A letter from Napoleon I to Maréchal Berthier, 5 August, 1806

Author(s) : KERAUTRET Michel, NAPOLEON I
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Napoleon's correspondence is still the principal and best source for studying the history of the period, and the succession of volumes of the complete correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte cannot but have convinced any remaining doubters of this fact. In these letters, the hero is not posing for posterity but rather devotes himself to his work, for his life has not yet become legend. The nuances are less observed, the light is clear and untainted. We, the readers, are often dazzled, moved to admiration. But just occasionally, we feel compelled to turn away: history, taken raw as it is here, is not always edifying. One of the Correspondence project's merits is that it gives us Napoleon in many different guises: a gifted strategist, a fastidious administrator, an attentive stepfather, but also a man who is just a little bit too human sometimes, impulsive and brutal in his occasionally excessive and unjust decisions.

And in 1806, a year so full of great events and brilliant victories, is it really necessary to single out one of his less successful decisions, a small speck of dust on the history of Napoleon, rather than just let ourselves once again be carried away by the epic story at hand? I feel that this rather obscure episode, published in the new volume, deserves attention, not just out of consideration for the victim but also because, though insignificant, it contributed to chip away slightly at the Emperor's glory, at a moment when he was at the height of his power and prestige.

On 5 August, 1806, Napoleon wrote the following letter to 1)

The trial had effectively been conducted and decided on in advance. Everything would happen as instructed, at least with regards to one of the involved: the “bookseller of Nuremberg”, Jean Philippe Palm. Guilty of having propagated a pamphlet entitled Deutschland in seiner tiefen Erniedrigung (“Germany in its profound humiliation”), an anti-French tract which was actually more critical of the German sovereigns who were considered too servile to Napoleon, Palm was quickly arrested and taken to Braunau, the last fortress still administered directly by French soldiers. He was executed within the twenty-four hours that followed his arrival on 26 August, 1806.

Palm's end was particularly terrible. The unfortunate bookseller had been entirely unconcerned by the affair and fully expected a quick release. He denied everything, refused to denounce anyone, and received no lawyer to defend him nor a pastor to accompany him during his final moments. The execution itself was bloody, the firing squad taking three attempts to finish the job. The population mourned his death and the feeling that the event provoked is unlikely to have been as Napoleon intended.

Indeed, if he had properly thought through the implications of his decision, Napoleon may not have been quite so quick to issue the execution order. And once his anger had subsided, he went on to pardon the remaining accused. However, initially certain of his conduct, he assumed full responsibility, and had posted all over Germany thousands of copies announcing the judgement. For the French Emperor, this execution was simply a tiny part of the vast machine, like a soldier who is sent to his death to ensure the success of a mission. The logic behind the decision was one of a cautionary tale: one evil to prevent worse ills.

Napoleon was so sure of its importance that he would continue to repeat it, mantra-like, throughout 1806, referring in particular to the seminal experience of Binasco, the Italian village near to Pavia that was raised to the ground in 1796. And so he wrote to Junot, on 19 January, instructing him to be firmer in Parma: “It is not with words that you keep the peace in Italy. Have a large village raised and execute a dozen insurgents as an example to the people of this country.”(2) He would reiterate these orders on 4 February. On 5 August, it was Joseph's turn to be instructed: “Too often you confuse a king's kindness with that of individuals. Execute three people from each of the revolt-leaders' villages.”(3)

And yet, this same Napoleon, a few months later, would pardon the husband of Madame de Hatzfeld in Berlin. Almost intoxicated by his own magnanimity, he would recount the episode in a letter to Josephine, dated 6 November 1806,(4) and would also publicise widely this act of clemency. Had he, in the interim, learnt that generosity would make him far more loved by the people than inspiring fear could ever possibly do? Or were they both simply two aspects of a very clever propaganda machine?

1. Fondation Napoléon, Correspondance générale de Napoléon Bonaparte, Tome VI, 1806, Vers le Grand Empire (ed. Michel Kérautret), Fayard, 2008, n° 12646.
2. Fondation Napoléon, Correspondance générale de Napoléon Bonaparte, Tome VI, 1806, Vers le Grand Empire (ed. Michel Kérautret), Fayard, 2008, n° 11308
3. Fondation Napoléon, Correspondance générale de Napoléon Bonaparte, Tome VI, 1806, Vers le Grand Empire (ed. Michel Kérautret), Fayard, 2008, n° 12657.
4. Fondation Napoléon, Correspondance générale de Napoléon Bonaparte, Tome VI, 1806, Vers le Grand Empire (ed. Michel Kérautret), Fayard, 2008, n° 13482.
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