Thierry Lentz: four questions on the 1812 Malet Affair

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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)

Thierry Lentz: four questions on the 1812 Malet Affair
© John Foley / Opale / Fayard

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

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>TL: Malet’s deranged mind has often been put forward to justify the fact that he had the audacity to attack an Empire that seemed powerful and solid. Whilst it cannot be denied that the man had an obsessive/compulsive side, it must also be recognised that he was not lacking either in courage or intelligence nor a certain practical savoir-faire in his undertakings. And he needed all these qualities to plan and carry out the two great conspiracies in which he was involved, in 1808 and then in 1812. Malet was not at all the secondary and pale character that is sometimes described. With a little more luck, his career could have been “political” instead of merely “military”, which would have changed everything for him. In fact, during the first years of the Revolution, he was one of the most important figures in his region, the Jura, and he came very close to playing a role on the national stage. But since he was in a way “jinxed”, he had to be content with being a second-string general, which he could not stand. What followed was a series of mistakes on his part, unlucky turns of fate, all mixed with clumsiness and pretension that ended up bringing him down.

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

TL: I honestly don’t think so. As events unfolded, the coup d’état had no chance of succeeding. Malet had chosen his accomplices too badly. There were it is true three hours of “emotion”, in particular with the locking up of those in charge of the Police, but thanks to the cool head of staff of the Paris military, but also Cambaceres (whom I rehabilitate completely) and Clarke, the matter went no further. These clowns were in no position to put down the Empire. That being said, it is very interesting to take a close look at the mechanism of the conspiracy. One question emerges: was it a Republican or Royalist conspiracy? After studying the facts, the answer is much less clear cut than is usually believed. Who manipulated whom? This is one of the big questions in the Malet affair. I have tried to unravel 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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