, a new age of peace and equality – the exact opposite.

The sustained left-wing attacks on the status quo in Germany had the net effect of helping to undermine the Weimar Republic and making the advent of Hitler easier. All the funky film innovations of Eisenstein and the theatrical novelties of Meyerhold failed to create an educated, informed and critical working class in Russia, failed to establish new standards of political and social discourse – instead the extreme cliquishness of its exponents made it all the easier to round them up and control (or just execute) them, as Stalin slowly accumulated power from 1928 onwards.

Older and a bit less naive than I used to be, I am also more relaxed about political ‘commitment’. I have learned what I consider to be the big lesson in life which is that – There are a lot of people in the world. Which means a lot of people who disagree – profoundly and completely disagree – with your own beliefs, ideas and convictions. Disagree with everything you and all your friends and your favourite magazines and newspapers and TV shows and movies think. And that they have as much right to live and think and talk and meet and discuss their stuff, as you do. And so democracy is the permanently messy, impure task of creating a public, political, cultural and artistic space in which all kinds of beliefs and ideas can rub along.

Willett exemplifies what I take to be the central idea of Modernism: that there is only one narrative, one avant-garde, one movement: you have to be on the bus. He identifies his Weimar Germany-Soviet Russia axis as the movement. The French weren’t signed up to it. So he despises the French.

But we now, in 2018, live in a thoroughly post-Modernist world and the best explanation I’ve heard of the difference between modernism and post-modernism is that, in the latter, we no longer believe there is only one narrative, One Movement which you simply must, must, must belong to. There are thousands of movements. There are all types of music, looks, fashions and lifestyles.

Willett’s division of the cultural world of the 1920s into Modernist (his Bauhaus-Constructivist heroes) versus the Rest (wishy-washy, degenerate French fashion) itself seems part of the problem. It’s the same insistence on binary extremes which underlay the mentality of a Hitler or a Stalin (either you are for the Great Leader or against him). And it was the same need to push political opinions and movements to extremes which undermined the centre and led to dictatorship.

By contrast the fashionably arty French world (let alone the philistine, public school world of English culture) was simply more relaxed, less extreme. They had more shopping in them. The Art Deco world which Willett despises was the world of visual and applied art which most people, most shoppers, and most of the rich and the aspiring middle classes would have known about. (And I learned from Duncan’s book that Art Deco really was about shops, about Tiffany’s and Liberty’s and Lalique’s and the design and the shop windows of these top boutiques.)

On the evidence of Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture and Duncan’s account of the Art Deco world, I now see Willett’s world of Bauhaus and Constructivism – which I once considered the be-all and end-all of 1920s art – as only one strand, just one part of a much bigger artistic and decorative universe.

Same goes for Willett’s couple of pages about Surrealism. Boy, he despises those guys. Again it was a bit of a shock to snap out of Willett’s wonderworld of Bauhaus-Constructivism to remember that there was this whole separate and different art movement afoot. Reading Ruth Brandon’s book, Surreal Lives would lead you to believe that it, Surrealism, was the big anti-bourgeois artistic movement of the day. Yet, from Willett’s point of view, focused on the Germany-Russia axis, Surrealism comes over as pitifully superficial froggy play acting.

He says it was unclear throughout the 1920s whether Surrealism even existed outside a handful of books made with ‘automatic writing’. When Hans Arp or Max Ernst went over to the Surrealist camp their work had nothing to tell the German avant-garde. They were German, so it was more a case of the German avant-garde coming to the rescue of a pitifully under-resourced French movement.

There was in fact something slightly factitious about the very idea of Surrealist painting right up to the point when Dali arrived with his distinctively creepy academicism. (p.172)

Surrealism’s moving force, the dominating poet André Breton, is contrasted with Willett’s heroes.

Breton’s romantic irrationalism, his belief in mysterious forces and the quasi-mediumistic use of the imagination could scarcely have been more opposed to the open-eyed utilitarianism of the younger Germans, with their respect for objective facts. (p.172)

I was pleased to read that Willett, like me, finds the Surrealists ‘anti-bourgeois’ antics simply stupid schoolboy posturing.

As for his group’s aggressive public gestures, like Georges Sadoul’s insulting postcard to a Saint-Cyr colonel or the wanton breaking-up of a nightclub that dared to call itself after Les Chants de Maldoror, one of their cult books, these were bound to seem trivial to anyone who had experienced serious political violence. (p.172)

Although the Surrealists bandied around the term ‘revolution’ they didn’t know what it meant, they had no idea what it was like to live through the revolutionary turmoil of Soviet Russia or the troubled years 1918 to 1923 in post-war Germany which saw repeated attempts at communist coups in Munich and Berlin, accompanied by savage street fighting between left and right.

Although the Surrealists pretentiously incorporated the world ‘revolution’ into the title of their magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, none of them knew what a revolution really entailed, and

Breton, Aragon and Eluard remained none the less bourgeois in their life styles and their concern with bella figura. (p.172)

There were no massacres in the streets of comfortable Paris, and certainly nothing to disturb the salon of the Princess Edmond de Polignac, who subsidised the first performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or to upset the Comtesse de Noailles, who commissioned Léger to decorate her villa at Hyères and later underwrote the ‘daring’ Surrealist film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, L’Age d’Or (1930).

In this, as in so many other things, French intellectuals come across as stylish poseurs performing for impeccably aristocratic patrons.

3. Willett’s account is clotted and cluttered

The text is clotted with names, absolutely stuffed. To give two symptoms, each chapter begins with a paragraph-long summary of its content, which is itself often quite exhausting to read; and then the text itself suffers from being rammed full of as many names as Willett can squeeze in.

Almost every sentence has at least one if not more subordinate clauses which add in details about the subject’s other activities, or another organisation they were part of, or a list of other people they were connected to, or examples of other artists doing the same kind of thing.

Here’s a typical chapter summary, of ‘Chapter 16 Theatre for the machine age: Piscator, Brecht, the Bauhaus, agitprop‘:

Middlebrow entertainment and the revaluation of the classics. The challenge of cinema. Piscator’s first political productions and his development of documentary theatre; splitting of the Volksbühne and formation of his own company; his historic productions of 1927-8 with their use of machinery and film. The new dramaturgy and the problem of suitable plays. Brecht’s reflection of technology, notably in Mann ist Mann; his collaboration with Kurt Weill and the success of the Threepenny Opera; epic theatre and the collective approach. Boom of ‘the theatre of the times’ in 1928-9. Experiments at the Bauhaus: Schlemmer, Moholy, Nagy, Gropius’s ‘Totaltheater’ etc;. The Communist agitprop movement. Parallel developments in Russia: Meyerhold, TRAM, Tretiakoff.

Quite tiring to read, isn’t it? And that’s before you get to the actual text itself.

