The money-go-round

Napoleon and his Collaborators: the making of a dictatorship

Isser Woloch<em> W W Norton, 281pp, £

Hume long ago pointed out that not even the most absolute ruler has total power - even Nero relied on his praetorians, and Stalin needed the apparatus of the NKVD. There is much loose talk of fuhrers, despots and dictators, but far less solid research into the mechanics and levers of power. In particular, we must always ask of any authoritarian regime: who besides the leader is benefiting? Who is being bought off or co-opted? Studies of Napoleon have tended to concentrate on the army and the marshalate as the obvious beneficiaries, but the emperor had many important civilian collaborators, too. In this original study, Isser Woloch puts these civilians under the microscope.

Napoleon's shrewd political instincts led him to co-opt his political support from the moderate right and left, marginalising, exiling or even executing royalists and Jacobins. He needed strategically placed aides at three critical points in his career: when planning the coup of 18 Brumaire in 1799; when consolidating his power as First Consul from 1800-4; and when gelding the constitutional opposition to his empire after 1804. Woloch identifies five important people who made straight the Napoleonic ways: Antoine Boulay de la Meurthe, Theophile Berlier, Antoine Thibaudeau, Regnaud de St Jean d'Angely and Jean-Jacques-Regis Cambaceres. These were former revolutionaries (loosely defined) who made Faustian pacts with the emperor. So Woloch poses the question: what sacrifice of principle was involved? To what extent was a moral compromise possible, or was the synergy of these five individuals abject, Vichy-like collaboration?

Unfortunately, in Woloch's narrative, the collaborators have a wraith-like existence as human beings. How old were they? What did they look like? To whom were they married? Woloch does not tell us. He concentrates instead on describing what they did. Antoine Boulay de la Meurthe was the skilled fixer in the Assembly of Five Hundred who moved the decrees abolishing the Directory and setting up the Consulate on 18 Brumaire; he was rewarded by being made president of the legislative section of the new Council of State. Regnaud de St Jean d'Angely was the major collaborator in the transition from consulate to empire; he was a fine administrator and a political technician who specialised in the subordination of local authorities to central government. Theophile Berlier was a clever lawyer who worked behind the scenes in the Council of State. But the most blatant trimmer was Antoine Thibaudeau, who began as a regicide and Jacobin from 1791-93, was a pillar of Thermidorean reaction after 1794, and was then a supporter of the Directory before becoming a "convinced" Bonapartist after 1799.

Certain historical dilettantes have affected to believe that Napoleon did not control his marshals and other collaborators through money, but by some other magical (but unexplained) means. It is therefore pleasing to have confirmation from Woloch's careful scholarship that money did indeed make the Napoleonic world go round. Berlier frankly admitted he could not kiss off the 25,000 francs a year he received as Counsellor of State, and similar considerations weighed with the others.

Woloch's erudition is put to particularly good use in his portrait of Cambaceres, originally Second Consul and later Imperial Chancellor. He provides a thorough analysis of his income from land and investments in the national debt and other stock. This is the sort of expose that makes the exhaustive archival sleuthing truly worthwhile. We begin to understand how richly Napoleon's collaborators were rewarded when we correlate Cambaceres's burgeoning wealth with his vital role as acting vice-president when Napoleon was on campaign. In effect, Cambaceres ran the country for one-third of the years between 1800 and 1814 while the emperor was winning laurels on the battlefields of Europe.

The portrait of Cambaceres is what gives this book a touch of class. He hankered after the "grace, security and order" of the ancien regime, and was brilliant at finding a veneer of legality for Napoleon's most outrageous actions. He was expert at stalling tactics, rationalisations and other machiavellianisms that would translate the emperor's wishes into policy. He was inspired in the way he truncated the powers of the imperial Senate, Council of State and the troublesome Tribunate, but his Achilles heel was money.

Notably keen on the chancellor, Woloch defends Cambaceres against the conventional charge that he was an epic gourmand and bon viveur, and claims that most of his legendary "hospitality" was official entertaining rather than the conspicuous consumption of an epicure. However, Woloch is naive in his insistence on requiring "direct proof" of Cambaceres's homosexuality, even though it was common knowledge at the time. The author seems to expect that one of the chancellor's scribes should have written a minute to this effect, which is the "archive fallacy" with a vengeance. There are some things so well known in any given society that people take them for granted and think not of drawing up memoranda about them. It is a pity that Woloch's psychological naivety detracts from his sterling qualities as a scholar.

Frank McLynn is the author of Napoleon: a biography

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How new Labour wrestled with a world it never made