Why did Talleyrand betray Napoleon



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Power games

Johannes Willms' routine biography of the "virtuous man" Charles-Maurice Talleyrand


By Klaus-J├╝rgen Bremm

His first diplomatic mission as envoy of the Revolutionary Convention in London failed completely. England persistedHthe coalition war against France and its leaders even avoided contact with the former cleric who had so quickly sided with the revolution. Even then it stood Charles-Maurice Talleyrand reputed to be a traitor to his class. Soon after that it stopped the former Bishop of Autun, who later shone sond knew how to present himself in the role of master diplomat as appropriate to bring himself to safety in London from the Paris terror regime. Only after the establishment of the moderate directory did Talleyrand return to France from his precarious exile, which had temporarily taken him to the United States. The political prospects in the changed circumstances seemed favorable to the fulfillment of his old dream of becoming a second Richelieu. But on the horizon was already the dominant personality who permanently relegated the ambitious remigrant to the second tier of French politics. Napoleon Bonaparte saw foreign policy as his own field and also had completely different ideas about the role of France in a radically changing Europe than his minister, who was still influenced by the ancien regime. Talleyrand's initial admiration for the new hero soon turned into a critical distance and eventually even to betrayal.

For his biographer Johannes Willms, this phase is the pivotal point in Talleyrand's life, in which he entered into conspiratorial relationships with Metternich and the Tsar before the Corsican's first setbacks in Spain. In the opinion of the journalist and historian Willms, however, it was by no means personal animosities that prompted Talleyrand, who had been heavily insulted by the emperor, to take this daring step. Rather, it was determined by traditional ideas of a balanced European balance of power in which France could secure its previous territorial gains. The multi-biographer Willms demonizes the Corsican as an agonal counter-image to the Foreign Minister, who, in his political excess, overthrew Europe from one war to the next. This is undoubtedly a distortion, because the wars of 1805, 1806 and 1809 were hardly on the account of Napoleon, even if he had not really tried to prevent them. For Talleyrand, who at least had encouraged the emperor in his fatal policy towards Spain, it may have been a satisfaction in the spring of 1814 to hand over the French capital behind his back to the Allies and then to the Bourbons. He wasn't thanked for it. Although Talleyrand was ostensibly able to obtain some territorial advantages and a reasonably acceptable status in the restored power system of Europe at the so-called Congress of Vienna for the defeated France, he soon found himself from the suspicious Louis XVIII. Politically sidelined. The new monarch may also have known that his agile foreign minister was a driving force behind the kidnapping and murder of the Duke of Enghien, his close relative. Apart from a modest and unsuccessful interlude as the French envoy of the citizen king Louis Phillip, Talleyrand's political career ended as early as 1816. At that time, the diplomat, schemer and author of often cited bonmots, finished his memoirs. Willms describes the rest of his long life as a comfortable epilogue, in which he devotes himself in particular to the private circumstances of his protagonist - until then only briefly described - at the center of which was Talleyrand's scandalous long-term relationship with his niece, 40 years his junior. The author works through all of this with the usual biographical routine, but somehow also without heart and soul. He quotes frequently and extensively from letters and other documents, and as a reader one has more than once the impression that with the connecting passages only one comment is in hand. One might think that the publisher and not the author wanted this text. Willms did not succeed in creating a multi-faceted portrait of an era; this new work seems more like an addition to his earlier biography of Napoleon.

Talleyrand is attested to having taken the great Cardinal Richelieu as an example from a young age. However, he has not achieved its historical greatness as a politician any more than Willms has achieved the Swiss Carl Jakob Burckhardt and his monumental Richelieu biography as a biographer.
 

Johannes Willms
Talleyrand. Virtuoso of Power 1754-1838
Publishing house C. H. Beck
384 pages
26.95 euros

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