So Eisenstein could legitimately adopt circus techniques, just as Grosz and Mehring could appear in cabaret and Brecht before leaving Munich worked on the stage and film sketches of that great comic Karl Valentin. In 1925 a certain Walter von Hollander proposed what he called ‘education by revue’, the recruiting of writers like Mehring, Tucholsky and Weinert to ‘fill the marvellous revue form with the wit and vigour of our time’. This form was itself a kind of montage, and Reinhardt seems to have planned a ‘Revue for the Ruhr’ to which Brecht would contribute – ‘A workers’ revue’ was the critic Herbert Ihering’s description – while Piscator too hoped to open his first season with his own company in 1927 by a revue drawing on the mixed talents of his new ‘dramaturgical collective’. This scheme came to nothing, though Piscator’s earlier ‘red Revue’ – the Revue roter Rummel of 1924 – became important for the travelling agit-prop groups which various communist bodies now began forming on the model of the Soviet ‘Blue Blouses’. (p.110)

Breathless long sentences packed with names and works ranging across places and people and theatres and countries, all about everything. This is because Willett is at pains to convey his one big idea – the astonishing interconnectedness of the world of the 1920s European avant-garde – at every possible opportunity, and so embodies it in the chapter summaries, in his diagrams of interconnectedness, extending it even down to the level of individual sentences.

The tendency to prose overstuffed with facts is not helped by another key aspect of the subject matter which was the proliferation of acronyms and initialisms. For example the tendency of left-wing organisations to endlessly fragment and reorganise, especially in Russia where, as revolutionary excitement slowly morphed into totalitarian bureaucracy, there was no stopping the endless setting up of organisations and departments.

Becher, Anor Gabór and the Young Communist functionary Alfred Kurella, who that autumn [of 1927] were part of a delegation to the tenth anniversary celebrations [of the October Revolution] in Moscow, also attended the IBRL’s foundation meeting and undertook to form a German section of the body. Simultaneously some of the surviving adherents of the earlier Red Group decided to set up a sister organisation which would correspond to the Association of Artists of the Russian Revolution, an essentially academic body now posing as Proletarian. Both plans materialised in the following year, when the new German Revolutionary Artists Association (or ARBKD) was founded in March and the Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers’ League (BPRS) in October. (p.173)

Every paragraph is like that.

4. Very historical

Willett’s approach is very historical. As a student I found it thrilling the way he relates the evolving ideas of his galaxy of avant-garde writers, artists and architects – Grosz and Dix, Gropius and Le Corbusier, Moholy-Nagy and Meyerhold, Rodchenko and Eistenstein, Piscator and Brecht – to the fast-changing political situations in Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, which, being equally ignorant of, I also found a revelation.

Now, more familiar with this sorry history, I found the book a little obviously chronological. Thus:

  • Chapter six – Revolution and the arts: Germany 1918-20, from Arbeitsrat to Dada
  • Chapter seven – Paris postwar: Dada, Les Six, the Swedish ballet, Le Corbusier
  • Chapter eight – The crucial period 1921-3; international relations and development of the media; Lenin and the New Economic Policy; Stresemann and German stabilisation

It proceeds with very much the straightforward chronology of a school textbook.

5. Not very analytical

The helter-skelter of fraught political developments in both countries – the long lists of names, their interconnections emphasised at every opportunity – these give a tremendous sense of excitement to his account, a sense that scores of exciting artists were involved in all these fast-moving and radically experimental movements.

But, at the end of the day, I didn’t come away with any new ideas or sense of enlightenment. All the avant-garde artists he describes were responding to two basic impulses:

  1. The advent of the Machine Age (meaning gramophone, cars, airplanes, cruise ships, portable cameras, film) which prompted experiments in all the new media and the sense that all previous art was redundant.
  2. The Bolshevik Revolution – which inspired far-left opinions among the artists he deals with and inspired, most obviously, the agitprop experiments in Russia and Piscator and Brecht’s experiments in Germany – theatre in the round, with few if any props, the projection onto the walls of moving pictures or graphs or newspaper headlines – all designed to make the audience think (i.e. agree with the playwright and the director’s communist views).

But we sort of know about these already. From Peter Gay’s book, and then even more so Walter Laqueur’s book, I came away with a strong sense of the achievement and importance of particular individuals, and their distinctive ideas. Thomas Mann emerges as the representative novelist of the period and Laqueur’s book gives you a sense of the development of his political or social thought (the way he slowly came round to support the Republic) and of his works, especially the complex of currents found in his masterpiece, The Magic Mountain.

Willett just doesn’t give himself the space or time to do that. In the relentless blizzard of lists and connections only relatively superficial aspects of the countless works referenced are ever mentioned. Thus Piscator’s main theatrical innovation was to project moving pictures, graphs and statistics onto the backdrops of the stage, accompanying or counter-pointing the action. That’s it. We nowhere get a sense of the specific images or facts used in any one production, rather a quick list of the productions, of the involvement of Brecht or whoever in the writing, of Weill or Eisler in the music, before Willett is off comparing it with similar productions by Meyerhold in Moscow. Always he is hurrying off to make comparisons and links.

Thus there is:

6. Very little analysis of specific works

I think the book would have benefited from slowing down and studying half a dozen key works in a little more detail. Given the funky design of the book into pages with double columns of text, with each chapter introduced by a functionalist summary in bold black type, it wouldn’t have been going much further to insert page-long special features on, say, The Threepenny Opera (1928) or Le Corbusier’s Weissenhof Estate housing in Stuttgart (1927).

Just some concrete examples of what the style was about, how it worked, and what kind of legacy it left would have significantly lifted the book and left the reader with concrete, specific instances. As it is the blizzard of names, acronyms and historical events is overwhelming and, ultimately, numbing.

The Wall Street Crash leads to the end of the Weimar experiment

In the last chapters Willett, as per his basic chronological structure, deals with the end of the Weimar Republic.

America started it, by having the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. American banks were plunged into crisis and clawed back all their outstanding loans in order to stay solvent. Businesses all across America went bankrupt, but America had also been the main lender to the German government during the reconstruction years after the War.

It had been an American, Charles G. Dawes, who chaired the committee which came up with the Dawes Plan of 1924. This arranged for loans to be made to the German government, which it would invest to boost industry, which would increase the tax revenue, which it would then use to pay off the punishing reparations which France demanded at the end of the war. And these reparations France would use to pay off the large debts to America which France had incurred during the war.

It was the guarantee of American money which stabilised the German currency after the hyper-inflation crisis of 1923, and enabled the five years of economic and social stability which followed, 1924-29, the high point for Willett of the Republic’s artistic and cultural output. All funded, let it be remembered, by capitalist America’s money.

The Wall Street Crash ended that. American banks demanded their loans back. German industry collapsed. Unemployment shot up from a few hundred thousand to six million at the point where Hitler took power. Six million! People voted, logically enough, for the man who promised economic and national salvation.

In this respect, the failure of American capitalism, which the crash represented, directly led to the rise of Hitler, to the Second World War, to the invasion of Russia, the partition of Europe and the Cold War. No Wall Street Crash, none of that would have happened.

A closed worldview leads to failure

Anyway, given that all this is relatively well known (it was all taught to my kids for their history GCSEs) what Willett’s account brings out is the short-sighted stupidity of the Communist Party of Germany and their Soviet masters.

Right up till the end of the Weimar Republic, the Communists (the KPD) refused to co-operate with the more centrist socialists (the SPD) in forming a government, and often campaigned against them. Willett quotes a contemporary communist paper saying an SPD government and a disunited working class would be a vastly worse evil than a fascist government and a unified working class. Well, they got the fascist government they hoped for.

In fact, the communists wanted a Big Crisis to come because they were convinced that it would bring about the German Revolution (which would itself trigger revolution across Europe and the triumph of communism).

How could they have been so stupid?

