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The last "War in Lace" or the first "Total War"?

Reading the articles by Nikolai Promyslov and Victor Taki made me think of an heirloom from my grandparents, an old three-mark coin from imperial Germany. One side shows King Frederick William III of Prussia surrounded by his people, beneath the famous patriotic verse: "Der Konig rief, und alle, alle kamen" (The king called, and everyone came). On the other side, we see the Prussian eagle crushing the snake of Napoleonic tyranny. The coin was issued in 1913 to mark the centennial of the War of Liberation. We all know what happened a year later.

With hindsight, 1914 appears to us as the beginning of an era of uniquely modern calamities, but at the time many saw the new war as the latest in a chain of earlier conflicts that stretched back to Napoleon. "With the declaration of war," an American author wrote in 1914, "the world turned back to Trafalgar, to Waterloo, to Koniggratz, to the Franco-Prussian War.... The names are a little different, the battlefields a few miles apart, but the same principles are there." (1) The French and the Germans picked up where they had left off in 1870-71, when Germany had taken revenge on Napoleon III for the evils of Napoleon I. The British, by contrast, viewed Wilhelm II as the second coming of Napoleon. As for the Russians, who had just recently celebrated the anniversary of the "Patriotic War" of 1812, they dubbed the new conflict the "Second Patriotic War."

Our current transition from the bicentennials of 1789-1815 to the centennials of 1914-45 offers an opportunity to ask what the events of 200 years ago may have meant for Russia's entry into the modern age. Were the Napoleonic Wars, to borrow the title of David Bell's book, "the first total war," an anticipation of Verdun and Stalingrad? (2) Or was this the last of what the French call les guerres en dentelles, "the wars in lace," fought by aristocrats in lace-trimmed uniforms whose decorum on the battlefield matched their gallantry with the ladies? Last, did the wars influence Russia's domestic history by inflecting educated society's experience of what Norbert Elias called the "civilizing process"? (3) The articles by Taki and Promyslov offer a wealth of material for reflection on these questions.

Looking Ahead to 1914?

Taki and Promyslov provide considerable food for thought about parallels between the Franco-Russian conflict of 1812-14 and the two world wars of the 20th century. At times, the two articles bring to mind the analysis of World War I in Modris Eksteins's Rites of Spring. Eksteins argues that Germans and Britons supported war in 1914 out of fundamentally different motivations: the Germans went to war in search of spiritual experience, while the British fought to defend a rules-based order of society. (4) Both of these tendencies are discernable in Russia's war against Napoleon.

In both articles we find a conception of war as an ineffable experience of the individual spirit, not unlike that which Eksteins attributes to the Germans. Taki argues that some Russians aestheticized the spectacle of battle and death by rendering it "sublime"--a term that described "any awe-inspiring yet delightful sight, object, or phenomenon that challenged the representative capacities of language and art by virtue of its incommensurability with the viewer" (271). Promyslov detects a similar pattern in French memoirs, which portrayed the French army as "seriously wounded at Borodino, subjected to inhuman suffering, yet managing all the same to tear itself from the clutches of death" (262). Combat, in this view, was an end in itself and provided its own justification.

The attitude that Eksteins attributes to the British--the desire to uphold a conservative sense of order in both individual behavior and international relations--is also present in the two articles, although to a lesser degree. Taki argues that Russian officers were determined to uphold the traditional conventions of war to show Europeans that Russians were civilized people. Promyslov notes that the French army's efforts to combat Russian irregular forces were stymied by its own commitment to "notions of civilized rules of war" (253).

Another connection between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I concerns their outcome. The latter gave rise, particularly in the United States, to the aspiration to replace an international system based on competitive great powers with one based on global institutions. The two articles do not mention it, but this too was prefigured in Russia's war against Napoleon. Alexander Is Holy Alliance aimed to replace the great-power rivalries of the 18th century with a system built on Christian brotherhood, and the occupation of France from 1815 to 1818 was an unprecedented attempt to use military occupation not to punish a defeated power but rather to ensure implementation of a peace treaty and thus bring the defeated enemy back into the international system. (5)

