The notion of "treason" has many faces. Often qualified as infamy, treason questions the double identity of the traitor, sometimes revealing profound social and historical changes.

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Traîtres, a collective work, brings together contributions that are for the most part portraits of individual traitors, or persons considered as such, with the addition of a few collective entities (the aristocratic "emigrants" of the French Revolution, for example). Compared to the incommensurable number of traitors in history, the corpus may naturally appear slim, but the figures chosen by the authors enable a differentiated approach to the phenomenon of "treason".

While at first glance, the term seems to evoke the idea of breaking with an established order, closer examination reveals that the notion of "treason" often lies within grey areas and is not free of ambiguity. It can even account for the construction of new identities. In particular, betrayal can reveal evolving historical situations, in which certain individuals or groups must position themselves in relation to an old or disappearing order, but also in relation to a new order in the making.

We must therefore question the nature of the worlds that are being "betrayed" or, conversely, the nature of those to which the "traitors" have decided to adhere. Is betrayal (condemned by law) sometimes no more than transgression (assumed politically or even morally)? This fruitful perspective amounts to saying: "Tell me who you're betraying, and I'll tell you who you are", or, better still, "who you're becoming". The notion of identity is thus at the heart of this investigation.

Betrayal and identity

Betrayal often baffles contemporaries and historians alike. It appears inexplicable, contrary to all logic, even unreasonable or even scandalous, if we adopt a moral stance. Of course, there may be purely or partially self-interested motives, which are therefore fairly easy to explain. But these are not the cases that have any real historical significance.

Even the seemingly straightforward case of the Austrian colonel Redl, who, covered in debt, sells intelligence to Russia for a fee at the beginning of the 20th century, raises questions about the colonel's relationship with his milieu. Even before he betrayed his country, he was already transgressing the values of his caste and leading a double life. Considered an "exemplary officer", he lived not "in the sober decor of a staff officer's office and bedroom, but in the small lounge of a promiscuous woman", and lavished money on gifts for his lovers (explains Michel Kerautret). Had he betrayed just for the money, or had he already lost all the reference points he'd been taught, in a "fascinating and sulphurous society" which, aghast, was quick to "circumscribe evil to a single monstrous individual, stigmatized by his homosexuality"? The horrified rejection of such a traitor testifies to a widespread "anguish" and "discomfort" in Austro-Hungarian society at the beginning of the 20th century.

On another level, the judgment of a traitor can change from one era or society to another, and, with hindsight, modify the traitor's identity in the eyes of history. This is true of the way we look at the "Indianized" conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero, a "Spanish renegade" in the 16th century, who became an "anti-imperialist hero" after the Mexican revolution of 1910, and who was finally made into a Mayan warrior in 1974 in Yucatan, and even reinvented in contemporary Mexican literature as a "benevolent, humanist hero living in a utopian pre-Conquest Mexico that looks like paradise" (Gonzague Espinosa-Dassoneville). Could the traitor be, like Gonzalo Guerrero, someone who has changed because the world around him has transformed and he himself, while appearing to deny himself, has made choices in keeping with these new times?

Conversely, can an individual considered a traitor by many of his contemporaries, from his own point of view, remain true to himself while rejecting the new times, as Patrick Gueniffey suggests with regard to La Fayette's behavior in 1792? He deserted - without, however, going over to the enemy - and became, in the eyes of the revolutionaries, the "Capital Traitor", while remaining "faithful to his oaths". So could the traitor also be the one who doesn't want to change when everything around him is changing, and new frameworks are being built in which he no longer fits? And is it possible to be a traitor without knowing it?