Because they lived in a bubble of self-reaffirming views. I thought this passage was eerily relevant to discussions today about people’s use of the internet, about modern digital citizens tending to select the news media, journalism and art and movies and so on, which reinforce their views and convince them that everyone thinks like them.

To some extent the extreme unreality of this attitude, with its deceptive aura of do-or-die militancy, sprang from the old left-wing tendency to underrate the non-urban population, which is where the Nazis had so much of their strength. At the same time it reflects a certain social and cultural isolation which sprang from the KPD’s own successes. For the German Communists lived in a world of their own, where the party catered for every interest. Once committed to the movement you not only read AIZ and the party political press: your literary tastes were catered for by the Büchergilde Gutenberg and the Malik-Verlag and corrected by Die Linkskurve; your entertainment was provided by Piscator’s and other collectives, by the agitprop groups, the Soviet cinema, the Lehrstück and the music of Eisler and Weill; your ideology was formed by Radványi’s MASch or Marxist Workers’ School; your visual standards by Grosz and Kollwitz and the CIAM; your view of Russia by the IAH. If you were a photographer, you joined a Workers-Photographers’ group; if a sportsman, some kind of Workers’ Sports Association; whatever your special interests Münzenberg [the German communist publisher and propagandist] had a journal for you. You followed the same issues, you lobbied for the same causes. (p.204)

And you failed. Your cause failed and everyone you knew was arrested, murdered or fled abroad.

A worldview which is based on a self-confirming bubble of like-minded information is proto-totalitarian, inevitably seeks to ban or suppress any opposing points of view, and is doomed to fail in an ever-changing world where people with views unlike yours outnumber you.

A democratic culture is one where people acknowledge the utter difference of other people’s views, no matter how vile and distasteful, and commit to argument, debate and so on, but also to conceding the point where the opponents are, quite simply, in the majority. You can’t always win, no matter how God-given you think your views of the world. But you can’t even hope to win unless you concede that your opponents are people, too, with deeply held views. Just calling them ‘social-fascists’ (as the KPD called the SPD) or ‘racists’ or ‘sexists’ (as bienpensant liberals call anyone who opposes them today) won’t change anything. You don’t stand a chance of prevailing unless you listen to, learn from, and sympathise with, the beliefs of people you profoundly oppose.

A third of the German population voted for Hitler in 1932 and the majority switched to Führer worship once he came to power. The avant-garde artists Willett catalogues in such mind-numbing profusion pioneered techniques of design and architecture, theatre production and photography, which still seem astonishingly modern to us today. But theirs was an entirely urban movement created among a hard core of like-minded bohemians. They didn’t even reach out to university students (as Laqueur’s chapter on universities makes abundantly clear), let alone the majority of Germany’s population, which didn’t live in fashionable cities.

Over the three days it took to read this book, I’ve also read newspapers packed with stories about Donald Trump and listened to radio features about Trump’s first year in office, so it’s been difficult not to draw the obvious comparisons between Willett’s right-thinking urban artists who failed to stop Hitler and the American urban liberals who failed to stop Trump.

American liberals – middle class, mainly confined to the big cities, convinced of the rightness of their virtuous views on sexism and racism – snobbishly dismissing Trump as a flashy businessman with a weird haircut who never got a degree, throwing up their hands in horror at his racist, sexist remarks. And utterly failing to realise that these were all precisely the tokens which made him appeal to non-urban, non-university-educated, non-middle class, and economically suffering, small-town populations.

Also, as in Weimar, the left devoted so much energy to tearing itself apart – Hillary versus Sanders – that it only woke up to the threat from the right-wing contender too late.

Ditto Brexit in Britain. The liberal elite (Guardian, BBC) based in London just couldn’t believe it could happen, led as it was by obvious buffoons like Farage and Johnson, people who make ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ comments and so, therefore, obviously didn’t count and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Because only people who talk like us, think like us, are politically correct like us, can possibly count or matter.

Well, they were proved wrong. In a democracy everyone’s vote counts as precisely ‘1’, no matter whether they’re a professor of gender studies at Cambridge (which had the highest Remain vote) or a drug dealer in Middlesborough (which had the highest Leave vote).

Dismissing Farage and Johnson as idiots, and anyone who voted Leave as a racist, was simply a way of avoiding looking into and trying to address the profound social and economic issues which drove the vote.

Well, the extremely clever sophisticates of Berlin also thought Hitler was a provincial bumpkin, a ludicrous loudmouth spouting absurd opinions about Jews which no sensible person could believe, who didn’t stand a chance of gaining power. And by focusing on the (ridiculous little) man they consistently failed to address the vast economic and social crisis which underpinned his support and brought him to power. Ditto Trump. Ditto Brexit.

Some optimists believe the reason for studying history is so we can learn from it. But my impression is that the key lesson of history is that – people never learn from history.


Related links

Related reviews

The Resistance by Matthew Cobb (2009)

Timeline

1939
September 3 – France and Britain declare war on Nazi Germany as a result of its invasion of Poland
1940
May 10 – after 9 months of ‘phoney war’, Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and quickly overruns them
June 18 – In the dying days of the Battle of France, General de Gaulle broadcasts from London telling the French to resist Germany
June 22 – The defeatist French government signs an armistice with Germany which establishes German direct rule over northern and western France and leaves southern, ‘unoccupied’ France, to be run by a new French government led by First World War hero, Marshal Pétain. Technically, the unoccupied territory referred to itself simply as the ‘French state’, but the English-speaking world refers to it as ‘Vichy France’ because its government was located in the small spa town of Vichy.

Map of German-occupied and unoccupied France from July 1940 to November 1942

During its 18 month rule the Vichy government slowly instituted Nazi policies, banning Jews, rounding up eligible Frenchmen for enforced labour in Germany and so on.
1942
November -in response to the mounting level of Resistance activities, the Nazis moved to occupy all of France.
1943
January – The Germans lose the Battle of Stalingrad
July – The Allies invade Italy and fight their way up the peninsula
1944
June – D-Day landings in Normandy
August – Paris is liberated


The French Resistance

Books There are over 3,000 books about the Resistance in French, and half a dozen good overall accounts in English, of which this is one of the most recent.

Number of résistants Anyone who resisted was a résistant. In total, in the four years of Germany occupation, from June 1940 to the liberation of Paris in August 1944, some 500,000 people took part in the broadest definition of resistance activities. Around 100,000 were arrested, imprisoned, deported to camps in Germany or executed.

Collaboration and resistance It seems that when Marshal Pétain and members of the Vichy government first used this word, collaboration, to describe their working arrangement with the Germans, it had neutral connotations, it just described a new way of working together. Many French thought the old Marshall was a canny planner who was just waiting for the right moment to turn on the Nazis and kick them out. Only very slowly did ordinary people realise that Pétain had no such plan and was happy to connive in:

  • the collapse of living standards
  • food shortages
  • the mass deportation of young men to work in labour camps
  • the persecution, imprisonment then deporting of the Jews

So ‘resistance’, as a concept, was developed partly as a response to ‘collaboration’ – yin and yang.

De Gaulle The book makes clear that when General de Gaulle escaped to England, he was more or less alone. Certainly, over 100,000 French troops were evacuated from Dunkirk and then billeted in the south of England, but from the higher echelons of the French army de Gaulle was virtually alone. When an army officer called on him to ask for a job he had to bring his own paper to write out the specification. De Gaulle barely had an office, no secretary, a few military assistants.

