A Remarkable Politician – Joseph Fouché

Some politicians get by with luck and grit, and not a lot more. Perhaps that is all that it takes for most of them – as  tends to be the case for the rest of us. One such politician was Joseph Fouché who was active during the French Revolution and who, as the Duke of Otranto, was Minister of Police for the Emperor Napoleon. Fouché was the ultimate survivor. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who was an immensely popular novelist in the 1930’s, called Fouché ‘the most perfect Machiavel of modern times’ – ‘a leader of every party in turn and unique in surviving the destruction of them all.’. Here was a ‘man of the same skin and hair who was in 1790 a priestly schoolmaster, and by 1792 already a plunderer of the Church; was in 1793 a communist, five years later a multimillionaire and ten years after that the Duke of Otranto.’ Fouché therefore was not just a survivor – he was a winner.

In introducing his book about ‘this thoroughly amoral personality’, Joseph Fouché, The Portrait of a Politician, Stefan Zweig said this:

Alike in 1914 and 1918 [the book was written in 1929] we learned to our cost that the issues of the war and the peace, issues of far-reaching historical significance, were not the outcome of a high sense of intelligence and exceptional responsibility, but were determined by obscure individuals of questionable character and endowed with little understanding. Again and again since then it has become apparent that in the equivocal and often rascally game of politics, to which with touching faith the nations continue to entrust their children and their future, the winners are not men of wide moral grasp and firm conviction, but those professional gamesters whom we style diplomatists – glib talkers with light fingers and a cold heart.

Those observations have the timelessness of truth.

Joseph Fouché was born in the seaport town of Nantes to a seafaring mercantile family. The great places were reserved for the nobility, so Joseph went into the Church. He went to the Oratorians who were in charge of Catholic education after the expulsion of the Jesuits. He becomes a tonsured teacher, not a priest. ‘Not even to God, let alone to men, will Joseph Fouché give a pledge of lifelong fidelity.’ Three of the most powerful French political thinkers then – Talleyrand, Sieyes, and Fouché – come from an institution that the Revolution will be bent on destroying, the Church.

Joseph became friendly with a young lawyer named Robespierre. There was even talk that he might marry Robespierre’s sister, and when the young Maximilien was elected to the Estates General at Versailles, it was Joseph who lent him the money for a new suit of clothes.

When Joseph moves that the Oratorians to express their support for the Third Estate, he is sent back to Nantes. He then becomes political, discards his cassock, and, after marrying the daughter of a wealthy merchant, ‘an ugly girl but handsomely dowered’, he is elected to the revolutionary National Convention in 1792 as the Chairman of the Friends of the Constitution at Nantes.

Fouché is always cool and under control. He has no vices and he is a loyal husband, but he will be an ‘inexorable puritan’ and invincibly cold blooded, at his best working in the shadows as an unseen second to the limelighters. He prefers the reality of power to its insignia, but with ‘his resolute freedom from convictions’, he is quite capable of repudiating a leader who has gone too far. ‘He knows that a revolution never bestows its fruits on those who begin it, but only on those who bring it to an end and are therefore in a position to seize the booty.’

Fouché starts up the ladder. He had aligned with the moderates known as the Gironde on the issue of death for the king, but sensing the shift in the breeze, he stabbed them in the back with the words la mort when it came his turn to cast his vote. He acquires huge power as Representative on Mission, a kind of Roman proconsul. He has what we would call a communist social program, especially toward the Church. He issues an utterly chilling instruction: ‘Everything is permissible to those who are working for the revolution; the only danger for the republican is to lag behind the laws of the Republic: one who outstrips them, gets ahead of them; one who seemingly overshoots the aim, has often not yet reached the goal. While there is still anyone unhappy with the world, there are still some steps to take in the racecourse of liberty.’

The ci devant tonsured Oratorian declares war on the Church ‘to substitute the worship of the Republic and of morality for that of ancient superstitions.’ He abolishes celibacy and orders priests to marry or adopt a child within one month. In Moulins, he rides through the town at the head of a procession hammer in hand smashing crosses, crucifixes and other images, the ‘shameful’ tokens of fanaticism. This is the phase of dechristianization, far, far more brutal than the Reformation in England.

But we also speak of the Terror, when an anxious France was guillotining its enemies within, and Robespierre would implement the Law of Suspects. It is the black night of the revolution and it leads Stefan Zweig to this most remarkable judgment which still speaks so clearly to us at a time of a collapse in public life.

