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The Ministry of Police and Napoleon's internal security apparatus

Monsieur Fouché

Joseph Fouché's job title was Minister of Police. In reality, he spent most of his time dealing with intelligence and espionage. He was head of secret police operations for Napoleon. He was something of a contradiction. He lived quietly with his wife and four children in the rue du Bac section of Paris, even as he sifted through intelligence reports in search of royalist plotters. He had once been a priest, but had renounced the Church. In 1793 he had become convinced that the clergy's devotion to the Church represented a significant threat to the Revolution. He intended to break the clergy and others who were devoted to the Church. His goal was to "dechristianize" France. In 1802 that fanatical hatred of the Catholic Church would cost him his job as police chief. He refused to support the Concordat, the compromise Napoleon had negotiated with the Pope.

Whatever his religious views, Fouche had a real aptitude for intelligence work. A royalist conspiracy in 1803-4 went undetected while he was out of office. In 1810 he was dismissed again by Napoleon. During his absence, another conspiracy went undetected until it had broken out. His information system was extensive. He collected all kinds of information on all kinds of people. He had a dossier on Napoleon himself, as well as the expected files on spies, dissidents, writers, ministers, and generals. He sometimes used information to "turn" enemy agents into double agents, working for him. Although he had a talent for accumulating, and organizing, large quantities of information through his network of informers, his real genius may have been his skeptical approach to the information obtained. He didn't trust much of what was reported.

In 1800, Napoleon had yet to decide where the Ministry of Police would fit, in the overall scheme of government. As a successful general, the need for accurate information would have been almost second-nature to him, although his preoccupation would have been military intelligence about foreign powers, such as Britain, Prussia, or Austria. He was aware that his policies and methods were not popular with everyone at home. At the same time, he may not have been able to gauge the strength of the opposition or the form in which it would express itself.

On December 24, 1800, an explosion rocked the rue Nicaise. Napoleon, on his way to the Opera, had passed through the area only a few moments before. Explosives had been crammed into a water-barrel-sized device and placed in a cart left on the street. Napoleon may have escaped, but the bomb was powerful enough to kill thirteen people and gut several houses. The explosion even reached the Tuileries, some 400 meters away, blowing out windows in the palace. Fouche's intelligence sources were able to identify the real plotters as royalists and two would be executed. Napoleon clearly wanted them caught and punished. However, he also saw a political opportunity - two opportunities, actually. He was interested in eliminating his political opponents, so the "Opera Plot" he blamed on a Jacobin conspiracy. That was enough to justify the deportation of 130 Jacobin "suspects." He also wanted emergency powers, which the Senate and Council of State granted him. With no governmental safeguards, he could eliminate most political opposition by declaring a state of emergency.

With any dictatorship, there is always the question of what constitutes "necessary force," when it comes to political unrest. It was not always clear, even in more obvious situations, what the right decision was. The Convention, in 1795, had certainly seemed justified in executing the murderers of the deputy Feraud. Were they going too far in executing those they considered the leadership of the demonstration, as well? Napoleon probably would have dismissed such questions. From his standpoint, the only standard which could be applied to governments was their ability to stay in power. He could be criticized for restrictions on personal liberty or for unjust treatment of individuals, on moral grounds, but success, in the final analysis, had to be measured by the survival of the government. (It was also true that he would ultimately be judged a failure, even under that standard, because his government was toppled, even if the armies opposing him at Waterloo represented external forces.)

Dictatorship - A matter of degree

In 1804 French intelligence believed that it had uncovered another royalist plot. Convinced that France was about to be invaded, a small group of soldiers entered the territory of Baden, an independent sovereignty, and kidnapped the Duke of Enghien (March 14). There was no evidence that the Duke was himself involved in the plot, but six days later he was court-martialed and ordered to be shot. If it was intended as a warning, the government seemed reluctant to publicize it with a public execution. Instead, the orders were carried out at 3 in the morning in the moat of the fortress of Vincennes.

