Napoleon’s Cursed War: Popular Resistance in the Spanish Peninsular War 
by Ronald Fraser.
Verso, 587 pp., £29.99, April 2008, 978 1 84467 082 6
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In March 1962, the German far-right intellectual Carl Schmitt visited Spain. It was a homecoming of sorts, for while Germany now shunned this brilliant jurist, who had given enthusiastic support to the Nazis, the land of Franco still revered him (he spoke fluent Spanish, and his daughter was married to a prominent Franquista). Schmitt was there to give lectures at Pamplona and Saragossa in connection with something apparently remote: the 150th anniversary of Spain’s 1808-14 War of Independence against Napoleon. But he insisted on the continuing relevance of this struggle by Spanish and British forces to expel French invaders from Spanish soil: the War of Independence, he declared, marked the beginning of a key form of modern warfare – ‘guerrilla’ or ‘partisan’ war, in which combatants refuse to recognise each other’s legitimacy, fight without restraint, and finally achieve a condition of pure conflict that Schmitt called ‘absolute enmity’. His Theory of the Partisan (the title under which the lectures appeared in print) formed a corollary to his ‘concept of the political’, in which politics itself ultimately reduces to the stark dichotomy of friend and foe. Schmitt traced a line from Spain to later guerrilla movements, including Mao’s peasant insurgency in China and the resistance of France’s right-wing OAS terrorists to Algerian independence.

Schmitt was not alone in seeing Spain’s War of Independence as a turning point in modern history. As historians of the subject rarely fail to point out, the word ‘guerrilla’ first came into common usage during the conflict. The Spanish uprising, they add, became the rallying cry and model for much subsequent resistance to Napoleon, while the emperor himself blamed the ‘Spanish ulcer’ for his defeat. They generally see the intense patriotism of Spanish writers and preachers of the period as a harbinger of contemporary nationalism. And they find ample support for their ideas in Spanish popular culture, which has long treated the war as a quasi-miraculous crusade by the entire nation to drive out corrupt foreign intruders.

Until 1808, Spain had served as Napoleon’s subservient ally, and in 1807 even allowed French troops to cross its territory to conquer (temporarily) the British client state of Portugal. But Napoleon, then at the height of his power, had little but scorn for a country he considered priest-ridden and decadent, and for its spectacularly dysfunctional ruling family (King Carlos IV was mentally unstable; real power lay with the royal favourite Manuel Godoy, Queen Maria Luisa’s lover; the heir to the throne Fernando plotted against them all). In May 1808, Napoleon summoned the king and his rebellious heir to Bayonne, where he forced them both to abdicate in favour of his own brother Joseph. He counted on his troops already in the Peninsula to enforce the transition, but faced insurrections in numerous cities and towns. In Madrid, the French army restored order with the savage repression that Goya captured in his brilliant tableaux of the Dos de Mayo and Tres de Mayo. But the Spanish scored an unexpected victory at Bailén in the summer, pushing the French back towards the Pyrenees.

Napoleon himself then took command of a full-fledged French invasion, which put Joseph Bonaparte back on the throne in Madrid and drove a British expeditionary force to a humiliating seaborne evacuation from Galicia. The ghastly French sieges of Saragossa ended with some of the worst urban combat seen in Europe before the 20th century, and as many as fifty thousand dead. After three more years of fighting, Bonapartist rule extended, in theory, over almost all of Spain. Yet guerrilla bands under chieftains with colourful nicknames like ‘The Potter’, ‘The Priest’ and ‘The Stick in the Mud’ (El Empecinado) made large stretches of the countryside ungovernable, forcing the French to travel in armed convoys and to employ increasingly brutal methods of counterinsurgency. At one point, a French general and the leader of one of the largest guerrilla bands both vowed to execute four of the enemy for each of their own men taken prisoner and shot. Accounts of atrocities on both sides fill many volumes. But despite sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the Peninsula, Napoleon never managed entirely to subdue the guerrillas, and British forces under Sir Arthur Wellesley (who became Lord Wellington thanks to his Spanish successes) continued to defy the French from their base in Portugal. Finally, as Napoleon withdrew his troops from the Spanish disaster to feed the even greater disaster in Russia, Joseph Bonaparte’s regime collapsed, and the French fled back across the mountains.

