Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIV: On the Spirit of the French Army. - Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.)
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CHAPTER XIV: On the Spirit of the French Army. - Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, newly revised translation of the 1818 English edition, edited, with an introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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On the Spirit of the French Army.
It must not be forgotten that the French army was admirable during the first ten years of the war of the Revolution. The qualities which were wanting in the men employed in the civil career were found in the military: perseverance, devotedness, boldness, and even goodness when their natural disposition was not altered by the impetuosity of attack. The soldiers and officers were often beloved in foreign countries, even where their arms had done mischief; not only did they meet death with that inconceivable energy which will at all times be found in their blood and their heart, but they supported the most horrid privations with unprecedented serenity. The fickleness of which the French are justly accused in political affairs becomes respectable when it is transformed into indifference to danger, and even indifference to pain. The French soldiers smiled in the midst of the most cruel situations and encouraged one another in the agonies of suffering, either by a sentiment of enthusiasm for their country or by a witticism which rekindled the cheerful gaiety to which the very lowest classes of society in France are always alive.
The Revolution had brought the fatal art of recruiting1 to singular perfection; but the good which it had done by rendering every rank accessible to merit excited in the French army an unbounded emulation. It was to these principles of freedom that Bonaparte was indebted for the resources which he employed against liberty herself. Ere long the army under Napoléon retained little of its popular virtues, except its admirable valor and a noble sentiment of national pride; but how much was it fallen, fighting for a single man, while its predecessors, while its own veterans, ten years before, had devoted themselves only for their country! Soon too the troops of almost every Continental nation were forced to combat under the banners of France. What patriotic sentiment could animate the Germans, the Dutch, the Italians, when they had no security for the independence of their native land, or rather when its subjugation bore heavily upon them? They had no common tie except one and the same leader; and on that account nothing was less solid than their association, because enthusiasm for a man, whoever he may be, is necessarily fluctuating; the love only of our country and of freedom cannot change, because it is disinterested in its principle. That which constituted the particular prestige of Napoléon was the idea which was entertained of his fortune; attachment to him was attachment to oneself. A fond belief prevailed with respect to the various kinds of advantages to be obtained under his banners; and as he was both an admirable judge of military merit and knew how to recompense it, any private soldier in the army might nourish the hope of becoming a marshal of France. Titles, births, the services of courtiers had little influence on promotion in the army. There a spirit of equality prevailed in spite of the despotism of the government, because Bonaparte had need of force, which cannot exist without a certain degree of independence. Accordingly, under the Emperor, that which was of most value was assuredly the army. The commissaries who afflicted the conquered countries with contributions, imprisonments, and exile; those clouds of civil agents who came like vultures after the victory to pounce upon the field of battle, did much more to make the French detested than the poor gallant conscripts who passed from childhood to death in the belief that they were defending their country. It belongs to men skilled in the military art to pronounce upon Bonaparte’s talents as a captain. But to judge of him in this respect merely by such observations as are within the reach of everybody, it appears to me that his ardent selfishness perhaps contributed to his early triumphs as it did to his final reverses. In the career of arms, as well as in every other, he was destitute of that respect for men, and of that sentiment of duty, without which nothing great is durable.
Bonaparte, as a general, never spared the blood of his troops; he gained his astonishing victories by a prodigal waste of the soldiers which the Revolution had supplied. By marching without extra ammunition he rendered his movements uncommonly rapid, but he thus doubled the evils of war to the countries which were the theater of action. In short, even the style of his military maneuvers has some connection with the rest of his character: he always risks the whole for the whole, counting on the faults of his enemies, whom he despises, and ready to sacrifice his partisans, for whom he cares little if he does not by their means obtain the victory.
In the Austrian war, in 1809, he quitted the island of Lobau when he judged the battle to be lost, and crossed the Danube in the company only of Marshal Berthier and M. de Czernitchef,2 one of the intrepid aides-de-camp of the Emperor of Russia. Bonaparte said to them, with undisturbed tranquillity, that after having gained forty battles, it was not extraordinary to lose one. When he reached the other side of the river, he went to bed and slept till the morning of the following day, without inquiring after the fate of the French army, which his generals saved while he slept. What a singular trait of character! And yet in the greater part of important occasions there is no man more active or more bold. But it would appear that he cannot sail except with a favorable wind, and that misfortune freezes him completely, as if he had made a magical compact with fate and was unable to proceed without her.
Posterity, and already many of our contemporaries, will object to the adversaries of Bonaparte the enthusiasm with which he inspired his army. We will treat this subject as impartially as possible when we shall have arrived at the fatal return from Elba. Who could deny that Bonaparte was in many respects a man of transcendent genius? He saw as far as the knowledge of evil can extend; but there is something beyond that—the region of good. Military talents are not always a proof of superior intellect; in this career, many accidents may contribute to success; besides, that kind of quick survey of circumstances which is necessary for conducting men in the field of battle has no resemblance to the close and accurate observation which the art of government requires. One of the greatest misfortunes of the human race is the impression which the success of force produces upon the mind. And nonetheless, there will be neither liberty nor morality in the world if we do not bring ourselves to consider a battle like any other transaction in the world, merely according to the goodness of the cause and the utility of the result.
One of the greatest evils done by Napoléon to France was to have given a taste for luxury to those warriors who were so well satisfied with glory in the days when the nation still existed. An intrepid marshal, covered with wounds and impatient for more, demanded for his hotel a bed so covered with gilding and embroidery that there was not to be found in Paris one that came up to his wishes. Very well, said he in his peevishness, give me a truss of straw, I shall sleep well enough upon it. In fact, there is no medium for these men between the pomp of the One Thousand and One Nights and the rigid life to which they were accustomed.