Nonetheless, de Gaulle’s invincible optimism that France would be liberated persuaded the British government to give him a five-minute slot in the weekly half hour broadcast to France, and this helped identify him with the cause of Free France, which is what he named his movement.

The book then chronicles the very long and very complex series of political manoeuvring among the Allies, de Gaulle’s own camp, among the myriad different resistance groups and among Vichy politicians which slowly led to de Gaulle becoming the most acceptable – or the least unacceptable – figurehead which all the different forces fighting to liberate France could rally round.

 

Varieties of resistance Only slowly, and in scattered pockets all over occupied and unoccupied France, did people from all walks of life decide they had to ‘resist’ the invader, by any means possible. To begin with this took modest forms:

  • schoolchildren marched on patriotic holidays
  • everyone, from kids to old ladies, carved, wrote or made models or hand gestures of ‘V for victory’, for example painting V on the wall or writing it in the dirt on cars
  • after waving the tricolour flag was banned, people wore clothes the same colour as the French flag

Amateur and professional

While dealing with these early outbreaks of spontaneous and ‘popular’ resistance, Cobb also sets the scene for the politics of the Resistance. The broad outline is simple. De Gaulle isolated in London assumed every French citizen would place themselves under his control and would obey military discipline and his orders. The snag was that the Allies had a very uneasy relationship with de Gaulle and his supposed Free French, because he was arrogant, dictatorial and unbending. On the other hand, he did become an icon due to his radio broadcasts and it aided the Allied effort to have a central focus of dissent, even if a difficult one.

Meanwhile, for his part, de Gaulle had little grasp of what was going on in France. Broadly speaking there appear to have been two periods: before Hitler’s invasion of Russia the entire communist party and all its affiliates was under orders from Stalin not to attack the Germans. They were hors du combat from June 1940 till June 1941. During this period small resistance networks bloomed all across France. Some carrying out ad hoc sabotage when a member had the opportunity – cutting telegraph wires, damaging railway lines. Others – in Paris especially – organised underground newspapers, propaganda and morale boosting stunts. All learned from bitter experience how not to set up underground organisations, how not to get caught, how to code messages and arrange secret rendezvous. Newspapers around which organisations clustered included Liberation, Combat, Valmy and Pantagruel.

All these organisations reflected the severe splintering which had characterised French political life before the war (and would continue to do so afterwards). Some were extreme right-wing Catholic monarchists; some liberal, some non-aligned, some socialist and when the communists joined the fray in 1941, it was reflected in the resurgence of their well-written newspaper, L’Humanité.

The engagement of the communists after June 1941 changed the dynamic in numerous ways: most obviously because they were well-organised, motivated and armed, and started carrying out effective assassinations and sabotage straight away. But they also upset the political balance. De Gaulle and the Allies became worried that arming ‘the Resistance’ would mean, in effect, helping the communists prepare for a post-liberation revolution. Certainly, the resistance had to be maintained as a morale-boosting force and military asset, but prevented from turning into an insurrectionary, revolutionary force. This one consideration explains the single greatest issue for the Resistance, and its biggest complaint against the Allies, its persistent shortage of weapons.

The rest of the book details the prolonged and complex negotiations and jockeying between all parties at a high level, a lot of which focuses round De Gaulle’s representative in France, Jean Moulin, expert at setting up committees and organisations. On this political level, the history of the Resistance disappears into a blizzard of organisations and acronyms, continuing as high-level political and diplomatic negotiations for the rest of the war. To give a flavour:

On 23 July 1943 the MUR [Mouvement Unis de la Résistance] and some of the small resistance organisations set up a ‘Central Committee’, which deliberately excluded all the political parties (including the Communists, the FTP [Francs Tireurs et Partisans] and the Front National) and which sought to control all armed action. In response, de Gaulle’s delegate to the northern zone, Claude Serreulles, set up a rival CNR [Conseil National de la Résistance] ‘Bureau’, composed of the Front National, the PCF [Parti Communist Français], the CGT trade union, Ceux de la Résistance, the OCM [Organisation Civil et Militaire] and Libération-Nord, which also claimed control over the maquis and the Secret Army. This was a straightforward power struggle over the leadership of the Resistance, but the contending parties were aligning themselves in unexpected way. The Parisian Gaullists had united with the Communist Party, while the Resistance movements had the support of Colonel Passy’s BCRA [Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action] in the shape of Pierre Brossolette… (p.226)

Much of the book reads like this. There are three densely-printed pages of acronyms at the end of the book.

The maquis

Meanwhile, down on the ground, people were fighting and getting killed. Cobb describes how various resistance groups organised, created structures, cells, passwords, safe houses, dead letter drops and all the rest of the ‘tradecraft’ we read about in John le Carré novels. (It’s slightly strange that no-one has thought of creating a series of Resistance novels; presumably there are lots in French; I’ve never heard of any.)

There was another turning point in February 1943 when, as a consequence of the catastrophic defeat of the German Army at Stalingrad, the Germans decided to force all able-bodied French men into the Service du Travail Obligatoire i.e. being conscripted to work in Germany. Many thousands evaded the call-up by taking to the hills.

This is the origin of the maquis – meaning ‘the bush’ – a word which describes the scrubby landscape of south-eastern France where it these groups became common. They were quite separate from the longer-established urban-based underground newspapers and information-gathering networks although, over the next few years as Cobb shows in detail, they became organised into regional groupings and these themselves came under the umbrella of the national organisations which were being set up.

Reprisals

The Nazis started the occupation fairly relaxed, but responded fiercely to ad hoc assassinations or sabotage, and got slowly, steadily crueller. There was a step change when the communists became active after June 1941 and began to carry out assassinations and attacks on German soldiers. The Nazis had taken hostages and didn’t hesitate to murder them in reprisal. When the military commander of Nantes, Lieutenant-Colonel Karl Hotz was assassinated in October 1941, a handful of French hostages were shot by the local authorities. Then Hitler heard about it and personally ordered a hundred Frenchmen to be executed. That was his rule of thumb: 100 natives shot for every Nazi murdered.

The book is littered with stories of a resistance attack leading to the execution of hostages or just to the rounding up and shooting of men off the street of the nearest village or town. There are some nightmare accounts by people lucky enough to survive mass killings as at the notorious incident at Oradour-sur-Glane where, on 10 June 1944, the entire population of 642 was murdered and the village reduced to ruins by a German Waffen-SS company, allegedly to free an SS officer who was being held prisoner by the Resistance.

This was the most extreme example of cold-blooded brutality, but Cobb’s narrative is full of stories of résistants captured, tortured, deported and executed.

Many were given away by informers: entire networks, sometimes of 1,000 people, could be rolled up, imprisoned and tortured by the betrayal of one person. When two SOE men were arrested carrying uncoded messages in June 1943, it led to the capture of over 1,000 members of the PROSPECT network, the biggest single blow suffered by the Resistance. But Cobb also gives stories of terrible accidents and basic errors in security – carrying uncoded lists of names was a common error. I was struck that it is a basic rule of tradecraft to only wait ten, a maximum of fifteen minutes, at a rendezvous site, then clear off. Cobb gives stories of several high-ranking résistant who ignored this rule and were stopped, questioned, arrested, tortured and tragically revealed their networks.

