Reva Craine Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

R. Craine

Books in Review

Tarlé’s Invasion of History

(May 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 4, May 1942, pp. 126–128.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 1812
by Eugene Tarlé
Oxford Press, New York. $3.50

Eugene Tarlé, considered to be the outstanding authority on the history of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, has recently added a new work to his several volumes. His latest book, which deals wholly with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, has been hailed in many quarters as a great and original contribution to the history of the war of 1812.

However, anything more than a superficial reading of the book reveals that it was written not so much as objective history as to fill the need of the Stalinist regime to rewrite all of Russian history with a new nationalist bias. If Tarlé had wished to write the history of Napoleon’s campaign of 1812, he had merely to turn to the two chapters on this episode contained in his biographical work, Bonaparte, which has all the information found in the new book. The biography is not just another story of the life of Napoleon, but a social and political history of the Napoleonic era. In it Tarlé analyzes the Russian campaign, its causes and effects, and the specific place it occupies in the general historical period. The Russian case as well as the French is presented, for Tarlé is not interested in taking sides in a war which occurred one hundred and thirty years ago – he is interested in writing a historical study.

In that book he cites interesting and irrefutable material to show that the cause of Napoleon’s defeat was primarily political, that his fear of emancipating the serfs deprived him of his best weapon against the Russian army, which, after all, was defending the interests of Russia’s ruling class. Napoleon himself recognized this mistake later when he was on St. Helena. He explained it by stating that he did not wish to let loose the elements of national revolt and thereby create a situation where there “would be no one with whom” to conclude peace.

The French and Russian Alliance

After Napoleon defeated Prussia and compelled her to sign the humiliating peace of Tilsit, a secret defensive and offensive alliance was concluded between Napoleon and Czar Alexander which obligated Russia to enforce Napoleon’s continental blockade aimed at the destruction of British power. In spite of the “gifts” granted to her in the form of Prussian Bialystok and some Austrian territory, Russia was reduced to the status of a vassal state. The nobility, however, felt itself threatened and its opposition to the Czar grew. When Napoleon failed to keep his promises to Alexander (he had promised him Turkey and also that he would remove his troops from Prussia) the latter allowed the anti-French sentiments in his court free rein. In the years that followed, English goods landed in Russia and from there made their way into Germany, Austria and Poland, practically nullifying the continental blockade decrees. In 1811 a new tariff increased the duties on imports of wines, silks and other luxury articles coming from France. Thus Napoleon was given an immediate excuse for preparing war against Russia.

This material is treated clearly and adequately in both books. The military problems and battles are also dealt with in parallel fashion. In the new book, however, “something new has been added,” for running through it like a red thread is a “national war” on the part of the Russian peasants, a phenomenon conjured up by Tarlé for the purpose of proving the historical roots of Russian patriotism and for making a thinly veiled analogy between the position of Russia of 1812 and contemporary Russia.

It is significant to note that in the biography all source and reference material is carefully listed, while this is just as carefully avoided in the new book on the invasion. The reader is referred for these to the original Russian!

For proof that the “national war” is of Tarlé’s own making one need only refer back to the biography. That his latest contentions are in direct opposition to what he wrote before does not in the least disturb him. He produces no new evidence to back up his contentions; he does not even bother to remember what he wrote previously on the so-called national war.

In both books Tarlé shows that Russian military strategy consisted of drawing the invader as far inland as possible, with the aim of stretching thin his line of communications. The scorched earth policy was also part of the strategy, but this was a policy carried out by the Russian army as a military measure. Yet by some peculiar twisting of facts, Tarlé tries to prove that the scorched earth policy was carried out by the peasant population as a defensive measure. Moreover, in the new book Tarlé endeavors to prove that the Russian people went over to offensive action against Napoleon, while this is categorically denied in the earlier book.

The Thesis of the New Book

A few examples will suffice to show this:

In the first place, Tarlé states that in 1812 Russia was fighting to preserve her economic and political independence. It was a “struggle for survival in the full sense of the word.”

