March 29, 2007

The Legend of Napoleon

On 1st March 1815, a group of ships containing 1,100 men drifted off the southern French coast, they put into land and began a revolution whose consequences reverbrated through the history of France for the next hundred years. They brought within them the exiled Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte. Within days, Bonaparte's small band of companions had marched through France receiving support, especially from the units sent to oppose him by the terrified Bourbon government in Paris. By the 20th March, Napoleon and his band reached Paris. The experiment of reviving the empire was however shortlived- on 18th June 1815, Napoleon was defeated by a combined British and Prussian force near the town of Waterloo. Napoleon was exiled to St Helena and died in 1821, his cause one might have thought was lost. Though as any historian will tell you, of course that isn't quite true because his nephew Napoleon III 30 years after the death of Napoleon himself became a second Emperor of France. Sudhir Hazareesingh presents some rather interesting evidence that even that does not tell the full story- that under the seamless restoration of the French monarchy lurked regrets for the reign of the Emperor and for what he represented- for what Hazareesingh calls the legend of Napoleon, a factor he feels lay behind not merely the revival of Bonapartist politics in the second empire but also lay behind the fundamental instability of restoration France after 1815.

Hazareesingh has accumulated a great deal of interesting evidence demonstrating how the cult of Napoleon grew up. Looking into the local French archives, he has found evidence of all sorts of Bonapartist activity- peasants and townsmen arrested for chanting Bonapartist slogans, for using the colours of the tricolour and not the monarchy, for distributing via networks of travelling salesmen and women Bonapartist artefacts- busts, medals and even books. Sites like the gates by which he had reentered Grenoble or the inn where he had slept the night of March 1st became tourist sites, attracting visitors who wished to witness the imperial myth. Moving onwards Hazareesingh shows how this cult of Napoleon became allied to other forces against the Bourbon monarchy. Bonaparte stood for the French Revolution and his image became Republican in form. This started in Napoleon's brief second stint in power, when he summoned Benjamin Constant, the noted French liberal intellectual, to draft a new Bonapartist constitution. Seizing on that statesmen and scholars as various as Constant himself, Victor Hugo and the French liberal conservative Adolphe Thiers were able to see in Bonaparte the France that they wished to recreate.

Giving vitality to the cult of the Emperor, Hazareesingh spots the former members of the Napoleonic armies. At one point France had had over a million men in arms- mostly very young, indeed so young that they became the shock troops for Napoleon III's later coup in 1851. These men provided a human connection with the feats of Napoleon I, they gathered together to remember him, from 1857 the roughly 400,000 veterans who were still alive were given special medals to wear and processions were held in their honour. (The last survivor from the Grand Armee died in 1906 in Poland- direct memory of the Napoleonic wars lasted until then.) Perhaps the most vivid memorial erected by the troops was erected by Louis Petit, a soldier from 1812 to 1815 who rebuilt his house in the village of Saint Riquer in the shape of Napoleon's hat! The troops and Napoleon's political successor, Napoleon III, created a Bonapartism that was more liberal than Bonaparte himself. The great general became remembered as a great lawgiver, a French Solon, who had been forced by perfidious Albion and her German and Russian allies into war, as a Napoleonic veteran wrote in a poem of 1859, Napoleon's diplomacy's other name was peace. His acheivements were no longer seen as imperial but as popular as well- as one French author argued Napoleon was the only King the French loved because he was the only popular King of France.

Hazareesingh's account of the effects of Napoleonic stories upon French politics is convincing. The presence of a large number of decommissioned men within a society creates tensions- especially if those men become defined by their wartime experience. In the divided France of the 19th Century where royalists hated members of the Grand Armee that was not surprising. He is right to note the parallels in modern French history- the cults both of Joan of Arc and of Charles de Gaulle, especially the latter, bear examination alongsides that of Napoleon. One might mention the interwar reputation of Petain as well as the incarnation of the French spirit at Verdun. Napoleon's significance can't be underrated.

