- Napoleon’s Other War. Bandits, Rebels and their Pursuers in the Age of Revolutions by Michael Broers
Michael Broers’ colorful and highly interesting account of bandits and their imperial psursuers during the revolutionary decades at the turn of the nineteenth century makes great reading. It also offers important historiographical contributions to our understanding of war and violence, modern state-building, and the social history of lawlessness. The tightest chapters are those that treat rebellion and banditry in expanding France and the Italian and Iberian peninsulas; yet, Broers also impressively takes on the role of banditry in warfare in the Balkans and across the Atlantic to South and Central America.
The “other war” refers to irregular warfare or the war of rebels, peasants, and bandits against the Revolutionary and later Napoleonic State. Counterrevolution in France and beyond often descended into guerilla campaigns and banditry, an intense ulcer that made normal government impossible. Broers suggests, however, that Napoleon was far more successful in the long run fighting the “other wars” than the traditional battles that marked him as a great military leader. To succeed against rebels, bandits, and guerrillas, Napoleon made no distinction between crime and resistance Broers argues (103); he constructed a paramilitary force, the Gendarmerie, of violent men policing an equally violent society (94).
Following an intriguing introductory chapter on banditry prior to 1790, Broers describes the French Revolution as the “cradle of disorder.” Of all the revolutionary consequences, conscription, or the “blood tax,” triggered revolt in the countryside against the urban revolutionaries (20–21). He asserts the epic resistance in the Vendée and the faceless ambushes of the Chouannerie provided two prototypes of this irregular war that emerged as mass popular revolt and reverted to guerrilla warfare (33). Civil unrest and banditry against the state made normal government impossible to establish, and Napoleon needed political and social stability to ensure that conscription functioned on a regular basis.
Broers contends that Napoleon reforged the Gendarmerie to pacify areas prone to politicized resistance, banditry, and smuggling. Through the use of unrelenting flying columns, military occupation, and above all the regular policing of the Gendarmerie, the rebellious hinterlands of the inner Empire were brought into line by 1810. Chapters 3 and 4 examine this fascinating “war behind the lines,” highlighting both the roles and practices of the bandits and rebels as well as the men who waged war on them. There the stories of Giuseppe Mayno, the Scarzello brothers, and Michele Pezza (aka Fra Diavolo), locals who often lived on the margin of society, intersect with those of the equally violent and colorful imperial officials, Jacques ‘Abdullah’ Menou, Etienne Radet, and [End Page 814] Armand Binet. The later remained “mobile troubleshooters,” dispensing justice from the saddle to bring order to the lawless frontiers.
Broers claims the omnipresent Gendarmerie ranks as the major advance by the state in the lives of ordinary people during the Napoleonic Empire (87). Where it did not exist in the Empire, there was an absence of civilian administration and no regular enforcement of conscription. He provides ample evidence for this judgment in chapter 5 on Spain. He addresses the historiographic debates relating to Spain’s guerrilla war as a “people’s war,” but reveals that regardless of motives, it remained primarily a bandit’s war. The scale of banditry, partisan warfare, and social dislocation in Spain far exceeded other areas in western Europe. Guerrillas embodied the life of the brigand and were a permanent feature of life and according to Broers: they “unhinged Spain and made it ungovernable” (127). Here, the Napoleonic pacification strategies failed, as the Gendarmie remained confined along the main highways and had very little intelligence about the perilous countryside. Broers views the mayhem and deeply rooted criminality generated by the guerrillas as a long-term determent to nineteenth-century Spain.
Across the Atlantic, the rupture of Spain, the metropole of a vast Empire, “politicized many bandits and the communities they dominated on a scale impossible to imagine in Europe” (130). In chapter...