Betrayal and personality

There has been a temptation to explain betrayal by psychological predispositions that could border on madness. One case, albeit a minor one, is undoubtedly at least partially pathological. This is the case of General Sarrazin, a minor player in the wars of the Revolution and Empire, who defected to the British in 1810 and provided them with a great deal of information (Jacques-Olivier Boudon). Of course, he received an annual pension in return, but above all, he displayed an obsessive monomania, constantly blackening Napoleon in his writings, portraying him as a bloodthirsty, incompetent tyrant. This is the behavior of an embittered man with a fixed idea, driven by resentment over his dismissal by Napoleon because he had failed in his missions. Napoleon would describe him on St. Helena - and probably rightly so - as a "madman, a scatterbrain".

The cases of the Norwegian Quisling and the Chinese Wang Jingwei are at a higher level of responsibility. The court that tried Quisling, a former collaborator of Nazi Germany, in 1945 raised the question of the accused's mental health, and the judges attempted to answer it by ordering an electroencephalography, but without obtaining any convincing results. Nonetheless, in his defense, Quisling was behaving strangely, describing himself as a "prophet" and "martyr" (Éric Eydoux). This behavior is echoed by Wang Jingwei, who describes himself as a "sacrificial lamb". A leading Chinese politician and heir to Sun Yat-sen, he sank into collaboration with Japan, and was equally despised by Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek. He was the victim of his own "sacrificial mystique" (Sébastien Bertrand calls him a "failed martyr"). He was a traitor who believed he had identified himself with a great cause, "peace with Japan at all costs".

Did exceptional historical circumstances bring about a tragic metamorphosis in Quisling and Wang Jingwei? Or to what extent was it already prefigured in their personal histories, and ready to emerge in their confrontation with history? In both cases, the only justification they found was the invocation of a "sacrifice" which, by making them seem exceptional, would have placed them outside the common norm.

Betrayal and political invention

A number of contributions have shown that periods of political and social transformation, or even the construction of new entities, are favorable to the appearance of characters or groups described as traitors. Of course, individuals so qualified may have betrayed; but it is also the definition of the criteria for their betrayal that is at issue.

Two studies by Franck Favier illustrate this point. Firstly, in the Scandinavian world of the 15th-16th centuries, there were conflicts between the Danes and the Swedes: the Swedish desire for independence was asserting itself, and internal struggles were developing in Sweden. Yet, in the course of this conflict, betrayals continued unabated. Then, in the 18th century, as the balance of power around the Baltic shifted, it was Finland's turn to seek emancipation from Sweden. To assert its national identity, it turned to Russia. Sprengtporten, an officer of Finnish origin trained in Sweden and leader of the rebels, ended his life in exile in Saint Petersburg. He is presented "in Swedish historiography as the symbol of treachery"; but at the same time, he played an important role in the creation of an autonomous Finland.

The case of General Arnold, "spoiled hero and traitor of American Independence" (Raphaël Lahlou), reveals certain ambiguities in the relations between the colonial power that was England and the structure under construction created by the American Insurgents: at first an important and effective leader of the Insurgents and an advocate of "colonial liberties", Arnold became a paid spy for the English. But he himself gave a justification for his conduct that is not without interest: alongside the political choice, first adopted, of defending "colonial liberties", he said he considered full independence impossible. Could this be a (partly) sincere but mistaken view of the relationship between an aspiring state and the colonial power? Arnold, in making the final choice to collaborate with the colonial power, would have failed to fully realize that a radical change was taking place in America. He had only been able to accompany the beginning of the change, but without perceiving its full logic. His individual destiny was a failure, demonstrating the impasse in which he had trapped himself. Having lost his place in America, the ex-general was unable to find it in England. His dismal end of life, in contrast, reflects the success and effectiveness of the American revolution: "every revolution needs traitors and treachery to become effective".

What the punishment reveals

From the point of view of the betrayed, we can also highlight the diversity of the repression of treason as revealing the evolution of political structures. This is what Thierry Sarmant does in two studies that show the ways in which treason was punished in France under the Ancien Régime, between the first period, from the League to the Fronde, and the second, during the reign of Louis XIV. Until the Fronde, the repression of acts of treason was lenient. Thereafter, it was both strong and limited. In the meantime, it was the perception of treason that changed, as absolute monarchy took hold, with a political discourse that became extremely clear.

