Civil Employee Files of the Ministry of War
Letters Home to France

On Obsession, Genealogy and a Great Book

War

Obsession can be a deep and dark cavern into which we crawl, an emotion in which our will, normally a fairly useful aspect of our personalities, becomes crazed, over-energetic, absurdly concentrated on one point. Losing our clarity, we are dragged down and deeper into that cavern. Other of those emotions that are, at their core, pure selfishness, such as passion and desire, become distorted and subverted to obsession, until it is all that remains in our character. Like some ghastly auto-immune disease that has driven our immune systems berserk so that they destroy our health, obsession is a madness that destroys our sanity. We are blinded to all but the focus of our obsession. Worse, our perception is so distorted that we imagine that see what is not present and we fail to see what is flagrantly before us, and in our obsessive pursuit, follow the hallucination, bewitched by its imagined beauty and perfection, sometimes tripping and falling flat over the unperceived reality. In such a way can the thrill of genealogical research go a bit haywire at times, and we confess, Dear Readers, to have been in that cavern of late, avoiding all animate and inanimate diversions from our determined pursuit, aided in self-justification by the quite horrific heat wave currently toasting France.

As we hinted in our last post (written a while back now, we blush to say), we have been on the hunt for a particular employee of the Ministry of War during the Revolutionary years in France. We had found his personnel file, filled with praise and salary disputes from two hundred years ago, but we wanted more. As any genealogist will say, once we have correctly identified a person, sometimes we want to understand him or her. We want to know, for example, why an ancestor left a pretty village and embarked on an expensive and frightening journey just to struggle and die on a vast and cruel prairie or on an arid and windy stretch of Patagonia. Why did they leave? The question leads, naturally, to an exploration of the lives and worlds that they left, seeking to find the one thing, a push or a hope, a cause, a reason, that will help our minds, encased in our modernity, understand on the human emotional level, that seems not to have evolved much, who they were. In this way, genealogical research slips into historical research and in this way, our hunt for and identification of the bureaucrat took us to a remarkable book on history that, were we not somewhat obsessed, we might have found to be, as our grandmother used to say, “dry as dust” but it isn’t Dear Readers, it really is not.

War, Revolution, and the Bureaucratic State: Politics and Army Administration in France 1791-1799, by Howard G Brown, is a work of superb scholarship based on extensive archival research. It is also, thank heavens, quite easy to read. Unlike the more popular histories of the Revolutionary era, such as Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, this work studies intensely a single aspect of the complete societal inversion that was the Revolution, in this case, the struggle between one part of governmental administration, the Ministry of War, and the flailing, shifting, central authority for control of the French Army, itself in no great state of order. We stumbled upon this book because the name of our man of interest appears a couple of times in the text, and so it appeared in an Internet search via Google, (that disturbingly dangerous and excessive stimulant to obsessive research). Happy discovery.

Dr. Brown explains the background of the Ministry of War just before the Revolution and how there had already been efforts to reform it as well as the development of the central government through its various stages after the Revolution. He gives a rather thrilling account of how the sans-culottes, the extremists of Revolutionary thought in Paris, took over and dominated the Ministry of War, making it a rival to the government for power. As one might imagine, control of the Army at such a time was crucial. He explains clearly how the revolutionaries’ abolition of royal power and creation of legislative and executive powers that were separated gave the Ministry of War an opportunity to reinvent itself with “considerable independence”. The tension between the Ministry and the successive executive arms of government was extraordinary and Dr. Brown conveys it with style and clarity. This was a power struggle largely hidden from public view, which was, naturally, directed toward the guillotine or the War in the Vendée, or the invasions by foreign armies. It is astonishing to read of how the Ministry of War, during the sans-culottes phase, was more radically revolutionary than many parts of the revolutionary government. Through numerous purges and restructuring of the Ministry, the executive acquired and consolidated control of the Ministry and the Army. Then came Napoleon.

We have lived in this beautiful country of France for over fifteen years now and have exulted in its history and culture, yet we remain flummoxed by the strange French mentality that is permeated with bureaucracy. Reading this book, we have begun to apprehend how bureaucracy became the tool to control the masses, how paperwork, certificates of proof, stamps of authority, duplicates, triplicates, deadlines for submissions, and all the other bureaucratic requirements became the boulder with which to crush the violent impulse out of each and every individual. Yet, as Dr. Brown makes clear, this was not exactly the intention: “While the state élite was aware of the importance of ensuring good administration to increase legitimacy, it never openly embraced bureaucratization…as a means of stabilizing the exercise of state power.”

Many have pointed out that France’s Revolution prefigured the Russian Revolution. Perhaps France prefigures more. Some see France’s indifference to and immunity from the way in which the rest of the world’s ethics and mores are defined and daily redefined by the masses’ surges and swells of opinion swirling about the Internet as backwardness, but it could be the opposite. It may be that we will all become exhausted by the incessant change and power of popular opinion and opt for the French solution of attaining stability through bureaucracy. It may be that Vladimir Putin’s recent comment that liberalism is obsolete and populism (those surges and swells of opinion) is now what governs us omitted the third and final stage, which is that, since the chaos of populism will inevitably lead a society to a desire for political and social stability, and since France has shown how very stabilizing bureaucracy can be, a (now, technologically enhanced) bureaucracy is our future.

One learns so much from genealogy.

 

War, Revolution, and the Bureaucratic State: Politics and Army Administration in France, 1791–1799

Howard G. Brown

Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1995

 

©2019 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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