Strasbourg, June 2005   

           A Franco-Austrian Case-Study - Wessenberg, Napoleon, Talleyrand

Wessenberg,like his contemporary, Metternich, attended Strasbourg University (among others) in the 1790s, only 20 years after Goethe. These years had of course seen Europe transformed by the French Revolution, and in particular by Napoleon, the architypal Romantic hero - unless we accept his own propagandistic neo-Classical Imperial image of himself. Goethe's creation Faust had meanwhile shown that "two souls" co-exist in every human breast. And this conflict, in politics as much as in art, can perhaps be seen at in its most acute form in the early 19th Century, not least in the life and work of such a civilised and cultured diplomat and child of his time as Wessenberg.

Duty and accident of birth, rather than - to say the least - sympathy, compelled him to serve a rival Empire and, for the greater part of his career, an almost mythical Master whose life's unwaveringly-pursued mission was to "put the genie back in the bottle"- successfully enough where the Man was concerned, though, as was inevitable, ultimately unsuccessfully in the case of the Zeitgeist, which defies any cork, and with which Napoleon was, rightly or wrongly, identified. When France sneeezes, Europe catches cold, Metternich famously remarked, or, in the words of Norman Davies: "French-style democracy was a menace threatening monarch, Church and property - the pillars of all he stood for" ('Europe:A History').


Of interest, as a prelude to the account of the tete-à-tete at St-Dizier in March 1814 (see below), are the melancholy reflections of 20 years later to be found in Wessenberg's Diary on the French people's treatment of Napoleon  as he made his way homewards from London, back across France, following his distinguished but ill-rewarded work on Belgian independance - de facto dismissal by Metternich - in March 1834.(A J P Taylor:"W. was a man of liberal mind and had always advocated a 'western' orientation in Austrian foreign policy: he had wished to rely on England instead of on Russia and had been dismissed from the foreign service for working too closely with England in the Belgian question" - 'The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809 - 1918'):
"Ein Gefuehl der Traurigkeit ergriff mich, als ich Frankreich widersah; Ich finde dort Symptome des Unbehagens , welche glauben machen, dass der Held, dessen Sturz es so schmachvoll zuliess, das ganze Glueck Frankreichs mit sich nahm in der Verbannung...Theuer hat Frankreich es bezahlt, dass es im Augenblicke des Ungluecks den Mann verliess,der es der Anarchie entrisssen und und in die vorderste Reihe der civilisierten Voelker gestellt hat"(Arneth 'JPvW Ein oesterr.Staatsmann d.19.Jhds'[see also below].                                                                                                                      While there can be no doubt that Wessenberg was a liberal by the standards of the Court he served, he does not appear to have absorbed much of the spirit of democracy from his lengthy postings and stays in England if he can so harshly criticise the French people for refusal to accept further self-sacrifice: "Nicht das Heer, sondern die durch ihre Repraesentanten entmuthigte und irregefuerte Nation war es, welche die nothwendigen Verstaerkerung verweigerte und um jeden Preis nach dem Frieden verlangte, Waehrend as darum sich handelte, sich zu schlagen und bis auf den Tod zu schlagen, um ein ehrenvollen Frieden zu erhalten." In particular, the Parisian 'classe politique' is blamed - that is to say "Maenner, welche von Napoleon mit Wohlthaten ueberschuettet worden waren, die nach der Gewalt luesternen Talleyrand [see below] und Genossen, welche einen erniedrigenden Frieden einem edlen und heldenhaften [here speaks the Romantic!] Widerstand vorzogen". Would Metternich have considered trial for High Treason more appropriate than dismissal, had he been aware of such subversive private thoughts, one wonders?

To return to the events immediately preceding Wessenberg's meeting with the Hero,he himself showed admirable coolness and quick wit in a situation of great peril when he and his entourage,in the prevailing anarchy,fell into the hands of a band of French peasants hungry for booty and potentially bloodthirsty towards the invading Allies, who were pushing the remnants of la Grande Armée back towards Paris. One member of this entourage expressed in his Memoirs, and with every reason, admiration for Wessenberg. This was the royalist emissary of Provençal origin, Baron de Vitrolles, whose lobbying of the Allies for a Bourbon Restoration, although not yet succesful - later he was to to hold several Ministerial posts under Louis XVIII and Charles X -  could well either have provoked homicidal tendencies among their captors or simply be betrayed to  Napoleon, still with the means to deal with such treasonable enterprises.
..."J'appelai Wessenberg à mon secours, en lui faisant une confiance complète. Les lettres [of the Pretender to the throne] aux souverains et autres, tout ce que j'avais sur moi fut déchiré en petits morceaux; enfin, meme nous en mangions...Je serais Anton Mayer, natif d'Aarau [luckily he knew a little German!] et son valet de chambre-secrétaire".

