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Chapter 9

Never was there a more dismal fall.

No expiation can be compared with this. The unprecedented drama was in
five acts, so fierce that Aeschylus himself would not have dared to
dream of them. "The Ambush!" "The Struggle!" "The Massacre!" "The
Victory!" "The Fall!" What a tangle and what an unwinding! A poet who
would have predicted it would have seemed a traitor. God alone could
permit Himself Sedan.

Everything in proportion, such is His law. Far worse than Brumaire, it
needed a more crushing retribution than Waterloo.

The first Napoleon, as we have said elsewhere,[40] had faced his
destiny; he had not been dishonored by his punishment, he fell while
steadfastly regarding God. He came back to Paris, appraising the deserts
of those men who overthrew him, proudly distinguishing amongst them,
esteeming Lafayette and despising Dupin. He had at the last moment
wished to see clearly into his destiny, he had not allowed his eyes to
be bandaged; he had accepted the catastrophe while making his conditions
with it. Here there is nothing of the kind. One might almost say that
the traitor is struck treacherously. In this case there is a bad man who
feels himself in the grasp of Destiny, and who does not know what it is
doing to him. He was at the summit of his power, the blind master of an
idiot world. He had wished for a _plebiscitum_, he had had one. He had
at his feet this very William. It was at this moment that his crime
suddenly seized him. He did not struggle against it; he was the
condemned man who obeys his sentence. He submitted to everything which
terrible Fate exacted from him. Never was there a more docile patient.
He had no army, he made war; he had only Rouher, he provoked Bismarck;
he had only Leboeuf, he attacked Moltke. He confided Strasburg to
Uhrich; he gave Metz to Bazaine to guard. He had 120,000 men at Châlons;
he had it in his power to cover Paris. He felt that his crime rose up
there, threatening and erect; he fled, not daring to face Paris. He
himself led--purposely, and yet despite himself; willing and yet
unwilling, knowingly and yet unknowingly, a miserable mind, a prey to
the abyss--he led his army into a place of annihilation; he made that
terrible choice, a battle-field without an outlet; he was no longer
conscious of anything, no more of his blunder of to-day than of his
crime of former days; he must finish, but he could only finish as a
fugitive; this condemned one was not worthy to look his end in the face;
he lowered his head, he turned his back. God executed him in degrading
him. Napoleon III. as an Emperor had a right to thunder, but for this
man the thunder was ignominious--he was thunderstruck in the back.

[40] "L'Année Terrible."

Victor Hugo