1944: Georges Suarez, collaborationist editor

Add comment November 9th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the restored French Republic shot the editor of the collaborationist newspaper Aujourd’hui (Today).

Suarez‘s (linked page in French) writings (French again) had endorsed the German occupation and called for steps even beyond what the Germans were prepared to take: the wholesale taking of Anglo hostages as proof against Allied bombing raids, for instance.

His trial and execution were the first of many suffered by pro-Vichy writers and journalists condemned by the vengeful free French courts for their part in the Nazi occupation, especially in the first months after liberation. The public intellectuals of the wartime government were, as a matter of fact, in the dock faster than the government itself.

Alice Kaplan, writing of the more infamous collaborationist writer Robert Brasillach who would follow Suarez’ footsteps in a few weeks, observes:

Writers were easy to try. Their files, crumbling now, are rather thin: clippings of their articles from the collaborationist press, underlined in red and blue ink with an occasional commentary; a report by the prefecture of police outlining their political affiliations and behavior during the Occupation; a list of witnesses called by the defense and the prosecution; interviews of the accused, before the trial, going over the charges against him; letters from friends — and enemies — sent to the judge before the trial. It was easier to organize a case against a journalist than a case against a common-law criminal or a financial collaborator. The bulk of the evidence was in newspaper clippings, quickly compiled.

“Treason is a matter of dates,” Suarez’ lawyer averred, channeling Talleyrand. But at this early date of freedom, not six months after Omaha Beach had been wrenched from German hands, there was much less sympathy for the philosophic vagaries of history than some subsequent writers would enjoy — and there was a good deal of indictable behavior:

Whether they faced the charge of treason or of national indignity, the writers were accused of having espoused numerous elements of Nazi ideology: anti-communism; anti-Semitism; support for the releve (the system designed to send French workers to Germany in exchange for French POWs); support for the Milice (Vichy’s police force); support for the German and French troops fighting the Soviets on the Eastern front; attacks against de Gaulle and the Resistance; participation in collaborationist organizations; trips to Germany during the Occupation, in particular to the International Writers’ Congress at Weimar in 1941.

Philip Watts, Allegories of the Purge

In addition to its noteworthy history in the postwar purge of journalists, Kaplan reports that Suarez’s trial may also have been the first in French history for which women were eligible to serve as jurors — although none of the women in the jury pool were ultimately seated, and the milestone seems not to have been widely noticed even at the time.

The execution itself was badly botched: Suarez is said to have survived both the initial fusillade and a second barrage from the firing squad before a third round finished him off.

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1626: Henri Talleyrand, Comte de Chalais

4 comments August 19th, 2009 dogboy

The name Talleyrand is generally synonymous with the famed “Prince of Diplomats” who spanned the Republic, Empire, and Kingdom.

But that Talleyrand — Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, multiply French foreign minister, former Bishop of Autun, one-time Prince of Benevento, Ambassador to the United Kingdom — was just one in a long line of the Talleyrand-Perigords (pdf link) who made a name for themselves.

In 1626, Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord, Comte de Chalais, head of wardrobe to King Louis XIII, was one member of that house whose neck was shortened for an offense against the king’s court.

Henri — as he shall be herein known, so as not to confuse him with his many relatives — was the youngest of three children. Born in 1599, he served in the military at the unsuccessful Siege of Montauban in 1621 and 1622. (The defeat (temporarily) preserved Huguenot rights in France.)

In 1623, Henri returned from war and married Charlotte de Castille (not to be confused with the modern porn star!). It was not long after that rumors of Castille’s impropriety started making the rounds, as immortalized in Tallemant de Réaux‘s verse, whose rough translation is as follows:

Pontgibault boasts,
On seeing the slit
Of the Countess of Alais
Who likes the strong ballet,
And says hers is more charming
Than the Chalais’.

And that, not so roughly translated, is why Pontgibault received a visit from an irate Henri.

Henri is alleged to have challenged a duel, where he cock-blocked his cuckold — permanently. The European ideals of chivalry yet persisted, so there was some question whether this affair constituted murder, and the trial was the talk of France through the winter of 1623.

It was at this trial that the lines were drawn: Henri was joined in his effort to fight the charges by the Grand Prieur Alexandre de Vêndome, Monseiur Gaston d’Orléans (brother to the king), Jean-Baptiste d’Ornano, Louis de Bourbon (Comte de Soissons), and others.

Henri successfully defended himself, but this did not put the fire back into the marital bed. Instead, Henri’s loins turned toward Marie de Rohan-Montbazon, duchesse de Chevreuse.