From this point of view, it might seem logical that a period of profound transformation such as the one between the start of the French Revolution in 1789 and the Restoration in 1815 should have been fertile in betrayals (or accusations of betrayal) of all kinds. For France presented multiple, successive and even simultaneous identities: was it embodied in Louis XVI or in the nation-state under construction? As Louis XVIII returned from exile, or as Napoleon returned from Elba? Were "émigrés" (aristocratic emigrants) traitors, at a time when "the notions of patrie and nation were still very blurred" (Florence de Baudus)? More broadly still, in revolutionary France, one is always "someone's traitor" (Patrick Gueniffey). In 1814, and especially in 1815, where did legitimacy lie? (Vincent Haegele).

If the spectacle offered by the "elites" was that of "weathervanes", Pierre-Antoine Berryer, who defended Marshal Ney before the Chamber of Peers, accused of "attacking the security of the State", took the debate to a new level. After rallying to the Bourbons in 1814, Ney had sided again with Napoleon on his return during the Hundred Days of 1815. After the emperor's final elimination, Berryer's plea emphasized two notions: "error of judgment" and "public interest". However, it failed to convince the jury. As a political response, the Marshal's death sentence was a "terrifying warning". The purge that followed, aimed at treating the "gangrene", was designed to bolster the legitimacy of a royal power that had collapsed in the face of the Eagle's return.

A reflection of collective obsession

If periods of revolution or intense confrontation create conditions conducive to betrayal, they can also lead to an irrational belief in the omnipresence of betrayal, as a simple key to explaining difficulties and failures. In a sense, such a belief can be reassuring. As Patrice Gueniffey points out, the French Revolution was characterized by an obsession "characteristic of the revolutionary mentality": in the face of difficulties and setbacks, "conspiracy presents itself as a rational response to an enigma that is indecipherable to a revolutionary mind convinced of its good cause".

Yet, as Éric Anceau describes, this phenomenon continued to manifest itself in France throughout the 19th century, in a society riven by deep divisions. Of course, there was no shortage of conspiracies and betrayals. But many of them were purely and simply invented: fear of "starving people", fear of "sharers", fear of plots and attacks, detestation of foreigners, conspiracism linked to the war of 1870, the rise of nationalism feeding the public a diet of traitors: "Anti-Semitism, Germanophobia and the fear of plots and treachery combined at the end of the century in the Dreyfus affair". Nineteenth-century France was not a peaceful country. It found a simple answer to its anxieties in "conspiracy" and the construction of multiple figures of the traitor.

Analysis of these collective wanderings highlights the fact that the notion of treason can be a social construct, reflecting the intention, whether conscious or not, of creating an impossibility of cohabitation between the community of which one claims to be a member and certain individuals or groups defined as traitors (real or imaginary). At the same time, the identity of this community is affirmed: if the traitor didn't exist, he'd have to be invented.

The art of being a traitor

There are stupid traitors and intelligent ones, traitors who are the playthings of history and others who are ahead of their time. But how does one become a traitor? With what predispositions, what weaknesses, or, conversely, what lucidity or overconfidence, and sometimes, what loss of contact with reality?

It's true that these are complex realities to decipher. Betrayal is often a "clash of legitimacies". It may be that today's betrayer has perceived the emergence of a new world better than others, or has even been involved in its construction. Or he may have been tragically mistaken. For its actors, betrayal is often an adventure in which they only perceive part of the story, like a play in which they don't yet know their full role until they take the stage. Once the play has been performed, they may try to rewrite it, but too late.

This book is fascinating for at least two reasons. Firstly, it offers new ways of interpreting many historical episodes, and enriches the definition of many concepts: not only treason, "lèse-majesté" and infamy, but also identity and even sacrifice. Secondly, it demonstrates the methodological advantages of a comprehensive history, combining the history of political and social structures with a renewed history of events, revealing the choices made by individuals at crucial moments.