“This is what gave the war its peculiarly national character and impelled the Russian people to wage it with such heroic fortitude” (page 4).

And further:

“‘The National War’ is not a mere chapter in the history of the year 1812. The entire war against the invader was from start to finish a national war. Napoleon’s strategy had counted on his own troops and Alexander’s troops, but he had to fight the Russian people, whom he had not counted. It was the hand of the Russian people that inflicted the irreparable, mortal blow” (page 269).

And now the “national war” is the guerrilla movement.

“The guerrilla movement, which began immediately after Borodino, achieved its tremendous success only through the active, voluntary and zealous assistance of the Russian peasantry. But this unquenchable hatred of the despoilers, destroyers, murderers and ravishers manifested itself, above all, in the enthusiasm with which the peasants joined the army and fought. The national character of this war was at once revealed in organized forms – in the army. In Spain, the national war assumed quite other forms, because in that country much time passed before military units could be organized. But in their indomitable hatred of the foreign ravishers and pillagers, in their thirst to give their lives for the destruction of a cruel and predatory foe, in their firm consciousness of their inner right, the Russian people was not a whit behind the Spanish people” (page 267).

And later on:

“As I have had occasion to note, the Russian national war was different from the Spanish. It was waged chiefly by peasants in army or militia uniforms. But this made it no less national” (page 346).

One might add that any war waged by the masses in army uniforms (and which modern war isn’t?) can, by this token, be considered “national.”

When news reached Moscow that the enemy was breaking all resistance and was heading straight for that city, Tarlé describes the resolution of the nobility to put up a stiff resistance, by pledging to send up to 80,000 peasant serfs into the militia.

“A national militia began to form. The morale of the people gained enormously. Not fear but anger was the dominant sentiment. Witnesses testify that in this terrible moment all classes merged in one common emotion. Better death than submission to the invading ‘ravisher!’ Peasants, lower bourgeoisie, merchants, nobility – all vied with one another in their eagerness to fight Napoleon to the death” (page 160).

Of course this does not prevent Tarlé from later saying the following about the militia:

“The militiamen demanded to be sworn in. Among the myriads of rumors going around in 1812, there was one to the effect that sworn militiamen would be emancipated from serfdom at the end of the war. More than likely this rumor was responsible for the demand to be sworn in” (page 264).

“Not the burning of Moscow and not the frosts – there was no frost until Smolensk – but the Russian peasants inflicted the most terrible blow on the Grand Army” (page 353).

And in summary, Tarlé writes:

“The popular character of the Russian war was manifested in the heroic conduct of the Russian soldiers on the battlefield, in the armed peasant attacks on the conqueror, in their successful efforts to starve him out; in Spain, the popular character of the war was manifest in independent fighting enterprises on the part of the irregular peasant masses. This required a great deal of heroism, but the results could not be as quick and considerable as they would have been if Spain had preserved a regular fighting organization. Such an organization was created in Spain only at a later stage of the struggle; in Russia it existed from the beginning to the end and could usefully exploit the surge of the national spirit” (page 409).

What the Author Wrote Before

So much for Tarlé’s proof of the “national war.” Yet, when Tarlé was writing freely, without the threat of a return to Siberia should he not bend with the political winds in Stalinist Russia, he could write as the true Marxist historian and scholar that he was:

It would not be amiss here to say something of the so-called Russian “national war” of 1812.

Never did Napoleon, or his marshals, or their companions in arms, speak of the War of 1812 as a “national” war, in the same sense that they spoke of the Spanish guerrilla war as a “national” war. Nor could they compare the two phenomena. The war in Russia lasted six months. Of these six months, the first three saw Napoleon constantly victorious as he advanced along a direct line from Kovno to Vilna to Smolensk to Moscow, interrupted by battles and petty skirmishes with the regular Russian army. There was, however, not a single mass revolt against the French – neither then nor after Napoleon’s entry into Moscow. Indeed there were occurrences of quite a contrary nature, as when the peasants of Smolensk complained to the French authorities that their master, the landowner Engelhardt, had been guilty of betraying the French. Incidentally, Engelhardt was shot by the French after this.