By the inexorable law of gravity, each execution dragged others in its train. Those who had begun the game with no more than ferocious mouthings, now tried to surpass one another in bloody deeds. Not from frenzied passion and still less from stern resolution were so many victims sacrificed. Irresolution, rather, was at work; the irresolution of politicians who lacked courage to withstand the mob. In the last analysis, cowardice was to blame. For, alas, history is not only (as we are so often told) the history of human courage, but also the history of human faintheartedness; and politics is not (as politicians would fain have us believe) the guidance of public opinion, but a servile bowing of the knee by the so-called leaders before the demons they have themselves created.

With those words, Stefan Zweig justified not only this whole book, but his whole life. The words ‘the irresolution of politicians who lacked courage to withstand the mob’ should be put up in neon lights in every parliamentary and government office, and in the booth of every shock jock, poll taker, and sound-bite grabber, and that of any other predatory bludger, urger, or racecourse tout.

And the Terror was in turn at its worst for those parts of France that had sought to rebel in bloc, like the great city of Lyon, the second of France. The revolt in the west in the Vendee was seen to be Catholic and Royalist; in Lyon, it was a revolt by class and money. The reprisals for each had a manic cruelty and intensity unmatched until the times of Stalin and Hitler. In the Vendee, a man named Carrier was responsible for the infamy of the noyades, when batches of priests were manacled, and placed on barges that were towed in the Loire and then sunk. Fouché executed revolutionary justice at Lyon where the guillotine was thought to be too cumbersome. The depravity is described by Zweig in these terms:

Early that morning sixty young fellows are taken out of prison and fettered together in couples. Since, as Fouché puts it, the guillotine works ‘too slowly’, they are taken to the plain of Brotteaux, on the other side of the Rhone. Two parallel trenches, hastily dug to receive their corpses, show the victims what is to be their fate, and the cannon ranged ten paces away indicate the manner of their execution. The defenceless creatures are huddled and bound together into a screaming, trembling, raging, and vainly resisting mass of human despair. A word of command and the guns loaded with slugs are ‘fired into the brown’. The range is murderously close and yet the first volley does not finish them off. Some have only had an arm or leg blown away; others have had their bellies torn open but are still alive; a few, as luck would have it, are uninjured. But while blood is making runnels of itself down into the trenches, at a second order, cavalrymen armed with sabres and pistols fling themselves on those who are yet alive, slashing into and firing into this helpless heard, of groaning, twitching and yelling fellow mortals until the last raucous voice is hushed. As a reward for their ghastly work, the butchers are then allowed to strip clothing and shoes from the sixty warm bodies before these are cast naked into the fosses which await them.

All this was done in front of a crowd of appreciative onlookers. The next batch was enlarged to two hundred ‘head of cattle marched to the slaughter’ and this time the avengers of the nation dispensed with the graves. The corpses were thrown into the Rhone as a lesson to the folks downstream. When the guillotine is again put to work, ‘a couple of women who have pleaded too ardently for the release of their husbands from the bloody assize are by his [Fouché’s] orders bound and placed close to the guillotine.’ Fouché declares: ‘We do not hesitate to declare that we are shedding much unclean blood, but we do so for humane reasons, and because it is our duty.’ Zweig concludes: ‘Sixteen hundred executions within a few weeks show that, for once, Joseph Fouché is speaking the truth.’ That may be so, but the invocation of humanity for this butchery defies all language.

I am relying on a translation (by Eden and Cedar Paul in the 1930 Viking Edition), but Zweig attributes to Fouché what he calls ‘a flamboyant proclamation’;

The representatives of the people will remain inexorable in the fulfilment of the mission that has been entrusted to them. The people has put into their hands the thunderbolts of vengeance, and they will not lay them down until all its enemies have been shattered. They will have courage enough and be energetic enough to make their way through holocausts of conspirators and to march over ruins to ensure the happiness of the nation and effect the regeneration of the world.

There, surely, you have a preview of all the madness and cant that will underlie the evil that befalls mankind in the next century.