The epochal nature of this war was long taken for granted by most Europeans, and right and left both claimed the Spanish resistance for their own. Conservatives praised its supposedly religious, traditional character in face of the revolutionary, anti-clerical French, and depicted it as the forerunner to later right-wing mass movements – in Schmitt’s words, it was the ancestor of Franco’s ‘war of national liberation against international communism’. The left, meanwhile, preferred to dwell on the progressive, egalitarian sentiments that helped inspire the anti-Bonapartist but liberal 1812 Constitution of Cádiz. Left-wing historians have traditionally reserved their harshest judgment not for Napoleon, but for the Spanish conservatives who reinstituted absolutist rule under Fernando after the French defeat. Even today, a liberal Catalan historian calls the struggle against Napoleon ‘a precursor of the anti-Fascist resistance of the Civil War’.

In recent years, however, not only have these quarrels faded, but the war’s importance has itself come into question. Military historians of the Napoleonic period have downplayed both Spain’s role in France’s overall defeat, and the part of Spanish popular resistance compared to the action of regular armies – especially Wellington’s. The British revisionist scholar Charles Esdaile has relentlessly challenged the idea that Spain experienced a popular uprising at all. ‘The populace on the whole,’ he has written, ‘wanted nothing to do with the war. Far from rushing to the colours . . . they had rather to be forced to take up arms.’ The shift in the discipline away from military history means that some historians of the period now ignore the Spanish War of Independence altogether.

Ronald Fraser’s Napoleon’s Cursed War will not do much to help resolve the debate over the conflict’s significance. The author, best known for an acclaimed oral history of the Spanish Civil War, has done extensive research, and written a fluid and informative account ‘from below’. But he concentrates so single-mindedly on the experience of the Spanish people that he neglects the various contexts that determined the war’s larger meanings. Thus, despite the title, the book has nothing to say about Napoleon, and makes little use of the copious and often very revealing French sources, including scores of published memoirs and voluminous records in the French military archives (the references throughout to ‘Josef’ Bonaparte suggest what might be a lack of comfort with the French language). Fraser offers few thoughts on the ultimate impact of the war on Napoleon’s overthrow, or on the respective contributions of Spanish, Portuguese and British forces to the outcome in the Peninsula. He also gives surprisingly little attention to the military history, sweeping through key battles like Salamanca and Vitoria in a couple of paragraphs each.

Napoleon’s Cursed War instead combines traditional narrative with a venerable form of social history. Fraser follows the initial risings against the Bonapartist regime in 1808 in close detail, devoting sections in turn to Oviedo, Valencia, Saragossa, Seville, La Coruña, Badajoz, Valladolid, Cartagena and several towns in Catalonia. He pauses regularly to summarise demographic research, highlighting the sharply increased death rates of 1808-9, and then of 1812. Without mentioning E.P. Thompson by name, he invokes his theory of the ‘moral economy’ to explain the actions of the Spanish common people. They were ‘never deeply penetrated’ by the Enlightenment, Fraser explains, but instead fought to protect their traditional rights and beliefs, and to insist on their rulers’ traditional obligations to them (especially to maintain reasonable prices – hence ‘moral economy’). In classic Thompsonian style, Fraser casts the common people as heroes making their own history, while damning those who betrayed and suppressed them: the French for their ‘barbarities’; the absolutists for crushing Spanish liberty; even the liberals of 1812 for offering the common people little but a fine-sounding constitution and ‘the panacea of a market economy’. Most of the book deals just with the first third of the war, when resistance was at its height.

