Revisiting the legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte, 201 years to the day his death

On May 5, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte died in a surprisingly small bed surrounded by his exiled French coterie in a damp and apparently rat-infested house on the British island of Saint Helena.

His last words, spoken shortly before his expiration at around 5:59 p.m. local time, were relayed: “France, army, army head, Josephine …” (France, the army, head of the army, Josephine). He was 51 years old.

Two hundred years later, the cause of his death remains an unsolved mystery and his career and life continue to be bitterly divided. For some, the Corsican-born emperor was a brilliant military and political strategist, for others he was little more than a warmongering despot.

On the right he is a national hero whose leadership and legacy put France on the map, while the left points out that he was autocratic and supported the restoration of slavery.

The life and career of France’s most famous leader

Napoleon was born on the island of Corsica shortly after its annexation by the Kingdom of France. He supported the French Revolution in 1789 while serving in the French army and attempted to spread his ideals in his native Corsica. He rose quickly in the military after saving the ruling French Directory by firing on royalist insurgents.

In 1796 he began a military campaign against the Austrians and their Italian allies, winning decisive victories and becoming a national hero. Two years later, he led a military expedition to Egypt which served as a springboard to political power. He staged a coup in November 1799 and became First Consul of the Republic.

Differences with the British meant that the French faced the War of the Third Coalition in 1805. Napoleon broke this coalition with victories in the Ulm Campaign and the Battle of Austerlitz, which led to the dissolution of the Holy Empire Germanic Roman.

In 1806, the fourth coalition took up arms against him because Prussia was worried about the growing influence of France on the continent. Napoleon knocked out Prussia at the battles of Jena and Auerstedt, marched the Grande Armée into Eastern Europe, annihilating the Russians in June 1807 at Friedland and forcing the defeated nations of the Fourth Coalition to accept the treaties of Tilsit.

Two years later, the Austrians again challenged the French in the War of the Fifth Coalition, but Napoleon strengthened his hold on Europe after triumphing at the Battle of Wagram.

Hoping to expand the Continental System, his embargo against Britain, Napoleon invaded the Iberian Peninsula and declared his brother Joseph King of Spain in 1808.

The Spaniards and Portuguese revolted in the Peninsular War, resulting in the defeat of Napoleon’s marshals.

Napoleon launched an invasion of Russia in the summer of 1812. The resulting campaign witnessed the disastrous retreat of Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

In 1813, Prussia and Austria joined Russian forces in a sixth coalition against France. A chaotic military campaign culminates in the defeat of Napoleon by a large coalition army at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813.

The coalition invaded France and seized Paris, forcing Napoleon to abdicate in April 1814. He was exiled to the island of Elba, between Corsica and Italy. In France, the Bourbons are restored to power.

However, Napoleon escaped from Elba in February 1815 and took control of France. The Allies responded by forming a Seventh Coalition, which defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815.

The British exiled him to the isolated island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic, where he died in 1821 at the age of 51.

Napoleon had a huge impact on the modern world, bringing liberal reforms to the many countries he conquered, especially the Netherlands, Switzerland, and parts of modern Italy and Germany. He implemented liberal policies in France and Western Europe.

Bonaparte’s legacy

His Code Napoleon defined civil law in large parts of the world, introduced higher education, taxes, roads and sewers, and he created the Bank of France.

Napoleon gave France its civil code and its penal code, established the system of prefects, state representatives in each French territory, and high schools, among others. But even the Institut de France refers to Napoleon as “a major figure in history that has always been disputed”.

Napoleon, famous military genius, is an integral part of the French heritage. But in the present day his image is tarnished by the decision to reinstate slavery in the French colonies in 1802, after its abolition in 1784. He was also responsible for years of carnage and destruction in the wars waged on much of the European continent and as far as Egypt.

Sovereign from 1799, he became emperor in 1804 for a decade, then again for three months in 1815. He was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba, escaped and miraculously raised a new army, only to meet defeat on June 18, 2015, in the hands of a British-led military coalition in the crucial Battle of Waterloo. He was sent in 1815 to the British outpost of Saint Helena, where he died after falling ill.

Napoleon’s body was later exhumed and buried at Les Invalides in Paris.

In the realm of politics, historians argue whether Napoleon was “an enlightened despot who laid the foundations of modern Europe” or “a megalomaniac who caused greater misery than any man before the arrival of Hitler”.

Many historians have concluded that he had grandiose foreign policy ambitions. The continental powers up to 1808 were willing to give him almost all his winnings and titles, but some scholars argue that he was too aggressive and pushed too much, until his empire collapsed.

Critics argue that Napoleon’s true legacy must reflect France’s loss of status and the unnecessary deaths entailed by his rule: Historian Victor Davis Hanson writes: “After all, the military record is undisputed: 17 years of wars, perhaps six million Europeans dead, France bankrupt. , its overseas colonies lost.”

McLynn states that “he may be considered the man who set back European economic life for a generation by the shattering impact of his wars.”

Vincent Cronin replies that such criticism rests on the erroneous premise that Napoleon was responsible for the wars which bear his name, when in fact France was the victim of a series of coalitions aimed at destroying the ideals of the Revolution.

Either way, one thing is clear: despite being dead for 201 years, Napoleon continues to be a controversial figure in contemporary French politics.

“Why shouldn’t we celebrate Napoleon?” Far-right nationalist leader Marine Le Pen told France Inter radio on Tuesday. “He’s a huge historical figure. I regret that the president is rushing to commemorate him. He did so much for the country and he gave so much to the world.”

Other French leaders must also have wondered how to remember the man known as the “little caporal”, famous for his frock coat and “bicorne” (two-cornered) hat which he wore sideways on the battlefield.

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Posted: Wednesday May 4th 2022, 4:32 PM IST

Edward K. Thompson