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'Fouché' by Stefan Zweig

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

In a time of romantic legends, where names like Danton, Mirabeau, Lafayette and Napoleon stand on the shoulders of Universal History, a single man in the shadows overcomes them all. Joseph Fouché is an overlooked yet fundamental figure in every government from the Revolution to Louis XVIII as the scheming, two-faced advisor. A man whose beginnings as a clergy man are all the more ironic, for his truly amoral personality and inner love of treachery constitute his very being. A man who was bound to die kneeling at the guillotine for conspiring against Robespierre, and who, against all odds, turned every member of the Convention against his executioner. There have been many figures in history whose lives have shone more brightly, but few have achieved immersing themselves amongst the darkness of plotting, and the game of power to this extent.

Joseph Fouché was the sort of man to conspire with the British Government behind Napoleon’s back. On the grounds of an almost confirmed suspicion, Napoleon, in a typical bout of anger, stated that Fouché was “a traitor and should be hanged,” to which which Fouché merely replied “I do not share the opinion of your Majesty”.

He was capable of being the most radical Jacobin, ordering the murder of hundreds in Lyon, tying and killing at 10 feet’s distance by cannons filled with shrapnel, yet promptly turning to the Gironds, the moderates, when the tide swayed in their favour. Stefan Zweig’s Fouché is full of vital prose and excitement as the life of the politician is recounted. At no point does the biography become a tedious description of the facts— Zweig’s talent as a novelist makes every event gripping with vision and imagination. Even more strikingly, we feel Zweig’s vicarious enthusiasm as he narrates, and the reader’s vision of the events blends with the author’s. This makes Zweig’s Fouché a very fruitful piece of literature, though not a scholarly one. Zweig has the rare ability to capture essence, condensing and summarising entire periods like The Revolution and the Napoleonic reign, giving a broad impression of Fouche’s era. The historical element however, remains always a backdrop, giving depth to the scene without being the object of our attention; this is of course, Fouché’s pleasure and strife for power.

Zweig’s critical examination of the mind and its cravings for power makes Fouché fascinating, particularly when desires collide: Talleyrand, his arch-rival, wasteful, libertine and a brilliant improvisor, against Fouché, the austere and scheming civil servant. Zweig describes their mutual espionage, for the profit of Napoleon, as the rivals avoiding every mistake in their role.

At the very end, when Fouché is finally cast from the monarchy of Louis XVIII for his role in the king’s brother’s death 20 years prior, we too, like him, feel the power abandon us. Like an exiled and wrinkled Fouché we turn the last pages with the hope that he will be called to court once again so we may feel his machinations with elation— a little complicity comes a long way. Our thirst for power remains when the cover closes.

Jerónimo O, Year 12

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