Fraser is at his best when he plucks individual Spaniards out from the mass and sketches their idiosyncratic experiences. He gives a vivid account, for instance, of how Matías Calvo, a doctor’s son from Aragon, reluctantly became a guerrilla. Escaping from the siege of Saragossa in 1809 to his native village of Lecineña, Calvo had no desire to enlist as a resistance fighter. Indeed, his father had developed a friendship with the local French commander, conversing with him in fluent Latin. But after his father’s death in 1811, Calvo found himself short of money, and signed up with the famous guerrilla commander Espoz y Mina in part simply to ensure that he had enough to eat. By 1812, he was hardened enough to lead a raid into Huesca, shoot a French soldier dead at a butcher’s stall, and then calmly toast the killing at a nearby liquor shop before leading his French pursuers into an ambush outside the city gates.

Fraser also tells the extraordinary story of the friar Luis Gutiérrez, a would-be philosophe who fled to France a step ahead of the Inquisition in 1789 and set himself up as a revolutionary propagandist and anti-clerical novelist. In 1808 he turned French secret agent, heading to London in the disguise of a Spanish baron and fooling the foreign secretary, George Canning, into believing that the exiled King Fernando had transferred Spanish royal authority to a regency in Mexico – a story that could have badly undercut attempts to establish an anti-Bonapartist central government in unoccupied Spain. When the plot came to light, Guttiérez fled to Portugal and attempted to reach the nearby French armies of Marshal Soult, only to be captured, taken to unoccupied Seville, and publicly garrotted. In the 19th century, his novels were rediscovered and became international bestsellers.

Fraser does not subscribe to the myth – thoroughly exploded by Esdaile – of the Spanish people rising up in united, righteous furor. He recognises that the guerrillas drew their membership in large part from established military and paramilitary units, and often functioned more as organised bandits than national liberators. He further accepts that the guerrilla bands by themselves did relatively little to drive the French out of Spain, and had real success only when the largest of them developed into small disciplined armies – and when Napoleon started to draw down his forces in 1812. But Fraser does not go as far as Esdaile in minimising the extent of popular action, and never engages with (or even mentions) Esdaile’s provocative arguments. Nor does he question the Spanish conventional wisdom that Napoleon sought to subdue the country as part of a masterplan to reshape Europe.

To the extent that Fraser does try to set the war in a broader context, it is that of modern Spanish history. Put simply, his argument is that the war ‘ruined’ Spain, and condemned it to a century and a half of violence and instability. The Spanish people’s resistance won them ‘nothing’, he states. Given that the book also calls Joseph Bonaparte ‘one of the truly honourable (although ineffectual) protagonists’ of the war, the obvious implication is that, as Fraser recently put it in an interview with a Spanish magazine, it would perhaps ‘have been much better for Spain living with a Napoleonic regime’ (he quickly added that Spain’s sense of national identity would never have tolerated such an outcome). But such blithe excursions into the counterfactual reveal the limits of Napoleon’s Cursed War as history. How can one even begin to make such an argument without considering more thoroughly the nature of Napoleonic imperialism?

Seen from this broader imperial perspective, even the ‘popular resistance’ Fraser chronicles looks very different. To begin with, it’s hard to sustain the idea of Napoleon following any sort of masterplan. The emperor loved grand epigrammatic statements, but these often contradicted each other, furnishing endless ammunition to his endlessly warring biographers: the same man who proclaimed ‘I am the French Revolution’ could also declare that he had found the French crown in the gutter and placed it on his head; the same man who protested his devotion to peace could also admit, ‘I wanted to rule the world.’ After realising he could not send an invasion fleet across the Channel, and seeing his navy destroyed at Trafalgar in 1805, Napoleon became determined to ruin Britain’s economy by closing the Continent to her trade. Of course, this Sisyphean project required control of the coastlines from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. At first, Napoleon attempted to rule most of this territory indirectly, through allies and client states that he spared the full panoply of revolutionary, ‘rationalising’ reforms. More direct control followed only when these states couldn’t meet French demands, or became sites of active resistance. Direct control most often did involve imposition of a French Revolutionary model: confiscation of Church property, abolition of seigneurialism, the introduction of French law and administrative models, and in some cases even annexation to France itself. But it was imposed less because of any ideological plan than because of the need to ensure that the territory in question provided an adequate supply of tax revenues and conscripts.

