I was reading His Excellency Eugène Rougon, by Émile Zola, (No #2 in the Rougon-Macquart cycle and part of my Zola project) when I came across this passage in Chapter 9. The repression that Rougon exacts in the name of the Emperor and the lust for power at any price made me think of Stalin …
Outside, France was hushed in fear. The Emperor, in summoning Rougon to power, had been desirous of making examples. He knew the great man’s iron hand, and had said to him on the morning after the attempt on his life, with all the anger of one who has just escaped assassination, ‘No moderation, mind! They must be made to fear you.’ He had just armed him, too, with that terrible Law of General Safety, which authorised the confinement in Algeria or the expulsion from the empire of anyone who might be convicted of a political offence. Although no single Frenchman had taken part in the crime of the Rue Le Peletier, the Republicans were about to be hunted down and transported; there was to be a general sweeping away of the ten thousand ‘suspects’ who had been passed over at the time of the coup d’état. There were rumours of contemplated action by the revolutionary party. The authorities were said to have made a seizure of weapons and treasonable documents. Already in the middle of March, three hundred and eighty persons had been shipped at Toulon for Algeria, and now every week a fresh contingent was sent off. The whole country trembled in the terror which like a black storm cloud rolled forth from the room with the green velvet curtains where Rougon laughed aloud while stretching his arms.
The great man had never before tasted such complete contentment. He felt well and strong, and was putting on flesh. Health had come back to him with his return to power. When he walked about the room he dug his heels into the carpet, as though he wanted his heavy tread to resound throughout France. He would have liked to shake the country by merely putting his empty glass down on the side-table or casting aside his pen. It delighted him to be a source of fear, to forge thunderbolts amidst the smiling gratification of his friends, and to crush a whole nation with his swollen parvenu fists. In one of his circulars he had written: ‘It is for the good to feel confidence, and for the wicked only to tremble.’ He revelled in playing this part of a divinity, damning some, and saving others. He was filled with mighty pride; his idolatry of his own strength and intelligence was becoming a real religion with him.
Among the new men who had sprung up with the Second Empire, Rougon had long been known as a partisan of strong government. His name was a synonym for stern repression, the refusal of all liberties; despotic rule, in fact. All knew therefore what they had to expect when they saw him called to office. To his intimate friends, however, Rougon unbosomed himself. He did not, he said, so much hold opinions as feel a craving for power. Power had too much attraction for him, and was too essential to his appetite for him to refuse it, whatever the conditions on which it might be offered to him.
To rule, to set his foot on the neck of the crowd, was his first and immediate ambition; the rest was merely secondary matter to which he could easily accommodate himself. The one thing which he really wanted was to be chief. It so happened, however, that the circumstances under which he was now returning to power made his success very pleasant. The Emperor had given him complete liberty of action, and he was at last in a position to realise his old dream of driving the multitude with a whip like a herd of cattle. Nothing filled him with greater satisfaction than to know that he was feared and disliked. And sometimes when his friends told him that he was a tyrant, he smiled, and said with deep meaning: ‘If I should become a liberal some day, people will say that I have changed.’ Rougon’s very greatest joy was to stand triumphant amidst those friends of his. He forgot France and the obsequious functionaries and the crowd of petitioners who besieged his doors, to regale himself with the perpetual admiration of his ten or twelve intimate associates. His office was open to them at any hour, he allowed them to make it a home, to take possession of his chairs, and even of his desk itself; he told them that it was a pleasure to have them always about him like a pack of faithful dogs.
from His Excellency Eugène Rougon, by Émile Zola, in the Complete Works of Émile Zola (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 64059-64091). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.
Instructive, n’est-ce pas?
Stalin? I thought Rougon was a lot scarier than that; I thought he was like Peter Mandelson! When he’s out of office he comes across as quite a benign character and then he gets a sniff of power and he’s back to being ruthless.
LOL You know I had to Google Mandelson because I’d never heard of him, either I haven’t been paying attention or he’s not as scary as Stalin was.
Yeah, sorry about that; I forgot that he probably wasn’t that well known outside the UK – and we’re talking about over ten years ago….maybe Stalin ‘was’ worse!
Am I correct that this quote comes after he’s got into power following the assassination attempt? We really get to see how far Rougon’s decisions are solely based on politics and power.
Yes, it’s from the beginning of the chapter called In Office. Up to now I had felt he was comparatively benign but now we are starting to see his true colours, especially with the purges.