Fouché and his accomplice get news that the wind may have changed in Paris and the other is sent back to cover their backs. Fouché now has to deal with Robespierre, ‘that tiger of a man, balancing adroitly as usual between savagery and clemency, swinging like a pendulum now to the Right and now to the Left’, who was unhappy with Fouché for having displaced his own henchman (the crippled lawyer Couthon who had no stomach for the task). Robespierre is the cold lawyer from Arras that we associate with the height of the Terror – and with its end. Zweig says that Robespierre was ‘wrapped in his virtue as if it were a toga’. That about sums it up, but Zweig has a most remarkable passage that includes:

Robespierre’s tenacity of purpose was his finest quality, but it was also his greatest weakness. For, intoxicated by the sense of his own incorruptibility and clad as he was in an armour of stubborn dogmatism, he considered that divergences of opinion were treasonable, and with the cold cruelty of a grand inquisitor, he was ready to regard as heretics all who differed from him and send them to a heretic’s doom…..The lack of communicable warmth, of contagious humanity, deprived his actions of procreative energy. His strength lay exclusively in his stubbornness; his power, in his unyielding severity. His dictatorship had become for him the entire substance and the all-engrossing form of his life. Unless he could stamp his own ego on the revolution, that ego would be shattered.

That judgment may be too severe for Robespierre, but it looks dead right for Lenin – especially the last, about the insatiable need to stamp his own ego on the revolution. There is the key to the agony of all the Russias.

There followed a duel between Fouché and Robespierre. Fouché ‘had never asked Robespierre’s advice; had never bowed the knee before the sometime friend.’ Robespierre turned on Fouché in the Convention: ‘Tell us, then, who commissioned you to announce to the people that God does not exist, you, who are so devoted to that doctrine?’   Fouché is just one target in a speech that ends in a hurricane of applause. Fouché goes quiet, he goes underground, a he performs the then equivalent of working the phones – and then he surfaces – as the next elected President of the Jacobins Club! This is the rank and file of the ‘party’.

The response had to be nasty, and the next time Robespierre is brutal, with the by then standard allegation of conspiracy. ‘I was at one time in fairly close touch with him because I believed him to be a patriot. If I denounced him here, it was not so much because of his past crimes because he had gone into hiding to commit others, and because I believed him to be the ringleader of the conspiracy which we have to thwart.’ This was vintage Robespierre paranoia and the stakes were terminal. Fouché is expelled from the Jacobins. ‘Now Joseph Fouché is marked for the guillotine as a tree is marked for the axe…..Fifty or sixty deputies who, like Fouché, no longer dare to sleep in their own quarters, bite their lips when Robespierre walks past them; and many are furtively clenching their fists at the very time when they are hailing his speeches with acclamations.’

Robespierre is circling in his sky-blue suit and white silk stockings, and the very air is thick with fear. He gives a three hour harangue, but then declines to give names. ‘Et Fouché?’ gets no answer. Fouché furiously works the numbers: ‘I hear there is a list, and your name is on it.’ ‘Cowardice shrinks and dwindles, and is replaced by desperate courage.’ God rolls the dice, the bunnies become wolves, and Robespierre and his lieutenants are submitted to the blade that they had brought down on so many others.

Here Zweig permits himself a general political observation. He condemns those who overthrew Robespierre for their ‘cowardly and lying attitude’ who ‘to gain their own ends have betrayed the proletarian revolution.’ That is an assessment made in 1929 that many French historians would embrace, and Fouché had tried to get on a populist horse. This time he picked badly, and the new regime had different views about the Terror – and Lyon. Fouché ‘like many animals shams dead that he may not be killed.’ He goes underground for three years living on the breadline. No one mentions his name. As to the proletariat – what a dire and debasing word! – there is not much use crying over spilt milk. Those who are crying wanted the French terrorists to do what Lenin had tried to do, and transfer all power from the king to all those at the bottom inside one generation. It cannot be done. It took the English, who are geniuses at this, seven centuries.

Fouché lies low and poor. The carpet-baggers of the new shop-soiled regime, the Directory then the Consulate, need someone who can work in darkness, a cold-blooded spy, a collector of information on others, a man to hold chits IOU’s and grudges, and someone who can oil the wheels of power and money. Who else? ‘Joseph Fouché has become the ideal man for these sordid negotiations. Poverty has made a clean sweep of his republican convictions, he has hung up his contempt for money to dry in the chimney, and he is so hungry that he can be bought cheaply.’ Is it not remarkable how deathless are all these political insights?

The dark and dangerous mitrailleur of Lyons is back in town – as minister of State, the Minister of Police to the mighty and all-conquering Republic of France! Well, our man ‘has no use for sentimentality, and can whenever he likes, forget his past with formidable speed’. The Jacobins are a shadow of themselves, but they are also beside themselves at this heartless enforcer of tranquillity – who calmly says that there must be an end to inflammatory speeches! In France? In Paris? In 1799?

