Medusa's Head
The Rise and Survival of Joseph Fouché, Inventor of the Modern Police State

Book Synopsis

Fouche during the DirectoryIn Medusa's Head: The Rise and Survival of Joseph Fouché, Inventor of the Modern Police State, Rand Mirante examines the astonishing, chameleonic career of Napoleon I's Minister of Police. Born in Nantes in 1759, Fouché initially trained for the Oratorian priesthood, but rather than taking the order's vows he became an ardent Jacobin. As a delegate to the National Convention in 1792-93 he provided the one-vote margin necessary for the immediate execution of King Louis XVI, thereby branding himself a regicide. Then, as a représentant en mission, he presided over the de-Christianization of a region in central France (decreeing that the cemeteries display signage stating that death is but an eternal sleep), and he later brutally suppressed an anti-Jacobin rebellion in France's second city, Lyon. Fouché's conduct there was so shocking that Robespierre recalled him to Paris, which during the Terror typically meant a death sentence; however, Fouché cleverly manipulated the delegates to the Convention and was able to orchestrate Robespierre's own trip to the guillotine instead. Fouche during the EmpireFouché survived the Thermidorian backlash against the Jacobins, rose to become Minister of Police under the Directory, and then, after having enabled General Bonaparte's coup d'état of 18-19 Brumaire (1799), continued as France's head of police and state security. Despite being named the Duke of Otranto by Napoleon in 1809, he repeatedly betrayed the Emperor, but to a large extent avoided the most serious consequences. He played his hand so cleverly that he briefly became France's acting chief of state in the aftermath of Waterloo. In that role, he forced Napoleon into the hands of the British, neutralized French political and military resistance to the Allied coalition, and opened up Paris to occupation and the nation to the Second Restoration of Bourbon rule. As the reward for his treason, the regicide Fouché served as Louis XVIII's Minister of Police, to the consternation of many royalists; it was his last official role before his forced exile and bizarre end in Trieste in 1820.

Fouche during the RestorationThis biography argues that Joseph Fouché established and perfected the workings of the modern security state. He accomplished this through his attention to forensics (he had been a physics instructor); through his vast surveillance network of informers (it was said that two Frenchmen could not engage in a political discussion without their identities and its content being on the Minister's desk the very next day); through his pervasive control of the media; and through his exhaustive and constant reporting upon anything of potential consequence happening anywhere in the sprawling empire and beyond. Fouché's creation inexorably encroached upon other principal agencies of government and ultimately threatened the head of state. The work further argues that Fouché's widespread reputation as an unreconstructed Jacobin in the years after the Terror was a convenient and clever sham, and that his treasonous deal with Wellington, Talleyrand, and the House of Bourbon prevented France from exploiting a real opportunity both for military redemption and the establishment of a republic immediately after Waterloo. In addition, the book suggests parallels between nineteenth century terrorism, extraordinary rendition, and military tribunals, and present-day security challenges and responses.

Medusa's Head draws extensively upon Ministry of Police reports and the conflicting memoirs and correspondence of many prominent personages of the Napoleonic era, as well as upon the tightly controlled contemporary media. No works in English have focused on Fouché's career and pivotal role in European affairs for many years, and the timing of this one coincides with the two-hundredth anniversaries of many of the benchmark events leading up to the end of the Empire at Waterloo and the “White Terror," the vengeful return of the Bourbons.

Excerpt from the Book

"The problems confronting Fouché were interlocking, complex, and dangerous. With the triumphant Prussian and British forces now marching menacingly towards Paris, he simultaneously had to dispense with Napoleon; take control of the legislature and marginalize his potential rivals; keep restive royalists both in check and at the same time favorably disposed to himself; neutralize those bloodied but unbowed elements of what remained of the French army as well as Napoleon's veteran and highly able commander, Minister of War Marshal Davout; conduct his own secretive diplomacy with the Allies; and hand back Paris and the throne to his former enemy, the House of Bourbon, in exchange for the best terms he could possibly obtain for himself, all the while convincing everyone that he was the indispensable man, rather than the foremost candidate in the land for the firing squad. He would have to bring successfully to bear every shady skill and cunning trait he had accumulated over the long course of his manipulative career upon this host of obstacles confronting him. Here is how he managed it."

From Chapter XV, "Supremo"

About the Title

The title is derived from a comment by Director Paul Barras, both a benefactor and a victim of Fouché’s, who stated in response to alarming news about anti-French agitation in Italy in 1795: “I believed the way to repulse our enemies was to present the Revolution itself to them like Medusa’s Head. I proposed Fouché for Italy.”

About the Author

Rand Mirante is a 1970 graduate of Princeton University and received his JD from the Harvard Law School. After spending most of his legal career with McGraw-Hill, Inc., he has worked in Princeton’s Office of Development; for a number of years he has also taught a course titled “Treason: From Henry V to John Walker Lindh” in the University’s Freshman Writing Program.

Contact Rand Mirante »