Beyond these conceptions of the war's larger purpose, one is struck, reading the two articles, by the similarities between the attitudes that prevailed in 1812-14 and those that characterized the Eastern Front in the two world wars. In all three cases, Russia appeared to European combatants as appallingly poor and alien. In World War I, according to Vejas Liulevicius, German soldiers found Russia a shockingly barbaric place--poor, squalid, sparsely settled, inhabited by a bewildering diversity of peoples, and devastated by the callous scorched-earth policy of its own retreating army. (6) On the German home front, Russian prisoners of war were exhibited to the civilian population as living proof of Russia's cultural and racial inferiority. (7) All these themes reappeared, of course, greatly intensified, in World War II. Promyslov finds similar attitudes in French accounts of 1812: the French were appalled at the Russians' scorched-earth tactics and their cruelty toward prisoners, and they made special note of the Asian ethnic elements in Russia's population. They were persuaded that the Russians could never defeat them in honorable, civilized combat, and that their own principal enemy was the savage land itself, with its monstrous distances and inhuman cold (247-50).

To make sense of war in such an alien environment, the invaders invoked visions of civilizational conflict and heroic precedents from remote centuries. Napoleon's propaganda from the outset "represent [ed] the incipient war as a battle of civilizations" in which "enlightened Europe, led by France, battled barbaric Russia" (257); it is hard not to see parallels to German propaganda in World War II. Hitler named his invasion after Frederick Barbarossa; Napoleon's men, so Promyslov writes, styled themselves as descendants of the Roman legions (259).

The Russians, too, exhibited attitudes that remained constant across the three wars. Taki argues that many Russian officers internalized a humanistic cosmopolitanism that they regarded as "European"; hence they felt dismayed and embarrassed at "Asiatic" behavior by their own troops, but by the same token they considered that they, not the uncivilized army of Napoleon, were the true bearers of European enlightened ideals (267-68, 273, 279, 290). Similar attitudes can be found in Russian and Soviet propaganda in both world wars and among Soviet officers in World War II. (8)

The Last "War in Lace"?

It would be a mistake, however, to dwell one-sidedly on the "modern" dimension of the war between Russia and Napoleonic France. The war also had features--ones receiving less attention from Taki and (especially) Promyslov--that recall a war of the 18th century.

First of all, 1812 was in some ways an old-fashioned guerre de cabinet, in the sense of a war fought for narrow state or dynastic interests. France and Russia were strategic competitors in Central Europe, and Napoleon wanted to force Alexander I to uphold the Continental System against Great Britain. Furthermore, Napoleon felt insulted when Alexander refused to let him marry his sister, and the Russians were miffed when Napoleon promptly married a Habsburg princess instead. To the extent that factors like these contributed to the outbreak of the war, one should not overstate the war's ideological or civilizational character.

It was also a war in which both sides, including the French (a point little developed by Promyslov), made efforts to uphold old-fashioned standards of gentlemanly conduct. Before entering Moscow, Napoleon waited patiently for a delegation of "boyars" to present him with the keys to the city. Once the city was occupied, Napoleon's troops engaged in wanton looting, but the officers tried to maintain order; at a minimum, they were generally polite to civilians. A German merchant named Johannes Ambrosius Rosenstrauch, who remained in Moscow during the occupation, later recalled a scene in which a civilian woman complained to a passing French cavalry officer about abuses by French troops: "With a very friendly face and with French courtesy, the staff officer called out to her: 'Madame, yesterday 80,000 French children marched into this city, and you will easily understand that among so many, there must also be children who are ill-behaved. Don't be sad--this is what happens in war.' Then he blew her a kiss and rode on." (9)

Promyslov is right that the wartime French image of Russia "was based on stereotypes--both positive and negative--that had emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries" (261). He stresses the derogatory aspects of these stereotypes, but this point should not be overstated. Consider Russia's reputation for cold weather. According to Montesquieu, the cold stunted the mind and body and thus hampered Russia's civilizational progress, but as I have argued elsewhere, other observers believed that cold weather was actually a boon because it suppressed disease-carrying miasmas. (10) The cliche that Moscow was "Asiatic" was also not exclusively negative, since it could convey a sense of refinement and opulent luxury. It was further a trope of Western travel writing that Orthodox Russians were overly ritualistic and lacking in religious education, but this was sometimes treated as evidence of a naive piety. (11) These kinds of stereotypes represented Russia as alien, but not necessarily as a place that was defective in its physical and moral essence.