By page 200 I had already had enough of men and women being arrested, tortured, breaking, giving other names, then being shot or beheaded or sent off to the death camps in the East – but it was only 1943 and there was another year of escalating horror and brutality to go. It becomes painful and terrible to imagine what it must have been like. And to witness so much heroism, God the bravery and dignity with which so many of these very young men and women went to their deaths makes me feel ashamed of the triviality of our modern world.

The Jews

To my mild surprise the book is full of stories of how very pro-Jewish the French were. There are lots of stories of non-Jews in all walks of life doing what they could to help and protect the Jews, as the Nazi regime became more repressive, humiliating and then began rounding up Jews for extermination.

Léon Bronchart was a forty-four-year-old train driver. In October 1941, when he was ordered to drive a train of Jewish deportees from Montauban station, he simply refused. The station master and depot manager argued with him but he refused. He shut down the engine and walked away. Another driver was found, and Bronchart was disciplined and fined. A few months later he was caught in possession of the banned resistance paper, Combat, and sent to do forced labour in Buchenwald camp, where he sabotaged the V-2 rockets he was working on, before being sent to Bergen-Belsen. As a non-Jew, he survived. After the war, Israel awarded him the title ‘A Righteous Among the Nations’. This story made me cry.

Or the account of André Trocmé, the Protestant pastor of Le Chambon, who organised the mass concealment of thousands of young Jews among his flock and in the nearby countryside. He is quoted as saying, ‘We do not know what a Jew is. We only know men.’ Simple principle, but leading to unimaginable bravery.

In July 1942 the Nazis rounded up about 13,000 Jewish men, women and children in Paris. Half of them were kept in a sports stadium for days with no food or water, till they could be loaded into trains and shipped east. Resistance newspapers reprinted accounts of the conditions (which, of course, went unmentioned in the official newspapers) and commented on the horror.

With the latest measures taken against the Jews, we are sinking even lower. Those who have ordered these measures are forever condemned in the eyes of all human and divine justice… We hesitate to use the term bestiality, because a beast does not separate a female from its babies. This is a case of human intelligence entirely in the service of Evil, using all its resources to aid the global triumph of evil, of cruelty, of filth. (quoted page 137)

This is stirring rhetoric against the evil of anti-Semitism, but Cobb also quotes an article in Combat titled ‘The Jews, Our Brothers’, which makes more of a reasoned case for the stupidity, for the incoherence, for the meaninglessness of anti-Semitism.

All those who suffer at the hands of the Germans, be they Jews or not, be they Communists or not, are our brothers… There is no Jewish racial problem, no question of Jewish ‘blood’, for the simple reason that the ‘Jewish race’ is, as all serious ethnologists recognise, as mixed as the ‘French race’ or the ‘German race’… This Jewish community is a constituent component of the French national community, just like all the other religious, cultural or regional communities. (quoted page 137)

Some of the resistance groups came from the right, some from the extreme right-wing of French politics, and included military men, extreme Catholics and conservatives among whom everyday anti-Semitism had been commonplace. Cobb shows how one of the effects of the occupation was to undermine if not eliminate anti-Semitism in the rhetoric of all the Resistance groups.

Nonetheless, in the final analysis, 85 railways convoys left France, carrying 70,000 Jews (10,000 of them children) to the death camps, without any serious effort made to hamper or sabotage them. You can dwell on this fact and ask why the Resistance didn’t do more to stop them (the short answer is that no-one appreciated the scale of the Holocaust until the war was over). And then, to put it in context, a similar number of trains left France carrying some 88,000 résistants and nobody stopped or liberated those, either.

The Resistance could only do what it could do, generally small-scale attacks or sabotage at times and places which best suited its (very) limited means.

Politics by other means

In summary, the Resistance may have played a sporadic role in hurting the Nazi war effort (though not, in the great scale of things, very much) – but more importantly, it was the way French politics continued during the occupation.

You can separate the book into two distinct strands – one is the complex history of numerous groups and networks on the ground, their heroic work to organise, meet, print newspapers and occasionally carry out attacks, some minor, some really significant and daring, like the January 1944 attack on the aircraft propeller factory at Figeac.

The other is the permanent buzz of high-level politics going on ‘behind the scenes’ as all sides fought over their visions for a post-war France. For example, the anti-imperialist Roosevelt envisioned a Europe of free states stripped of their colonial empires. For de Gaulle, on the contrary, regaining control of the empire was a key part of the French war aim, alongside restoring strong, authoritarian government under a strong authoritarian leader such as, ahem, himself.

While Roosevelt detested de Gaulle, he realised that at least he wasn’t a communist. For he, Churchill and de Gaulle shared a common fear that the Resistance would become a united military force strong enough so that, come the liberation – in whatever form – it would provide the vanguard for a Russian-style revolution.

And this is what some communists hoped for. But Socialist résistants, on the contrary, wanted something like a restoration of the 1936 Popular Front government. While a lot of people on the ground in France simply wanted a restoration of democratic politics – or had no political views at all – or were at the opposite extreme, arch right-wing Catholics who detested communists, socialists and liberals alike.

So a major strand of the book is detailing the incessant manoeuvring which went on all the time between all these different players, in light of the changing fortunes of war (e.g. June 1941 German invasion of Russia; December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and resultant entry of the USA into the war; January 1943 Germans lose the battle of Stalingrad; July 1943 the Allies take Sicily and Mussolini is sacked and imprisoned).

This manoeuvring carried right on up to the liberation of Paris in August 1944, and then swiftly became the ‘business as usual’ of French politics – which meant the dizzying turnaround of half-baked administrations which drove de Gaulle so mad with frustration that he resigned as head of the provisional government in 1946.

But America’s main war aim re. France was achieved. The Resistance did not become the kernel of a revolutionary army. There was no communist revolution in France. The communist party remained a very powerful presence for the rest of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, but it had been ordered during these crucial years not to foment revolution, not to frighten the Allies which Stalin needed to keep as friends, not to abuse its power. In fact, when Corsica was liberated in September 1943, the communist participants went out of their way to work in partnership with and submit themselves to the authority of the Free French forces.

de Gaulle part two

It is hilarious to read how much Roosevelt hated de Gaulle for his arrogance and hauteur – he couldn’t bear to be in the same room as the tall Frenchman. Even after the Free French located their new government in Algiers (after it had been liberated from the Germans by the Americans) Roosevelt still refused to consult it, and de Gaulle was never invited to the meetings of the Big Three – Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin.

It is a very striking fact that the Allies didn’t bother to tell de Gaulle the date of the D-Day landings until two days beforehand, on 4 June. All senior Allied officials and military leaders knew this weeks before de Gaulle; even the Resistance leaders had been told a week earlier. It cannot be over-emphasised how much Roosevelt et al disliked him.

And yet, the final pages of Cobb’s book show how, despite everything, de Gaulle’s rigidity and hauteur paid off. Once Paris was liberated, once he had walked down the Champs d’Elysees at the head of triumphal French troops (rustled up for the occasion), once he had announced that he was running the government, no other individual had the same a) contacts with the Allied leaders b) reputation among the general population, thanks to all those radio broadcasts. By definition, most of the Resistance leaders had worked anonymously, or under pseudonyms, whereas de Gaulle broadcast under his own name.

