Friday, 24 January 2020

December 1940: Return of L'Aiglon Part II

Adolf Hitler at Les Invalides, June 1940

Following the surrender of France, Adolf Hitler made two visits to Paris in June 1940. On the second visit he went to Les Invalides and whilst looking at Napoleon's tomb declared that he would return the remains of Napoleon II.

Origins of the Idea The idea of returning the remains had first been broached by Napoleon III some 90 years earlier. The Emperor Franz-Joseph had refused, saying that the Prince was and should remain a Hapsburg. (1) The idea was revived after the 1st World War, and in 1930 under the leadership of the historian Édouard Driault, President of the Napoleon Institute, a movement was formed to bring it about.

Coffin of Napoleon II, France December 1940

German Troops transporting Coffin of Napoleon II in Paris at night, December 1940

The Hapsburg family, now exiled in Belgium, said they were prepared to agree provided an official request came from the French Government. The Foreign Minister, Édouard Herriot supported the plan. The proposal was that the coffin would be returned on 15 December 1940, the anniversary of the return of Napoleon I's remains from St. Helena. Then the Government fell, and the plan lapsed.

Heinrich Otto Abetz (26 March 1903 – 5 May 1958), founder member of Comité France-Allemagne and later German Ambassador to Vichy

Nazis and Collaborationists The rise of Hitler and the Anschluss with Austria created a totally new political climate in France as well as in Germany and Austria. In 1938 the Comité France-Allemagne , a right wing appeasement supporting group, took up the idea again. Historian Jacques Benoist-Méchin, a member of the fascist Parti Populaire Français, raised it with von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister.

Jacques Benoist-Méchin (1901-1983)

Ribbentrop dismissed the idea, but Otto Abetz a fellow member of Comité France-Allemagne was enthusiastic and claimed to have got the support of Adolf Hitler. Abetz who had a French wife and presented himself as a francophile had attended the Munich conference in 1938, and after the surrender of France he returned to Paris from which he had been expelled in 1939 and subsequently became the German Ambassador to Vichy. (3)

Pierre Laval with Adolf Hitler

After Hitler's visit to Les Invalides in June 1940, Abetz, with the concurrence of Pierre Laval, Deputy Prime Minister of the Vichy Government, made elaborate plans for a ceremony to mark the handing over of the remains.

The crisis in Vichy and a botched plan

Abetz's plans seem to have involved a grand ceremony at which Hitler, Goering and Marshal Pétain, Head of the Vichy Government, would all be present. It was also apparently part of a plan to get Pétain to move to Paris, where he would be isolated from those who were trying to distance the Vichy regime from the German Government.
Laval was told of the decision to return the remains four days before Pétain. As soon as they found out, Pierre Laval's opponents in the Vichy Government were determined to prevent what they saw would, like the meeting with Hitler at Montoire in October, be another humiliation for Pétain and the Vichy Government.

Marshall Pétain with Adolf Hitler, Montoire Railway Station, October 1940

Despite a personal letter from Hitler, Pétain took notice of the anti-collaborationists. He declined to go to Paris and he removed Laval from office and placed him under house arrest. So on the night of 14th/15th December the Vichy Government was represented at a very low key handing over ceremony by Admiral Darlan and General Laurencie. (4)

Ambassador Abetz was furious. The great public relations event he had planned had failed, and he informed the Vichy Government that it was not to say anything about the ceremony at Les Invalides. To the press he made it clear that Pierre Laval had been one of those who had made the hand over possible. It was Laval he said, who had "created the atmosphere of collaboration" and who was "the only guarantor of that policy." Then with some totally fraudulent history, Abetz claimed Napoleon as a forerunner of Nazism and its associated movements:

He has never been closer to us, not just from a national point of view of his struggle against the reactionaries who had victimised the King of Rome, but from the European point of view since Napoleon was the one who revived the great popular movements whose modern equivalents are Italian fascism, German national socialism, Spanish nationalism that are now also influencing France.(5)

Napoleon II/Roi de Rome's Coffin, Les Invalides

Adolf Hitler sent a large wreath to Les Invalides, "From Chancellor Hitler to the Duke of Reichstadt", but nobody could find it. It had been seized and destroyed by the wife of an employee of an ex-servicemen's organisation who lived at Les Invalides.(6) This somehow symbolised the total failure of what was intended to be a propaganda coup

The coffin was placed in the Chapelle Saint-Jérôme, where Napoleon's coffin had originally been placed. 29 years later after much deliberation it was put under the ground, where it has remained so that nobody can see it. All that is now visible is a slab with the inscription "Napoleon II Roi de Rome 1811 1832"

Postscript: Hitler's Motives It is usually said that Hitler was trying to win over the French people. Georges Poisson, whose account I have followed, discredits this idea. Clearly there is no hard evidence, but Hitler had nothing but contempt for France and the French people, whom he believed to be irreparably tainted by Jews, blacks and inferior races. He was perhaps trying to associate himself with Napoleon, or maybe he was trying to rekindle French hatred of England, which may have seemed not too difficult in 1940 after the British attack on the French fleet which led to the death of 1200 French sailors.

