Napoleon I

views updated


French general, emperor; b. Ajaccio, Corsica, Aug. 5, 1769; d. Saint Helena, May 5, 1821.

Early Years. Napoleon was the son of Charles and Laetitia (Ramolino) Bonaparte. His father was thriftless and fickle, but his mother was economical, orderly, morally austere, religious in the Corsican manner, and very severe. The maternal influence over the Christian upbringing of her unruly, taciturn son seems not to have been profound. In 1780 Napoleon received chastisements from his mother when he refused to attend Mass, but this did not increase his devoutness. His great-uncle Lucien, an archdeacon, was more adept in conciliating wisdom with thrift than in preaching fervor. At the military school in Brienne, which he entered in April 1779, the boy was industrious and avid to learn, but quarrelsome and increasingly aloof. He remained attached to Father Charles, who prepared him for First Communion, but was much less edified by the other Minims who taught him and who celebrated Mass in 10 minutes, according to him. In 1784 he transferred to a military school in Paris where the technical training was first class, but the religious formation revolved too much around external practices imposed by school discipline and reflected the 18th-century spirit that penetrated the institution. The young cadet had to attend Mass each weekday and high Mass, Vespers, and catechism class on Sunday; he had to receive Holy Communion bimonthly and go to confession monthly. His independent spirit and his already weakened faith found this conformism irritating. The crisis that caused Napoleon's detachment from the Church was intellectual rather than moral. Pleasure did not attract him. His meager income reduced him to a poor, austere mode of life. On his own testimony books were his sole debauchery; so enticing were they that he often deprived himself of food to purchase them. He nourished himself on the ancient classics and still more on such modern authors as Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Mably, and Reynald. As a result the rationalism of the enlightenment penetrated his spirit and displaced his weakly rooted Christian beliefs. During his stay at the artillery school of La Fère, he ceased to approach the Sacraments and received them no more until his deathbed. He subscribed to the principles of 1789 and sided with the french revolution.

Napoleon continued to regard Corsica as his true homeland. He reserved for it the first display of his revolutionary fervor in order to install there the new revolutionary regime, which his family supported. His brother Joseph Bonaparte was elected a member of the Directory, and his uncle Joseph fesch took the oath upholding the civil constitution of the clergy in order to become vicar to Bishop Guasco; but Napoleon himself failed to obtain a military command. The Bonapartes came into conflict with Pascal Paoli, who opposed the Revolution, and had to flee to France (June 1793).

From 1793 to 1799. The uprising in southern France in favor of the Girondins supplied the young artillery captain with an opportunity to reveal his military genius. Toulon, which had fallen into English hands, was reconquered thanks to a plan devised by Napoleon. This success won him the favor of robespierre, the rank of general at the age of 22, and the command of the artillery in the French army in Italy. After July 27, 1794 (9 Thermidor), Napoleon was branded as a follower of Robespierre, stripped of his rank, and arrested. He then offered his services to Paul Barras and subdued the royalist insurrection (October 1795). As a reward Barras named him general of a division and commandant of the army of Paris. Barras, however, distrusted the savior of the Republic and tried to control Napoleon by turning over to him his mistress, the widow Josephine de Beauharnais. Bonaparte became passionately attached to this woman and entered a civil marriage with her (March 9, 1796) once he had been made general in charge of the army in Italy. Both of them could have had recourse to either the refractory or the constitutional priests, but neither of them troubled to do so. Josephine continued to attend the sermons of the constitutional Bishop Belmas at St. Étienne du Mont; yet this woman of fashion regarded morality lightly. Her religion was nothing but vague sentimentality.

Italian Campaign. During the war in Italy Napoleon learned from experience the social realities that he must take into account in formulating his political policies and military strategy. Despite his limited resources he confronted an offensive by new Austrian armies. To protect his rear he had to win the support of Italian Jacobins and at the same time to placate the Catholic populace, which threatened to rise against the French Revolutionary troops. Napoleon was so much impressed by the attachment of the Italians to the Church that he refused to obey the Directory's orders to march on Rome and "smash the throne of stupidity." After a first campaign in Romagna he stopped at Bologna and there signed with the Holy See an armistice guaranteeing papal neutrality while assuring himself of a war contribution of 21 million francs (June 20, 1797). After negotiations at Paris failed to effect definitive peace, a second campaign conquered Romagna and the Legations, but Bonaparte refrained from proceeding farther and informed pius vi that he could remain undisturbed in Rome. Napoleon promised also to provide protection for the pope and the Church, because "it is my special concern that no one make any change in the religion of our fathers." On his own initiative General Bonaparte reopened negotiations and concluded the Treaty of Tolentino (Feb. 19, 1797) without conforming to the Directory's instructions. This pact severed from the states of the church only the Legations, Ancona, and Avignon. The pope retained sovereignty over the rest of his territories, but paid 33 million francs as war indemnity, which was "equivalent to ten times Rome." This consoled the French government for these territorial concessions.

Religious Policy. No question arose concerning a bull retracting papal condemnations of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and requiring Catholic support of the revolutionary regime. Napoleon declared that he had not spoken about religion. He was convinced that an agreement on this point could not be reached with the basically anticlerical Directory. On this subject he had already framed his basic policies of inviting priests to preach obedience to the government, consolidating the new constitution, reconciling the constitutional with the refractory clergy, and leading the majority of Frenchmen back to religion. At that moment, however, the situation did not seem to him propitious to put his ideas into operation. Napoleon's project for Italian unification encountered Catholic opposition because the Jacobins with whom he dealt to create the Cispadine Republic and then the Cisalpine Republic practiced an anti-religious policy contrary to his views. The general sought unsuccessfully to moderate the Cisalpine government and the regional commissioners. But after his departure these men followed their own wishes. The discontent provoked by their anti-Christian action contributed largely to the uprising of 1799, which caused the collapse of a regime imposed by the French invader. Bonaparte heeded the lessons taught by this experience. It was not Catholicism as such that he intended to respect, but popular sentiment. His policy in the Egyptian campaign, during which he favored Islam, was inspired by the same selfish and realistic outlook.

Religious Restoration in France. Religion counted for naught in the coup d'état of Brumaire (Nov. 9, 1799), contrived by Sieyès for financial and political motives. But Bonaparte, whose military cooperation had seemed indispensable for the success of this operation, asserted himself as head of the consular government and gave to it a personal orientation. For reasons of domestic and foreign policy he intended to regulate the religious question. Before he could start a campaign to terminate the war then raging, he had of necessity to pacify the Vendée region. Thanks to bernier, he succeeded by granting to the Vendeans religious liberty in the Treaty of Montfaucon. Logic dictated that the same freedom should extend to the whole nation. The decree of 28 Nivôse (Jan. 17, 1799) provided it and yet demanded from priests no more than fidelity to the constitution. On the other hand, another decree (Dec. 30, 1799) sought to dissipate the bias against the French Revolution in the papal conclave then meeting in Venice and to combat Austrian influence in the conclave by prescribing exceptional honors for the remains of Pius VI. For the moment these half measures had to suffice, because the First Consul was not yet firmly established in power. He preferred to wait until further military victory strengthened his authority before putting into effect his full program. His discourse to the clergy in Milan (June 5, 1800), which became widely known, indicated that he would discuss with the pope a complete reconciliation between France and the Church. Not until the victory at Marengo, however, did he reveal the plan already matured in his mind and charge Cardinal Carlo Martiniana of Vercelli to transmit his proposals to pius vii.

Religious Outlook. Napoleon was undoubtedly more eager to promote his own policy than the interests of the Church, but the extent to which his policy corresponded with his personal dispositions toward Catholicism is disputed. From this time until his exile to Saint Helena, his contradictory statements can be invoked in opposite senses; but since these utterances varied according to the circumstances and the questioners and the effect Napoleon wished to obtain, they cannot be taken literally or interpreted as proof of his religious disquiet. Napoleon was basically an enlightened despot in the 18th-century style, nourished by the philosophers of that period. Like Voltaire, he judged religion necessary for the populace. His Deism, his belief in the immortality of the soul, and his religious sentimentality came from Rousseau and Robespierre. He did not believe in Catholicism as the one true religion. For him all religions possessed some value; all should be admitted in places where they exist; and all should be utilized for the good of the state. He believed in controlling religion but not in imposing it on others. As a son of the French Revolution he was faithful to the principles of 1789. At the same time he was willing to derive from gallicanism other principles that permitted the ruler to limit papal interventions. His religious practice remained external, official, and restricted to attendance at Sunday Mass, an obligation from which he excused himself in the army, because the army, which idolized him, had no need of cult or chaplains (see catechism, imperial).

Concordat of 1801. Napoleon's plan of religious restoration was part of his plan for a general restoration in France. Since the population as a whole clung to Catholicism, he sought to satisfy it while utilizing its religion. He believed that public opinion did not demand the restitution of ecclesiastical goods alienated during the Revolution. As for the clergy, he considered that a subsistence salary would be sufficient compensation. Napoleon judged also that national unity required ending the schism caused by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. His policy of reconciliation aimed to produce neither victor nor vanquished and obliged him to maintain a balance between the bishops of the ancien régime and the constitutional bishops by forcing both groups to resign. Thereupon the First Consul would name the entire new hierarchy. In doing so he planned to select some bishops from the ancien régime prelates and some from the constitutional hierarchy and to amalgamate them with new elements. He wanted to retain from the Revolution the division of dioceses according to civil districts, or departments, while reducing the number of dioceses lest the budget become too burdensome and disaffect the public. The same realism that dictated all these measures obliged Napoleon to have recourse to the pope in order to disavow the error committed by the Civil Constitution in 1790 and to prevent the reappearance of religious divisions. Therefore he recognized Pius VII's authority, but on the condition that the pope recognize the legitimacy of Napoleon's government. He admitted also the pope's authority to remove bishops and to appoint others in their stead. In accordance with the principles of 1789, however, he insisted that all cults must enjoy liberty and that Catholicism must not be the state religion. His plan envisioned finally that the liberty accorded Catholic public cult should be submitted to such police regulations as deemed necessary.

After laborious negotiations Pius VII and Napoleon reached agreement in the concordat of 1801. But this text masked rather than dissolved their differences. Quickly the First Consul incorporated the Organic Articles into the Concordat, severely restricting its scope.

