The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter xiii.

The Military Commissions and the Mixed Commissions

Justice sometime meets with strange adventures.

This old phrase assumed a new sense.

The code ceased to be a safeguard. The law became something which had sworn fealty to a crime. Louis Bonaparte appointed judges by whom one felt oneself stopped as in the corner of a wood. In the same manner as the forest is an accomplice through its density, so the legislation was an accomplice by its obscurity. What it lacked at certain points in order to make it perfectly dark they added. How? By force. Purely and simply. By decree. Sic jubeo. The decree of the 17th of February was a masterpiece. This decree completed the proscription of the person, by the proscription of the name. Domitian could not have done better. Human conscience was bewildered; Right, Equity, Reason felt that the master had over them the authority that a thief has over a purse. No reply. Obey. Nothing resembles those infamous times.

Every iniquity was possible. Legislative bodies supervened and instilled so much gloom into legislation that it was easy to achieve a baseness in this darkness.

A successful coup d’état does not stand upon ceremony. This kind of success permits itself everything.

Facts abound. But we must abridge, we will only present them briefly.

There were two species of Justice; the Military Commissions and the Mixed Commissions.

The Military Commissions sat in judgment with closed doors. A colonel presided.

In Paris alone there were three Military Commissions: each received a thousand bills of indictment. The Judge of Instruction sent these accusations to the Procureur of the Republic, Lascoux, who transmitted them to the Colonel President. The Commission summoned the accused to appear. The accused himself was his own bill of indictment. They searched him, that is to say, they “thumbed” him. The accusing document was short. Two or three lines. Such as this, for example —

Name. Christian name. Profession. A sharp fellow. Goes to the Café. Reads the papers. Speaks. Dangerous.

The accusation was laconic. The judgment was still less prolix. It was a simple sign.

The bill of indictment having been examined, the judges having been consulted, the colonel took a pen, and put at the end of the accusing line one of three signs:—

- + o

  — signified consignment to Lambessa.

 + signified transportation to Cayenne. (The dry guillotine. Death.)

 o signified acquittal.

While this justice was at work, the man on whose case they were working was sometimes still at liberty, he was going and coming at his ease; suddenly they arrested him, and without knowing what they wanted with him, he left for Lambessa or for Cayenne.

His family was often ignorant of what had become of him.

People asked of a wife, of a sister, of a daughter, of a mother —

“Where is your husband?”

“Where is your brother?”

“Where is your father?”

“Where is your son?”

The wife, the sister, the daughter, the mother answered — “I do not know.”

In the Allier eleven members of one family alone, the Préveraud family of Donjon, were struck down, one by the penalty of death, the others by banishment and transportation.

A wine-seller of the Batignolles, named Brisadoux, was transported to Cayenne for this line in his deed of accusation: his shop is frequented by Socialists.

Here is a dialogue, word for word, and taken from life, between a colonel and his convicted prisoner:—

“You are condemned.”

“Indeed! Why?”

“In truth I do not exactly know myself. Examine your conscience. Think what you have done.”

“I?”

“Yes, you.”

“How I?”

“You must have done something.”

“No. I have done nothing. I have not even done my duty. I ought to have taken my gun, gone down into the street, harangued the people, raised barricades; I remained at home stupidly like a sluggard” (the accused laughs); “that is the offence of which I accuse myself.”

“You have not been condemned for that offence. Think carefully.”

“I can think of nothing.”

“What! You have not been to the café?”

“Yes, I have breakfasted there.”

“Have you not chatted there?”

“Yes, perhaps.”

“Have you not laughed?”

“Perhaps I have laughed.”

“At whom? At what?”

“At what is going on. It is true I was wrong to laugh.”

“At the same time you talked?”

“Yes.”

“Of whom?”

“Of the President.”

“What did you say?”

“Indeed, what may be said with justice, that he had broken his oath.”

“And then?”

“That he had not the right to arrest the Representatives.”

“You said that?”

“Yes. And I added that he had not the right to kill people on the boulevard. . . . ”

Here the condemned man interrupted himself and exclaimed —

“And thereupon they send me to Cayenne!”

The judge looks fixedly at the prisoner, and answers — “Well, then?”

Another form of justice:—

Three miscellaneous personages, three removable functionaries, a Prefect, a soldier, a public prosecutor, whose only conscience is the sound of Louis Bonaparte’s bell, seated themselves at a table and judged. Whom? You, me, us, everybody. For what crimes? They invented crimes. In the name of what laws? They invented laws. What penalties did they inflict? They invented penalties. Did they know the accused? No. Did they listen to him? No. What advocates did they listen to? None. What witnesses did they question? None. What deliberation did they enter upon? None. What public did they call in? None. Thus, no public, no deliberation, no counsellors, no witnesses, judges who are not magistrates, a jury where none are sworn in, a tribunal which is not a tribunal, imaginary offences, invented penalties, the accused absent, the law absent; from all these things which resembled a dream there came forth a reality: the condemnation of the innocent.

Exile, banishment, transportation, ruin, home-sickness, death, and despair for 40,000 families.

That is what History calls the Mixed Commissions.

Ordinarily the great crimes of State strike the great heads, and content themselves with this destruction; they roll like blocks of stone, all in one piece, and break the great resistances; illustrious victims suffice for them. But the Second of December had its refinements of cruelty; it required in addition petty victims. Its appetite for extermination extended to the poor and to the obscure, its anger and animosity penetrated as far as the lowest class; it created fissures in the social subsoil in order to diffuse the proscription there; the local triumvirates, nicknamed “mixed mixtures,” served it for that. Not one head escaped, however humble and puny. They found means to impoverish the indigent, to ruin those dying of hunger, to spoil the disinherited; the coup d’état achieved this wonderful feat of adding misfortune to misery. Bonaparte, it seems, took the trouble to hate a mere peasant; the vine-dresser was torn from his vine, the laborer from his furrow, the mason from his scaffold, the weaver from his loom. Men accepted this mission of causing the immense public calamity to fall, morsel by morsel, upon the humblest walks of life. Detestable task! To crumble a catastrophe upon the little and on the weak.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38