By Panagiotis Paspaliaris
Napoleon succeeded in exporting the French Revolution to Europe, along with some of its admirable achievements. At Abukir, at Austerlitz, at Jena, at Borodino he defeated the hegemons of the old European order, sometimes resoundingly, sometimes with great losses to himself. Some of them changed their way of thinking: they adopted French principles and ideas, and made their comeback at Leipzig on 19th October 1813.
At the following peace conference the victors did not choose to vanquish France: they sent Bonaparte into exile. But everything changed when the Corsican escaped from the island of Elba and on 18th June 1815 led a new army against his united enemies. It was the hundred-day last stand of the ravager of our continent.
General Blücher and Talleyrand
In the summer of 1815 the Prussians and their allies entered Paris. General von Blüchermined the Jena bridge over the Seine, which had been built to remind the world of the humiliating defeat of the Prussians by the French in 1806. The French prime minister Talleyrand, who was himself making a comeback, threatened via an emissary to go personally and stand in the centre of the bridge to prevent the German general from blowing it up.
VonBlücher reflected for a while and then told his soldiers not to detonate the explosives until Talleyrand had arrived in the centre of the bridge, and then to blow it up, together with Talleyrand. In the centuries since that time the French have given the name Blücher to their savage, bloodthirsty dogs. They regard Talleyrand, by contrast, as France’s benefactor: he is said with his skillful diplomatic manoeuvres to have succeeded in averting its dismemberment. That, at least, is what is taught in French schools. The truth is that during this most crucial time for France his armoury of intrigue and (by now) old-fashioned charm had been exhausted. He threatened the allies that he would resign if France was dismembered. The allies could not have cared less and the Bourbon monarch accepted his resignation.
The fifth duke of Richelieu
Armand Emmanuel de Vignerot du Plessis, fifth duke of Richelieu, had as long-standing a relationship with the “legitimate” kings of France as is implied by his name. He left France after the Revolution and went into the service of the Russian emperor. Among other duties, the Czar assigned to him the task of founding the city of Odessa. His organizational ability was greatly above average. A brilliant Russian metropolis would henceforth hold sway over the Black Sea through the coming centuries. .
Richelieu returned to France with the Bourbons and assumed the prime ministership after Talleyrand. In despair, he repaired to the chambers where the Czar was lodging in France. The dismemberment of France, both territorial and economic, had just been announced. He was received by the young confidant of Alexander I, Count Ioannis Capodistrias, with whom he appeared to be quite well acquainted. Richelieu spoke to Capodistrias of the travails that were in store for France. Capodistriaslistenedtohimcalmlyandthen said:
“I have thought of an infallible means of saving your country today. Tomorrow will be too late. Do you want to hear it?”
“Of course,” replied Richelieu.
Capodistrias went to the adjoining room and dictated to his secretary Alexandros Stourtzas a letter, supposedly from Louis XVIII to the Czar. The letter said that Louis preferred to lay down his crown for the Allies to take rather than surrender France to them, dismembered and humiliated.
Richelieu took the letter and gave it to the King, who copied it in his own hand. The next day Stourtzas handed it over to the already forewarned Czar at the time he was taking his seat for negotiations with the Allies. “As I expected,” announced the Czar in feigned consternation. (Napoleon had been the first to perceive Alexander’s histrionic talents.) “We are now in greater disgrace than ever. Louis has abdicated and he is right to do so. France is without a king. Find me another if you can. As for me, I wash my hands of it. The time has come for me to go home and for an end to be put to all this.”
The decisiveness of Alexander’s intervention caused general bewilderment. His anger quietened the passions against France. It was this day, this moment, that saved France from disaster. It was saved by the perspicacity of the Corfiot count and the histrionic talents of the man Napoleon characterized as the greatest actor of the East (and with whom, as he also said, if he had been a woman, he would most certainly have had an affair).
This little story is, or should be, of the utmost significance for the French. If this intervention had not taken place, their country would not be what it is today. If it had not been for the policies that Capodistrias outlined to the Czar, which led three years later to the definitive reintegration of France into the conclave of the Great Powers, France would today be a small country, like Belgium, with a glorious revolutionary past. And Europe would have been racked by dozens of wars prior to the great wars triggered by Germany in the following century.
Richelieu wrote to the Czar on 1st October 1815: “It is to your powerful intervention that we owe the softening of position that we have achieved. I know that Count Capodistrias went beyond his brief. I take the liberty of petitioning Your Majesty not to disown him.”
And Count Molé, too, wrote in his memoirs: “If France is still France, it owes it to three men, whose names should never be forgotten. To Alexander and his two ministers Capodistrias and Pozzo di Borgo.”
There is no doubt that apart from his purely diplomatic but ingenious perception of the position of France in the balance of power that would bring peace to the continent, Capodistrias also had other expectations with the stance he adopted towards that country. He believed that in the coming insurrection that was planned for Greece, French assistance would be forthcoming. France would be a counterweight to the negative attitude of Britain. History fully justified this expectation.
It is not known whether Richelieu and Louis were aware of this plan. It may well be because of this that they offered him more tangible rewards. Louisofferedhimgold. ButCapodistriasdeclined. He requested only duplicate copies of the books in French libraries with ancient Greek texts. He wanted to send them to Corfu, to the library he planned to establish.
His offer was accepted but it was never acted on, as far as we know. Instead of that, the succeeding French dynasty took care to initiate, together with the English and the Greek “kotsambasides”, the project of assassinating the Greek Governor, seventeen years later. One of the two assassins, George Mavromichalis, took refuge in the French embassy, as had been agreed prior to the murder.
Today it is more necessary than ever that these events should become known to the people of France. Perhaps because it is the duty of history to reinstate the truth, even if this should happen only two hundred years later. Perhaps because the peoples of Europe should learn that the existence of one also serves the existence of the other, and that the continent has never gained from the ruin of one of its members. Perhaps simply so that the bequest should finally proceed and a “Ioannis Capodistrias” library open in Corfu.