Conflict with Pius VII. Much graver than the causes of conflict to which the application of the Concordat gave rise was the fundamental opposition between Napoleon Bonaparte and the pope. The former lacked a spiritual sense; the latter was essentially a spiritual man. Despite their mutual sympathy, even affection, the two men were bound to come into conflict. Conciliating though he was, the Holy Father would not compromise his principles even when his independence was jeopardized. Napoleon perceived this at the time of his coronation as emperor (Dec. 2, 1804). The pope, fortified only by vague promises, agreed to come from Rome to Paris and to allow modifications in the traditional ceremony. On the eve of the event Josephine, who wanted an indissoluble religious marriage lest she be later repudiated, explained to the pope the details of the couple's civil marriage. Pius VII then insisted that this irregular situation be rectified immediately if he were to participate in the coronation the next day. Napoleon had to consent to have his union blessed by the Church, but did so only on condition that Cardinal Fesch, his uncle, officiate at the marriage without witnesses and that this matter be kept shrouded in secrecy similar to that of the confessional. Pius VII returned from his journey to France without obtaining any of the religious advantages he sought, except for some secondary ones.

To the difficulties presented by the French concordat were added those caused by the Italian concordat (1803). In some respects the latter was more favorable to the Church, since it recognized Catholicism as the state religion; but this good feature was offset by the Melzi decrees. Napoleon's coronation as king of Italy (1805) speeded the introduction into northern Italy of French laws and institutions that were inspired by the spirit of the French Revolution. Moreover, Pius VII refused to conclude the German concordat proposed by the Emperor Napoleon for the ecclesiastical reorganization of Germany.

The extension of the French Empire and the resultant wars hastened the crisis, which became acute after 1810, between the pope and the ruler who wanted to be the successor of Caesar and Charlemagne. Although Napoleon invoked his "system," neither his foreign nor his religious policies conformed to fixed, preconceived notions. Instead his ideas were in continual flux and were modified according to the needs of the moment. It was not his ill-defined system that guided Napoleon but the "force of things." At the same time his military victories and the ever-widening scope of his conflicts accentuated his autocracy. In his policy and strategy Italy played a key role. He was attached to the peninsula also because to it he owed his start toward fame and because the memories of imperial Rome were always dear to his heart. The debarcation of the allied forces at Naples previous to the battle of Austerlitz obliged him to hold Italy to protect his rear. Therefore in 1806 he integrated Naples, Venice, and the duchies with the Kingdom of Italy and extended to these regions the provisions of the Italian concordat and the French legal code. This provoked Pius VII's protests.

Imprisonment of Pius VII. Up to this point Napoleon had not occupied the remaining States of the Church. Now he demanded that the pope expel foreign agents and close his ports to the allies. So tense did the situation become that Fesch was recalled from Rome and Consalvi resigned as papal secretary of state (June 17, 1806). Once Napoleon had crushed Prussia and concluded peace with Russia at Tilsit, he increased his demands on the pope. To prevent any opening in the Continental Blockade, whose aim was to ruin England's economy and force its capitulation, Napoleon ordered Pius VII to close his ports to the British. He even asked the pope for military aid against the heretics, "our common enemies." As father to all Christians Pius VII repulsed this ultimatum. Bayane's attempt at negotiation failed. Napoleon then ordered Gen. François de Miollis to occupy Rome (Feb. 21, 1808). He decreed the annexation of the States of the Church to the French Empire (May 16, 1809); and when Pius VII retaliated by excommunicating the perpetrators of this sacrilege, he ordered General Radet in July to remove the pope from Rome and then to conduct him as a prisoner to Savona, in northern Italy.

One last step that remained was to bring the Supreme Pontiff to Paris to make him pope of the Great Empire. But nothing could weaken Pius VII's resistance. When he was deprived of his liberty and his advisers, he refused to exercise his papal powers or to institute bishops canonically. Thenceforth the struggle centered on this last point. As vacant sees multiplied, Napoleon tried vainly to end this impasse by turning to the French episcopate. An ecclesiastical committee was convened in 1809 to find a solution, but it disappointed him.

Second Marriage. To complicate matters still more, Napoleon sought to assure himself a male heir by ridding himself of Josephine and marrying a girl with royal blood. Two decisions of the Parisian diocesan and metropolitan ecclesiastical officials, which were correctly rendered, declared Napoleon's marriage on the eve of coronation null. The first decision was based on defect of form; the second was based on defect of form and also on Napoleon's merely simulated consent to the marriage contract. A controversy followed concerning the competence of these diocesan tribunals. Among the Roman cardinals then in Paris one group was convinced that the solution of this case pertained to the pope and refused to assist at the emperor's marriage to Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria (April 1810). The reprisals against these "black" cardinals did not in any way promote the success of the mission of Cardinals Giuseppe spina and Carlo Caselli, who were sent to Savona to work out a settlement with Pius VII.

Institution of Bishops. To circumvent the difficulties caused by Pius VII's refusal to give canonical institution to newly named bishops, Napoleon nominated to the See of Paris Jean maury and caused the diocesan chapter to confer on him the powers of vicar capitular. Pius VII ruined this scheme by sending secretly to Paris a brief that declared Maury's powers null. In his fury the emperor ordered the pope kept in closer confinement and began a police persecution against clerical resistance.

The emotion roused by the Maury affair convinced Napoleon of the need to solve the problem. He appointed a second committee to find a solution, but it had recourse to subterfuges. At a solemn gathering (March 11, 1811) Monsieur Émery defended papal authority so courageously that the emperor displayed his admiration. A delegation of bishops to Savona shook Pius VII's resolve for a short time, but it had no lasting result because the pope revoked his concessions concerning canonical institution by a metropolitan. Napoleon then resigned himself to convoking the imperial council of 1811. There the bishops as a group resisted him, but individually they bowed to his will. When another delegation went to Savona, Pius VII conceded to the metropolitan, acting in the pope's name, the power of instituting bishops after six months. Napoleon demanded a change in this last point, but Pius VII refused. The situation thus had arrived at a new dead lock.

Concordat of Fontainebleau. Napoleon had the pope transferred to Fontainebleau, near Paris (June 1812), in the expectation that a victorious military campaign in Russia would permit him to overcome finally the resistance of the "old imbecile." After returning from the disastrous Russian expedition, the emperor was more determined than ever to succeed by extracting from the Holy Father a new concordat. Pius VII signed the socalled concordat of fontainebleau, but this text was intended only as a preliminary one that would serve as the basis for a later definitive agreement, provided everything were kept secret. When Napoleon in bad faith published this document as if it were a concluded concordat, Pius VII withdrew the concessions envisaged by him as the basis of the accord. As military defeat overwhelmed him, Napoleon freed the pope (Jan. 21, 1814). During the Hundred Days he tried vainly to regain the Holy See's friendship; but Waterloo rendered Msgr. Izoard's mission useless.

Last Years. In writing about Napoleon's religious attitude during his exile at Saint Helena (181521), Las Cases, Gourgaud, Bertrand, and Marchand have contradicted one another. Their accounts leave a mixed impression. In his last testament the emperor expressed a desire to die in the Catholic religion that he had inherited from his forebears and to receive before death Viaticum, Extreme Unction, and whatever else was customary in similar cases. According to Bertrand he was motivated solely by a belief that this would "promote public morality." Not all historians accept this interpretation. Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, after receiving the ministrations of Abbé Vignali on May 1. Pius VII was the one responsible for sending a chaplain to Saint Helena after the European powers refused to heed the papal request to mitigate Napoleon's sufferings. The pope had not forgotten that Napoleon had reestablished religion in France. Because of the "pious and courageous effort of 1801," Pius VII had long since forgiven the subsequent wrongs at Savona and Fontainebleau, which he described as mere errors of a spirit carried away by human ambition, whereas the Concordat was a Christian, heroic, and beneficial action.

Bibliography: j. leflon, La Crise révolutionnaire, 17891846 (FlicheMartin 20; 1949). a. latreille, L'Église catholique et la révolution française, 2 v. (Paris 194650); Napoléon et le SaintSiège, 18031808 (Paris 1935). v. bindel, Histoire religieuse de Napoléon, 2 v. (Paris 1941). l. madelin, Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire, 16 v. (Paris 193754). a. dansette, Religious History of Modern France, trans. by j. dingle (New York 1961) v.1. e. e. y. hales, The Emperor and the Pope (New York 1961). s. delacroix, La Réorganisation de l'Église de France après la Révolution (Paris 1962). j. schmidlin, Papstgeschichte der neuesten Zeit, 18001939 (Munich 193339) v.1. a. theiner, Histoire des deux concordats de la république française et de la république cisalpine conclus en 1801 et 1803, 2 v. (BarleDuc 1869). a. boulay de la meurthe, Histoire de la négociation du Concordat de 1801 (Tours 1920); Histoire du rétablissement du culte en France 180205 (Tours 1925). m. roberti, Milano capitale napoleonica, 3 v. (Milan 194647) v.1. a. fugier, Napoléon et l'Italie (Paris 1947). l. grÉgoire, Le Divorce de Napoléon et de l'Impératrice Joséphine: Étude du dossier canonique (Paris 1957). g. gourgaud and c. j. f. t. de montholon, Mémoirs pour servir à l'histoire de France sous Napoléon. écrits à Sainte Hélène, par les généraux qui ont partagé sa captivité, et publiés sur les manuscrits entièrement corrigés de la main de Napoléon, 8 v. (Paris 182325); ed. d. lancroix, 5 v. (new ed. Paris 1905). m. j. e. a. d. de las cases, Mémorial de SainteHélène, 4 v. in 8 (London 1823), separate Eng. and Fr. eds. with same title and format; ed. j. prÉvost, 2 v. (Paris 1935). h. g. bertrand, Cahiers de SainteHélène, janviermai 1821, ed. p. fleuriot de langle (Paris 1949).

[j. leflon]


views updated


coming of age
early campaigns and state-building: italy and egypt
power—the consulate
war and empire
the napoleonic myth

NAPOLEON (1769–1821), French general, first consul (1799–1804), and emperor of the French (1804–1814/1815).

