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Currently reading (#14):

Bonaparte prend le pouvoir: la République meurt-elle assassinée?
(Jean-Paul Bertaud)

Recently, after translating an article by Jean-Paul Bertaud, I looked for other books and articles written by him and discovered this book. As I am always curious to learn more about France and the Revolution after the events of Thermidor (and as it is rather difficult to find books on this era which do not glorify Bonaparte), this book caught my attention. (Interestingly, Bertaud has dedicated this book to Nancy and Isser Woloch ; the latter has written another excellent work on this era, Napoleon and His Collaborators, which I have reviewed before.)

The first part of Bertaud’s book deals with the political situation on the eve of the Coup of 18 Brumaire and with the factors that brought it about (the influence of the circle of “revisionists”, the concerns of the wealthy bourgeoisie, the increasing power of the military elite, etc), as well as with the preparation and the course of events of 18 Brumaire. Particular attention is paid, of course, to the political background of Bonaparte, his career during the Revolution and his role in the coup d’état.

In the following chapters, Bertaud examines on the situtation in France under the Directory before 18 Brumaire. The central question is already posed in the book’s title: was the coup d’état a coup de grâce for the already moribund system of the Directory (as Bonapartist historiography seeks to affirm), or was it the conspiratorial “assassination” of the French Republic? In search of an answer, the author focuses on numerous aspects: the decline of revolutionary and moral principles under the Directory, the issues of the administration, the economic circumstances (with particular regard to inflation, deflation and the role of the “entrepreneurial” bourgeoisie) and the military situation (e.g. the seemingly endless war, the expansionist ambitions of the Directory and the financial aspects of warfare). The book also emphasises the political oppositions on the eve of 18 Brumaire (the royalist faction and its violent insurrections, as well as the neo-Jacobin movement and its ideological framework) and the way how the established order repressed, used or manipulated these oppositions. Another major part of the book focuses on the situation of the military and how it evolved during the Revolution: the increased professionalisation of the military, the growing concentration of power in the hands of the generals and the development of a certain “mindset” among the military elites which ultimately gained influence over society as a whole. Bertaud masterfully demonstrates how all of these factors contributed to bringing about the events of Brumaire.

The last chapters briefly deal with the immediate aftermath of 18 Brumaire, the reaction of the French population and the internal divisions of the coupists. Bertaud examines how Bonaparte, by either the “seduction” or the brutal submission of all oppositions, ultimately managed to secure his power and, with the support of the military and the affluent bourgeoisie, became the most powerful man of France. In the conclusion, Bertaud offers a nuanced answer to the question posed in the book’s title.

In my eyes, Bertaud’s book is an excellent work on the Coup of 18 Brumaire and the factors that brought it about (although it is a pity that, like in the other books from the La mémoire des siècles series, there are no footnotes). I think that this book and Woloch’s Napoleon and His Collaborators greatly complement each other, which is why I recommend both of them. 

What do you think, citizens?