History Today Subscription offer.

Fouché, Part I: Before Bonaparte 1759-1799

Former terrorist, responsible for some of the bloodiest excesses of the Revolution, Joseph Fouché, thanks to his intellect, his ruthlessness, his political flair and his unequalled “knowledge of men and circumstances,” lived on to play an important role under both Napoleon I and Louis XVIII. By Harold Kurtz.

Power, real, decisive, political power concentrated in the hands of a police official is a subject of wide and complex implications. The very substantial positions of power that Joseph Fouché, Duke of Otranto, created for himself in the quarter of a century between 1789 and 1815 were to an astonishing degree due to his outstanding gifts of intellect and character, to a coldly precise insight into circumstances and the nature of men, rather than to a merely opportunist exploitation of them.

He was a political arithmetician of genius. In the changing climate of The Times he survived as Minister of the General Police by boldly bringing into play his no less outstanding talents for mystification and dissimulation, by his dexterity, his ruthlessness, his flair.

This formidable man possessed the physical appearance of the albino, looked quite unexpectedly sickly, thin-lipped and subdued, a circumstance that, together with his life-long preference for wearing black, gave people the coldest shivers of fear at the mere mention of his name. Mme. de Peyronnet told John St. Loe Strachey in the 1880’s that, as a young woman during the Restoration, she went to the play one evening:

“and suddenly I saw a great deal of commotion. People were standing up and looking about them, and talking eagerly. This commotion, I soon saw, was caused by an old man with white hair who was making his way through the crowds in the stalls. As he moved, there ran through the house the excited whisper: ‘It’s the Duke of Otranto.’”

To read this article in full you need to be either a print + archive subscriber, or else have purchased access to the online archive.

If you are already a subscriber, please ensure you are logged in. 

Buy Subscription | Buy Online Access | Log In

If you are logged in and still cannot read the article, please email digital@historytoday.com.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week
X