Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Weather Vanes: the Art of Changing Sides

Mattijs Lok: Windvanen. Napoleontische Bestuurders in de Nederlandse en Franse Restauratie (1813-1820)

A study of the political survival of Dutch and French members of the Napoleonic regime during the Restoration. This book draws its strength from the comparison between the two countries, the analysis of the rite de passage that was inherent in crossing the political lines and the description of the popular press criticising the ´weather vanes´.

Despite the political revolution of 1813/1815 many bureaucrats, officers and senior politicians remained in office. How did they manage? Over the course of the regime change, the senior politicians were able to shape the events by shifting their loyalty. They did not all do so at the same time and not always out of conviction. But by their conversion in a period when the new regime had not settled they moved the scales in the right direction, thus ingratiating themselves with the new rulers.

The new regimes needed experience bureaucrats and, being still weak, had no ambition to create an internal opposition from the start. Also, both Willem Frederik and Louis XVIII had previously sought Napoleon’s favour themselves so they could not claim the moral high ground.

There was also a striking continuity in the institutions of the old regime, despite public displays of the restoration of the ancient regime. The Napoleonic legacy was not only popular enough that a real return to the old institutions would have created such unrest as to unbalance the fledgling monarchies, the bureaucracy was also very useful to the Louis and William. The imperial system of government was a top down authoritarian administration subjected to the needs of the emperor and the military. It gave the restored monarchs more power than their ancestors had had before the revolution.

But there was such a broad sense of unease that much of the Napoleonic bureaucracy remained that this continuity was downplayed as much as possible while stressing the need for unity and reconciliation. This narrative was enforced so strongly in the Netherlands that opposition to King William was stifled for years.

But discontent could not be suppressed entirely. The most committed supporters of the returned Houses of Bourbon and Orange could not hide their disappointment. Not only did they resent that former opponents went unpunished and were even rewarded, but more so they lamented that their suffering for the cause had gone unnoticed. They had sacrificed their careers for their convictions and now felt insufficiently compensated. They took out their revenge on the weather vanes by publicly holding them to account for their lack of conviction.

A successful conversion went to several phases. The first (optional) step was a request to the old ruler to be relieved from the oath of loyalty. Next a letter was written proclaiming adhesion to the new rulers. This was often a convoluted document defending the choices for former regimes in the past. Most times this was followed by an invitation from the new prince to enter his service. This later involved swearing a new oath. The monarch later confirmed the union by continuing the noble titles from the Napoleonic regime or awarding new. Knightly orders were also instituted so the king could express his gratitude.

The move from regime to regime was by no means an easy one. In the Netherlands it took several weeks before it became clear that the rising against French rule would succeed, and many preferred to bide their time before committing themselves. In France the dismantling of Napoleon’s rule in April 1814 was more rapid, but complications erupted as the emperor returned. It forced politicians, bureaucrats and officers to make difficult choices twice in three months.

And so it went wrong occasionally, as in the cases of Dutch admiral Ver Huell and bureaucrat/general Dirk van Hogendorp. Ver Huell eventually ended up in the French Chamber of Peers, but Van Hogendorp met a tragic death in Brazil. In France marshal Ney was the prime example of failure to choose wisely. He died in front of a fire squad.

The second restoration of the Bourbons was in any way more traumatic than the first and the Dutch. To the reactionary ultra monarchists the reversal of many bureaucrats to the returned emperor was a betrayal of the magnanimous treatment they had been offered in 1814. This inspired the ultras to sweeping purges of a quarter to a third of all French bureaucrats. In some parts of the country this even escalated into mass arrests, and occasional murder and lynching. Although Louis and his government discouraged these excesses, they were nevertheless tainted by them and their legitimacy of their regime was weakened as a result.

Although this book focuses almost exclusively on the civilian side of the bureaucracy, there are some interesting bits on the military and the rite de passage analogy is readily applicable to army officers. Maybe I can use it to analyse letters by Dutch officers in the National Archives in The Hague.

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