Which just goes to show that nations need, in the sense of wish for, desire, want to obey, one clear identified leader – even if he is a supercilious wanker. By the time I got to the last chapter I wasn’t at all surprised to read that in his speeches on the day of Paris’s liberation, de Gaulle made no mention of the Resistance, none at all; didn’t mention them, didn’t thank them (p.268). And that ten years later, in his memoirs, he hardly referred to this entire, huge, multi-headed organisation with its hundreds of thousands of brave men and women, who ran terrible risks and so many of whom paid for it with torture, slave labour and execution. Instead, all de Gaulle’s praise went to his little staff of ‘Free French’ colleagues in London or Algiers, but most of all to his mystical invocation of La France itself.

Then again, de Gaulle did have a grasp of the global situation. In order to earn respect from the Allies, in order to restore France as a world power, he vitally needed the French to take part in the conquest of Nazi Germany. Which is why, within three days of the liberation of Paris, de Gaulle called for the winding up of the two main Resistance organisations, the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieure and the Comité d’Action Militaire, and for all résistants to be absorbed into the Free french army. This was called l’amalgame and by November over 200,000 former résistants were fighting in the French Army which entered Germany.

What if…?

Obviously the book’s overt purpose is to provide a narrative history of ‘the resistance’. The main learning from it is how scattered and multi-headed this entity was, and how acts of resistance could range from schoolkids drawing a V for victory on a wall to complex plans to smuggle German military plans to England.

But all the way through, as I read of the outrageous courage and heroism of so many men and women, I was creating a secondary book in my mind, a ghost book, wondering – what would happen now?

How would I respond if, say, the Russians invaded England and created a dictatorial state (as they do in Kingsley Amis’s counter-factual novel, Russian Hide and Seek)? How would we all respond? Who would take a job with the regime, hoping to work improvements inside? Who would sell out, pure and simple? Who would go underground committing sporadic acts of sabotage or terrorism? Would I have the courage to refuse to drive the trainload of Jews like Léon Bronchart? What if… what then… how would…?

The fate of empires

Finally, it made me wonder about the French and British empires.

Again and again, de Gaulle and other French leaders are quoted as wanting to restore the gloire and the grandeur and the prestige of France. I have recently read several histories of the wars for independence from France fought by the Vietnamese (1945 to 1954) and the Algerians (1954 to 1962), bitterly contested, bloody, brutal wars which repeatedly jeopardised the French state itself.

So what I wonder is this:

Did France’s losing the war, being occupied and humiliated for four years, harden its patriotism, making all sectors of the political spectrum absolutely adamant that part of France’s core identity was its glorious empire and its famous mission civilatrice (France’s self-appointed mission to bring its glorious civilisation to the poor benighted peoples of Africa and south-east Asia)?

Did losing the war – and four years of resistance – make it harder for France to give up its empire? Hence the absolute debacles in Vietnam and Algeria?

And is it valid to compare and contrast France’s attitude to its empire with that of Britain, which wasn’t invaded or occupied, which fought off the attacker, which significantly helped win the final victory and so – to some extent – forged a national identity based on its own courage and pluck? Did this give the British a relatively secure, a psychologically confident, position which made it easier for the Brits to relinquish their empire?

In 1947 Britain gave away the jewel in the crown of its empire, India. In 1947 in Vietnam, the French had just launched a bloody attack on the port city of Haiphong, which hardened and spread anti-imperialist sentiment. Can the diverse approaches taken to their respective empires by the French and British governments be traced to their very different national experiences of the Second World War?

Le chant des partisans


Related links

Vietnam

Algeria

Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus (1960)

I loathe none but executioners.

This is a selection of 23 essays from Camus’s entire journalistic and speech-making output chosen by the man himself in the year of his death, 1960. By then Camus had published three big collections bringing together all his journalism, in 1950, 1953 and 1958 – this is a selection from those books.

The three collections were titled Actuelles I, II and III. ‘Actuelle’ is a French adjective which can be translated as ‘current’, ‘contemporary’, ‘relevant’ and it is straightaway noticeable that almost all the pieces address pressing contemporary political and social issues of his day. Collected essays by a novelist and playwright might be expected to include some studies of favourite forebears, of Racine or Zola, say. Not here. The pieces are nothing if not engagé, as the contemporary catch-phrase had it. For example, Actuelles III is entirely devoted to Camus’s collected writings on Algeria, from 1939 to 1958.

The pieces are short

The most obvious thing about the pieces is that they’re all very short. Half a dozen of them are from Combat, the underground Resistance paper Camus helped to produce during the Occupation and for a few years afterwards, often only three or four pages long. Others are ten-minute speeches, short addresses, brief replies to critics of his plays, and so on. By far the longest piece is the essay on the guillotine, a hefty 60 pages long, which brings together a career of thought to argue vehemently against the death penalty.

They cluster round two active periods

Then there’s their dates. Very roughly there are two active periods – the War (1944-45) and the late ’50s (1955-58). The speeches to Christians and the freedom pieces from the early 50s appear as interludes between these two main clusters of productivity, which obviously reflect moments when France was actually at war, with Germany, and then in Algeria.

The War

  • Letters to a German Friend (1943, 1944, 1945) [summarised below]
  • The Blood of Freedom (Combat, 24 August 1944) Short editorial exhorting his comrades to victory during the Liberation of Paris. This and the next one are, apparently, of historic importance.
  • The Night of Truth (Combat, 25 August 1944) Short editorial on the night before the German surrender of Paris.
  • René Leynaud (Combat, 27 October 1944) Short piece commemorating the execution of his friend.
  • Introduction to Poésies Posthumes by René Leynaud (1947) Longer piece giving potted bio and memories of his resistance friend.
  • Pessimism and Courage (Combat, September 1945) Irritation at bourgeois critics attacking the alleged pessimism of Sartre, Malraux and the existentialists, arguing that absurdity must be faced because it is the climate of the time.
  • Defense of Intelligence (speech given to L’Amitié Française, 15 March 1945) We must not give in to hatred; we must descend to insult; we must debate with respect. ‘There is no freedom without intelligence.’

Speeches to Christians

  • Speech given at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg (1948) He admires them for their Christian faith but honestly disagrees. ‘the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds.’
  • Why Spain? (Combat, December 1948) An article replying to criticism of Camus’s play State of Siege made by the Christian existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, who asked why it was set in Franco Spain and not Communist East Europe? Because we have still not expiated France’s sin of collaborating with Franco, Camus replies.

It seems to me there is another ambition that ought to belong to all writers: to bear witness and shout aloud, every time it is possible, insofar as our talent allows, for those who are enslaved. (p.83)

Freedom

  • Bread and Freedom (Speech given at Labour Exchange Saint-Etienne, May 1953) Intellectuals and workers must be united: if either is attacked, it is by the forces of oppression and injustice; if both stand together, they can bring freedom closer.
  • Homage to an Exile (Speech given to honour President Eduardo Santos, driven out of Colombia by the dictatorship, 7 December 1955) Really fulsome praise in his role as newspaper editor who defended other people’s rights to speech, in which he explains that those who ‘bear witness’ to oppression decrease the solitude tyranny depends on, and increase the sense of common cause and solidarity among the oppressed.