Madame de Chevreuse, former lover of Henry Rich (later Earl of Holland), had a string of lovers, and it’s questionable whether Henri was among them. Whether he was or not, she ignited in him a passion that would lead to his execution.

The impetus for this execution was ostensibly a plot to save Gaston d’Orléans, who, by decree of Louis XIII, was to marry Marie de Bourbon, duchesse de Montpensier. The union would bring significant wealth into the family of Louis XIII.

Backed by his First Minister Cardinal Richelieu, the king was insistent. For several years, Richelieu had also been reducing the power of the nobility and consolidating central authority around the king, which was not the way Madame de Chevreuse envisioned the world.

Instead, she sought to install Gaston d’Orléans on the throne, thus advancing her agenda to restore power to the nobility. The forced marriage became a convenient excuse to enact her plan against Richelieu. And her charming way with men made it easy to find participants.

Madame de Chevreuse and d’Ornano were at the heart of the conspiracy, but their reach extended as far as England and Spain. She was also supported by Anne of Austria, who is thought to have played a critical role in organizing the conspirators. At the very least, the collective hope was to make Monseiur abandon Louis XIII’s court and seek an alliance with the Hugenots, who would be sympathetic to a cause against the Catholic Church.

The juicy details of the winter of 1625-1626 are cataloged in H. Noel Williams’ A Fair Conspirator Marie De Rohan, Duchesse De Chevreuse, but a summary version is sufficient here.

At some point, Richelieu caught wind of d’Ornano’s involvement in a conspiracy against the throne; not knowing the extent of the effort, he had d’Ornano detained. Lest their plot be found out, the conspirators encouraged Gaston to initiate a war; this was particularly true of Comte de Soissons, who posted a reward should Monseiur take up arms against his brother.

Gaston hesitated, and a new plan was enacted.

Instead, some of the conspirators would take audience with Richelieu and either detain or kill him, depending on the story. Needless to say, the plan failed, and the conspirators were found out. Chalais tried to lay low while the plot against the king and his minister unfolded, but he did not sufficiently distance himself from Madame de Chevreuse: Gaston was exposed and named names, and Chalais, not well-connected enough to fight the charges against him, was captured at Nantz on July 8.

Henri de Talleyrand-Périgord, Comte de Chalais, was sentenced to death by beheading for lèse-majesté, and on August 19, 1626, he mounted the scaffold at Place de Bouffay in Nantz. In a last, cruel twist, the conspiracy had bought off the town executioner in hopes that, lacking a practitioner of the macabre art, Chalais might be spared. But a replacement had been hastily found: a man himself condemned to death:

The [replacement] was so unskillful that, besides two blows from a Swiss sword, which had been purchased on the spot, he gave him thirty-four with an adze such as carpenters use; and was obliged to turn the body round to finish the severing of the neck, the patient exclaiming up to the twentieth blow: ‘Jesus, Maria et Regina Cali!’

No other conspirators were put to the sword, and Gaston and his brother eventually made up. Richelieu, meanwhile, gained more power and transitioned France from a feudal state to an absolute monarchy under Louis XIII and his successor, Louis XIV. His dealings form the backdrop of The Three Musketeers.

As for Madame de Chevreuse — who also figures in The Three Musketeers, scheming behind the scenes against Richelieu and crushed on by Aramis — she fled to Château d’Dampierre, then was exiled to England, where she fell in with the Duke of Lorraine (and became his mistress); she attempted to organize several more coups against the Red Eminence, but each fell short of the mark.

Madame de Chevreuse eventually ended up in Spain, then moved back to England, then shipped out to Flanders, where she connected once again with the Comte de Soissons and attempted to usurp the throne before it could be passed to Louis XIV. When Richelieu finally passed, she sought to oust his replacement, this time relying on César de Bourbon, duc de Vendôme, who was also involved in the Chalais conspiracy. After this failure, Madame de Chevreuse retired to Gagny.

Elizabeth Stone writes of Madame de Chevreuse in Political Women, “It was not she evidently who made of Buckingham a species of paladin without genius; a brilliant adventurer of Charles IV of Lorraine; of Chalais a hair-brained blunderer, rash enough to commit himself in a conspiracy against Richelieu, on the faith of the faithless Duke d’Orleans; of Châteauneaf, an ambitious statesman, impatient of holding second rank in the Government, without being capable of taking the first.”

Be that as it may, she is a compelling historical figure, and the Chalais conspiracy formed the basis for the operatic tragedy Maria di Rohan.

The conspiracy has also been used in an unusual modern form as an audio drama episode of Doctor Who.