My only quibble with this volume lies not in the account of the history- but the implication that such imagining of politics through a historical figure is a unique French preoccupation- think of the way that British Conservatives squabble over the figure of Winston Churchill, how American conservatives discuss Ronald Reagen or Pakistanis regard Jinnah, Turks Attaturk for that matter. These historical figures become metaphors by which we discuss present politics- just like Napoleon was for the 19th Century French. Just like Napoleon, Churchill say has become associated with causes which he, a British Imperialist to the core, would never have understood. The historical dangers are evident- and Hazareesingh may be right that Napoleon's cult has contributed to the illiberalism of French liberalism- but he is wrong to insist that this is a uniquely French phenomenon. The content of the myth, not the fact of having myths itself, explains that perception.

Having said that, for an introduction to French politics in the 19th Century- particularly the era from the fall of Napoleon through the rule of the Kings both Bourbon and Orleanist to the second Bonapartist restoration under Napoleon III- this volume presents an interesting survey. The myth of Napoleon was undoubtedly created in those years and sustained as an ideology of opposition and then as a way to legitimate the new regime. Its dominance in the discourse of the French imagination of their own past meant that it formed their thoughts about their own nation, in many ways features of its story lie behind senses of France that French people have today. Whether it reflected the actual emperor is another matter- but the myth contributed to what we think France is today- as such it is a key part of the history and politics of our own day. As such, Dr Hazareesingh has performed a great service by exploring it, bringing the past to life whilst also illuminating the nature of politics in France in the present.


Matthew Sinclair said...

Hmm... I've been thinking about this and I'm not sure Reagan or Churchill are comparable as they aren't fathers of the nation in the same way. Both are seen as deliverers of their nation from a time of great danger but not as creators.

Now, Ataturk is certainly comparable and Jinnah maybe (I need to check this with Pakistani friends but I don't think he has the same military implications). However, both these states have rather illiberal traditions.

Might it be quite possible to argue that a defining father figure to a nation somehow retards liberalism by offering a flag for authoritarians to rally around? Particularly if they have a military background?

It's just an idea and a bit of a stretch but seems plausible.

Gracchi said...

I'm not sure that Napoleon would be considered the founder of the nation of France- Charlemagne is more likely. I think the problem with that thesis is that many of the earliest liberal states had identifiable founder figures- think of Washington, think of Solon or Romulus going back.

Vino S said...

I think part of the appeal of the cult of Napoleon is the fact that he could marry together some of the nationalist and the liberal aspects in French political culture. He was a liberal and a moderniser, in the sense that he was carrying on many of the reforms of the Revolution - ending the power of the old aristocracy, bringing in a secular education system, weakening the power of the church, re-organising local government into departments. He was also, of course, a nationalist. He fought for French national glory. And, the public saw him as a great leader because he led France to victory in many of the wars of the 1795-1814 period. French armies which, during the ancien regime, were finding it difficult to win battles and were confined within their national boundaries, were - in napoleon's time - able to march to Moscow. yes, it ended in defeat in the end, but it did succeed for almost a decade in creating French hegemony in continental Europe. It also spurred revolutionary and liberal movements elsewhere in Europe.

CityUnslicker said...

I can't see Chirac or Mitterand having a cult built after them in 30 years time!

HouseofPolitics said...

Napoleon is just a legend now...


james higham said...

He certainly appealed to something in the French soul, particularly for the heirs of the sans-culottes after 18 Brumaire.

Author designate said...

I don't know about founder of the French but here is his christmas letter from his cards sent in 1812

Joan said...

No Napoelon would not be considered the founder of France.
He has invented a lot of great things that we continue to use in our politic system but his wicked side isn't a good thing in our minds.

The founders of the nation of France are probably Rousseau, Voltaire, Victor.H and "les Lumière" for the biggest part of french people.