They have learned little during these years. They threaten the Directory, the Ministers of State, and the constitution with quotations from Plutarch. They behave as rabidly as if Danton and Marat were still alive; as if still, in those brave days of the revolution, they could with the sound of the tocsin summon hundreds of thousands from the faubourgs.

But our man has got his sense of scent back. He knows the public mood. The former president just closes down the Jacobins Club – the next day. People are sick of strife. They want their peace and their money.

Then some people higher up start to fear the information that he gets – on everyone. Knowledge means power, and Fouché has more knowledge than anyone – more even than Napoleon. And people start to notice that his eyes look upwards as well as downwards. Talleyrand, who also stands up to Napoleon and lives to talk about it, and who is another consummate and totally conscienceless puppeteer, says: ‘The Minister of Police is a man who minds his own business – and goes on to mind other people’s.’

But when Napoleon becomes Consul for Life, his family, the biggest weakness of the loyal Corsican, urge him to fire Fouché. Napoleon shifts him sideways, but ‘seldom in the course of history has a minister been dismissed with more honourable and more lucrative tokens of respect than Joseph Fouché.’ It was ever thus.

Fouché goes into retirement again, the polite and thrifty squire with his wife and children who gives a homely entertainment now and then. The neighbours see a good husband and a kind father. But the old campaigner feels the itch. ‘Power is like the Medusa’s head. Whoever has looked on her countenance can no longer turn his face away, but remains for always under her spell. Whoever has once enjoyed the intoxication of holding sway over his fellows can never thenceforward renounce it altogether. Flutter the pages of history in search for examples of the voluntary renouncement of power….Sulla and Charles V are the most famous among the exceptions.’

Napoleon senses the itchiness of Fouché but he does not want to take him back; ‘the argus-eyed unsleeping calculator’ is too dangerous. But then Napoleon errs – he has the Duke of Enghien kidnapped over the border and returned to France to be shot – he passes his grave on the way to his ‘trial.’ This leads Fouché (some say Talleyrand) to make the famous remark: ‘It was worse than a crime it was a blunder.’ Napoleon needs someone to hold the stirrup again, and on his ascension to the purple – he allows the pope to watch him crown himself – Son Excellence Monsieur le Senateur Fouché is appointed Minister by Sa Majeste l’Empereur Napoleon. He will become the Duke of Otranto and while the rest degenerate into ‘flatterers and lickspittles’, the Minister of Police stiffens his back, and minds his own business and that of everyone else.

Fouché is a millionaire many times over, but he lives a frugal almost Spartan life. His image is part of his terrifying power. He and the Emperor are at arms’ length. ‘Filled with secret antipathy, each of them makes use of the other, and they are bound together solely by the attraction between hostile poles.’

The stakes have gone up now. At Marengo in 1800, Napoleon won with thirty thousand men; five years later, he has three hundred thousand behind him; five years later, he is raising a levy of a million soldiers. He will leave five million in their graves. And now Fouché must deal with the political genius of Talleyrand, another of the world’s very greatest survivors. ‘Both of them are of a perfectly amoral type, and this accounts for their likeness in character.’ For a long time tout Paris gazes in a kind of trance at the duel between Fouché and Talleyrand, and, as it happens, both survive Napoleon.

Fouché was either working for Napoleon or plotting against him, or both, even during the Hundred Days leading to Waterloo. In fact, Fouché served as Minister of Police to Talleyrand as Prime Minister after 1815 for Louis XVIII. Since he had voted for the death of that king’s brother, Louis XVI, this might be seen as the masterpiece of his slipperiness or negotiability. He then proceeded to orchestrate a new terror, the White Terror, against the enemies of the Bourbons. This revolted even Talleyrand, and Fouché was shifted again, this time for the last time. He died in his bed in Trieste in 1820.

It is hard to imagine our story, for that in part is what it is, being told better than Stefan Zweig tells it in this wonderful book. The author moves so easily from one graceful insight to the next, and like a true champion he makes it all look so easy and so natural. And as our author leaves his subject, he leaves us with the question that Shakespeare leaves to us with various bastards, in the proper sense of that word, and Richard III and Falstaff – why are we so taken with the life and character of such an absolute villain? And he also leaves us with the same old problem – glib talkers with light fingers and a cold heart.

Geoffrey Gibson

9 October 2014.

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