The interview given to Wessenberg on 28 March, hungry,tired and humiliated by rioting peasants ("Ich bin ohne Diener,ohne Kleider,ja ohne Hemd",as he informed Metternich), is of much more than personal interest, since it was Napoleon's last to an allied diplomat before his abdication. In Arneth's account, which gives a digest of the elegant French of the 'Résumé de la conversation de l'Empereur Napoléon avec le Baron de Wessenberg au quartier-général à Saint-Dizier',Bonaparte cleverly starts things on the right footing and exploiting his famous understanding that "an army marches on its stomach" by extending it to his grateful diplomatic visitor: "Nie werde ich die schmackhafte Schoepfenkeule mit weissen Bohnen vergessen, die mir der Held des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts vorsetzen liess".

Where the content of Napoleon's monologue is concerned, it is easy to be cynical today about its blatent self-pity and attempted bribery:
Thus, "Kann Metternich vergessen, dass meine Heirat mit einer oesterreichischen Erzherzogin sein Werk ist?..ich beging einen argen Fehler, als ich mich mit ihr [Marie-Louise] vermaehlte...ich haette doch nicht geglaubt, dass die Kaiserin ihrem Vater voellig fremd werden koennte...Oesterrich bleibt nicht zu wuenschen uebrig, denn es wird alles erhalten, was es in Polen, in Italien, in Deutschland erlangen will" usw usw

In all probability, Wessenberg, with his cool diplomat's intellect, grasped the truth of the current brutal bon mot of Baron Louis (the future Restoration Finance Minister) that "l'homme est un cadavre, mais il ne put pas encore" [stinkt noch nicht], but it would seem that his heart beat with the Romantics, like Alfred de Musset for whom, in the coming epoch "la France se sentit veuve de César", and we should not forget that the Hero was only 4 years his senior in age.


George Sand, whose writings, like those of her fellow Romantics Balzac, Chateaubriand and Hugo, reviled the Prince of Benevento (the title Talleyrand received from Napoleon), rightly linked him with another Prince - that of Machiavelli, which she characterised as "un parfait bréviaire de perfidie et de scélératesse". And in fact Wessenberg's library, donated to Strasbourg's Staats- und Universitaetsbibliothek (today's BNU) in 1876, includes, as its oldest volume the 1550 'Historie' of the great "secretario fiorentino" whose work has ever since been required reading for aspiring politicians and diplomats of the classical/realist school.

Wessenberg of course worked closely with this latter-day Prince in some of the crucial European negotiations of the age, notably Talleyrand's triumph at the Congress of Vienna and the London Conference on Belgium to which the 76-year-old was named by Louis-Philippe after 15 years in the wilderness. Like many among his contemporaries and subsequently, Wessenberg was at the same time fascinated and repelled, writing about him at length.

1n 1797, the former (but excommunicated by the Pope) Bishop of Autun, who in 1789 had advocated confiscation of Church property, returned from a prudent exile in America from 'la Terreur' to become the Directoire's Foreign Minister, at the recommendation of Mme De Stael, who was much more than a literary figure as well as being the daughter of Louis XVI's Finance Minister, Jacques Necker. Napoleon incidentally was afraid of her, as of all "geistreiche Frauen die sich mit der Politik beschaftigten" as Wessenberg wrote in his 'Commentar' anonymously issued in 1857 (see full title in fine), in which he observes that Talleyrand "war einer der ersten, welcher die Bedeutendheit Napoleons erriet. Er ward sein eifriger Advocat bei dem Directorium, als er von demselben wegen des angeblich zu guenstig fuer Oesterreich abgeschlossenen Friedenschlusses zu Campo Formio zur Verantwortung gezogen wurde". And the same work quotes Napoleon's 'Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène': "M de Talleyrand était toujours en état de ne disconvins pas qu'il soit un rare talent et ne puisse en tout temps mettre un grand poids dans la balance".

Wessengerg too recognises Talleyrand's "Gabe, immer zu rechter Zeit den Ausbruch der drohenden Katastrophen vorherzusehen, und wusste sich mit vieler Geschicklichkeit jedesmal der siegenden Partei nothwendig zu machen; Als man ihm in letzteren Zeiten einmal vorwarf, dass er so leicht seine Herren und Wohltaeter verlassen konnte, antwortete er:'Je n'ai jamais abondonné personne, mais je n'ai jamais voulu courir après ceux qui s'abondonnent'". Indeed, the chapter in the 'Commentar' (on Talleyrands Verhaeltniss zu Napoleon) end on an elegiac note of admiration for the older man: "Mit Talleyrand verschwand die letzte Spur von Voltaire'schen Witzes".

