He is part of us. –French President Emmanuel Macron, May 2021

Remembering a great historical figure

By Roger Childs

For many he is regarded as France’s most famous historical figure. He ranks with the great military leaders of the past, men like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghiz Khan, the Duke of Marlborough, Robert E. Lee and Erwin Rommel. However, on the two hundredth anniversary of his death there have been mixed reactions. 

He is not the first to have been critically observed through the black-tinted spectacles of hindsight and found wanting. The application of “cancel culture” was applied to Captain Cook on the 250th anniversary of his first voyage to New Zealand by Maori activists, and Waikanae readers will recall an art exhibition at Mahara Gallery where Maori artist Robyn Kahukiwa accused the great explorer of being an imperialist, rapist and murderer, claims that have no foundation in truth.

Napoléon’s legacy 

Critics of the great man have raised the issues of Napoleon’s reintroduction of slavery and his crushing of moves to establish a more democratic society after the French Revolution with greater freedoms for women – being able to study, travel and sign contracts. Marriages between black and white people were also forbidden. These policies are black marks on his reputation. 

However, he did introduce many reforms, some of which have had a lasting and positive impact on French life:

  • centralizing the government 
  • establishing a new system of local government
  • instituting reforms in such areas as banking and education 
  • abolishing feudal and church taxes 
  • making careers open to men regardless of class
  • supporting science and the arts
  • working to improve relations between France and the pope – who represented France’s main religion, Catholicism — which had suffered during the revolution. 

One of his most significant accomplishments was the Code Napoleon which streamlined the French legal system and continues to form the foundation of French civil law to this day. A key element was to ensure that all men were equal before the law, but not women.

In 1802 Bonaparte became first consul for life and two years later he crowned himself Emperor.

Military success creates a massive Empire

Napoleon had risen to power because of important military victories after France had been under attack in the 1790s by countries like Austria who were fearful that revolutionary ideas would undermine their monarchial governments. France not only repulsed the invasions but went on to the offensive. In 1802 at the Battle of Marengo Austria were driven out of Italy which now came under French control. 

Within a few years Napoleon had redrawn the map of Europe and the French Empire stretched from Spain in the west to the plains of Poland. In the countries he took over many reforms were instituted, but the people were still very much under the thumb of the French.

The other four European powers failed to unite against him and only Britain remained totally independent of the French. Key naval victories at the Nile, Trafalgar and Copenhagen stopped the threat of a French invasion across the Channel.

But in 1812 Napoléon overreached himself and invaded Russia with 600,000 troops. The Russians kept retreating and allowed Napoleon to occupy the capital Moscow. But there was no surrender and deliberate fires were lit to destroy supplies. The Emperor decided to withdraw and with winter setting in, this proved to be a disaster. The Russians now employed hit and run tactics and with the intense winter and shortages of food and other supplies over 300,000 soldiers died of cold, hunger and disease.

Bigger power unity

The four powers — Russia, Britain, Austria and Prussia – combined in 1813 to defeat the French and by April 1814 they were in Paris, with Napoleon now their prisoner. As there was concern that executing the Emperor would make him a martyr, he was exiled to the island of Elba off the north-western coast of Italy.

The old Bourbon monarchy, which has ruled before the 1789 French Revolution, was restored and the big powers now retired to Vienna to redraw the map of Europe. 

Napoléon’s last throw of the dice

In February 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba and landed in southern France. One of his former marshals, Michel Ney, promised the new, but unpopular, King Louis XVIII that he would bring Bonaparte back to Paris “in an iron cage”.  However, Ney’s forces and troops in Grenoble and elsewhere rallied to the Emperor. Bonaparte received a hero’s welcome on his return to Paris where he quickly re-established his government.

The four powers in Vienna pledged “not to lay down arms until Napoléon is rendered incapable of again disturbing the peace”. The crunch came at Waterloo in Belgium where in a close battle the allies won, mainly because Prussians troops arrived just in time to support the Duke of Wellington. 

Napoléon had fought his last battle and this time he was banished to the stormy British island of St Helena in the South Atlantic. It was here that he died in May 1821.

Hero or villain?

Hitler clearly saw a kindred spirit in Napoléon and visited his tomb at Les Invalides in June 1940.

The answer is both. He did bring glory and prosperity to the country and made France the strongest power in Europe up until 1812. He introduced many positive reforms, but the reintroduction of slavery and the subjugation of women were appalling policies which have tarnished his reputation.

Some writers on Napoléon have called him a military genius. However although he was superb battlefield strategist, his latest biographer Adam Zamoyski says that no genius would have made the disastrous decision to invade Russia. Hitler of course repeated the mistake 129 years later with same the catastrophic results.

Napoléon did make some prophetic comments on world affairs, the most accurate being China is a sleeping giant. Let him sleep for if he wakes he will shake the world.

What is not in question about Bonaparte is that he had a huge impact on Europe in the early 19th century. He is one of France’s great historical figures, but he has a mixed legacy. Perhaps not surprisingly Les Invalides, which houses his remains, is one of Paris’s most visited tourist attractions and it was here that President Macron paid tribute to Napoléon on the 200th anniversary of his death.