Perhaps only the improbable national history that gave the world Joan of Arc could also produce as outsized a figure as Napoleon Bonaparte. This height-challenged second son of an obscure Corsican family grew up to rule France and much of Europe for a decade, and he has dominated world-historical memory and imagination ever since. He remains one of the most written-about figures since Jesus Christ.

coming of age

Napoleone Buonaparte (in the original Italian spelling) was born in Ajaccio on the island of Corsica on 15 August 1769. The Corsica that produced Napoleon had been ceded to France by Genoa, the year before his birth; its culture was thus Italian, as indeed it has in many ways remained. The island was a strange and wild clime, offering an explosive combination of the primitive and promising, the reactionary and revolutionary, and its inhabitants proved most difficult of assimilation. The Buonaparte family into whose midst Napoleon arrived as the second child of five brothers and three sisters offered a most Corsican combination of the ambitious and the idealistic—Carlo, the future emperor's father, being at one and the same time frantically ambitious to improve his family's social lot, yet strongly committed to the progressive forces on the island. The latter were represented by Pasquale Paoli, the Corsican republican hero of the 1750s, who was driven (by the Genoese) into exile in England, but was hoping to return.

The paradoxes and conflicts continue. Napoleon, like his siblings, was sent to school in France. He finished his studies at the elite Royal Military School in Paris. A second lieutenant of artillery, at the tender age of sixteen (1785), he was nevertheless strongly torn between his abiding feelings of Corsican patriotism and his shrewd understanding that "making it" could likely occur only in France.

The great Revolution of 1789, which restored Paoli to power in Corsica, thus seemed to Napoleon to be a divine surprise, for it offered him the opportunity to return to his beloved native land and play a historic role. In the intervening years, however, the young officer, despite his best intentions and apparent feelings, had in fact become quite "French"; certainly his political views were strongly identified with the Revolution. Thus, when Paoli and most Corsicans gradually turned against the Revolution, Napoleon unhesitatingly chose "the French party." In 1793 he and his family were forced to flee the island for the mainland. He left without looking back. Corsica never again interested him; for better or worse, he was French.

The ensuing five years, before great military and political success crowned Napoleon, were a painful and frustrating time for the young officer, alternately thrilling and boring. Napoleon's close identification with the Jacobin party both advanced and inhibited his career. He played a critical role in winning the siege that reclaimed Toulon from the English (1793), and for this was promoted to brigadier general, at age twenty-four. But with the fall of his protector, Maximilien Robespierre, in mid-1794, the young man lost his political base; the new regime, the Directory, left him to cool his heels for a time.

Nevertheless, with France at war against much of Europe, the government badly needed this officer's unique military and strategic talents. In October 1795 (Vendémiaire Year IV, according to the Revolutionary calendar), Napoleon was given an important position in the force that suppressed a counterrevolutionary movement in Paris. For his sterling services, he was made full general and named to command the Army of the Interior. Some months later, in early 1796, he received command of the French Army of Italy.

early campaigns and state-building: italy and egypt

The wars associated with the adjective Napoleonic attained a degree of violence previously unknown in Europe, yet paradoxically this first campaign in Italy, which established Bonaparte's name, was more typical of the Old Regime's war of maneuver and limited engagement—typical, but speeded up. The general's compact French divisions not only floated like butterflies and stung like bees, they also darted among the foothills and plains of northern Italy with the speed and suddenness of hummingbirds. In less than a fortnight, they knocked the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia out of the war. The ensuing twelve months saw them defeat several leading Austrian generals on battlefields whose names have come down to posterity (Lodi, Arcole) more thanks to paintings and myths than to the strategy deployed.

Bonaparte excelled as diplomat, as well; he played the key role in negotiating the Treaty of Campo-Formio (1797), which resulted in the French being anchored in northern Italy, while the Habsburgs were driven out, except of Venice. The "Jacobin general" put more of his imagination into state-building than into military campaigns or even diplomacy (thereby differentiating himself from Alexander the Great and Caesar, who were mainly conquerors). To be sure, all of northern Italy was heavily taxed and some of its best art was despoiled for French museums, but when Lombard patriots pressed Napoleon to overthrow their old regime and declare a republic, he did so. The resulting Cisalpine Republic saw the adoption of French constitutional models and methods, but made space, too, for Italian flourishes. Despite orders from Paris, Napoleon refused to humiliate the pope, and moreover he leaned on the oligarchical old city-state of Genoa to reform itself under a new name, the Ligurian Republic. No less a Napoleon critic than the historian Michel Vovelle finally speaks of the general's "noble ambition which in a certain sense played a positive role in the origins of Italian unity" (Vovelle, p. 184; author's translation).

The French invaded Egypt (1798) for numerous geopolitical and economic reasons, but Napoleon probably chose the assignment because the Alexandrine dimensions of it captured his imagination. The French army racked up legendary victories at the Pyramids and Mount Tabor, but military disaster struck them early on, when a British fleet under Admiral Horatio Nelson destroyed their ships in Aboukir Bay, thus marooning the French in Egypt. Like Xenophon and his Spartans in the fourth century b.c.e., Bonaparte met the challenge head on, keeping his army together and marching as far north as Syria—where the British finally bested him at Saint-Jean-d'Acre, and he returned to Egypt.

Again, it was in state-building that Napoleon flourished more than in warfare: despite local rebellion and religious conflict, he proved himself far more knowledgeable and appreciative of Islam than most modern conquerors have usually been, and he succeeded in winning over a large part of the educated and economically productive local elites to the French cause. The French remained nearly three years in Egypt, and in that time they laid many of the infrastructural and political foundations for a long-term, thoroughly "modern" colony in the nineteenth-century sense of the term. External factors alone were what drove them out: a British expeditionary force finally, barely, defeated Bonaparte's successor general, in the summer of 1801. If that officer had held out for four more months—that is, until the peace discussions between England and France got underway—the French hold on Egypt might well have survived until the twentieth century.

In any case, the expedition made one permanent important cultural achievement: the active presence of scores of French scientists, artists, and scholars, whom Napoleon had insisted on bringing (at considerable expense) in the first place, led, in the fullness of time, to the creation of the modern science of Egyptology.

With great daring (given that the Mediterranean was considered a "British lake" in 1799), Napoleon stealthily quit his army and returned to France, in late summer. The Directory, never politically stable, was in crisis—the object of machinations by numerous parties—and Bonaparte wished to play his part. Singularly famous and popular, the young general was courted by all sides, but ultimately chose to ally himself with the moderates around Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, a political theorist famed for his role as polemicist in 1789. Opposing both the royalists and the neo-Jacobin radicals, while skillfully conspiring with elements within the Directory itself, the Bonaparte-Sieyès group seized power—albeit, just barely—on 9 November 1799 (18 Brumaire Year VIII). The key point to note is that, technically speaking, their action was a "legal" coup d'état, because the men succeeded in getting a rump parliament to ratify their actions. This was the first use of a political ploy with a long future in world history.

power—the consulate

It is one thing to seize power—many parties and figures had done that in the long and tortuous decade since 1789. But it is quite another to hold on to power and accomplish something significant with it. This is what Bonaparte managed to do—firmly establishing himself under the Roman title of "first consul" (read: dictator) of the French Republic, while drawing into collaboration most of the great political, legal, and scientific minds of an era rich with such greatness. If he succeeded in bringing off so unprecedented an accomplishment, it was in part because Bonaparte saw to the creation of a new style of regime in the long and rusé (stuffed) annals of European history: a civil (not a military) dictatorship based nominally on "national sovereignty," functionally on a form of democratic mobilization (that is, on some use of the franchise and elections, notably countrywide plebiscites), and more generally on accenting an aroused and persuaded public opinion.

If Bonaparte seemed to strike out in all directions in the early years after his accession to power, the acts he performed or oversaw—from the small and symbolic to the large and material—were yet characterized by a high degree of coherence. For what he in fact managed to do was bring to port the manifold projects that the Revolution had conceived but failed to accomplish.

The "granite blocks," as these reforms may be called, by and large remained the plinth on which the French state continued to reside into the twenty-first century. They include administrative centralization (the prefectures), legal consolidation (the Napoleonic Code), a stabilized currency (the Bank of France and the franc), individual honorifics (the Legion of Honor), national education (the lycées, the University, the grandes écoles), and social peace (the Concordat with the Catholic Church). It is difficult to give a summary description or judgment on these measures, for many contemporaries saw them as "counterrevolutionary," while others saw them as precisely the opposite: the consolidation of 1789.

Two centuries on, the "granite blocks" may be viewed as the means by which a property-owning society of the eighteenth century, led by an Enlightenment general, strove to make a good exit from the most extravagant political ordeal of modern times (the French Revolution)—an ordeal that the general and his supporters regarded both as greatly admirable and greatly pernicious. For they had lived out Charles Dickens in advance of his writing (in A Tale of Two Cities): they had lived the best of times and the worst of times, and their great challenge lay in separating the two. Less than agonizing over what they had seen, they worried about what could happen if the ordeal of revolution continued. And so they stopped it while simultaneously consolidating it.

Bonaparte, in short, sought to escape "politics," as that word had come to be understood in the democratic contestation developed since 1789. Instead, the regime, to put it paradoxically, mounted a peculiarly French form of "apolitical politics": that is, government by a drummed-up "national" consensus around efficient administration, a cult of the leader, and the pursuit of military victory and French imperial glory (rather than by rival political parties, opposition newspapers, and critical parliaments).

Once again, the point is not that the Consulate attempted such a contradiction as an "apolitical" or "national" politics—many governments (before or since) have tried—but rather that Napoleon largely succeeded for nearly a decade at running the state without the usual checks and balances and partisan competition familiar to nearly all regimes of law. This said, however, a stubborn and dangerous counterrevolutionary opposition continued to stand against the Consulate and empire in some of France's western provinces, while from Switzerland, a small but prestigious and persistent political opposition smoldered among moderates and liberals congregated around the writer Germaine de Staël and the political theorist Benjamin Constant (and other "idéologues," as they were known).

war and empire

The steep price exacted for this unprecedented experiment in "national" governance was that France largely exported its domestic conflict in these years. That is, for most of Napoleon's tenure, the nation was at war. Indeed Bonaparte justified the transformation of the dictatorial Consulate into an authoritarian empire in the failure of the Treaty of Amiens (1802) and the return of armed conflict with England and its allies. Pope Pius VII was persuaded to come to Paris for the coronation (2 December 1804) of Napoleon as the first emperor of the French—a title that emphasized the formal, if empty, role of "national sovereignty" in the eclectic, nominally democratic regime that he put together. (The empire officially remained a "republic" until 1807.)

