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Chateaubriand: Would-be master of the world who knew only how to destroy


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

French writers on war and peace

François-René de Chateaubriand: What is war? A barbaric profession.


François-René de Chateaubriand
From Mémoires d’Outre-tombe
Translated by Robert Baldick


Napoleon inherited the old French monarchy as the centuries and an uninterrupted succession of great men had made it, as the majesty of Louis XIV and the alliances of Louis XV had left it, and as the Republic had enlarged it. He seated himself on that magnificent throne, stretched out his arms, seized hold of the nations, and gathered them around him; but he lost Europe as speedily as he had won it, and twice he brought the Allies to Paris in spite of the marvels of his military intelligence. He had the world under his feet, and all that he got out of it was a prison for himself, exile for his family, and the loss of all his conquests together with a portion of the old French territory.

In his alliance, he enchained the other governments only with concessions of territory, whose boundaries he would soon start altering, constantly showing a tendency to take back what he had given, and always making his supremacy felt; in his invasions, he reorganized nothing, Italy excepted. Instead of stopping at every step to raise up again behind him, in another form, what he had overthrown, he did not halt his progress through ruins: he went so fast that he scarcely had time to breathe as he passed by. If, by a sort of Treaty of Westphalia, he had settled and assured the existence of the States in Germany, Prussia and Poland, then on his first retrograde march he could have fallen back on contented populations and found shelter among them. But his poetic edifice of victories, lacking a foundation and suspended in mid-air only by his genius, fell when his genius fell. The Macedonian built empires as he ran: Bonaparte as he ran knew only how to destroy; his sole aim was to be master of the world, without troubling his head about ways of preserving it.

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