III. CONSTELLATION AT ERFURT: SEPTEMBER 27 - OCTOBER 14, 1808

He prepared for that conference with as much care as for a war. He invited all his vassal kings and dukes to attend in regal style and with their retinues. So many of them came that Talleyrand’s printed memoirs took three pages to list them.23 Napoleon took with him not only his family but most of his generals, and he asked Talleyrand to come out of his retirement and help Champagny to formalize the negotiations and results. He instructed the Comte de Rémusat to transport to Erfurt the best actors of the Comédie-Française—including Talma—with all the apparatus needed to produce the classic tragedies of the French drama. “I wish the Emperor of Russia,” he said, “to be dazzled by the sight of my power. For there is no negotiation which it could fail to render easier.”24

He reached Erfurt on September 27, and on the 28th he rode out five miles to greet Alexander and his Russian entourage. Every arrangement was made to please the Czar, except that Napoleon left no doubt that he was host, and in a German city that had become part of the French Empire. Alexander was not deceived by the gifts and flatteries that came to him, and he too put on all the signs and forms of friendship. His resistance to Napoleon’s charms was furthered by Talleyrand, who secretly advised him to support Austria rather than France, arguing that Austria, not France, was the pivot of that European civilization which (in Talleyrand’s view) Napoleon was destroying. “France,” he said, “is civilized, but her sovereign is not.”25 Moreover, how could it be to Russia’s advantage to strengthen France? When Napoleon sought to reinforce the alliance by marrying Alexander’s sister the Grand Duchess Anna, Talleyrand counseled the Czar against agreement, and the wily Russian delayed replying to the proposal on the ground that the Czarina had charge of such affairs.26 He rewarded Talleyrand by arranging the marriage of the diplomat’s nephew to the Duchess of Dino, heiress to the duchy of Courland. Talleyrand later defended his treachery on the ground that Napoleon’s appetite for nations was bound not only to exhaust Europe with war, but to lead to the collapse and dismemberment of France; his treachery to Napoleon, he claimed, was fidelity to France.27 But henceforth his good manners left a bad odor everywhere.

During the conference the Duke of Saxe-Weimar invited his most famous subject to come to Erfurt. On September 29 Napoleon, seeing Goethe’s name on a list of new arrivals, asked the Duke to arrange a meeting with the poet-philosopher. Goethe gladly came (October 2), for he judged Napoleon as “the greatest mind the world has ever seen,”28 and he quite approved of uniting Europe under such a head. He found the Emperor at breakfast with Talleyrand, Berthier, Savary, and General Daru. Talleyrand included in hisMemoirs what he claimed to be a careful recollection of this famous colloquy. (Felix Müller, a Weimar magistrate who accompanied Goethe, gave a report only slightly different.)

“Monsieur Goethe,” said Napoleon, “I am delighted to see you…. I know that you are Germany’s leading dramatic poet.”

“Sire, you wrong our country…. Schiller, Lessing, and Wieland are surely known to Your Majesty.”

“I confess I hardly know them. However, I have read Schiller’s Thirty Years’ War. … You generally live in Weimar; it is the place where the most celebrated men of German literature meet!”

“Sire, they enjoy greater protection there; but for the present there is only one man in Weimar who is known throughout Europe; it is Wieland.”

“I should be delighted to see Monsieur Wieland.”

“If Your Majesty will allow me to ask him, I feel certain that he will come immediately.” …

“Are you an admirer of Tacitus?”

“Yes, Sire, I admire him much.”

“Well, I don’t; but we shall talk of that another time. Write to tell Monsieur Wieland to come here. I shall return his visit at Weimar, where the Duke has invited me.”29

As Goethe left the room (we are told) Napoleon remarked to Berthier and Daru, “Voilà un homme!”30

A few days later Napoleon, amid a host of notables, entertained Goethe and Wieland. Perhaps he had refreshed his recollections, for he spoke like a literary critic confident of his knowledge:

“Monsieur Wieland, we like your works very much in France. It is you who are the author of Agathon and Oberon. We call you the Voltaire of Germany.”

“Sire, the comparison would be a flattering one if it were justified. …”

“Tell me, Monsieur Wieland, why your Diogenes, your Agathon, and your Peregrinus are written in the equivocal style which mixes romance with history, and history with romance. A superior man like yourself ought to keep each style distinctly separate. … But I am afraid to say too much on this subject, because I am dealing with someone much more conversant with the matter than I am.”31

On October 5, Napoleon rode out some fifteen miles to Weimar. After a hunt at Jena, and a performance of La Mort de César in the Weimar theater, the hosts and guests attended a ball where the splendor of the surroundings and the glamour of the women made them soon forget the verses of Voltaire. Napoleon, however, withdrew to a corner, and asked for Goethe and Wieland. They brought other literati with them. Napoleon spoke, especially to Wieland, on two of his favorite subjects—history and Tacitus:

“A good tragic drama should be looked upon as the most worthy school for superior men. From a certain point of view it is above history. In the best history very little effect is produced. Man when alone is but little affected; men assembled receive the stronger and more lasting impressions.

“I assure you that the historian Tacitus, whom you are always quoting, never taught me anything. Could you find a greater, and at times more unjust, detractor of the human race? In the most simple actions he finds criminal motives; he makes emperors out as the most profound villains. … His Annals are not a history of the Empire but an abstract of the prison records of Rome. They are always dealing with accusations, convicts, and people who open their veins in their baths. … What an involved style! How obscure! … Am I not right, Monsieur Wieland? But … we are not here to speak of Tacitus. Look how well Czar Alexander dances.”32

Wieland was not overwhelmed; he defended Tacitus with both courage and courtesy. He pointed out, “Suetonius and Dio Cassius relate a much greater number of crimes than Tacitus, in a style void of energy, while nothing is more terrible than Tacitus’ pen.” And, with a bold hint to Napoleon: “By the stamp of his genius one would believe he could love only the Republic.… But when he speaks of the emperors who so happily reconciled … the Empire and liberty, one feels that the art of governing appears to him the most beautiful discovery on earth. … Sire, if it be true to say of Tacitus that tyrants are punished when he paints them, it is still more true to say that good princes are rewarded when he traces their images and presents them to future glory.”

The assembled listeners were delighted by this vigorous riposte, and Napoleon was a bit confused. “I have too strong a party to contend with, Monsieur Wieland, and you neglect none of your advantages. … I do not like to say that I am beaten; … to that I would consent with difficulty. Tomorrow I return to Erfurt, and we shall continue our discussions.”33 We have no report of that further encounter.

By October 7 most of the visitors were back in Erfurt. Napoleon urged Goethe to come and live in Paris; “there you will find a larger circle for your spirit of observation, … immense material for your poetic creations.”34 On October 14 the Emperor conferred upon Goethe and Wieland the Cross of the Legion of Honor.

Meanwhile the foreign ministers of the two Powers had drawn up an agreement renewing their alliances, and pledging mutual aid in case either of them should be attacked. Alexander was to be left free to take Wallachia and Moldavia, but not Turkey; Napoleon could proceed to Spain with the Czar’s blessing. On October 12 the document was signed. Two days later the Emperors left Erfurt; for a while they rode side by side; before they parted they embraced, and promised to meet again. (They did not.) Napoleon returned to Paris less sanguine than when he had come, but resolved to take his Grande Armée to Spain and reseat brother Joseph on his unwelcome throne.

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