One of the problems that the French confronted was, in fact, that Russia was more foreign than they imagined. For example, they had trouble understanding how European institutions operated in the Russian context. This is evident from the story that Rosenstrauch heard from the French staff officers about Napoleon's plans at the outset of the campaign:
   Firstly, Napoleon supposedly wrote personally to the late Emperor
   Alexander: the emperor should come over to him, Napoleon, and he
   would then escort him to Russia with his army and make him autocrat
   of all the Russias, not only in name but in reality, and free him
   from the tyranny of the Senate and the Synod, which left to the
   emperor only the name but not the power of an autocrat. When this
   plan of Napoleon's failed ... he devised, secondly, the plan to
   arouse the nobility in order to give Russia a constitution with a
   parliament and chambers. And when this plan, too, foundered ... he
   wanted, thirdly, to excite the mass of the people to revolt and, as
   he called it, make them free. (12)

This bizarre tale, told by officers with frequent access to Napoleon's headquarters, suggests that the French knew little about Russia and relied instead on vague and misleading stereotypes. According to these cliches, Russia was a backward and alien country, but at the same time it was a conventional European state with basically familiar sociopolitical structures.

The "Civilizing Process"

Whereas Promyslov's article situates 1812 in the history of European perceptions of Russia, Taki helps us see the war in the wider context of Russia's internal modernization. The late 18th to mid-19th centuries were, as is well known, a crucial formative period when Russia overcame its earlier imitativeness vis-a-vis the aristocratic culture of ancien regime Europe and developed a distinctive identity that allowed it to play a leading role in the development of modern European culture. A coherent sense of "Russianness" was constructed in domains that ranged from literature and historiography to cooking and the visual arts. An important dimension of this process was the emergence of social groups that internalized a modern sense of individuality, society, and nationhood. Scholars have sought the origin of these groups in a variety of sources, including the nobility, the clergy, and provincial townspeople. (13) Taki's article, which brings to mind Iurii Mikhailovich Lotman's famous essay on "The Decembrist in Everyday Life," draws our attention to the officer corps of the Napoleonic era as a seedbed for this emerging culture. (14)

Taki's discussion of what he calls the "military intelligentsia" suggests a connection with Norbert Elias's notion of the "civilizing process." In Elias's view, the modernization of Western life progressively instilled in people a rising level of emotional and physical self-restraint, a low threshold of repugnance, and a style of reasoning that encouraged the analysis of complex chains of causation. (15) Taki's article suggests that Russian officers in the Napoleonic Wars exhibited, or had newly acquired, all these features. Heightened self-control was taught by 18th-century military art, which transformed "soldierly bodies into automata obeying the commands of their officers" (267) and imposed "moral restraint ... to tame the active violence contained within the fighting soldier himself" (272). The lowering of the threshold of repugnance is apparent in the Russians' revulsion at the mutilation of corpses by Ottoman soldiers. Their interest in analyzing complex chains of causation is illustrated by the fact that for the first time, a significant number of them wrote memoirs (263).

A corollary to the "civilizing process" was a tendency to consider those who seemed not have participated in it as physically repulsive and intellectually or morally stunted. This is the lens through which the ruling classes of Great Britain and France viewed their countries' urban masses (especially in the first half of the 19th century) and their colonial subjects. (16) As Promyslov notes, such attitudes also resonated in French accounts of the Russian campaign. To his analysis one might add that the invaders' contempt extended not only to Russia proper but also to the Polish and Lithuanian lands that they traversed as they marched eastward, and to Jews in particular, in ways that ominously anticipate the 20th century. General de Fezensac, for example, wrote: "In Prussia, everything indicated ease and civilization; the houses were well built; the fields were well cultivated. As soon as we had entered Poland, nothing met our eyes but slavery and misery, brutalized peasants and Jews; a country scarcely cultivated, and cabins more filthy than their occupants." (17) Eugene Labaume echoed this observation and added that the Jews were "dirty and disgusting. (18) General de Segur recalled the Jews' "base passion for lucre," their "malicious and perfidious smile"--"everything about them bespeaks a degraded people. They seem to have conquered Poland, where they swarm, and the whole substance of which they extract." (19)

