Paris, France. December 1840.
Napoleon Bonaparte, the former Emperor of France, and probably the most famous person in French history, was returning to Paris.
It was a bitterly cold winter’s day, yet hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets to welcome him home. His great procession through the capital included his triumphal monument the Arc de Triomphe, completed four years previously.
It was a remarkable site. Yet the emperor saw none of it. Napoleon had been dead for nineteen years.
This procession, which marked the return of Napoleon’s body to France for internment in the Church des Invalides, in the centre of Paris, was a fitting final chapter to an extraordinary life. For, regardless of whether you love or loath Napoleon, it is impossible to deny that he was just that: extraordinary.
Ever since the moment of his death, there has been intense debate about Napoleon’s legacy. There are three groups to the debate. The ‘Bonapartists’ regard Napoleon as one of history’s great men, whose achievements mark him out as a military genius, and a superb political leader. Their fiercest opponents are often called ‘anti-Bonapartists’, who take the exact opposite view. They see Napoleon’s actions as the example of one of history tyrannical dictators, being only slightly better than Hitler or Stalin.
There is, however, a third group. They have no official name, but we could call them ‘the moderates’. They take a more subtle approach, arguing that there were some redeeming aspects of Napoleon’s rule and personality, but that he was also a man with significant faults.
So what was Napoleon’s legacy?
He left a huge mark not only on France, but on history. An entire period of history was named after him (the Napoleonic era), and he gave his name to the series of conflicts in which he was the central player: the Napoleonic Wars.
He reformed French law, something which was desperately needed at the time, and he brought the country glory and power, if only for a short time until he was defeated.
Napoleon clearly had a positive legacy in some areas. His Code Napoleon codified (formally wrote down and confirmed) French law, and became the basis for France’s legal system for the next 150 years. Yet many of his ‘reforms’ confirmed ideas that had been created during the French Revolution.
Women also suffered under his rule, losing many of the rights that they had gained during the French Revolution, and their position in society returned to one where they were subservient to men.
Napoleon is often incorrectly credited with creating the great military machine with which he conquered Europe. The reforms which made the French army so powerful were actually carried out by his predecessors. The Corps system was created by Carnot. The mass recruitment of civilians into the army was masterminded by Robespierre. Yet Napoleon was a truly inspirational leader, who was energetic and skilful at manoeuvring his armies. The reason why the French army was so successful under his command was that he, better than almost anyone else, was able to exploit the benefits of those reforms to their greatest advantage, At the same time though, he often appeared indifferent to the suffering of his men, and was willing to accept huge numbers of casualties in return for success on the battlefield.
The Bonapartists often argue that Napoleon was a man of peace. Whilst it was true that he made many peace offers to his opponents, the terms were always designed to give him the greatest advantage, whilst offering his opponent nothing in return. Although other countries did, on many occasions, declare war on France, rather than the other way round, they often did so after their situations had become intolerable, or they had been provoked by the Emperor’s policies.
There were also many unpleasant aspects to Napoleon’s rule. He came to power in a military coup, he censored the press, and used the secret police. He forced his reforms on the nations that he conquered (for better or for worse, and regardless of whether those reform were beneficial in the unique conditions in each country).
Above all, Napoleon was a master of propaganda, and he used this to great effect even after he had been defeated and exiled to St Helena. Rather than passively waiting for death, Napoleon sought to write his own version of history. He held long discussions with those supporters who had followed him into exile, justifying his actions. He did this knowing that they would faithfully write down what he said, and therefore leave behind the version of him that he wanted to endure: A man of the people, who was democratic, left-wing, and willing to listen to his subjects. He claimed that he had only ever acted with the aim of building upon the achievements of the French Revolution, and that he had created a liberal empire, governed in the interests of the people.
This version of Bonaparte, created by the man himself, has endured thanks to the efforts of Bonapartist historians. Yet it has to be acknowledged that there was much to dislike about Napoleon. He looted nations, ruined France economically through the demands of his many wars, and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children across Europe. He ultimately always sought to serve his own ends. He was one of the most Machiavellian men in history.
Historians will never fully agree on how to remember Napoleon. The one thing which they will all agree on though, is his military achievements. Perhaps the greatest monument to his legacy is the tomb that he was placed in on that cold December day in 1840. Lying in the centre Paris, surrounded by a museum that is dedicated to his glory, it is one of the country’s great landmarks. It speaks volumes about the power of a man who almost everyone knows about two hundred years after his death, and whose name will be revered, or reviled, for eternity.
What do you think? Was Napoleon a hero or a villain? What will be his lasting legacy? Join the discussion in the Forum now.
Interested in learning more?
Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great, (Penguin, 2014)
Charles Esdaile, Napoleon, France and Waterloo: The Eagle Rejected (Pen and Sword, 2016)
Geoffrey Ellis, Napoleon: Profiles in Power (Pearson, 1997)
Places to visit:
Musee de l’Armee, Hotel D’Invalides, Paris, France.