The War of the Third Coalition (1805–1807) saw Napoleon score his greatest single victory, at the Battle of Austerlitz, where his superior strategy defeated the larger combined armies of Austria and Russia. On the other hand, the British had again destroyed the French fleet (at the Battle of Trafalgar), so that Napoleonic hegemony was confined to the European continent. Great Britain ruled the seas along with France's extensive colonial holding. Later in the war, Napoleon inflicted sharp defeats on Prussia and Russia, at Jena-Auerstedt, Eylau, and Friedland. The Treaties of Tilsit (1807) confirmed French control of western and central Europe, while reserving a degree of Russian predominance in the east. But Tsar Alexander I was obliged to defer to French policy, and this proved distasteful and difficult for him. The Austro-French war of 1809 saw the French victorious at Wagram, and Habsburg power broken at the Treaty of Schönbrunn (1809).

As Britain's allies met disaster on land, the only way left for the English and French to carry on the war was in the economic realm. Britain's order in council (1806) created a maritime blockade of the Continent by the British fleet, matched by Napoleon's Berlin and Milan Decrees (1807), with which the French cut off all European trade with the British Isles. This "trade war" severely wounded both sides, but it ultimately inflicted greater harm on Europe, for it cut the Continent off from the spices and raw materials of Africa, India, and South America.

The war and the blockade "obliged" the French, as they saw it, to take control of the entire European littoral, which their leader's and his army's military skill permitted them to do. For the first time in European history since Charlemagne, if not since Rome, one power dominated the Continent. Napoleon's writ, at one time or another, ran from Lisbon to Moscow, and Naples to Copenhagen.

Unlike earlier empires, however, the French First Empire was no homogeneous structure, geopolitically speaking. Its "inner" core included modern-day Belgium, northern Germany and the Rhineland, northern Italy, the Dalmatian coast, and even a slice of eastern Spain; these areas were outright annexed to France and run as "departments." The "outer" empire included entire kingdoms and principalities (Spain, Holland, Westphalia, etc.) that were ruled by members of Napoleon's family, all of whom paid homage to the emperor. Finally, there were the vast areas of direct French influence—subordinating alliances that were forced on the Great Powers that had lost wars to Napoleon: Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Relations between the latter and France were further "thickened" by Napoleon's marriage in 1810 to Marie-Louise, the daughter of the Austrian emperor, Francis I. (Napoleon had secured an annulment of his marriage to Josephine because she could no longer have children.) The new empress bore him a son, grandly christened the king of Rome.

The year of the imperial prince's birth (1811) proved to be the high-water mark of Napoleonic power, and is a good place to try to sum up the balance sheet of his empire. This is a field in which contemporary scholarship has taken great strides, though it must also be said that the deepening of knowledge of the interface between the French and their subordinate lands has not led to many valid generalizations. On the one hand, it is clear that French influence always entailed some measure of progressive reforms, administrative, legal, and socioeconomic—changes that essentially forced degrees of "modernization" down the throats of old regime cultures, just as the Revolution had done in France. On the other hand, it is equally sure that the empire was always regressive in its extortion from occupied lands of money, manpower, and cultural artifacts.

Where complexity arises is in giving a detailed portrait of the interface over time between the French and the myriad social strata and political parties of the occupied lands. In some regions (e.g., northern Italy, Belgium) the newcomers were welcomed, and their departure left many locals (notably liberals in sympathy with the Revolution) regretful, for the learning and profit they had received and the changes their countries had registered. In other regions (Spain, southern Italy, much of Germany), however, the natives were mostly glad to get the French the hell out, although even in the bloodiest, angriest regions, such as Spain, it must be noted that whole social sectors (e.g., bourgeois city-dwellers in liberal occupations) knew the French departure spelled the end of socioeconomic progress—and worse. (Then, too, not a few historians have commented on how comparatively little bloody revolt the French presence provoked, despite their heavy demands and governance over their empire.) At the end of the day, a number of historians, notably François Crouzet, have commented on the Napoleonic Empire's role in being a first step toward European unification, which would eventually issue in the modern-day European Union.

Yet there were problems and defeats—serious ones—beginning most obviously in 1808, when much of the Spanish population followed some of their leaders in revolt against French rule. This obliged the emperor to march an army across the Pyrenees, and bring Spain to heel. This he did, but it did not last, once he left. He was obliged to send troops desperately needed elsewhere; Spain became a hemorrhage or cancer that seriously diminished the strength of the empire.

Around the same time, relations broke down between Napoleon and the pope over the issue of French domestic and international control over the Catholic Church. Never moderate with opponents, the emperor ordered the arrest of Pius VII and his incarceration in France. This rupture with the church was less immediately debilitating than the Spanish "ulcer," not least because it took several years for French Catholics to learn of the sorry state of relations between their emperor and their pope, but in the long run it cost Napoleon his large consensus in domestic support. French Catholics did not outright turn against him, but when the fortunes of war and diplomacy turned against the emperor, the key Catholic stratum in French public opinion, previously so grateful for the Concordat, no longer gave him unqualified support.

If Britain remained France's unrelenting foe, that nation yet had no means of militarily attacking the empire without reenlisting a major Continental ally. But after 1809, with Europe at Napoleon's feet, this proved hard to do. Franco-Russian relations, however, steadily declined after 1807, despite the apparent friendship between Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon. First, the Romanov realm was economically disobliged by its enforced participation in the Continental System (the name given the French economic blockade of England and subjugation of Europe). Then, too, Napoleon's resurrection of a Polish political entity (the Grand Duchy of Warsaw) infuriated the Russian aristocracy—a ruling class that already loathed the French for exporting elements of their Revolution.

War came in 1812, and Napoleon characteristically chose to attack his foe. He assembled the largest and most international force the world had ever seen—some five hundred thousand men—and led them across the Nieman River in June. His Grand Army inflicted bloody defeats on the Russians everywhere, including Borodino, and it even occupied the old capital of Moscow. But the tsar's government refused to sue for peace, or even negotiate, while meanwhile, the Russian populace began to harass the French. The threat of being trapped in Moscow for the winter led Napoleon to retreat, in the famous anabasis of the winter of 1812, which left his great force reduced to some ten to fifteen thousand combatants.

With France half-exsanguinated by its wars, and more especially the Russian campaign, the other great Continental powers, pressed on and bankrolled by Britain, threw off their yokes and joined Russia. The 1813 campaign in Germany saw the coalition of Russia, Austria, and Prussia defeat Napoleon and his army in several engagements, notably the great Battle of Leipzig (the Battle of the Nations). Surprisingly, the emperor retained his authority within France, and even managed to extract another army out of the exhausted realm. The final campaign—the Campaign of France, fought in and around the Champagne region—proved to be one of Napoleon's most dexterous displays of strategy in a hopeless situation.

Notwithstanding, the French capital fell, and the emperor was forced by his own marshals to abdicate, on 6 April 1814. Napoleon was exiled to the nearby island of Elba, off the northwestern Italian coast. From there, he planned his escape and return to France, no doubt further prompted by word of the plots against his life being fomented by the restored Bourbon monarchy in Paris. Napoleon's actual return—he landed in the Golfe-Juan, near Cannes, at the beginning of March 1815—came as a shock to the Great Powers gathered in Vienna. But the fact that in the next ten days, the majority of the French people, despite all the disasters of the late First Empire, welcomed the man back, who was reproclaimed emperor, struck contemporaries—as well as later observers—as nothing short of stunning.

Hardly less unpredictable was the new regime Napoleon founded. He agreed to share power with the senate and parliament, while granting far greater freedoms to the press and to individuals. The socalled Liberal Empire rallied some of Napoleon's most obdurate opponents (e.g., Lazare Carnot, Benjamin Constant); it endured a hundred days, until the emperor lost the Battle of Waterloo (18 June), and presently was shipped off into permanent exile on the distant South Atlantic island of St. Helena. However brief, this period of the Hundred Days remains one of the mysteries in modern European history—How did the French let it happen? What might the regime have become?

the napoleonic myth

In his six years of confinement on St. Helena, before his death on 5 May 1821, Napoleon produced one of his most far-reaching and lasting triumphs: he dictated roughly two thousand pages of memoirs to several aides, notably Emmanuel de Las Cases, who produced a massive tome entitled Memorial of St. Helena (1823). Though the work is a tissue of self-delusion and contains many contradictions, misinformation, and a few outright lies, it also contains pathos, remorse, and a great deal of thoughtful (and some beautiful) writing. Coupled with the experience of the Hundred Days (the "Liberal Empire"), the St. Helena writings have succeeded in memorializing Napoleon as a sort of liberal and democratic statesman—a friend of the "little people" and a nation builder who foresaw and worked toward the spread of the Enlightenment democratic revolution into the nineteenth century, including—no minor or illegitimate claim—the consolidation of the modern nation-state (notably Italy and Germany).

These writings have done so at least in French and Continental memory. In Anglo-American history, Napoleon has often been assigned an antipodal role: that of forerunner to Adolf Hitler. Neither view is even close to accurate—though the latter one, in addition to being wrongheaded, is also insulting to the French.

The truth is, Napoleon Bonaparte's unique contribution to world history lies in two things: on the one hand, the synthesis he wrought between nominal democracy based on national sovereignty and the plebiscite, as well as on military glory and geopolitical (imperial) aggrandizement; and, on the other hand, the never-ending appeal of the individualist myth of what the "lone man" can do with enough genius, gumption, and luck.

See alsoAusterlitz; Borodino; Concordat of 1801; Continental System; France; French Revolution; French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Hundred Days; Jena, Battle of; Napoleonic Code; Napoleonic Empire; Peninsular War; Sister Republics; Trafalgar, Battle of; Ulm, Battle of; Waterloo.