One could not expect Wessenberg, the family man, to sympathise with Talleyrand's "vie sentimentale" - too scandalous for the far from blameless George Sand - , although sentiment is scarcely the word that springs to mind for this disciple of Machiavelli, whose notorious liaisons were not so much "dangereuses" as cynically calculated for their polital usefulness ("faisons travailler les femmes"). Thus, at the Vienna Congress, his incomparable spy network consisted of his mistress, the duchesse de Courlande and her delectable daughters who shared (with Talleyrand) the pillow secrets of anyone who counted, to the extent that Friedrich Gentz, the Secretary of the Congress, who was so close to Wessenberg, lamented "die ganze Curlaendischer alle politische  Gehemnisse eingeweiht". One of the daughters, the delicious Dorothée, duchesse de Dino - 39 years his junior - was to become the comfort of his old age,including acting as hostess at the London Embassy.                                                               
                                                                                  There, the (easily bored?) old man's high-rolling gambler's life-style astonished Wessenberg: "Merkwuerdig ist wie dieser so geistreiche, ueber die gewoehnlichen Dinge so erhabene Mann sich nur wirklich gluecklich fuehlt, wenn er fuenf Stunden nach einander dem Kartenspiel obliegen kann..Er sieht sich genoethigt in den Traveller-Club zu begeben, wo er bis zwei Uhr Morgens verweilt.. es geschieht selten, dass er vor vier Uhr zu Bett geht" (from the Essay 'Ein Tag des Herren von Talleyrand in London').

When the Congress of Vienna was,in early March 1815, momentarily stunned by the news that Napoleon had escaped from Elba, Talleyrand, one can imagine, was not best pleased with Wessenberg's efforts (of which he was proud) to tone down the language declaring the latter's (secret, see above!) hero an outlaw. Still, in his 'Mémoires', Talleyrand's reference to Wessenberg is condescending and highly unfair, contrasting him unfavourably with the princely(!) Esterhazy, his Head of Mission in London, adding: "J'avais déjà connu le baron de Wessenberg au congrès de Vienne; et je savais que ce n'était qu'un homme d'affaires instruit, actif, travailleur, mais rien de plus; les vues d'un homme d'Etat lui manque absolument ...bon homme du reste, et qui croit savoir tout, parce que, pendant quarante ans, il a écouté et retenu tous les commérages de l'Europe" - the implication being that the Prince was supremely indifferent to such "Eurogossip"! But such criticism is nothing to what Talleyrand ("boiteux comme le diable") received from the pen, among others, of Chateaubriand in 'Memoires d'outre-tombe'.

A final irony lies in the strong probability that this icon of the totally immoral classical school of political diplomacy was the real father of Eugène Delacroix, the greatest of France's Romantic painters, at the expense of a colleague in the Foreign Ministry, who may of course have felt honoured to be so cuckolded.

                                                                                                                                                                    Note: 'Commentar zu einem zu einem Theil der Denkwuerdikeiten des Marschalls Marmont von einem Zeitgenossen' (full title of Wessenberg's anonymously-published reflections on Napoleon and Talleyrand, published in Freiburg in 1857, which is just one of many works consulted in Strasbourg and London)

 The above compilation is the work of a direct descendant of Reichsfreiherr Wessenberg (English branch, through his granddaughter Olga), having worked in the cause of Europe for many years, ignorant until recently of the proximity of the Wessenberg library from Schloss Feldkirch, donated to the Strasbourg BNUS by the acquirer of that Schloss, Graf Clotar Blankensee-Firks, Prussian Major-General, as a result of the 1876 Imperial appeal following damage caused in the 1870 seige of Stasbourg, as a prelude to its annexation.
It is dedicated respectfully to Peter Heinrich von Wessenberg,tireless animator of the Wessenberg-Akademie and annual July  "Wessenberg-Tage"; to Sir Brian Crowe (O.S.), Member of the Council of Chatham House,London, and former British Ambassador to Vienna; to Gregor Dallas (O.S.),author of '1815:Roads to Waterloo' and John Hartland (O.M.), for their transcultural inspiration;and to Gérard Littler, Curator, BNUS, and Monica Azulay Gaspar, Council of Europe, for their specialist historical help and advice in exploiting the Strsabourg 'Buecherschatz'.