Algeria

  • Preface to Algerian Reports (March-April 1958) Actuelles III was a book-length collection of all Camus’s writing on Algeria from 1939 to 1958. This is the introduction to that volume. It is convoluted and mealy-mouthed, dutifully condemning extremism on both sides but you feel he knows in his heart of hearts that his suggested solution – Algeria to be split into federal units, some European, some Arab, along with a lot of reform and investment from France – was hopelessly impractical.
  • Letter to an Algerian Militant (to Aziz Kessous, Algerian socialist, October 1955) On 20 August 1955 FLN militiamen massacred 37 Europeans in the Algerian coastal port of Philippeville, gang-raping the women, hacking the babies to pieces. In reply, French paratroopers massacred Muslim peasants at nearby El-Halia, while surviving colons lynched hundreds of Muslims in Philippeville. Just two months later, Camus, in anguish, writes to support his friend Aziz Kessous who has set up a newspaper to try to create a space where the opposing sides can meet and debate. Forlorn hope.
  • Appeal for a Civilian Truce (Lecture in Algiers, February 1956) A speech Camus gave to a mixed audience in Algiers hoping to launch a movement to get both sides to agree at least not to target civilians. It is pitiful  to see how ineffective the stirring rhetoric of his essays and books is when it comes to the real world. And makes you realise how Eurocentric his rhetoric is. The FLN wanted their own country back; no amount of fancy rhetoric about liberty or terror or man had any hope of changing that.
  • Algeria (A personal statement, 1958) Camus thinks the FLN demand for full-blown independence is ludicrous. 1. What would happen to the 1.2 million French living in Algeria? 2. It’s all part of a conspiracy to create a pan-Islamic empire. 3. Algerians alone don’t have the economic know-how. 4. Insofar as the FLN are supported by Russia it would amount to a communist takeover of the southern flank of Europe. And so on. Camus proposes a federal structure like Switzerland, with the Muslims having one part of government, the French another. The more he elaborates the details of this complex scheme, the more unrealistic it becomes. After this final intervention, Camus retired into hurt silence and the war escalated.

Hungary

  • Kadar Had His Day of Fear (Franc-Tireur, 18 March 1957) In October-November 1956 the Hungarian people spontaneously rose up against their communist leaders. After some hesitation, the Soviet Union sent in tanks and troops to put down the revolution, killing some 3,000 civilians during days of street fighting, and sending tens of thousands of the country’s best and brightest to forced labour camps in the months that followed. Camus writes with searing anger at the naked totalitarian tyranny of the Soviets and with disgust at the hypocrisy and self-hatred of French communists who supported the Soviet intervention.
  • Socialism of the Gallows (Interview published in Demain magazine, February 1957) An equally angry and disgusted repudiation of communist totalitarianism and its supporters in the West. Totalitarianism means above else a state with only one party in it. This will inevitably crush all debate, all art, all possibility of criticism and improvement. It guarantees repression, secret police, the gulag. It also guarantees that there can never be any change or progress. By contrast, the only form of society which can guarantee at least some progress is one which allows multiple parties and viewpoints. Liberal democracy. — The anti-Marx section of The Rebel should certainly be read alongside these two pieces which unambiguously convey Camus’s violent anti-communism.

The death penalty

  • Reflections on the Guillotine (A long excerpt from a book-length symposium organised by Camus and Arthur Koestler, 1957) Anyone who’s read this far should realise that Camus is against the death penalty. Vivid description of the effect of the guillotine drive home how disgusting it is. If the aim of capital punishment is to deter, it would be on prime time TV. But most murders aren’t pre-meditated, are committed on the spur of the moment – so capital punishment cannot be a deterrent. Capital punishment degrades the executioners, as memoirs testify. Replacing it with hard labour gives the opportunity for rehabilitation. Only God has 100% knowledge; capital punishment is a hangover from the time of Christian faith in an all-knowing God, but the justice system is far from all-knowing: a steady stream of innocent men have been executed. Even one miscarriage should invalidate it forever. Most profoundly, man’s deepest virtue is revolt against the human condition, meaning death. The death penalty undermines human solidarity and community at its most vital place; this is why so many modern people feel degraded because it attacks our deepest, most animal instinct – for life.

The writer in our time

  • The Wager of Our Generation (Interview in Demain, October 1957) Back in those days ‘the writer’ had a prophetic role and authority which has completely vanished. Camus says the writer is caught between immersion in the history of his time and duty to his art, and this is a ‘dangerous’ situation. Not really.
  • Create Dangerously (Lecture given at the University of Uppsala, December 1957) A sustained 20-page expression of his view of the role of the artist, the lecture emphatically conveys Camus’s sense that a) there is such a thing as Grand Art, Art Which Matters b) the Artist has some kind of Special Responsibility to engage with his Society c) this makes Art dangerous for repressive societies and potentially for any Artist who takes them on. In other words, all the premises, conclusions and rhetoric come from a pre-Post-Modern world, the grey decade of McCarthyism, Kruschev, Hungary and Suez. 1957 was the year the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded, and the first Aldermaston March took place the following year. Nuclear weapons haven’t gone away, nor various tyrannies around the world, but the sense that the world is perched on the brink of a vast catastrophe and that Artists and Writers and Intellectuals play a privileged role in explaining it all to us lesser mortals, and leading us to Freedom – this has gone for good. Five minutes after Camus died people started getting colour televisions, Andy Warhol making silk screens of Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles dropped acid, and the gadget-driven consumer paradise started up which we still live in. The core of the speech gives a history of the development of art in 19th century France leading up to the irresponsible doctrine of Art for Art’s sake, and contrast this with the aggressive doctrine of Socialist Realism, demanded in the Communist Bloc and supported by many Western intellectuals. In other words, this is an interesting analysis of the position of the European writer in 1957, but it is 60 years old and shows it.

The message

Having now read all of Camus’s main works, I think I can summarise his position as killing people is always and everywhere wrong. The foundation text in this respect is the Letters to a German Friend. In these Camus admits that he and his Nazi friend both shared the same pre-war sense of the complete bankruptcy of traditional bourgeois values and the utter meaninglessness of life in a world bereft of God or any transcendental values – but they drew very different conclusions from it.

The Nazi concluded that the only value in the world is the animal virtue of power and, like so many of his countrymen, submitted to a leader and an ideology devoted to the worship of power. Apart from the obvious consequences (invading and devastating the rest of Europe) this led to an instrumentalist point of view which saw Europe solely as a larder of oil wells, wheat fields, arms factories and so on to be used in the relentless conquests of the Master Race, and its population, similarly, as objects to be used for the Master Plan.

Camus, by contrast, saw that there is a fundamental, irreducible value in the world, and that is man’s revolt against his destiny (i.e. an arbitrary death).

Man’s greatness lies elsewhere. It lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition. (p.39)

We are the only animals to be aware of our condition and to seek to rise above it. This is a value, a position, a basis for appealing to justice and against the wanton mutilation of ‘life’ and the murder of millions represented by the Nazis (and, later, the Communists). Taken collectively, or read on the social plane, this revolt becomes man’s rebellion against oppression.

I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one. This world has at least the truth of man, and our task is to provide its justifications against fate itself. And it has no justification but man; hence he must be saved if we want to save the idea we have of life. With your scornful smile you will ask me: what do you mean by saving man? And with all my being I shout to you that I mean not mutilating him and yet giving a chance to the justice than man alone can conceive. (p.29)

As to proof of the existence of these things – Art, culture, civilisation is the collective record of the revolt of individuals against the limits of the human condition; and rebellions in the name of justice are an undeniable fact of history, and were in train all across Europe as Camus wrote, no matter how confident the Nazis were of their total power.