Alexander, R. S. Bonapartism and Revolutionary Tradition in France: The Fédérés of 1815. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Bergeron, Louis. France under Napoleon: Internal Aspects. Translated by R. R. Palmer. Princeton, N.J., 1981.

Broers, Michael. Europe under Napoleon, 1799–1815. London, 1996.

Bruce, Evangeline. Napoleon and Josephine: The Improbable Marriage. New York, 1995.

Carrington, Dorothy. Napoleon and His Parents: On the Threshold of History. New York, 1990.

Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York, 1966.

Dwyer, Philip G., ed. Napoleon and Europe. New York, 2001.

Ellis, Geoffrey. Napoleon. London, 1996.

——. The Napoleonic Empire. 2nd ed. Houndmills, Basingstoke, U.K., 2003.

Englund, Steven. Napoleon: A Political Life. New York, 2004.

Geyl, Pieter. Napoleon: For and Against. Translated by Olive Renier. New Haven, Conn., 1949.

Hazareesingh, Sudhir. The Legend of Napoleon. London, 2004.

Herold, J. Christopher, ed. and trans. The Mind of Napoleon: A Selection from His Written and Spoken Words. New York, 1955.

Jones, Proctor Patterson, ed. Napoleon: An Intimate Account of the Years of Supremacy, 1800–1814. San Francisco, 1992. Contains selections from the memoirs of Baron Claude-François de Méneval and Louis Constant Wairy.

Kauffmann, Jean-Paul. The Black Room at Longwood: Napoleon's Exile on Saint Helena. Translated by Patricia Clancy. New York, 1999.

Lyons, Martyn. Napoleon and the Legacy of the French Revolution. Basingstoke, U.K., 1994.

Mansel, Philip. The Eagle in Splendour: Napoleon I and His Court. London, 1987.

Schroeder, Paul W. The Transformation of European Politics, 1763–1848. Oxford, U.K., 1994.

Vovelle, Michel. Les républiques-soeurs sous le regard de la Grande Nation (1795–1803). Paris, 2000.

Woloch, Isser. Napoleon and His Collaborators: The Making of a Dictatorship. New York, 2001.

Woolf, Stuart. Napoleon's Integration of Europe. London, 1991.

Steven Englund

Napoleon I

views updated

Napoleon I

Napoleon I (1769-1821), emperor of the French, ranks as one of the greatest military conquerors in history. Through his conquests he remade the map of Europe, and through his valuable administrative and legal reforms he promoted the growth of liberalism.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born Napoleon Buonaparte (the spelling change was made after 1796) on Aug. 15, 1769, in the Corsican city of Ajaccio. He was the fourth of 11 children of Carlo Buonaparte and Letizia Romolino. His father derived from the lesser Corsican nobility. Following the annexation of Corsica by France in 1769, Carlo was granted the same rights and privileges as the French nobility. After an elementary education at a boys' school in Ajaccio, young Napoleon was sent in January 1779 with his older brother Joseph to the College of Autun in the duchy of Burgundy. In May of the same year he was transferred to the more fashionable College of Brienne, another military school, while his brother remained at Autun. Here Napoleon's small stature earned him the nickname of the "Little Corporal."

At Brienne, Napoleon received an excellent military and academic education, and in October 1784 he earned an appointment to the École Militaire of Paris. The royal military school of Paris was the finest in Europe in the years before the Revolution, and Napoleon entered the service of Louis XVI in 1785 with a formal education that had prepared him for his future role in French history. Napoleon joined an artillery unit at Valence, where he again received superior training.

First Military Assignments

Now a second lieutenant, Napoleon continued his education on his own, but he was distracted by Corsica. Until 1793 his thoughts, desires, and ambitions centered on the island of his birth. Following the death of his father, he received an extended leave (1786) to return to Corsica to settle his family's affairs. After rejoining his regiment at Auxonne, he again spent more than a year on his native island (1789-1790), during which time he was influential in introducing the changes brought about by the Revolution. Returning to France, Napoleon was transferred to Valence in June 1791. But by October he had returned to Corsica, where he remained for 7 months. He spent the critical summer of 1792 in Paris and then returned to Corsica for one last episode in October. On this visit he took part in the power struggle between the forces supporting Pasquale Paoli and those supported by the French Republic. After Paoli was victorious, Napoleon and the Bonaparte family were forced to flee to the mainland, and the young officer then turned his attention to a career in the French army.

The Revolution of 1789 did not have a major effect upon Bonaparte in its early years. He did not sympathize with the royalists. Nor did he take an active part in French politics, as his thoughts were still taken up with affairs in Corsica. Napoleon was in Paris when the monarchy was overthrown in August 1792, but no evidence indicates that he was a republican. Upon his return from Corsica in the spring of 1793, Capt. Bonaparte was given a command with the republican army that was attempting to regain control of southern France from the proroyalist forces. He took part in the siege of Avignon, and then while on his way to join the French Army of Italy Napoleon was offered command of the artillery besieging the port of Toulon.

National Acclaim

The siege of Toulon provided Napoleon with his first opportunity to display his ability as an artillery officer and brought him national recognition. France had gone to war with Prussia and Austria in 1792. England, having joined the struggle in 1793, had gained control of Toulon. After his distinguished part in dislodging the British, Napoleon was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. He also made the acquaintance of Augustin Robespierre, the younger brother of the powerful Maximilien, and though Napoleon was not politically a Jacobin, he derived benefits from his association with influential party members. The overthrow of the Jacobin regime on 9 Thermidor (July 1794) led to Napoleon's imprisonment in Fort Carré on August 9. When no evidence could be found linking him to the British, Napoleon was released after 10 days of confinement.

Throughout the winter of 1794-1795 Napoleon was employed in the defense of the Mediterranean coast. Then, in April 1795, he was ordered to Paris, and in June he was assigned to the Army of the West. He refused this position, pleading poor health. This refusal almost brought an end to his military career, and he was assigned to the Bureau of Topography of the Committee of Public Safety. While serving in this capacity, he sought unsuccessfully to have himself transferred to Constantinople. Thus Napoleon was in Paris when the royalists attempted to overthrow the Directory on Oct. 5, 1795.

Gen. Paul Barras had been placed in command of the defense of Paris by the government, and he called upon Gen. Bonaparte to defend the Tuileries. Napoleon put down the uprising of 13 Vendémiaire by unhesitatingly turning his artillery on the attackers, dispersing the mob with what he called "a whiff of grapeshot." In gratitude he was appointed commander of the Army of the Interior and instructed to disarm Paris.

Marriage and Italian Campaign

In the winter of 1795 Napoleon met Josephine de Beauharnais, the former Mademoiselle Tascher de La Pagerie. Born on the island of Martinique, she had been married to Alexandre de Beauharnais at the age of 16 and had borne him two children, Eugène and Hortense, before separating from him. Alexandre, a nobleman from Orléans, was executed in the last days of the Terror in 1794, leaving Josephine free to marry Napoleon. Their civil ceremony took place on March 9, 1796. Within a few days Napoleon left his bride behind in Paris and took up his new command at the head of the Army of Italy.

On March 26 Napoleon reached his headquarters at Nice, and on March 31 he issued the first orders for the invasion of Italy. The campaign opened on April 12, and within several weeks he had forced Piedmont out of the war. In May, Napoleon marched across northern Italy, reaching Verona on June 3. The campaign was then bogged down by the Austrian defense of Mantua, which lasted 18 months. During this period Napoleon beat back Austrian attempts to relieve the fortified city at Castiglione, Arcole, and Rivoli. Finally, in the spring of 1797, Napoleon advanced on Vienna and forced the Austrians to sign the Treaty of Campoformio (Oct. 17, 1797). The treaty gave France the territory west of the Rhine and control of Italy.

After spending the summer and fall at the palace of Monbello, where he established with Josephine what in reality was the court of Italy, Napoleon returned to Paris the hero of the hour. He was the man who could make war and peace. Napoleon was given command of the Army of England after drawing up a plan to invade that island. However, after a brief visit to the English Channel he abandoned any hope of crossing that turbulent body of water with the available French fleet. Returning to Paris, he gave up his command.

Egyptian Campaign

Napoleon did not wish to remain idle in Paris; nor did the government wish to see a popular general in the capital without a command to occupy him. Thus, when an expedition to Egypt was proposed, probably by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, both the general and his government gave it their support. Strategically, the expedition would extend French influence into the Mediterranean and threaten British control in India. Napoleon sailed from Toulon on May 19, 1798, with an army of 35,000 men. On June 11-12 he captured Malta, and on June 30 the task force reached Alexandria, Egypt. The city was taken, and Napoleon's army marched up the west branch of the Nile to Cairo. In sight of the city and of the Pyramids, the first major battle took place. With minimal losses the French drove the Mamluks back into the desert in the Battle of the Pyramids, and all of lower Egypt came under Napoleon's control.

Napoleon reorganized the government, the postal service, and the system for collecting taxes; introduced the first printing presses; created a health department; built new hospitals for the poor in Cairo; and founded the Institut d'Egypte. During the French occupation the Rosetta Stone was discovered, and the Nile was explored as far south as Aswan. But the military aspect of Napoleon's Egyptian venture was not so rewarding. On Aug. 1, 1798, Horatio Nelson destroyed the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, leaving the French army cut off from France. Then Napoleon's Syrian campaign ended in the unsuccessful siege of Acre (April 1799) and a return to the Nile. After throwing a Turkish army back into the sea at Aboukir (July 1799), Napoleon left the army under the command of Gen. Jean Baptiste Kléber and returned to France with a handful of officers.

The Consulate

Landing at Fréjus on Oct. 9, 1799, Napoleon went directly to Paris, where the political situation was ripe for a coup d'etat. France had become weary of the Directory, and in collaboration with Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, Joseph Fouché, and Talleyrand, Napoleon overthrew the government on 18 Brumaire (Nov. 9-10, 1799). The Constitution of the Year VIII provided for the Consulate. Napoleon was named first consul and given virtually dictatorial powers. The trappings of the republic remained—there were two legislative bodies, the Tribunate and the Corps Legislatif— but real power rested in the hands of the first consul.

