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INTERVIEW

Thierry Lentz: four questions on the 1812 Malet Affair

Historians : Lentz, Thierry (the Malet affair)

 Bibliographical details

On 23 October 1812, with Napoleon and his army far away and under the cosh in Russia, General Malet attempted to overthrow the Napoleonic regime. In this, four-question interview, Thierry Lentz - author of La conspiration du général Malet, published by Perrin - addresses some of the key issues surrounding Malet's outlandish coup d'état and in the process corrects one or two misinterpretations. (January 2012)

Why did you choose the Malet conspiracy as the subject of your new book?

<i>© John Foley / Opale / Fayard</i>

© John Foley / Opale / Fayard

Thierry Lentz: The subject has for a long time interested me; I discussed it briefly in the second volume of the Nouvelle Histoire du Premier Empire and went into it in a little more detail in my biography of Savary. In both cases, however, I felt there was still a great deal that remained if not to be discovered, then certainly to be investigated and explained. No serious attempt at studying the episode had been made for over forty years and I decided that it would be worthwhile to revisit the subject. I thus returned to accounts of the episode and the research already performed, almost right back to the investigation itself, and started afresh in local, national and military archives. I combed back through memoirs and other accounts from the period (this extravagant conspiracy very quickly inspired a number of books and publications). I made several discoveries, things that my predecessors had missed. My account offers a new reading of this conspiracy, which was without doubt less dangerous than is sometimes believed but probably more troublesome for the Napoleonic regime than you might initially think. I also offer a contrasting portrait of Malet, and a different approach to the assistance he received. For example, I took great pleasure in doing justice to the "Philadelphes sect" story, a sort of revolutionary Masonic group believed to have conspired with Malet. I show that - despite being reproduced endlessly in later retellings of the episode - it was nothing more the product of some nineteenth-century authors' fertile imaginations. To put it more bluntly, there is as much substance to the Philadelphes sect story as there is to the legend of Bigfoot.

Was Malet mad?

<i>© Perrin</i>

© Perrin

TL: It has often been the case that a great deal of emphasis is placed on Malet's deranged psyche, which was seen as justification for his audacious attempt to bring down a powerful and seemingly solid empire. Whilst it cannot be denied that the man had many obsessive traits, it should also be acknowledged that he was not lacking in courage, intelligence, or a certain degree of dexterity in his undertakings. All of these qualities were necessary in order to devise and orchestrate the two great conspiracies in which he was involved, in 1808 and in 1812. Malet was nothing like the incidental, pale figure occasionally portrayed in accounts of the episode. With a little more luck, his career could have turned political rather than remaining simply military, a development that would have made all the difference for him. During the early years of the Revolution, he was one of the most important figures in his region, the Jura, and he was very close to becoming involved on the national stage. However, pursued as he was by a good deal of misfortune, he was forced to make do with a rank of low-grade general, something that he just could not accept. What followed was a combination of mistakes on his part and unfortunate twists of fate, mixed with blunder and conceit, which, ultimately, would lead to his downfall.

Was the empire really on the point of collapse on 23 October 1812?

TL: I honestly do not believe this was the case. With events unfolding as they did, the coup d'état had absolutely no chance of succeeding. Malet's choice of co-conspirators was poor. For three turbulent hours, during which notably police chiefs were detained, the empire suffered a fright, but thanks to the general staff stationed in Paris and the composure of Clarke and Cambacérès (the latter of which is rehabilitated entirely in my book), things went no further. The empire was not about to be brought down by this band of layabouts. That being said, it is worth looking more closely at the different aspects of the conspiracy. In doing so, an interesting question arises: was the conspiracy republican or royalist? Having studied the facts, the answer appears far less simple than is usually suggested. Who was manipulating whom? That is one of the key questions of the Malet affair. I have simply tried to unpick it.

What does this coup d'état attempt reveal?

TL: This coup d'état reveals a great number of things relative to the key issue surrounding Napoleon's career at this time: was he a legitimate monarch in the eyes of the people and elites of the period? Faced with the Malet affair, the empire's dignitaries appeared reluctant - although this should not be exaggerated – to proclaim the Roi de Rome's accession, and the question, which Napoleon's marriage to Marie-Louise and the birth of his heir was thought to have answered, once again reared up. It could even be said that Napoleon's dramatic reaction to the affair actually made the issue even more pressing. The second element to this question is the role of the senate. In both of Malet's projects, in 1808 as in 1812, it was the senate that proclaimed the end and installed a new regime. This was to prove much food for thought for opponents of the Napoleonic regime and most notably for Talleyrand. It is what I call "General Malet's laboratory", and which could almost be considered a posthumous victory.

 
     
 
 

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La conspiration du général Malet. 23 octobre 1812. Premier ébranlement du trône de Napoléon (in French)

Nouvelle histoire du Premier Empire, volume II: L'effondrement du système napoléonien (1810-1814) (in French)

 

 
 

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