Interview by Irène Delage, Oct. 2008 (Tr. and ed. H.D.W.)
I.D.: Your book on the Cent-Jours takes a step away from the current historiographical trend, in that it is not just about the Cent-Jours of Napoleon; all the different viewpoints are presented, and in particular that of Louis XVIII and his camp. What made you choose this particular approach?
E. de W.: There are two things that particularly annoy me about the traditional historiographical trend. Firstly, the belief that there is only one perspective and secondly, the fact that only general treatments of the event are produced. In my opinion, the event had not been considered with all the points of view in mind: its story had not been properly told. That is what I have tried to do: to study the different perspectives together, and to present an analytical narrative of events. The question that I asked myself was thus: “Were the Cent-Jours the final hurrah of the Napoleonic odyssey that was breathing it last, or can we consider them as something more than just the last days of Napoleon in power?” If they were indeed more than just Napoleon, could they not be considered as the beginning of the 19th century, and the resumption of the French revolutionary tendency? The latter would re-emerge in 1815, remain a constant throughout the 19th century and crystalise with the revolutions in 1830, 1848 and 1871, right up to the outbreak of World War One. The Cent-Jours, when considered in its entirety and from the perspectives of both the winners and the losers, is key to our understanding of a large part of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is with this in mind that the Cent-Jours is considered in relation to its place in history. Parallels are drawn between the event and the revolutions of the 19th century, as well as with the French defeat in 1940 and the Algiers putsch of 1961.
As soon as we decide that the Cent-Jours is the start of something, and not just the end of the Empire, we start to see things differently. If we see the period as simply the fall of the Empire, then we automatically take Napoleon's side. But if we see it as the start of something else, then we position ourselves in the camp of those who witnessed his return. Our perspective on the Cent-Jours is reversed. Yesterday's losers become tomorrow's winners.
I.D.: After your passionate biography of Talleyrand, this time you have produced the biography of an event (the Cent-Jours) and of a collectivity (the French people). What difficulties did you experience in writing this type of book?
E. de W.: Writing the 'biography' of an event requires us to put together a narrative. In this case, this means an historian's narrative, and not a fictional narrative. What I mean by this is that as an historian, the analysis of the narrative is found within the narrative itself. At every stage I have tried to analyse the eyewitness reports used in the book: when were they written? could they have been edited or rewritten by others, twenty or thirty years later? Each of the Cent-Jours's protagonists has been tempted to offer a more coherent picture of the period than it actually was. In 1815, there were three regime changes in as many months. The political and physical violence that marked the episode left everything in tatters. The shame felt by the 'traitors' and countless oaths led to some reinventing themselves and attributing to the period a certain coherence that was in fact non-existant.
I.D.: You paint a very nuanced portrait of Louis XVIII, particularly at the various moments when he learns of Napoleon’s landing in France, and after the latter’s defeat at Waterloo. While we often have the image of a king being maneouvred by a heavily-involved court circle, you show in fact that he was less passive than is first made out.
E. de W.: In my opinion, two elements in particular characterise Louis XVIII: firstly, his lucidity, or his political pragmatism. After all, of all the French sovereigns to rule in France after the revolution, he was the only one to die on his throne (in 1824) even after the Cent-Jours episode! Unlike those in his inner-circle, Louis realised that Napoleon could not simply be re-arrested and that his return to France signaled the renewal of revolution. He also understood the evolution that France had undergone since the Bourbon reign and was quick to take these developments into account on his return to power in June 1814. His Charte constitutionelle recognised the gains made by the revolution and was incredibly modern in its respect for the principles of liberty, civil equality and its sharing of legislative power between the king and the two chambers.
The second element that characterises Louis XVIII is the solitary nature of his rule. Like Napoleon, he found himself without a direct heir, and thus was under intense political pressure from his younger brother, his natural successor, who was at the head of an ultra-royalist, right-wing opposition.
Louis XVIII also found himself completely alone in Europe. The Sixth coalition may have formed initially against Napoleon, but it quickly turned against France and Louis XVIII. In 1815, the allies believed that France would slip back into old ways, and that they had shown her far too much leniancy in 1814 (restoration of the 1792 borders, no war indemnities to pay, no military occupation of French territory). In their opinion, and despite favourable conditions, Louis XVIII was obviously incapable of maintaining peace in France. He was no longer the man that the situation required. When they were not being quietly hostile towards him, they openly sought to replace him. One of the serious candidates to replace Louis was his cousin, the Duc d'Orléans. The defeat at Waterloo belonged to the whole of France and the allied occupation of the country was as much an occupation of Louis XVIII's France as of Napoleon's France.
I.D.: In 1814, and with little room to manoeuvre, Louis XVIII chose to leave Paris (the chapter is entitled ‘Delit de fuite’), cross the border and seek refuge in Ghent. What lasting consequences would these decisions have?
E. de W.: The dominant historiographical perspective has for a long time seen Louis XVIII's emigration in 1815 as the sequel to the scene that emerged in Koblenz during the French Revolution, and to the emigration of Louis V Joseph de Bourbon-Condé and his army in 1792-1793. In reality, I have tried to explain that Louis XVIII's flight in 1815 is nothing like the classical representation that we have of royalist emigration. It is closer in fact to political exile, with its reduced court ceremony and reconstituted government. Unlike Louis XVI who was arrested in Varennes in June 1791, Louis XVIII voluntarily left the Palace des Tuileries for Belgium, and was welcomed by the towns in the north. From abroad, he sought to embody the nation, and to create a national feeling of loyalty to the crown. What obscured this message was the strength of the idea of 'nation' which dominated the 19th century. Considered in this light, the border-crossing and the willing abandonment of the 'sol-sacré de la patrie' became a betrayal and a crime against the nation. This negative image was valid in 1815 but ceased to be so in 1940 with the exile of General de Gaulle, who became the first to successfully embody a nation whilst abroad.
I.D.: What was the state of France in 1815?
E. de W.: France in 1815 was complex and divided, a puzzle. Two different social groups squared off against each other: the Bonapartists and the Royalists. The political determination of each group cannot be understood without first looking at their individual attitudes towards the past, and in particular to the French Revolution. The degree of dechristianisation in the country, particularly in the different regions, is also important. The imperial regime was secular, whilst the royal regime was religious and divinely-orientated. And yet in certain areas, such as the Midi, Catholicism made a serious comeback in 1814 and churches were full. In the north, the west, the Midi and some of the French centre, a movement that can be described as “popular royalism” grew up, which was equally influenced by a certain economic upturn experienced in the country after Napoleon's first abdication and the return to a state of peace.
I.D.: Throughout the story, the reader is shown right to the heart of what was important for the French and for the narrative’s principal characters. You emphasise how important events were in dictating their behaviour and their decisions, and how much the ‘individual’ came to replace the ‘collective’. You write somewhere that "it is the events that decide whether we are right or wrong."
E. de W.: Indeed. It is during this period that men are forced to take a look at themselves, and to consider questions of a timeless nature. What is the relationship, for example, between a man's loyalty and a man's duty? The success of Napoleon's return cannot be explained without the spontaneous rallying of the soldiers, but throughout the episode the officers would be faced with questions of conscience, between what they called “the memories and affection” for Napoleon, and their “vows”. I find it fascinating to try and understand how individuals made their decisions, on what they based these decisions, and what they understood by honour, loyalty, betrayal, 'la patrie' and 'la nation'.