Initially, the Bonapartes wanted little more than to make Spain a more reliable ally, and proposed a moderate constitution that respected Spanish political and religious traditions – notably the tradition of Catholic intolerance, which was quite at odds with French Revolutionary practice. Only after Napoleon’s ‘reconquest’ following the Spanish victory at Bailén did he impose a new, more frankly revolutionary regime (which his brother proved largely incapable of implementing). Even then, Napoleon claimed to have no territorial designs on Spain. But in 1810, frustrated at continuing resistance, he put several large regions under direct French military rule, and in 1812 annexed Catalonia to his increasingly swollen empire (at this point Barcelona, Hamburg, Florence and Dubrovnik legally formed as much a part of France as Paris and Lyon). In short, the French in Spain were anything but the overwhelming force, bent on revolutionary transformation from the start, that the Spanish imagined. It is for this reason that much of the Spanish population could remain aloof from the war, and that the Spanish resistance itself was far more uneven and ineffective than most historians, including Fraser, have suggested.

If the imperial context matters, so do the long-term ideological and cultural contexts. Here, the striking thing is just how much the Spanish resistance owed to what it most detested, namely the French Revolution. The Spanish language of the ‘nation in arms’, which Fraser rightly highlights, resembled nothing so much as the French language of the nation in arms perfected at the time of the ‘levée en masse’ of 1793. The rhetoric of some anti-Napoleonic Spanish periodicals, even the official pronouncements of the insurgent ‘juntas’, could almost have been translated directly from Jacobin writings of the same period. A liberal anti-Napoleonic Cádiz newspaper even called itself El Robespierre Español. The very fact that the insurrection gave rise to, and was shaped by, an unprecedented flood of newspapers, pamphlets and broadsides that supposedly expressed the popular will is another important point of comparison with the experience of Revolutionary France.

Arguably, it is these aspects of the War of Independence that give it much of its lasting significance, not just the insurgencies of 1808 and the rise of ‘la guerrilla’. Not only did the guerrillas have limited success, as Esdaile has stressed, they were not particularly original, either. The decade and a half of war preceding the Spanish uprising had seen many similar examples of partisan warfare, starting with the Vendée insurrection in France itself, and extending to the Calabrian revolt of 1806 (also against Joseph Bonaparte, during his first stint as his brother’s client king, in Naples). What made the Spanish insurrection different, and much more successful, was in great part its ability to spread, co-ordinate itself, and express itself through the medium of print, and to create powerful myths about itself. This ability in turn arose out of an 18th-century Spanish history that was considerably more complex than the stereotype of a pious, somnolent and corrupt country in terminal decline. Compared to other Western European states, 18th-century Spain did have high rates of illiteracy, and a remarkably powerful clergy, but it also had impressive rates of urbanisation, a wealth of new cultural institutions, and a homegrown Enlightenment led by figures such as Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, a noted advocate of agricultural reform and other social improvements. Many of the guerrilla leaders had advanced educations (Javier Mina, like Matias Calvo, had studied philosophy at university) and were fully ‘penetrated’, to use Fraser’s word, by this Enlightenment. This complex Spain is one that Fraser, with his emphasis on the common people and their ‘moral economy’, tends to neglect.

He is not alone in doing so. Observers and historians, even while hailing the War of Independence as epochal, have always played down its modern aspects. Napoleon himself had boundless contempt for this ‘nation of friars’ and its ‘stupid’ leaders. His soldiers and administrators often compared travelling across the Pyrenees to travelling back into the Middle Ages. Some Spanish insurgents were only too happy to throw the insult proudly back in their enemies’ faces. As one of them wrote: ‘O happy gothic, barbarian and fanatical Spaniards! Happy with our monks and with our Inquisition, which, according to the ideas of the French Enlightenment, has kept us a century behind other nations. Oh, if we could only go back two centuries more!’ But writings of this sort only prove the point: no genuine creature of tradition talks about tradition in this way, or expresses such longing for a lost past. Far from being an uprising of pious, unsophisticated traditionalists against godless, foreign invaders, the Spanish War of Independence produced the image of such an uprising, and made it a powerful ideological weapon.