(A complete discussion of Talleyrand-Périgord’s life can be found here. (French link) Breathless French court gossip in a 19th century biography of Chevreuse here.)

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1804: Louis-Antoine-Henri de Bourbon-Condé, duc d’Enghien

3 comments March 21st, 2009 Headsman

It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder on this date in 1804.

Napoleon shocked, just shocked, his admirers and more especially his foes by having a royal relative ventilated at Vincennes for the trifling offense of plotting against his life.

The particular allegations against him may have been formulated with greater haste than precision, but the duc d’Enghien actually had been taking English coin to overthrow Republican France for the past decade, and nonchalantly avowed as much at his drumhead tribunal.


The Duke awaiting execution in the predawn gloom in the moat of the Chateau de Vincennes. The pathos of the accompanying dog is mandatory for this scene, as in this Harold Piffard illustration. This spot is now marked with a monument.

After surviving one too many assassination attempts, Napoleon was in the market for someone to make an example of, and the Bourbon scion, hanging about the French frontiers conniving with the English, certainly qualified.

The dispatch of his military commission, which rammed through a conviction the night of the 20th and arranged the fusillade immediately thereafter, raised self-righteous hackles among rival monarchs who had little enough compunction of their own about politically expeditious regicide.

Conventional disdain for the shooting (as with this (pdf) from the Fourth Estate), reached far and wide, and appears in Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a subject for (spurious) gossip in the Russian salons.

The group about Mortemart immediately began discussing the murder of the Duc d’Enghien. The vicomte said that the Duc d’Enghien had perished by his own magnanimity, and that there were particular reasons for Bonaparte’s hatred of him.

The vicomte told his tale very neatly. It was an anecdote, then current, to the effect that the Duc d’Enghien had gone secretly to Paris to visit Mademoiselle George; that at her house he came upon Bonaparte, who also enjoyed the famous actress’ favors, and that in his presence Napoleon happened to fall into one of the fainting fits to which he was subject, and was thus at the duc’s mercy. The latter spared him, and this magnanimity Bonaparte subsequently repaid by death.

Pierre Bezukhov, the novel’s spirit-questing Russian noble then in the thrall of the Little Corporal, has the rashness to defend d’Enghien’s execution.

“The execution of the Duc d’Enghien,” declared Monsieur Pierre, “was a political necessity, and it seems to me that Napoleon showed greatness of soul by not fearing to take on himself the whole responsibility of that deed.”

Though that defense went over like a lead balloon with the partygoers (and with Tolstoy), others have ventured to stand in the breach for the Corsican, who assuredly attracts far more opprobrium as a commoner shooting a royal traitor than he would have had their bloodlines been reversed. Bonaparte enthusiasts, like those of the Napoleon podcast, are particularly susceptible to such impolitic sentiment.

[audio:http://napoleon.thepodcastnetwork.com/audio/tpn_napoleon_20060920_011.mp3]

But Louis-Antoine-Henri normally gets better sympathy than that, as he did with the like of Chateaubriand, who resigned his Napoleonic commission in outrage.

And his death — far more notable than anything he did in life — is supposed to have occasioned the quip, “C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute”: “it is worse than a crime, it is a blunder.” (Or, “it is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”) Often attributed to Talleyrand, it was more likely uttered by his machiavellian mirror image, Joseph Fouche.

(See here for more on the phrase’s lineage. Talleyrand was so strongly in support of d’Enghien’s death that he is sometimes accused of steamrolling Napoleon on the subject. The wily minister destroyed some evidence and effected a timely volte-face when Bonaparte fell.)

The First Consul — he would crown himself Emperor later in 1804 — never had use for any such soft-pedaling, and unapologetically avowed the Duke’s execution literally to the end of his life.

Dying in exile on St. Helena years later, it is said, Napoleon read a calumny upon the d’Enghien shooting in the English press and promptly hauled out his already-completed will to insert in his own hand his lasting justification for the affair.

I caused the Duc d’Enghien to be arrested and tried, because that step was essential to the safety, interest, and honour of the French people, when the Count d’Artois* was maintaining, by his own confession, sixty assassins at Paris. Under similar circumstances, I should act in the same way.

* The Comte d’Artois was, at the time of Napoleon’s writing, the heir presumptive to the restored Bourbon monarchy — and he did indeed succeed in 1824 as Charles X. In 1804, the future king was in exile in Britain funding hits on Bonaparte and kindred counterrevolutionary stuff. For adherents of the much-disputed theory that Napoleon was poisoned in his island captivity, d’Artois figures as a possible instigator of the murder.

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