Napoleon began at once to solve the problems that faced France at the turn of the century. With mailed fist and velvet glove he ended the civil war in the Vendée. He then personally led an army over the Grand-Saint-Bernard Pass into Italy and defeated the Austrians, who had declared war on France while Napoleon was in Egypt, at the Battle of Marengo (June 14, 1800). This victory, which Napoleon always considered one of his greatest, again brought Italy under French control. After a truce that lasted into December, French armies forced Austria out of the war for the second time. The Treaty of Lunéville (Feb. 9, 1801) re-confirmed the Treaty of Campoformio. It was followed on March 25, 1802, by the Treaty of Amiens, which ended, or at least interrupted, the war with England. The Concordat that Napoleon signed with Pope Pius VII in 1801 restored harmony between Rome and Paris, and it ended the internal religious split that had originated in the Revolution. Napoleon also reformed France's legal system with the Code Napoleon.

The Empire

By 1802 Napoleon was the most popular dictator France had ever known, and he was given the position of first consul for life with the right to name his successor. The establishment of the Empire on May 18, 1804, thus changed little except the name of the government. The Constitution of the Year VIII was altered only to provide for an imperial government; its spirit was not changed. The Emperor of the French created a new nobility, set up a court, and changed the titles of government officials; but the average Frenchman noticed little difference.

The Treaty of Amiens proved to be no more than a truce, and in May 1803 the war with England was renewed. The Emperor planned to invade the island kingdom in the summer of 1805, but his naval operations went amiss. In September, Napoleon turned his back on the Channel and marched against Austria, who together with Russia had formed the Third Coalition. At Ulm (October 14) and Austerlitz (December 2) Napoleon inflicted disastrous defeats upon the Allies, forcing Alexander I of Russia to retreat behind the Neman and compelling Austria to make peace. At the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon reached the height of his military career. The Treaty of Pressburg (Dec. 27, 1805) deprived Austria of additional lands and further humiliated the once mighty Hapsburg state.

Victory throughout the Continent

The year 1806 was marked by war with Prussia over increased French influence in Germany. The overconfident Prussian army sang as it marched to total destruction at the battles of Jena and Auerstädt (Oct. 14, 1806), and Napoleon entered Berlin in triumph. Prussia was reduced to a second-rate power, and the fighting moved eastward into Poland as the Russians belatedly came to the aid of their defeated ally. Although at the Battle of Eylau (Feb. 8, 1807) the French were brought to a standstill, on June 14 at Friedland the Emperor drove the Russian army from the field. Alexander I made peace at Tilsit on June 25, 1807. This understanding between the two emperors divided Europe. Alexander was to have a free hand in the east to take Finland and Bessarabia, while Napoleon was free to reshape western and central Europe as he pleased. The most significant result was the creation of the grand duchy of Warsaw (1807). Sweden was defeated in 1808 with Russia's help. Napoleon was now master of the Continent. Only England remained in the field.

Problems with England and Spain

On Oct. 21, 1805, Adm. Horatio Nelson had destroyed the combined Franco-Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar, Spain. This loss made it virtually impossible for Napoleon to invade England. He, therefore, introduced the Continental system, or blockade, designed to exclude all British goods from Europe. In this manner he hoped to ruin the British economy and to force the "nation of shopkeepers" to make peace on French terms. His plan did not work, and it led Napoleon into conflicts with Spain, the papacy, and Russia, and it undoubtedly formed a major cause for the downfall of the Empire.

In Spain in 1808 French interference led to the removal of the Bourbon dynasty and to the placement of Joseph Bonaparte as king. But the Spanish people refused to accept this Napoleonic dictate and, with aid from Great Britain, kept 250,000 French troops occupied in the Peninsular War (1808-1814). The refusal of Pope Pius VII to cooperate with Napoleon and the blockade led to the Pope's imprisonment and a French take-over of the Papal States. In the case of Russia refusal proved even more serious. Alexander's refusal to close Russian ports to British ships led to Napoleon's Russian campaign of 1812, which was highlighted by the Battle of Borodino (September 7) and the occupation of Moscow (September 14-October 19). However, the ultimate result of this Russian campaign was the destruction of the Grand Army of 500,000 troops.

Fall from Glory

The Napoleonic system now began to break up rapidly. At its height three of the Emperor's brothers and his brother-in-law sat on European thrones. Napoleon had also secured an annulment of his marriage to Josephine and then married Marie Louise, the daughter of Emperor Francis II of Austria, in March 1810. Despite this union, Napoleon's father-in-law declared war on him in 1813. Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig (Oct. 16-18, 1813) forced him behind the Rhine, where he waged a brilliant, but futile, campaign during the first 3 months of 1814. Paris fell to the Allies on March 31, 1814, and the hopelessness of the military situation led the Emperor to abdicate at Fontainebleau (April 4, 1814) in favor of his son Napoleon II. However, the Allies refused to recogize the 3-year-old boy, and Louis XVIII was placed on the French throne.

Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, where he was sovereign ruler for 10 months. But as the alliance of the Great Powers broke down during the Congress of Vienna and the French people became dissatisfied with the restored royalists, Napoleon made plans to return to power. Sailing from Elba on Feb. 26, 1815, with 1,050 soldiers, Napoleon landed in southern France and marched unopposed to Paris, where he reinstated himself on March 21. Louis XVIII fled, and thus began Napoleon's new reign: the Hundred Days. The French did not wish to renew their struggle against Europe. Nevertheless, as the Allies closed ranks, Napoleon was forced to renew the war if he was to remain on the throne of France.

The Waterloo campaign (June 12-18) was short and decisive. After a victory over the Prussian army at Ligny, Napoleon was defeated by the combined British and Prussian armies under the Duke of Wellington and Gebhard von Blücher at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. He returned to Paris and abdicated for a second time, on June 22. Napoleon at first hoped to reach America; however, he surrendered to the commander of the British blockade at Rochefort on July 3, hoping to obtain asylum in England. Instead, he was sent into exile on the island of St. Helena. There he spent his remaining years, quarreling with the British governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, and dictating his memoirs. He died on St. Helena, after long suffering from cancer, on May 5, 1821.

Further Reading

The best one-volume work on Napoleon in English is James M. Thompson's slightly pro-British account, Napoleon Bonaparte (1952). Also excellent are Felix Markham, Napoleon (1964), and André Castelot, Napoleon (1971). The two-volume work of Georges Lefebvre, Napoleon (1936; trans. 1969), is a masterful account of the period 1799-1815; primarily a political history, it includes all aspects of the Napoleonic era.

A number of books deal with Napoleon's period of exile: Gilbert Martineau, Napoleon's St. Helena (1966; trans. 1969), which includes illustrations and a good bibliography; Michael John Thornton, Napoleon after Waterloo: England and the St. Helena Decision (1968), detailing the weeks in July and August 1815 during which Napoleon waited his fate on a British warship; and an account based on the diary of the secretary to the governor of St. Helena, Gideon Gorrequer, St. Helena, during Napoleon's Exile: Gorrequer's Diary, edited by James Kemble (1969). One of the best of the many biographies of Josephine is André Castelot, Josephine, translated by D. Folliot (1967), which provides many insights into Napoleon as husband and lover.

Three fine works on Napoleonic military history are Vincent J. Esposito and John R. Elting, A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars (1964); David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (1966); and Sir James Marshall-Cornwall, Napoleon as Military Commander (1967). A useful account for the general reader of Napoleon's invasion of Russia is in Leonard Cooper, Many Roads to Moscow; Three Historic Invasions (1968). Claude Manceron, Napoleon Recaptures Paris, translated by George Unwin (1969), is a lively account of Napoleon's take-over of Paris in March 1815. □


views updated


(Napoléon vu par Abel Gance)

France, 1927

Director: Abel Gance

Production: Westi/Société générale de films, Paris; black and white, 35mm, Polyvision (some versions without Polyvision); running time: originally about 270 minutes, but the film has always existed in several versions, some up to 5 hours in length; length: originally about 32 reels. Released 7 April 1927, Paris. Released without Polyvision 1929, New York. Re-released 1934 with sound. In 1971 Napoléon— Bonaparte et la Revolution was re-released with sound and with some footage added and some eliminated. In 1981 Napoléon, the original version, was restored by Kevin Brownlow and re-released in its entirety with music by Carl Davis, also re-released in the US by Francis Coppola with some footage cut and music by Carmine Coppola. Filmed 1925–26 in France.

Producers: Wengoroff and Hugo Stinnes; screenplay: Abel Gance; photography: Jules Kruger, Léonce-Henry Burel, Jean-Paul Mundwiller, assisted by Lucas, Briquet, Emile Pierre, and Roger Hubert; editors: Marguerite Beaugé and Henritte Pinson; production designers: Alexandre Benois, Schildnecht, Jacouty, Meinhardt, and Laourie; music: Arthur Honegger; consultants: Jean Arroy, Jean Mitry, and Sacher Purnal; assistant directors: Henry Krauss, Alexandre Volkov, and Viatcheslaw Tourjansky.

Cast: Albert Dieudonné (Bonaparte); Vladimir Roudenko (Young Bonaparte); Edmond van Daele (Robespierre); Alexandre Koubitsky (Danton); Antonin Artaud (Marat); Abel Gance (Saint-Just); Pierre Batcheff (Hoche); Maxudian (Barras); Chakatouny (Pozzo di Borgo); Philippe Hériat (Salicetti); Nicolas Koline (Tristan Fleuri); Daniel Mendaille (Fréron); Alexandre Bernard (Dugommier); Philippe Rolla (Masséna); Robert Vidalin (Camille Desmoulins); Roger Blum (Talma); Paul Amiot (Fouquier-Tinville); Boudreau (La Fayette); Georges Lampin (Joseph Bonaparte); Alberty (J.-J. Rousseau); R. de Ansorena (Desaix); Jack Rye (Louis XVI); Armand Bernard (Jean-Jean); Albert Bras (Monge); Georges Cahuzac (Beauharnais); Favière (Fouché); Harry Krimer (Rouget de Lisle); Genica Missirio (Murat); Rauzena (Lucien Bonaparte); Viguier (Couthon); Vonelly (André Chenier); Jean d'Yd (La Bussière); Gina Manès (Joséphine de Beauharnais); Annabella (Violine Fleuri); Suzanne Blanchetti (Marie-Antoinette); Eugénie Buffet (Letizia Bonaparte); Damia (la Marseillaise); Yvette Dieudonné (Elisa Bonaparte); Marguerite Gance (Charlotte Corday); Simone Genevois (Pauline Bonaparte).