Bonaparte must likewise be accused of having altered the French character by forming it to the habits of dissimulation, of which he gave the example. Many military leaders became diplomats in the school of Napoléon, capable of concealing their true opinions, of studying circumstances, and of bending to them. Their courage remained the same, but everything else was changed. The officers who were most closely attached to the person of the Emperor, far from having preserved the lively courtesy of the French, became cold in their manners, circumspect, disdainful; they gave a slight salutation with the head, spoke little, and seemed to share their master’s contempt for the human species. Soldiers have always generous and natural emotions; but the doctrine of passive obedience which parties, opposite in their interests though in agreement with their maxims, have introduced among their chiefs, has necessarily altered all that was great and patriotic in the troops of France.
An armed force, it is said, ought to be essentially obedient. That is true on the field of battle, in the presence of the enemy, and in relation to military discipline. But could the French be ignorant, or ought they to have been ignorant, that they were sacrificing a nation in Spain? Was it possible or was it right for them not to know that at Moscow they were not defending their homes, and that Europe was in arms only because Bonaparte had successively availed himself of every country in it to enslave the whole? Some people wanted to make the army a kind of corporation, separate from the nation and incapable of union with it. In this case the unfortunate people would always have two enemies, their own troops and those of foreigners, since all the virtues of citizens are forbidden to warriors.
The army of England is as submissive to discipline as that of the most absolute state of Europe; but the officers do not therefore make less use of their reason, both as citizens, by taking part when they return home in the public concerns of their country; and as soldiers, by knowing and respecting the empire of the law in what regards them. An English officer would never arrest an individual, nor fire upon the people in commotion, till the forms ordained by the constitution had been observed. There is an intention of despotism whenever there is a wish to forbid men to use the reason which God has given them. Obedience to their oath, it will be said, is sufficient; but what is there which requires the employment of reason more than the knowledge of the duties attached to this very oath? Is it to be believed that the oath taken to Bonaparte could oblige any officer to carry off the Duc d’Enghien from the foreign land which ought to have been an asylum to him? Whenever maxims opposed to liberal sentiments are established, it is for the purpose of using them as a battery against our adversaries, but on condition that these adversaries do not employ them in return against us. It is only knowledge and justice which gives no ground of apprehension to any party. What, then, is the result of this emphatical maxim: The army should not judge but obey? The result is that in civil troubles the army always determines the lot of empires, but determines ill, because it is excluded from the use of reason. It was in consequence of this blind obedience to its leaders, which the French army had been taught to esteem a duty, that it supported the government of Bonaparte; yet how much has it been blamed for not overturning his power! Civil bodies, to justify their servility to the Emperor, laid the blame upon the army; and it is easy to make the partisans of absolute power, who usually are not very strict logicians, say in the same breath, first that military men should never have an opinion upon any political subject, and next that they are very blamable for having lent themselves as instruments to the unjust wars of Bonaparte. Surely those who shed their blood for the state have some right to know whether it is for the state that they really fight. Not that the army should be the government; Heaven defend us from such an evil! But if the army ought to keep itself apart from all public affairs in all that concerns their habitual direction, the freedom of the country is not the less under its protection; and when despotism endeavors to obtain the mastery, it should refuse to support it. What! it will be said, would you have the army deliberate? If you give the name of deliberation to a knowledge of its duty and to the employment of its faculties in fulfilling its obligations, I shall reply that if you forbid it today to reason against your orders, you will be dissatisfied tomorrow that it did not reason against the orders of another. All the parties which require, in politics as in faith, the renunciation of the exercise of thought, mean only that, whatever happens, we should think as they do. Yet, when soldiers are transformed into machines, we have no right to complain if these machines yield to force. In governing men, it is impossible to succeed without the influence of opinion. The army, like every other association, ought to know that it constitutes a part of a free state, and that it ought to defend the constitution established by law for and against all. Must not the French army bitterly repent at this day of that blind obedience to its chief which has ruined France? If the soldiers had not ceased to be citizens, they would still have been the support of their country.
It must be allowed, however, and with sincerity, that regular troops are an unhappy invention; and if they could be suppressed at once throughout the whole of Europe, mankind would have made a great step toward the perfection of social order. Had Bonaparte stopped in his career after some of his victories, his name and the reputation of the French armies produced at that time such an effect that he might have been satisfied with the National Guard for the defense of the Rhine and the Alps. Every advantage in human affairs was at his disposal; but the lesson which he was destined to give to the world was of another nature.
At the time of the last invasion of France, a general of the Allies declared that every French private citizen would be shot who should be found with arms in his hand; some of the French generals had occasionally been guilty of the same injustice in Germany; and yet the soldiers in regular armies have much less interest in the fate of defensive war than the inhabitants of the country. Were it true, as this general said, that citizens are not permitted to defend themselves against regular troops, all the Spaniards would be guilty and Europe would be still subject to Bonaparte; for it must not be forgotten that the private inhabitants of Spain were the first who commenced the struggle; they were the first who thought that the probability of success was nothing when it was a duty to resist. None of these Spaniards, and, at a subsequent period, none of the Russian peasants, formed part of the regular troops; yet this circumstance only rendered them more worthy of our admiration for the firmness with which they fought for the independence of their country.
[1. ] Reference to the Law Jourdan-Delbrel of September 5, 1798, which introduced mandatory military service.
[2. ] Alexandre I. Czernitchef (1779–1857), prominent Russian general and diplomat. In 1809 Russia supported France in the war against Austria.