Even those commentators who do see the war as the origin of a modern phenomenon play down the modernity of the Spanish participants. Carl Schmitt, for example, despite his admiration for the insurgents, took their pious and backward character for granted, and argued that ‘the spark that flew north from Spain in 1808’ only found true intellectual expression in the hands of German intellectuals like Fichte and Arndt. Yet Schmitt, at least, understood that ‘partisan warfare’ of the sort seen in Spain involved an intense degree of political engagement on the part of partisan leaders, an engagement that in turn depended on the wide circulation of political literature through print or other media. Elsewhere in Theory of the Partisan, he insisted on the close relationship between partisans and intellectuals, and identified as an emblematic figure of modern partisan warfare a writer, intellectual and agitator who never came anywhere near a rural ambush: Lenin. Indeed, one could argue that the emblematic figure of the Spanish war was not the largely mythical pious peasant turned guerrilla, but the insurgent intellectual who sat in his study churning out myths about pious peasants turned guerrillas. They are powerful myths, and one can understand why so many later historians have them taken at face value.

The great tragedy of the war is that historians have not been the only ones to take them at face value, and here it’s hard to disagree with Ronald Fraser’s bleak conclusions about the war’s consequences for Spain itself. As he recounts, with the restoration of 1814 Spain fell into the hands of ultra-conservatives bent on re-creating a pious, traditional, obedient country which had largely ceased to exist in the 18th century – if it had ever really existed at all. The myths forged between 1808 and 1814 continued to inspire violent, reactionary politics for another century and a half. And in the 1930s, they helped propel to power the vicious regime whose intellectuals could still, in 1962, invite Schmitt, an unrepentant Nazi, to come and celebrate what they considered the anniversary of their spiritual birth.

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Vol. 30 No. 22 · 20 November 2008

David Bell is setting up straw men to tilt at in his review of Napoleon’s Cursed War by imposing his own Napoleonic diktats on the book, whose sole theme, as a cursory glance at the foreword would show, is to explain ‘the common [Spanish] people’s initiatives and responses to the war’ (LRB, 6 November).

Along the way, he damns me for not damning other historians, British and Spanish, for their ‘provocative’ arguments. I prefer an analysis of documentary evidence to the academic sport of the jugular. No one reading the book could subscribe to Charles Esdaile’s blithe myth (though I don’t mention it) that Spain experienced no popular uprising at all, since ample documents, which I cite, demonstrate the urban populace’s participation in the anti-Napoleonic risings and the massive plebeian volunteer enlistments to the ‘patriot’ army in 1808. As for Spanish historians who subscribe to the other myth, created for political reasons in the risings’ immediate aftermath, that the revolts were the plebs’ spontaneous expression of an innate patriotism, there is sufficient documentary evidence to show that they were orchestrated, when not actually ‘subsidised’, by small groups of Fernando’s educated supporters, who played on the labouring classes’ xenophobia and fears should Napoleon take over Spain.

My own ‘blithe excursion’ into the counterfactual – that Spaniards might have been better off accepting Napoleon’s regime – was, as Bell acknowledges, an off-the-cuff answer to a journalist’s specific question; nowhere does such a statement appear in the book. And his claim that such is implicit in my comment about Josef Bonaparte as ‘one of the truly honourable (though ineffectual) protagonists’ of the war is an implication he makes, not I. These are hardly the sources a self-respecting academic historian would be expected to use to indict the ‘limits’ of the book ‘as history’. (While on the subject of ‘Josef’, this spelling does not suggest my ‘lack of comfort’ with French, but the reviewer’s lack of comfort with the documents of the period: the Bonaparte king signed all his Spanish decrees as ‘Josef’.)

Because the French were not bent on a ‘revolutionary transformation’ of Spanish society, much of the Spanish population could ‘remain aloof’ from the war, Bell and Esdaile argue. As in any war involving civilians, great numbers of them were anything but ‘aloof’: they were trying desperately to save their lives and food stocks from the imperial army’s (and the guerrillas’) depredations. Many obviously wished the whole thing would end: indeed, I chronicle this through rises in birth and marriage rates in 1810-11. But there is no satisfying the chronically dissatisfied.

Ronald Fraser

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