Gance, Abel, Napoléon vu par Abel Gance, Paris, 1927; selections in Ecran (Paris), April-May 1958.


Arroy, Jean, En tournant "Napoléon" avec Abel Gance: Souvenirs etimpressions d'un sans-culotte, Paris, 1927.

Sadoul, Georges, French Films, London, 1953.

Icard, Roger, Abel Gance, Toulouse, 1960.

Brownlow, Kevin, The Parade's Gone By, London and New York, 1969.

Mast, Gerald, Film/Cinema/Movie, New York, 1977.

Kramer, Steven, and James Welsh, Abel Gance, Boston, 1978.

Brownlow, Kevin, Napoléon: Abel Gance's Classic Film, London, 1983.

Icart, Roger, Abel Gance; ou, Le Promethée foudroyé, Lausanne, 1983.

King, Norman, Abel Gance: A Politics of Spectacle, London, 1984.

Groppali, Enrico, Abel Gance, Florence, 1986.

Kaplan, Nelly, Napoléon, London, 1994.


Graham, James, in New York Times, 5 June 1927.

"France Films Her Napoleon," in New York Times, 4 March 1928.

Hall, Mordaunt, in New York Times, 12 February 1929.

Gance, Abel, "Les Nouveaux Chapitres de notre syntaxe," in Cahiersdu Cinéma (Paris), October 1953.

Gance, Abel, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1954.

Thompson, Howard, in New York Times, 25 September 1967.

Lenning, Arthur, "The French Film—Abel Gance," in The SilentVoice: A Text, New York, 1969.

Brownlow, Kevin, in Films and Filming (London), November 1969.

Blumer, R. H., "The Camera as Snowball," in Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Spring 1970.

Greenspun, Roger, "Bonaparte and the Revolution," in New YorkTimes, 16 October 1971.

McKegney, Michael, in Village Voice (New York), 11 November 1971.

Brownlow, Kevin, "Abel Gance's Napoleon and the Revolution," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1971–72.

Canby, Vincent, in Film 71/72, New York, 1972.

Gilliatt, Penelope, in New Yorker, 6 September 1976.

Brownlow, Kevin, "Napoléon—A Personal Involvement," in Classic Film Collector (Indiana, Pennsylvania), 23 August 1977.

Everson, William K., in Variety (New York), 12 September 1979.

Grant, F., in Broadcast (London), 8 December 1980.

Eisenschitz, B., "The Music of Time: From Napoleon to NewBabylon," in Afterimage (London), no. 10, 1981.

Pappas, P., "The Superimposition of Vision: Napoleon and the Meaning of Fascist Art," in Cineaste (New York), no. 2, 1981.

Brownlow, Kevin, in American Film (Washington, D.C), January-February 1981.

Everson, William K., "The Many Lives of Napoleon," in FilmComment (New York), January-February 1981.

Elley, Derek, in Films (London), February 1981.

Welsh, James M., in Films in Review (New York), March 1981.

Allen, W., interview with Kevin Brownlow, in Stills (London), Autumn 1981.

Assayas, O., "Mensonges et vérités," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1981.

Hogenkamp, B., in Filmfaust (Frankfurt), December 1981-January 1982.

French, Sean, "The Napoleon Phenomenon," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1982.

Abel, R., "Change and Counter-Change: Coherence and Incoherence in Gance's Napoléon," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1982.

Vallerand, F., "Napoléon Coppola et les autres," in Séquences (Montreal), April 1982.

Verstappen, W., in Skoop (Amsterdam), June 1982.

Tobin, Yann, "Sur Napoléon d'Abel Gance: La Folie du docteur Gance," in Positif (Paris), June 1982.

Aristarco, G., in Cinema Nuovo (Turin), August-October 1982.

Icart, Roger, "La Representation de Napoleon Bonaparte dans l'oeuvre d'Abel Gance," in Cahiers de la Cinémathèque (Perpignan), Autumn 1982.

"Napoléon Issue" of Cinématographe (Paris), November 1982.

Arnaud, C., and Jean Mitry, "Sur les ailes de l'aigle: Notes sur Napoléon," in Cinématographe (Paris), December 1982.

Philpott, R., "Whose Napoleon?," in Framework (Norwich), 1983.

Jeancolas, J.P., "Gance au Havre," in Positif (Paris), January 1983.

Lardeau, Y., "L'Empereur contre-attaque," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1983.

Bassan, R., in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), September 1983.

Leblanc, G., "Gance dans le regard de l'aigle," in Cinéthique (Paris), May 1984.

Weijel, H., in Skoop (Amsterdam), November 1984.

"Napoléon Issue" of Skrien (Amsterdam), November-December 1984.

Nørrested, C., in Kosmorama (Copenhagen), December 1984.

Deburchgrave, K., in Film en Televisie (Brussels), January 1985.

Filmfaust (Frankfurt), January-February 1987.

Stewart, Garrett, "Leaving History: Dickens, Gance, Blanchot," in The Yale Journal of Criticism (New Haven), vol. 2, no. 2, Spring 1989.

Arnold, Gordon B., "From Big Screen to Small Screen: Napoleon Directed by Abel Gance," in Library Journal (New York), vol. 114, no. 9, 15 May 1989.

Lafaye, C., "Gance et 'son' Napoléon," in Cahiers de la Cinémathèque (Perpignan, France), no. 53, 1990.

Comuzio, E., "La musica dell'Imperatore salvata dal diluvio," in Cineforum (Bergamo, Italy), May 1990.

Gordon, M., "Some Things I Saw," in Salmagundi (Saratoga Springs, New York), Fall-Winter 1990–1991.

Gerstenkorn, Jacques, "L'empire de l'analogie," in Vertigo (Paris), no. 6–7, 1991.

Seville, J., "The Laser's Edge: Napoléon vu par Abel Gance," in Classic Images (Muscatine), no. 194, August 1991.

Conforti, A., and M. Lori, "La metafora nel cinema: Napoléon di Abel Gance," in Cineforum (Bergamo, Italy), July-August 1992.

Fernandez, C., " Napoléon vu par Abel Gance: el poder de la mirada—Napoleon y el aguila," in Film-Historia (Barcelona), vol. 5, no. 1, 1995.

* * *

The showing of Napoléon vu par Abel Gance on 7 April 1927 at the Opéra in Paris was in every sense a triumphant occasion. For the invited audience it meant the culminating point of the restoration of French cinema after its virtual annihilation in 1914. For writer-director Abel Gance himself it was the climax to 18 years of work in the cinema and 10 years of rigorous and innovative exploration of the visual potential of the medium. Napoléon alone had taken three years of unremitting research, writing and shooting, cost several million francs, involved thousands of extras and a team of a dozen assistants and at least eight cameramen and directors of photography.

The project had been initially conceived as a massive six-part work which was to include the whole of Napoleon's life. The eventual six hours of edited footage in fact covers only a portion of the first part of this grandiose scheme, so the scale of Gance's imagination is immediately apparent. The truncation of the project means that though Napoléon has a greater sweep than any other Gance epic, it lacks the tragic resolution which usually completed Gance's tales of heroic endeavour, whether that of Jean Diaz in J'accuse, Savaronola in Lucrèce Borgia, or Beethoven in Un grand amour de Beethoven. Despite its length, the film offers only the education and shaping of its hero, leaving him at an early point of triumph—the entry of his armies into Italy.

It is the technical aspects of Napoléon that have always received the most attention. The context in which Gance was working was one highly receptive of visual experimentation. After the constriction of the pre-1914 system organised by Charles Pathé and Léon Gaumont, in which Gance had made his debut, the new postwar generation to which he belonged strove to give a new dignity to the cinema. Despising the underfinanced, totally commercially oriented cinema of the early 1910s, with its philistine disregard for artistic aspiration and its conception of films as products to be made as if they were canned peas, Gance and his contemporaries strove to develop the visual potential of the new medium, experimenting with mobile cameras and the new editing techniques pioneered by the emergent Hollywood narrative cinema and indulging in a profusion of optical effects—masks and superimpositions, distorting lenses and pulled focus. All of these tendencies reach their climax in Napoléon. To help with the massive project and the manipulation of the crowd scenes, Gance sought the assistance of fellow directors Henry Krauss, Alexandre Volkov and Viatcheslaw Tourjansky. With the aid of a team of cinematographers led by Jules Kruger, Léonce-Henry Burel and Jean-Paul Mundwiller, Gance moved his camera in every conceivable fashion—to imitate a ship tossed by a storm, the view from a galloping horse or even a snowball in flight. As if this welter of visual effects were not in itself sufficently dazzling, Gance arranged for the screen width to be tripled at the end, so that Napoleon's entry into Italy, recorded in widescreen and with triptych effects, becomes a stunningly unique visual experience.

The climate of French 1920s cinema was conducive to Gance's project, and there was nothing to restrain his exuberant imagination. The most successful films of the decade were super-productions with an exotic, literary or historical flavour, and Napoléon was designed to outmatch them all. It combined breathtaking virtuosity with a totally personal conception of the subject, and not until the 1970s masterpieces of Coppola and Spielberg do we find a similar harnessing of the entire resources of an industry to an unfettered personal vision. Central to Gance's conception was a 19th-century romantic view of the artist. It has been well observed that just as Un grand amour de Beethoven depicts the artist as hero, Napoléon offers a view of the hero as artist. Though Gance himself played the role of Saint Just, he identified himself as creator of the film with Napoleon (played by Albert Dieudonné) as creator of a new France and master of the forces of history. Napoleon—man of action, politician and military genius— becomes a largely passive figure, a pensive visionary. Much stress is placed on Napoleon's childhood, and the hero's ability to crush dissent with a steely gaze is anticipated in early scenes of the schoolboy leading his side in a snowball fight. The boy is endowed with an all-too-symbolic pet eagle. But if these early scenes are often lively and well-realised, the most remarkable feature of this inevitably uneven work is the handling of action, nowhere better shown than in the celebrated scenes which intercut shots of Napoleon at sea in a tiny boat rocked by a storm with the human storm in the Convention in revolution-torn Paris.

