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Napoleon Everlasting


Napoleon Everlasting
UMaine historian Alexander Grab studies the emperor's centuries-old influences on modern-day Europe

About the Illustration: Napoleon Bonaparte's tyranny and triumph were skewered by satirists and romanticized by artists of his day. Indeed, the self-crowned emperor orchestrated his own propaganda to memorialize his legacy. Many of those same characteristics and quirks immortalized in art have fascinated scholars through the ages, making him a cultural icon.

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He was short of stature and long on military might. From paintings of the era, he is pictured as a general riding into battle on a white steed, the classic three-cornered hat perched sideways on his head, or as an emperor, posing on his throne or in his study, medals adorning his chest, his right hand tucked into his waistcoat. To the French, he was a hero; to much of the rest of the world, a conquering tyrant. Waterloo was his downfall.

No matter how much or little you know about Napoleon Bonaparte and his reign (1799–1815), the fact is, you know OF him. That's how far-reaching is the man's mythology. The military genius who made himself emperor of much of Europe died nearly 200 years ago after being exiled to a small island in a desolate stretch of the south Atlantic. Yet vestiges of his memory linger and references to his reign have even made it into the lexicon. (Today, it's unfortunate if someone has a Napoleonic complex or has met his Waterloo.)

It's estimated that more than 220,000 books have been written on Napoleon since his fall from power — more books than about any other historical figure except Jesus Christ, according to historian and author Paul Johnson.

"There is a myth around Napoleon. He is the fulfillment of the American Dream, so to speak," according to University of Maine Professor of History Alexander Grab, whose research on Napoleon spans almost 20 years. "He was a person who rose from a relatively obscure background to become the most powerful statesman in Europe, a major ruler, an emperor. Unlike Alexander the Great and Charlemagne, Napoleon did not inherit the throne. He has fascinated people because of this."

Napoleon Bonaparte was only 26 when he was appointed commander of French troops on the Italian front. He was 30 when he became first consul; 35 when he crowned himself emperor. His many military victories and the important legacies he left to France, including the Napoleonic Code, which stressed legal equality and property rights that are still the foundation of French civil law today, also explain the considerable interest in him, says Grab.

But for all we still find fascinating about Napoleon, there is much we don't know. Some of the truth has been shrouded in mystery or sensationalized, the result of propaganda Napoleon himself orchestrated. Today, one of the most visible debates is about whether Napoleon was poisoned or died of stomach cancer at age 51 at Saint Helena.

To understand the Napoleonic period, one must look beyond the military campaigns and his private life and study the economic, social, administrative and cultural aspects of his reign, says Grab. And to do that, one must look beyond France.

"Napoleon was as much a part of European history as he was of French history," says Grab, whose latest book on the emperor, Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe (2003), took first place in the International Napoleonic Society's annual book competition last year. "A critical component of Napoleon's historical role was his effort to consolidate French hegemony throughout Europe and establish himself as its dominant ruler."

Napoleon nearly succeeded in uniting Europe two centuries before the Euro. He reshaped the map of Europe by annexing foreign territories, creating new satellite states, shifting borders, toppling dynasties and imposing new governments. Across the continent, from Madrid to Warsaw and from Hamburg to Naples, he conscripted young men and imposed taxes to support his Grande Armée. With collaboration from the 10 European countries in the Napoleonic Empire, he imposed his most significant policy after 1806, the Continental Blockade, which virtually ensured French economic domination and shut out his fiercest enemy, Britain.

In addition to the overt acts of exploitation and conquest were reform programs established by Napoleon that transformed and modernized the infrastructure of many European countries, sparking nationalism. His reform policies included the creation of a centralized state with a professional bureaucracy based on merit, as well as secondary schools, state police forces, national markets and secularization of church property.

The intensity and depth of the reform programs varied across the continent. In the countries of the "inner empire," such as Western Germany and Northern Italy, Napoleonic reforms thrived and endured. However, massive resistance in Spain limited the effect of the Napoleonic reform policies in that country. Opposition by the nobility in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and the Kingdom of Naples prevented certain reforms, such as full emancipation of peasants.

Policies Napoleon launched as a French and European ruler, reformer and military commander were closely linked, says Grab. In his view, France's role was to provide a model for the improvement of the rest of Europe, while Europe's function was to acknowledge the supremacy of the French structure and supply the resources to aggrandize the French position in Europe.

"Napoleon was a catalyst of modernity on a European scale," Grab says. "By building the central state, abolishing the privileges of the church and nobility and weakening their grip on power, advancing the interests of the bourgeoisie, proclaiming legal equality and promoting economic unity, Napoleonic rule paved the way for the modernization of Europe."

Another reality: After victorious allies wiped out much of Napoleon's territorial organization in Europe and deposed his governments in 1815, many restored rulers kept the infrastructures for raising taxes, recruiting soldiers, maintaining law and order, and dealing with the church.

Napoleon's victories "sent a clear signal to European rulers that modernization of state apparatus based on the French model was indispensable if they wanted to survive and play a role in the international arena," Grab says.

The Napoleonic regime, he says, had a Janus face: reform and innovation combined with subordination and exploitation. Romantics portray him as a "Man of Destiny"; his critics characterize him as the "Corsican Bandit." Grab resists efforts to romanticize or vilify. The fact is, Napoleon came from a Corsican family with connections to the French establishment. A brilliant opportunist, he ruthlessly took advantage of the moment and of others' weaknesses to seize power. His reforms were constructed on the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment, using the building blocks of the French Revolution.

"Without the changes of the French Revolution and the national army, there would be no Napoleon. Without the fact that France was one of the richest and most powerful countries in Europe, there would be no Napoleonic victories," he says.

We must examine the Napoleonic achievements within those contexts, Grab cautions. "The idealization of any leader, no matter how powerful and accomplished he or she is, will be in general a misconception."

by Wayne E. Reilly
January-February, 2006

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