It is unlikely though that he gave it much thought. He had in 1940 a great many other more important things on his mind: the idea had been planted in his head; it had been opposed by von Ribbentrop who was probably concerned not to upset Spain and Italy; it may just have been a spur of the moment decision, inspired by the majesty of Les Invalides. (7)
1. Georges Poisson, Hitler's Gift to France, The Return of the Remains of Napoleon II Crisis at Vichy Enigma Books, New York 2008, p. 8.
2. Poisson pp 11-12.
3. Poisson pp 12-18
4. Poisson pp 50, 52, 58-59, 90.
5. Poisson pp 91-92. Apparently the Governments of the US and UK were at this point quite pleased with what was seen as Pthe Vichy Government's stand against Hitler.
6. Poisson p 93.
7. Poisson pp 48, 121-123

Saturday, 18 January 2020

December 1940: Return of L'Aiglon Part I

Napoleon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte (1811-1832), Napoleon's only legitimate son

Napoleon's son, titled first King of Rome, then briefly Napoleon II and finally Duke of Reichstadt became known as L'Aiglon because of the play of the same name by Edmond Rostand which, with Sarah Bernhadt in the title role, captured the imagination of audiences in Paris and London in 1900.

In 1814, after Napoleon's first abdication, Marie Louise, who initially had every intention of staying loyal to Napoleon, duped by the machinations of Metternich and her father the Emperor Francis, returned with the infant prince to her home in Austria. To the disapproval of her grandmother Maria Carolina, Marie Louise never joined Napoleon on Elba, and Napoleon never again saw his son.

Renamed Franz, and retitled the Duke of Reichstadt, the young prince remained for the rest of his life a virtual prisoner in the Hapsburg Court, and because of political sensitivities his mother was not allowed to take him to Parma where she was installed as Duchess for life. (1)

Alienated from his mother whom he came to see as very weak and compared unfavourably with the Empress Josephine, he was much loved by his grandfather but prevented from any direct communication with the Bonaparte family with whom he increasingly identified.

He died of tuberculosis at the age of 21, and was buried in the Crypt of the Capuchins in Vienna, where his body remained until December 1940, the centenary of the return of Napoleon I's ashes from St. Helena.

Tomb of Napoleon II, Les Invalides.

Part II of this post will explore the strange story of the return of these ashes. For anyone who wishes to know anything more about Napoleon II's life and death, the excellent, elegant blog by Shannon Selin is highly recommended.
1. After 1815 there was in the UK much probably erroneous speculation that Austria would use his presence to leverage influence on France, and maybe to reinstate him, under a Regency on the French throne. Lord Holland speculated in the House of Lords that at some time in the future he might be placed on the French throne, supported by Austria. (The Examiner, 14 April 1816) The Leicester Chronicle 2nd Nov 1816 printed a report that Austria ultimately wanted to reinstate Napoleon or put his son on the throne. In December 1816 there were reports of a plot to put Napoleon II on the throne with Marie Louise as Regent. Cobbett Weekly Political Register 28 Dec 1816. In 1820 there were reports in a number of papers, e.g. Dublin Weekly Register, 15 April 1820 that the Austrian Government had asked for indulgence towards Napoleon and that the young Napoleon "had not been discouraged from entertaining the utmost hatred of the English."

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Churchill and Napoleon: The Desk at Chartwell

Winston Churchill's Desk at Chartwell with a bust of Napoleon in centre

I first started posting on Churchill and Napoleon in 2009, and it should be of no surprise to anyone who has read any of these posts to find a Sevres bust of Napoleon in pride of place on Winston Churchill's desk at Chartwell. Beside Napoleon is a small bust of Nelson, almost completely hidden, and to the right a statuette of Jan Smuts.

Since I wrote my first post a number of pieces have appeared elsewhere. The Director of the Churchill Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge, wrote an article in 2012 which placed Churchill's admiration of Napoleon firmly in the Whig tradition, and also attached some weight to Churchill's lifelong francophilia.(1)

More recently Andrew Roberts, a biographer of Napoleon, and more recently of Churchill also, gave a comprehensive presentation on Churchill and Napoleon to a conference on Winston Churchill at which Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, was the unfortunate choice of keynote speaker. To the delight of his audience, Roberts alluded to this at the beginning of his talk :

We have had a series of substantial scholars telling you genuine quotations and true facts about Winston Churchill and we have also had Boris Johnson.(2)

Johnson of course had just written a biography of Churchill on whom he appears to model his own career. He has since become Prime Minister. I am tempted to conclude with one of Karl Marx's oft repeated quotes, from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

1. Allen Packwood: France and the French, A Tale of Two Statesmen, Churchill and Napoleon"
2. Andrew Roberts, address to the 32nd Annual Churchill Conference, Oxfordshire England, May 2015. The section on Johnson concluded: "I think Boris's attitude towards facts is very much what one would call a la carte. His speech reminded me very much of a friend of mine on Radio Four who said the trouble with Winston Churchill is he thinks he's Boris Johnson."