In the 1980s Napoléon became probably the most celebrated of all silent masterpieces. Kevin Brownlow's 20-year self-imposed task of bringing together all extant footage of the film is a remarkable endeavour, but for film historians it raises a whole host of questions about authenticity and authorship. There are now two quite different Napoléon restorations, Brownlow's own English version with its music by Carl Davis and preservation of silent running speed, and the version distributed in the United States by Francis Coppola's company which is cut, run at the inappropriate speed of 24 frames a second and endowed with a questionable score by Coppola's father. Moreover, far from simply constituting a restoration of a mutilated film and a recreation of the viewing conditions of silent cinema with full orchestral accompaniment, Brownlow's five-hour version is as much a modern interpretation and distortion as Henri Langlois's seven- or eight-hour compilations of episodes from Judex or Les vampires. These versions led to the rediscovery of Louis Feuillade's work and the restoration of his reputation, but by compressing up to a dozen episodes, designed to be seen separately at fortnightly intervals, into a single massive viewing session, Langlois created a work that owed nothing to 1920s conceptions of film narrative and time-span. This new relationship of film and spectator can have an immediate "modern" impact, as the films of Jacques Rivette, one of the Cinémathèque Francaise's most faithful habitués, show, but it is not a recreation of the 1920s experience.

Similarly, Brownlow's "original" version corresponds to none that was ever shown in Paris in the 1920s, and there is nothing to indicate that audiences then would have accepted this five-hour endurance test. The actual Napoléon, like so many silent films, existed in several versions, and the 1927 showings were either of a shortened version with triptych effects (as at the premiere in the Opéra) or a four- or six-episode version without triple screen and shown over a period of weeks. Despite such paradoxes, the Brownlow version has many virtues, not least of which has been its revival of interest in silent cinema. Moreover, whereas Gance's own reworkings of his material—the 1934 sound version, the re-edited 1971 compilation Bonaparte et la revolution—like his 1960s feature Austerlitz, are simplifications and at times trivialisations, this 1980s version restores the work to full complexity and to its status of one of the 1920s most remarkable achievements.

—Roy Armes

Napoleon I

views updated


The Russian people first discovered Napoleon as the young and bright general who stood out during the military campaigns of Italy in 17961797 and of Egypt in 17981799. By that time, he was deeply admired in Russia for his military genius by both civilians and soldiers such as Alexander Suvorov, who saw in him a "new Hannibal." Later on, Napoleon's victories over European armies reinforced the myth of his military invincibility, until the retreat of Berezina in OctoberNovember 1812.

Politically, the coup d'état by which Napoleon came to power in October 1799 (Eighteenth Brumaire) at first reassured the tsar Paul and the conservative and liberal elites, who saw in this new authoritarian regime the end of disorders and excesses brought by the French Revolution. But this feeling did not last: Napoleon's proclamation of his First Consulate for life on August 4,1802, followed by the establishment of the Empire on May 18, 1804, triggered strong negative reactions. For liberals, including the young tsar Alexander I, who acceded to the throne in March 1801, Napoleon became a tyrant who betrayed the Enlightenment ideas through personal interest. For the conservatives, the self-crowned man lacked legitimacy, and his huge political ambitions were dangerous for the European balance.

Alexander first chose to ignore the Napoleonic threat. In 1801 the young tsar decided to maintain Russia outside the European conflict and adopted a pacifist diplomacy: On October 8, 1801, a peace treaty was officially signed with France. But this position became increasingly difficult to maintain when France started to pose a serious threat to Russian interests in the Mediterranean and in the Balkans. So in 1805, Alexander decided to join Austria and Britain in the Third Coalition. The tsar wanted to play a major role in the international theater, lead the fight against Napoleon, and, after the victory, promote a new European order, liberated from the tyrant. However, the military operations were a disaster for Russia, and on December 2, 1805, the battle of Austerlitz was a personal humiliation for Alexander, who, as commander of the Russian forces, ignored General Mikhail Kutuzov's advice not to enter battle before the arrival of more troops.

After the defeat of Friedland on June 14, 1806, judging that his forces were unable to continue fighting, the tsar decided to pursue peace with Napoleon. Napoleon was in favor of an agreement with Russia, as his focus had shifted to political control of Central Europe and the war against Britain. On July 79, 1807, several treaties were signed at Tilsit between the two emperors. The terms were difficult for Prussia, which was partitioned. The Polish provinces forming the Duchy of Warsaw under Saxony and the provinces west of the Elbe were combined to make the Kingdom of Westphalia, which had to pay an indemnity. Russia suffered no territorial losses but had to recognise Napoleon's dominant position in Europe and take part in the continental blockade of British trade. In compensation Russia obtained peace, freedom of action in Eastern

Europe, and the opportunity to gain Finland from Sweden militarily (18081809), Bessarabia from the Ottoman Empire (with the Bucharest treaty in 1812), and Georgia from Persia (by the Gulistan treaty in 1813).

Despite these large successes, Russia remained hostile toward Napoleon. In 1805 the Orthodox Church declared Napoleon the Antichrist. And for most of the Russian elite who had been raised with French language and culture, Napoleon was the archetypal expression of Barbary, not a Frenchman but a "damned Corsican."

Despite its renewal on September 27, 1808, at Erfurt, the Russian-French alliance was indeed fragile. The two countries had opposite views on the Polish question and were rivals in the Balkans and in the Mediterranean. The Continental blockade became more and more expensive for that Russian economy and was denounced by Alexander in December 1810.

These tensions led Napoleon to initiate a war that he expected to be short. He invaded the Russian territory on June 24, 1812, with an army of more than 400,000 men. On June 28, the French were already in Vilna, and on August 18 they entered Smolensk, forcing the Russians to retreat.

For the Russian people, the invasion was a national trauma, not only because of the brutality of the warin one day, at the battle of Borodino, on September 7, 1812, the Russians lost 50,000 men and the French 40,000but also because of its blasphemous dimension: Napoleon did not hesitate to use churches as stables. On September 14, when Napoleon entered the sacred capital, Moscow the Mother, he found the city empty and devastated by fires, which went on for five days. The burning of Moscow was a terrible shock, and it generated feelings of resentment from the Russian people toward Alexander. But soon it united all the Russians, whatever their social class, in a patriotic and mystic struggle against the invader. Napoleon's promise to liberate the Russian peasants from serfdom had no effect on the people, who, along with the tsar and his elite, sensed the urgency of a physical, moral, and spiritual danger.

For Napoleon, the situation was impossible: On the one hand the lack of supplies prevented him from going any farther; on the other hand, he was unable to force Alexander to negotiate. On October 16, the retreat of the Grand Army began in difficult conditions. Subject to cold, hunger, and typhus, attacked by the partisan movement and by peasants on their way back, less than 10 percent of the Grand Army was able to leave the Russian territory in December 1812.

The French defeat was a fatal blow to the Napoleonic adventure and made Alexander the conqueror of Napoleon and the "savior of Europe." In February 1815, Napoleon tried to regain his lost power, but the adventure did not last, and the Hundred Days did not harm Alexander's prestige. The tsar personally took part in the Congress of Vienna and engaged in the construction of a new political and geopolitical order in Europe. During the congress, Alexander's Russia took great advantage of the victory over Napoleon from both diplomatic and territorial points of view. But beyond this geopolitical concrete outcome, the collective and messianic triumph over the invader constituted in Russia a major step toward the birth of a modern national identity.

See also: alexander i; austerlitz, battle of; borodino, battle of; kutuzov, mikhail iliaronovich; france, relations with; french war of 1812; tilsit, treaty of; vienna, congress of; war of the third coalition


Cate, Curtis. (1985). The War of the Two Emperors. New York: Random House.

Hartley, Janet. (1994). Alexander I. London: Longman.

Palmer, Alan. (1967). Napoleon in Russia. London: Simon and Schuster.

Tarle, Eugene. (1979). Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, 1812. New York: Octagon Books.

Wesling, Molly. (2001). Napoleon in Russian Cultural Mythology. New York: Peter Lang.

Marie-Pierre Rey

Napoleon I

views updated

Napoleon I (1769–1821) ( Napoleon Bonaparte) Emperor of the French (1804–15), b. Corsica. One of the greatest military leaders of modern times, he became a brigadier (1793) after driving the British out of Toulon. In 1796 he married Joséphine de Beauharnais and gained command in Italy, where he defeated the Austrians and Sardinians (see French Revolutionary Wars). In 1798 he launched an invasion of Egypt, but was defeated by Nelson at the Battle of Abukir Bay. In 1799 he returned to Paris, where his coup of 18 Brumaire (November 9) set up the Consulate. As First Consul, he enacted domestic reforms such as the Code Napoléon, while defeating the Austrians at Marengo (1800) and making peace with the British at Amiens (1802). Efforts to extend French power led to the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). After the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) Britain controlled the seas, but Napoleon's Grand Army continued to score notable land victories at Austerlitz (1805) and Jena (1806). The Continental System attempted to defeat Britain by a commercial blockade that led indirectly to the Peninsular War. In 1810, after obtaining a divorce from Joséphine, Napoleon married Marie Louise who bore him a son, the future Napoleon II. In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with a million-man army. Forced to retreat by hunger, more than 400,000 soldiers perished in the Russian winter. In 1813, Napoleon was routed by a European coalition at Leipzig. In March 1814, Paris was captured and he was exiled to Elba. In March 1815, he escaped and returned to France, overthrowing the Bourbon King Louis XVIII. The Hundred Days of his return to power ended with defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (June 1815). Napoleon was exiled to St Helena, where he died.


views updated

Napoleon the name of three rulers of France, of the Bonaparte dynasty established by the Corsican-born Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), emperor 1804–14 and 1815.

The name Napoleon is used particularly in allusion to someone who has the strategic and military capacities of Napoleon I; the belief on someone's part that they are Napoleon is sometimes cited as a type of derangement.


views updated

Napoleon see NAP3.

About this article

Napoleon I

All Sources -
Updated About content Print Topic