Taki's article suggests that Russia's "military intelligentsia" shared this disdain for the uncivilized, but with a twist. One of his central points is that Russian officers were committed to upholding the rules of "civilized" warfare because they did not want to be labeled in the West as uncivilized Asiatics. Both articles show that this was an uphill struggle. As we see in Promyslov's article, the realities of 1812--the mass flight of Russian civilians, the irregular warfare of the Cossacks and peasants, the immense and featureless terrain, the cold winter, the firestorm of Moscow--were incompatible with the conventions of "war in lace," and this allowed French writers to construct a narrative of Russian barbarism on the basis both of old anti-Russian cliches and of newer, quasi-colonialist stereotypes that came out of France's counterinsurgency wars in the Vendee and Spain (253).

Russian officers, too, wrestled with these problems. In addition to their efforts to uphold the laws of war, Taki rightly highlights two further Russian responses. One was the attempt to attenuate retrospectively the horrors of the war by adopting a "moralizing, aestheticizing, or ridiculing discourse" when describing the events of 1812 (287). The other was the Orientalist discourse that they employed to characterize the Ottomans as barbarians, thereby allowing the Russians to appear as exemplars of enlightened Europeanness. Both of these points deserve further comment.

On the first point, it seems to me that educated Russians sometimes coped with the traumatic memory of 1812 by actually embracing--but also reversing the moral polarity of--the very elements that Europeans considered barbaric. Wartime caricatures by professional Russian artists portrayed armed peasants, not the regular Russian army, as embodiments of the Russian nation, but they also endowed those peasants with the svelte figures that were typically attributed to nobles. Russian intellectuals after the war accepted that Russia's landscape was indeed bleak and monotonous, but they treated this very absence of external beauty as proof of Russia's unique inner spiritual greatness. (20) French soldiers, as Promyslov notes, found Russian rye bread repulsive (245), and Western medical science declared rye nutritionally inferior to wheat, but postwar Russian dieticians defiantly proclaimed rye's superiority. (21) Russia's brutal winters likewise inspired pride; thus Nicholas I said during the Crimean War that his most reliable military commanders were "Generals January and February." (22) The burning of Moscow was widely portrayed not as an act of barbarism but as a gesture of heroic national self-sacrifice. All these ideas form the context that gave rise to Lev Tolstoi's War and Peace, which more than any other single text articulated the linkage between the 1812 war and a Russian national identity that was built on self-conscious opposition to Europe.

It is in this context that Taki's argument about Russia and the Ottomans acquires its full interest and significance. Fedor Dostoevskii famously remarked that Russians would only become true Europeans and achieve acceptance as equals in Europe, if they imposed their will on the peoples of the East: "In Europe we are Tatars," he wrote, "but in Asia we too are Europeans," (23) Taki's discussion of Russian views of Ottoman warfare neatly illustrates this attitude. By criticizing the Ottomans as Asiatic barbarians, the Russians affirmed their own right to membership in the community of enlightened Europeans, a right that Napoleon and his apologists denied them. Taki's own earlier work made a similar point by placing Nicholas Is attempt to establish a "well-ordered police state" in the Danubian principalities in the context of a Russian Orientalizing discourse about the Ottoman Empire. (24) Likewise, Will Smiley has recently argued that Russia in the period 1739-1830 exerted great pressure to force the Ottoman Empire to accept European rules regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. (25)

Were the Napoleonic Wars, then, either the last "war in lace" or the "first total war"? And did they inflect the "civilizing process" among the Russian educated classes? The ultimate answer to those questions is, of course, interesting, but the reflections prompted by asking them are perhaps even more so. We can be grateful to Nikolai Promyslov and Victor Taki for their stimulating contributions to these profound and fascinating questions.

Dept. of Elistory

219 O'Shaughnessy Hall

University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame, IN 46556 USA

(1) Arthur Page, ed., The "World's Work" War Manual of the Great Conflict of 1914 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page, 1914), 1.

(2) David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).