Waterloo was not the first battle Napoleon lost, only the one remembered by history. In some ways the battle did little to diminish history's view of his accomplishments. He was the man to beat, the general who set the standard by which his opponents would forever be measured. Significantly, it is the losing general's name which will always be associated with Waterloo. Who was it that defeated him, anyway? Waterloo, in a larger sense, lost its significance as a military confrontation. It came to symbolize a moral lesson about power - even the greatest can fall.

Napoleon's military legacy was tarnished by Waterloo, but it may have helped to cement history's view of his life and career. The battle reinforced the notion that greatness was measured solely by military conquest. Napoleon had his faults, but they paled against what he accomplished in war. How he governed France, or questions about his domestic policy or even the operation of government, became simply irrelevant, against the image of the Napoleonic Age. Perhaps history and France wanted an escape from the horrors of the Revolution and the ordinary workings of government were simply too mundane, too boring, to offer much relief. Napoleon conjured up images of energy and bustling activity. He was optimism and hope personified. Above all, he promised (and quite often delivered) victory, the ultimate in positive thinking. France was no longer the country ruled by the mob or a people cowering in fear under the Terror, but a nation which sent its armies out to conquer the world.

Outward appearances aside, Napoleon's Empire was a dictatorship, watched over by Fouché's secret police. How did Napoleon govern France? He is remembered for the Civil Code and for the Concordat with the Catholic Church. Ironically the Code was enacted the day following the execution of the Duke of Enghien. As dictatorships go, it probably fell somewhere in the middle. It would not be considered as extreme or brutal as Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union. Napoleon was content to deport the 130 Jacobins, following the Opera Plot. He might have executed them. Neither was it totally benign. The murder of the Duke of Enghien was intended as a warning for potential plotters. The French government considered itself beyond the law, when it came to dealing with threats. Little evidence was needed for conviction and whatever judicial controls existed to protect French citizens, did not apply to all government operations.

While not as severe as imprisonment or capital punishment, the French government did exercise control over the workforce through the worker's passbook, or livret. It had been abolished by the Revolutionary government, but was brought back in 1803. It could be described as an identity card since it described the worker, but it was normally kept by the employer rather than the employee. The worker would only have it with him if his former employers had returned it to him. Employers were not supposed to hire someone unless they had a passbook. The passbook system limited travel, since workers needed approval from local officials, when they wanted to travel through a district. While the livret represented a limitation on the freedom to travel, the government had some justification for its action in the events of the Revolution. Paris had been in no better position to provide for the unemployed than smaller cities and towns. In fact, workers might have been better off remaining close to home. Their presence had, not only added significantly to the welfare burden, but had also contributed to the political tension. In addition, the system was not an ironclad one. Economic factors limited its control. A shortage of workers caused many employers to hire people, even if they had no passbook.

Press censorship similarly, was almost half-hearted. Napoleon appointed an official censor for each journal and required the journal to pay the salary. In 1811 the number of Parisian journals was limited to four. Censorship tended to restrict political ideas more than those considered obscene or immoral. Unpleasant facts relating to the Revolution or criticism of allies were eliminated, where possible.

Voting might have served as a rough measure of democracy, were it not for the plebiscite held in 1800. Voters were asked to approve a new Constitution, but the vote was basically 'yes' or 'no.' Individual sections were not offered for review, only the fact of an already-approved Constitution. The vote was 3,011,007 in favor and 1,562 against. Included in the 3 million figure were about 900,000 votes which the Interior Ministry added to the civilian count, and another 500,000 votes attributed to the army. Unfortunately, very few military personnel had voted. Altogether some 1,400,000 fictitious 'yes' votes had been included.

Different animals - or two sides of the same coin.

Where was France to be found, in all the confusion, and where was she going? Was she a great power, waiting for a Napoleon to come along to realize her full potential? - and did Napoleon represent the final stage in the development of France, as a society? From that perspective, the Revolution had been an aberration, a formative stage on the road to greatness. But which Napoleon? - the general who would defeat the combined armies of Russia and Austria at Austerlitz, or the political leader who used a secret police force to maintain control. Or, did the Revolution itself represent the destiny of France, a grotesque society perpetually in turmoil and revolt? If France had been delivered from that fate, why did its salvation take the form of a police state?

