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post #1 of 4 (permalink) Old 04-07-2007, 01:42 PM Thread Starter
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The model diplomat

The model politician from the country that personifies diplomatic nuance.



Talleyrand: the old fraud

By Andrew Roberts

Charles-Maurice, Prince de Talleyrand-Périgord, has been very well served by biographers. Alfred Duff Cooper’s 1932 life of the long-serving French politician and diplomat is an ornament of English letters, and since then four other impressive works have been written on the same subject. Like his distinguished predecessors, Robin Harris admires his subject and has no hesitation in hailing Talleyrand as a progressive statesman.[1] Fortunately, however, he also gives the reader plenty of evidence to support a radically different view, that Talleyrand was in fact one of the most revolting human beings to have besmirched the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Written with immense scholarship, captivating wit, and a natural feel for European politics in the turbulent half-century between Louis XV and Louis-Philippe, Harris has subtitled his book “Betrayer and Saviour of France.” The first part of the epithet is undeniable—Talleyrand comprehensively betrayed every monarch and government he ever swore to serve—but it is left unproven that Talleyrand ever really saved France. What he did do on every conceivable occasion was to offer French foreign policy to the highest foreign bidder, although in his defense it might be argued that he rarely delivered. As Harris admits, his hero practiced “venality on a scale that made even venal contemporaries blush.”

Yet Talleyrand was forgiven by regime after regime. His own explanation why his various lies and crimes never seemed to be held against him was “the frivolity of the French,” which might indeed have been a reason. He was constantly forgiven, and allowed to betray another day, because of his supposedly attractive personality. Yet as this book allows the reader to discern between the lines, for all his (well-rehearsed and carefully arranged) bon mots, Talleyrand was an extremely nasty piece of work.

One also wonders quite how many witticisms—the nineteenth century equivalent of sound-bites—were genuinely made by him, since he was one of those people to whom good jokes were accredited, like Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill later on. Moreover, Talleyrand delighted in puns, which must rival even sarcasm as the lowest form of wit.

Although Talleyrand came from a noble family, it was nothing like so grand or ancient as he subsequently claimed. Born with a severely deformed right foot, Talleyrand was disinherited by his parents in favor of a younger brother, and went into the church rather than the army. He hated his parents both for that and for being constantly short of cash. Like Byron and Goebbels, who were also club-footed, Talleyrand developed a meretricious personal charm to compensate, which went down particularly well with women. Whenever he got into serious scrapes, Talleyrand would mobilize his female friends to help him, although he rarely reciprocated.

Given the choice between telling the truth or dissimulating, he would dissimulate, even though it brought him no appreciable benefits. (He claimed, for example, that his feet had been deformed in an accident.) Robin Harris has been hard put to eke out the truth from the multilayered lies Talleyrand told about himself, but has triumphantly succeeded.

It was as a Catholic priest that Talleyrand discovered the joys of sex, boasting at his seminary about his inseminations. We cannot be sure about the exact number of his illegitimate children, as he failed to acknowledge some but not others. Later in life he made a mistress out of his nephew’s wife.

The contradictions of Talleyrand’s life—the libertine priest, social-climbing aristocrat, bibliophile who sold his library three times, bishop who equipped a privateer, excommunicant who was given the Last Rites—are so wildly improbable as to make Talleyrand’s career vividly colorful. (Which is why the publishers of this book should not have reproduced the magnificently colorful paintings by Prud’hon, David, Vigée-Lebrun, and Gillray in boring black-and-white throughout.)

It was Talleyrand’s uncle, the archbishop of Rheims, who got him into the priesthood, even though by then the ordinand was most probably atheist. Nepotism also won him the job of Agent-General of the Catholic Church after 1780, sworn to defend ecclesiastical privilege. (It was the first of very many causes he was to betray.) Owing to a fortunate series of episcopal deaths, he was appointed Bishop of Autun in January 1789 by Louis XVI, to whom he had sworn allegiance at his coronation (and the subject of his second betrayal).

During the Revolution six months later, Talleyrand started his lifelong policy of staying in close secret touch with all sides. He joined the moderate revolutionaries, but he also wrote the speech that the King delivered to the National Assembly the day after the Bastille fell. In October 1789 he proposed the confiscation of church property, but the following July he officiated at a Mass in front of half a million people to celebrate the anniversary of the Bastille’s fall. That very evening he broke the bank in not one but two casinos, at least according to his own notoriously unreliable memoirs.

In May 1791 Talleyrand wrote to the King of his “zeal” for the royal cause, but in August 1792 he drafted the government’s proclamation of a republic. The onset of the Terror saw him leave for London, and so he kept his head while all those around him were losing theirs. He did not denounce the Revolution, however, until the authorities formally listed him as an émigré. While in Britain, he wrote that the French should “never have the ridiculous pretension to be masters in another’s domain,” and presented himself as a man of peace.

The British—especially William Pitt the Younger and George III—had no difficulty in seeing through Talleyrand’s gross, flattery-based charm and expelled him in February 1794, whereupon he went to New York and Philadelphia, befriending fellow-exiles such as Henri-François Blacons. After the fall of Robespierre, Talleyrand was allowed home. (He later claimed not to have solicited his recall, which in fact he had.) When Blacons, who also returned, found himself poverty-stricken and in debt, he begged Talleyrand for a place in the French foreign ministry which by then was in his old friend’s gift. Talleyrand failed even to reply to the letter; when told of his friend’s subsequent suicide, the great wit merely yawned and murmured “Poor Blacons.”

In order to get himself appointed foreign minister under the Directory, Talleyrand mobilized women like Madame de Staël. Despite having promoted Anglo-French peace and reconciliation whilst in exile in London, he now parroted the Directory’s line by advocating war with Britain and the execution of royalist plotters. “We’ve a position!” he told his friend Benjamin Constant, squeezing his knee in excitement when the good news came through. “We must make an immense fortune, an immense fortune, an immense fortune!”

More at: The New Criterion — Talleyrand: the old fraud
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post #2 of 4 (permalink) Old 04-07-2007, 01:49 PM
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I was sure this would be about Sam Fox...

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post #3 of 4 (permalink) Old 04-07-2007, 02:29 PM
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Originally Posted by GermanStar
I was sure this would be about Sam Fox...
Me too, or Michael Moore . . . figured that GW was gonna tee him up as ambassador to Nigeria just to placate everyone.

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post #4 of 4 (permalink) Old 04-07-2007, 02:30 PM Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by edfreeman
Me too, or Michael Moore . . . figured that GW was gonna tee him up as ambassador to Nigeria just to placate everyone.
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