(3) Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).

(4) Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (New York: Mariner Books, 2000), 92, 128-31.

(5) This is the theme of Christine Haynes's ongoing book project, "'Our Friends, the Enemies': The First Allied Occupation of France (1815-1818)."

(6) Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, The German Myth of the East: 1800 to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 135-36.

(7) Oxana Nagornaja, "United by Barbed Wire: Russian POWs in Germany, National Stereotypes, and International Relations, 1914-22," trans. Jeffrey Mankoff, Kritika 10, 3 (2009): 475-98.

(8) Katerina Clark, "Ehrenburg and Grossman: Two Cosmopolitan Jewish Writers Reflect on Nazi Germany at War," Kritika 10, 3 (2009): 607-28; Oleg Budnitskii, "The Intelligentsia Meets the Enemy: Educated Soviet Officers in Defeated Germany, 1945, trans. Susan Rupp, Kritika 10, 3 (2009): 629-82.

(9) Rosenstrauch's hitherto unpublished memoir will appear, both in the German original and in Russian translation, in I. A. Rozenshtraukh, Istoricheskie sobytiia v Moskve 1812 goda vo vremia prisutstviia v sem gorode nepriiatelia (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, forthcoming).

(10) Alexander M. Martin, Enlightened Metropolis: Constructing Imperial Moscow, 1763-1855 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 41, 107.

(11) For an early example of this interpretation, see The Moscovia of Antonio Possevino, S.J., trans. and ed. Hugh Graham (Pittsburgh: University Center for International Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 1977), 56, 61.

(12) Rozenshtraukh, Istoricheskie sobytiia.

(13) Marc RaefF, Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia: The Eighteenth-Century Nobility (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1966); Laurie Manchester, Holy Fathers, Secular Sons: Clergy, Intelligentsia, and the Modern Self in Revolutionary Russia (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008); A. I. Kupriianov, Gorodskaia kul'tura russkoi provintsii: Konets XVIII-pervaia polovina XIX veka (Moscow: Novyi khronograf, 2007).

(14) "Dekabrist v povsednevnoi zhizni," in Iu. M. Lotman, Besedy o russkoi kul 'ture: Byt i traditsii russkogo dvorianstva (XVIII-nachaloXIX veka) (St. Petersburg: Iskusstvo-SPB, 1994).

(15) Elias, The Civilizing Process, 370.

(16) See, e.g., Andrew Lees, Cities Perceived: Urban Society in European and American Thought, 1820-1940 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 20-39, 69-76.

(17) Raymond Emery Philippe Joseph de Montesquieu, due de Fezensac, A Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812, trans. W. Knollys (London: Parker, Furnivall, and Parker, 1852), 7-8.

(18) Eugene Labaume, Relation circonstanciee de la campagne de Russie en 1812, 4th ed. (Paris: C. L. F. Panckoucke, Magimel, 1815), 20.

(19) Philippe-Paul, comte de Segur, History of the Expedition to Russia, Undertaken by the Emperor Napoleon in the Year 1812, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1872), 1:186.

(20) Elena Vishlenkova, Vizml'noe narodovedenie imperii, ili "Uvidet' russkogo dano ne kazhdomu" (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011), 190-95; Christopher Ely, This Meager Nature: Landscape and National Identity in Imperial Russia (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002), 163-64.

(21) Alison K. Smith, Recipes for Russia: Food and Nationhood under the Tsars (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008), 64.

(22) Orlando Figes, The Crimean War: A History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), 255.

(23) Mark Bassin, "Asia," in The Cambridge Companion to Modern Russian Culture, ed. Nicholas Rzhevsky, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 83.

(24) Victor Taki, "Russia on the Danube: Imperial Expansion and Political Reform in Moldavia and Wallachia, 1812-1834" (Ph.D. diss., Central European University, 2007).

(25) Will Smiley, When Peace Is Made, You Will Again Be Free': Islamic and Treaty Law, Black Sea Conflict, and the Emergence of'Prisoners of War' in the Ottoman Empire, 1739-1830" (Ph.D. diss., Cambridge University, 2012).
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Title Annotation:Reaction
Author:Martin, Alexander M.
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Date:Mar 22, 2014
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