These fundamental values – revolt and rebellion – are the seeds which will grow into The Rebel, Camus’s enormously long attempt to devise a philosophy or worldview which starts in the post-war waste land and works its way upwards towards a viable basis for a world of humane values, of human dignity and freedom.

Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. (p.73)

The image of the individual having to decide whether to acquiesce in the triumph of tyranny or whether to stand against it, at the risk of their own lives, is obviously derived from his experience working with the French Resistance against the Nazi Occupation and is made very real in his account of the capture and execution of his friend, fellow resistant and would-be poet, René Leynaud.

But it is an image, a pose, an attitude Camus carried on into the post-war era of the Cold War, when a new tyranny dominated Eastern Europe, as Communist governments in the Eastern Bloc set up new secret police forces, torture chambers and slave labour camps. Hence the two pieces here about the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

It is Camus’s misfortune that his most famous and most accessible texts – The Outsider and The Myth of Sisyphus – stem from his early, ‘nihilist’ period; both were drafted around 1940. To really understand his thought, it would be better to focus on his later, far more humane works – The Rebel, the late short stories, and these essays – which move towards a whole-hearted support for a liberal democratic society which enshrines competing parties, voices, and freedom of speech.

In the later essays and speeches references to his personal theory of ‘the Absurd’ disappear and, although ‘revolt’ still crops up occasionally, really the final period of Camus’s life was devoted to the ideas of Justice and Freedom, and the need to speak out against Oppression and Injustice wherever they are found.

Europe and colonialism

It was Camus’s consistent opposition to Soviet tyranny which brought down on his head the wrath of the communist-minded Paris intellectual élite but which now, of course, make him look like a hero. Except the image is troubled because of the darkness shed over his later years by the outbreak of war in Algeria, his homeland. The four pieces on Algeria bring home his inability to agree with the colonial wish for independence; he just refuses to accept it as a possibility because it implies the exodus of 1.2 million French from Algeria (which is what in the end happened).

They also shed light on another limitation of Camus’s thought. It is very Eurocentric. In the Letters to a German Friend he discusses Europe’s histories and values in a way which remains very much within the European arena. The Algerian tragedy is a violent reminder that there is a very big world outside of Europe, its tragedies and civilisation, and it is a world where European philosophy, rhetoric, political and cultural values, may simply be irrelevant.

In fact, the more I’ve read about Camus’s position on Algeria the more I’ve been disappointed by his complete silence about Vietnam. For eight long years from 1946 to 1954 the French tried to put down the Vietnamese struggle for independence, as described in histories like The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow.

Hindsight is easy. I’m being unfair. Taken altogether what these essays show more than anything else is what an extraordinarily troubled era he lived through. Foreign invasion and humiliation, the threat of violent revolution bringing the utter loss of freedom and human dignity, the collapse of European empires all round the world, the real risk of nuclear armageddon – it was a difficult time to understand, to grasp, and in which to hang on to fundamentally humane, decent values. Camus did his best, despite his flaws.


The comedy of being French

These essays are intensely serious. You’d think smiling had been banned, let alone laughing. The British ridiculed Hitler (who only had one ball, the other was in the Albert Hall). By contrast, the French invoked the long history of their grandeur and prestige and their gloire. In this respect – obsessing about France’s special destiny, invoking its unique civilisation, and so on – Camus is no different from the grand rhetoric of de Gaulle. I couldn’t help smiling at Camus’s Frenchness i.e. his conviction of his country’s invincible superiority to all other nations, despite the rather prominent evidence to the contrary.

For history is the record of what actually happened, not of what writers and philosophers would like to think happened. And having recently read Alistair Horne’s massive history of the Battle of France I know that France fell to Germany in 6 quick weeks because French society was ruinously divided, demoralised and defeatist (as described from the inside in Jean-Paul Sartre’s great Roads To Freedom trilogy).

In this respect Camus’s Letters to a German Friend perform a prodigious feat of philosophical prestidigitation. They explain that France’s bad management, lack of preparation, appalling military and political leadership, defeatism and swift surrender turn out all to be indicators of France’s spiritual and moral superiority. France wasn’t ready to fight because it was too dedicated to the noble arts of peace. It was too good to fight. Ha!

More – by losing the actual battle France turns out to have won the moral war, because it took her four long years to overcome her natural repugnance to warfare, her superior preference for happiness and civilisation, in order to fight back. Sadly, of course, the Germans never had these superior moral qualities. And so, announces Camus, with a Gallic flourish -the German victory in 1940 was in fact an indication of Germany’s spiritual defeat. Voilà!

Camus goes on to give a quick overview of European civilisation (which in fact turns out to be largely based on French achievements) in order to show how the Nazis only regarded Europe as a collection of resources – oil wells, wheat fields, arms factories – to be exploited, whereas the superior French – naturellement – see Europe as a glorious repository of civilisation and intelligence. At which point Camus rattles off some characteristic landmarks of European civilisation, such as the cloisters of Florence, the gilded domes of Krakow, the statues on the bridges over the Charles River, the gardens of Salzburg. And then tells his German friend:

It never occurred to me that someday we should have to liberate them from you. (p.24)

‘We’? ‘We’ would have to liberate them? The French?

Did the French ‘liberate’ Florence, Cracow, Prague or Salzburg? No. Did the French even liberate France? No. On D-Day 73,000 American, 61,715 British and 21,400 Canadian soldiers landed in Normandy, 4,400 of whom died on the first day.

And the Russians. They helped defeat the Nazis a bit.

Many of the Combat essays read as if they should be sung by Edith Piaf at her most histrionic:

We know this fight too well, we are too involved through or flesh and our hearts to accept this dreadful condition without bitterness. But we also know too well what is at stake to refuse the difficult fate that we must bear alone. (p.35)

You’d think the Spanish republicans, the Czechs, the Poles, the Yugoslavs, the Greeks, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Ukrainians, the Finns and Danes and Dutch and Belgians, let alone the Russians at Leningrad or Stalingrad, none of them had experienced anything like the French, who alone knew the tragedy and, oui, mon brave, the nobility of suffering!

The Paris that is fighting tonight intends to command tomorrow. Not for power, but for justice; not for politics, but for ethics; not for the domination of France, but for her grandeur. (p.36)

a) Camus’s French arrogance – his complete omission of the vital role played by the Anglo-Saxon countries in standing up to Hitler and then overthrowing the Nazi regime – his sublime confidence in French exceptionalism, matches the haughty grandeur of de Gaulle, and is just as ludicrous.

b) On a more serious note, this willful omission mirrors his neglect of the colonial issue, the post-war problem of France’s Empire – and specifically the massive war in Vietnam which kicked off as soon as the World War ended  – until he was absolutely forced to confront it when his own homeland went up in flames.

If Camus’s notions of French grandeur and prestige and gloire turned out to be a fatal dead end, nonetheless his championing of human freedom and dignity against Nazi and Communist tyranny remain impressive and inspiring to this day. It set the tone and helped spread the language of resistance to communist tyranny – of being a ‘witness to truth’, of art’s capacity to unite people against oppression – which echoed on in the writings of, for example, Václav Havel and Polish Solidarity. 


Credit

The English translation by Justin O’Brien of Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus was published by Alfred Knopf in 1960. All quotes & references are to the Vintage paperback reprint of this 1960 translation.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The battle for France

The Algerian war of independence

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