Napoleon's optimism suggested that he had transformed France, had lifted her culture out of the primitive state in which it had existed in 1793. Was transformation the right word? Was it possible that Napoleon's success was related to his ability to keep things under control, to paper over underlying problems, without actually solving them? Fouche and his secret police may be nothing more than an expression of Napoleon's dictatorial tendencies, or, they may be symptomatic of a problem which could not be solved. Perhaps the transformation, if there was one, was in the government itself, not in French society.

The Parisian mob is seen as the depraved expression of the Revolution's excesses. Yet, Fouche's secret police, as prominent symbols of dictatorship, receive little praise for their efforts. France had gone from one extreme to another. Instead of the outrages of the mob, it now found itself victimized by the government. It could be said in Fouche's defense, that his response to political unrest was more efficient and less bloodthirsty than the response of the Revolutionary Tribunals. The Reign of Terror, undertaken to appease the crowd, had taken 16,000 lives. Was it possible to distinguish between the murders committed by the mob and those committed by the government? Governments, whatever action they took, always risked a charge of dictatorship. The violence engaged in by the mob was labeled as depraved and bloodthirsty, yet similar acts committed by the government were condemned as dictatorial acts. That suggested that the mob action and any governmental response were unrelated; the mob and the government were simply two political opponents acting independently of each other. However, it could be argued that the excesses of the mob and the reaction of the government were not really different, they were just different sides of the same coin. What looked like a contest between the government and its citizens, at close range, was, in reality, a societal struggle to limit the violent tendencies of its members. If society felt threatened by the mob, it could not tolerate the excesses of the Revolutionary Tribunals either.

The problem for Napoleon was that his victories, if they could take everyone's mind off their problems, did not solve them. The political and economic forces which had cost Louis XVI his head still remained. Absent a solution, the only alternative to mob rule was greater governmental control. Fouche was something of a compromise. He was not liked for his spying and undercover operations, yet he provided a more refined method of crowd control than that of the Revolutionary government. The choices facing Napoleon were, to allow the Ministry of Police to maintain its surveillance or to call in the army, once things had gotten out of control. Perhaps, less generously, depravity had simply moved from the crowd, into the government itself.

Terror in an acceptable form.

Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin came to resent the association of his name with an instrument of terror. He was, no doubt, relieved when the Reign of Terror came to end in August of 1794. The guillotine did not account for all of the 16,000 deaths, but the slaughter had been accomplished in nine months.

Napoleon could inspire his troops with glorious images of combat and the material rewards of victory. If nothing else, the army provided relief for some of the unemployed of Paris (and for the government officials trying to care for them). It fed and clothed, even paid its soldiers. Logic suggested that it might be better to die in battle, on a full stomach, than as part of a starving mob, fired on by government forces. Death in battle was not always certain, whatever the odds. There was almost no comparison between those images and the images which lingered from 1793-94. Nothing could match the images of death, conjured up by the Reign of Terror.

The casualty figures for Napoleon's armies suggest otherwise. Whether battles could inspire the level of fear of the Terror, their casualty figures far outpaced the killings of the Revolution. At Borodino, in 1812, the French would suffer 30,000 casualties (killed, wounded and missing), nearly twice the 16,000 of the Terror. They would lose another 50,000 in the retreat from Moscow. At Austerlitz, in 1805, they had lost 9,000. Eylau, in 1807, had cost 25,000. Leipzig, in 1813, cost 38,000. Waterloo, would cost 41,000. Napoleon had gone into Russia with an army of 611,000. Fewer than 100,000 came out. These figures did not include losses on the other side. The Russians are believed to have lost 45,000 at Borodino and another 100,000 following the French army in its retreat. Allied casualties at Austerlitz were 27,000, 15,000 at Eylau, 38,000 at Jena-Auerstadt, and 22,000 at Waterloo. France seemingly had put the Terror of 1793-94 behind her. In reality, Napoleon had simply channeled the crowd's rage, moved the destructiveness out of Paris, and given terror a respectable face. Death was not terrifying when it came in the form of casualties suffered on the battlefield, particularly when those losses were accompanied by victory.