Following the battle of Malo-Yaroslavetz, when the frosts intensified the profound disorganization of the retreating French army, there came into being that phenomenon which contemporaries accurately described as “actions of the militia detachments” but which later came to be known as a “national war.” The heads of the militia – Figner, Davidov, Seslavin, Kudashev, Vadbolsky – were officers of the regular Russian army who had been authorized to organize detachments of volunteers (from among the soldiers of the regular army and willing newcomers). These militia detachments had instructions to harass the French army by sudden forays on its transport, on its lagging detachments and generally on those points where small “parties” (never consisting of more than several hundred men) might attack with some prospect of success. In these militia corps were to be found soldiers, Cossacks and reserves. The peasants as a group took no part in these activities. Their duties were to give topographical directions and generally to answer questions put to them by the militia chiefs. On occasion they were ordered to act as guides in localities unfamiliar to the militiamen, or to make assaults on single French soldiers lagging behind the main army.

All this transpired in the course of approximately five weeks, in October and November. Later, when the French army left the Smolensk province and entered White Russia, the peasantry, with little personal risk, captured many of the hungry, half-frozen French laggards. Most of them were immediately put to death.

This disorganized stalking by the peasantry bore little resemblance to that ruthless and indefatigable war which the Spanish people, on their own initiative, waged lor five years. This struggle had begun when Napoleon’s desire to conquer Spain was scarcely revealed, and it ended only when Napoleon finally renounced his ambition and ordered the last French soldiers to leave the Peninsula. In this conflict the Spanish peasants abandoned their villages for years at a time, organizing special detachments which attacked the French in irregular fashion and once forced an entire French army corps to surrender. They fought with such savagery that Napoleon’s men considered them demented. Saragossa had shown how cities defended themselves, and the French who had fought in Spain afterwards asserted that every village proved a miniature Saragossa.

It is clear that if the Spanish guerrilla warfare might justifiably be called a national war, it would be impossible to apply this term to any Russian movement in the War of 1812.

People began to regard even the burning of Smolensk and Moscow and the firing of villages as manifestations of “national war,” overlooking the fact that these were systematic acts of the Russian army in its retreat to Moscow. (From Bonaparte, by Tarlé, pages 302–3 – Emphasis mine – R.C.)

Why Falsification Is Necessary

How can one tally these two views of the War of 1812? It is simply that Tarlé, once in exile as an opponent of Stalinism, has made his peace with Stalin and has joined the school of falsifiers who have been consistently rewriting Russian history, both Czarist and revolutionary, with the aim of stressing the new nationalism and chauvinism. This fits in with the surrender of the socialist internationalist outlook on the part of the Soviet rulers and their complete reversion to the most vulgar “socialist” nationalism.

Tarlé ends his latest book with a warning that any contemporary invader will be met with the greatest resistance on the part of the Russian people (the book is reputed to have been written prior to the Russian involvement in the present war). Characteristically enough, in the present stage of Stalinism he finds the basis for this resistance in nothing but the old Czarist spirit of nationalism. To find historical precedent for this, Tarlé makes his own invasion of history and brings forth his “national war” of 1812.

In this way, we are given another chapter of Stalinist degeneration, for what else can the glorification of Peter the Great, the resurrection of the fighting spirit of the ancient Russian knights, the sanctification of the strong man (the dictator) and the bureaucracy which acts in behalf of the people (!) signify, but the total denigration of the October Revolution at the hands of Stalinism?

At the present time, Tarlé’s book is being utilized for the purpose of once more assuring the bourgeois allies of the Soviet Union that Stalin’s war with Hitler is similar in method and purpose to that waged by Czar Alexander against Napoleon, a war raised to “national” heights – a country fighting for national existence. But of the struggle for socialism, for the emancipation of all humanity from the yoke of imperialist and bourgeois oppression – well, the less said the better.

Reva Craine Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers’ Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 28 December 2014