Monday, April 04, 2005

Napoleon's nemesis

Having just seen a cable TV program about the rise of Napoleon, I thought to myself, who is the real hero of the Napoleonic era? The British would say either Admiral Nelson or the Duke of Wellington. And we would expect the French to offer up old Nap himself as world statesman and reformer, not to mention military genius. The Russians would put forward Czar Alexander I. But I want to offer an alternative to all these, the man who from the start tried to forge an alliance between a British constitutional monarchy and a French one, the man who always worked for peaceful solutions to the problems of European power politics, the man who secretly orchestrated the overthrow of the dictator Napoleon, saving France and creating the framework for the 100 year European peace following Waterloo.

This man is Maurice de Talleyrand, the wily and cynical French diplomat who served all of the French governments during this era. He attempted to form an alliance between France and England in the early days of the French Revolution, but this became impossible when the crazies took over in France and killed the king and anyone else they could guillotine. Later Talleyrand helped Napoleon come to power, realizing France needed a strong leader who also seemed a reformer. Every time Napoleon secured a victory, Talleyrand urged lenient terms to the defeated in order to secure a lasting European peace, but each time a paranoid Napoleon refused, suspicious that these countries would rise up against him later, and so imposed the harshest terms. Thus he created the very situation he wished to avoid: a dormant but seething Europe waiting for its chance to renew hostilities. Talleyrand never ceased to urge for reconciliation and generosity, Napoleon never overcame his self-fulfilling paranoia.

Talleyrand, a friend of freedom, risked his life trying to thwart the megalomaniacal ambitions of Napoleon, who even dreamed of conquering America some day. Talleyrand's loyalty was not to the madman who created the world's first police state, but to his country and to Europe as a whole. Alexander Hamilton, who did so much to establish the capitalist framework of American financial and industrial power, was his friend and inspiration. Talleyrand's great wish was to meet President Washington, but this was not to be, due to the hostility of the wacko French revolutionary government of the time.

When Napoleon's intemperate ambition led him to invade Spain in 1809, Talleyrand, the freedom fighter, began to plot against him, realizing that the tyrant recognized the rights of no people, country or sovereign. Later Talleyrand tipped off a naive Czar Alexander I of Russia not to align himself with Napoleon, but to guard himself against Napoleon's slippery promises. It was due to this infusion of backbone in Alexander that frustrated Napoleon's plans and led to his incredibly disastrous invasion of Russia, which was instrumental in removing him from power in 1814.

At the Congress of Vienna Talleyrand successfully defended France's old boundaries and led the formation of a plan for the peace and security of Europe as a whole. Napoleon's escape from Elba and subsequent defeat at Waterloo did not prevent Talleyrand's grand vision of a British and French alliance of constitutional monarchies planning for peace in Europe. Later in 1831 when Europe could have come to blows over the Belgian rebellion against the Netherlands, it was Talleyrand as ambassador to Britain who helped resolve the difficulty without war, creating a neutral Belgium.

While it is undeniable Talleyrand was a womanizer, a gambler, an enthusiastic bribe-taker, and political intriguer, his dedication to political and economic freedom never wavered through his long career. Countless thousands would have lived if his visionary project to create a stable Europe had not been subverted by the man he raised to power, Napoleon. If Russia had not suffered the trauma of French invasion, perhaps political liberalism could have spread its influence as opposed to the statist Czarist regimes that followed, thus negating the likelihood of its tragic fall into Communist tyranny. If Spain had been spared the terrible guerrilla war against the French, the deplorable conditions leading to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930's would not exist. Two world wars of the 20th century could have been avoided if the militant German nationalism created by French aggression had not been fostered.

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