In the midst of national confusion over the results of the
presidential election, PBS broadcasted a four-hour television
documentary on the life and career of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man not
known for his interest in elections.
Paris is still ornamented with the names of his victories —
Austerlitz, Wagram, Friedland, Rivoli — and a stunning portion of
modern French institutions date from his rule: The civil code, the
school system, the tax system, the legal system, the Bank of France.
Born poor and of common stock in Corsica, and having no connection with
the hereditary European aristocracy, his ascent in France during the
revolutionary years was nothing short of dazzling. An artillery
lieutenant in 1785, he dispersed a revolutionary mob in Paris 10 years
later with what he called a “whiff of grapeshot,” and was given command
of the army of the interior.
After marrying Josephine de Beauharnais, he assumed control of a
starving, ragged army, shortly converting it into a first-class fighting
force, which he led to victory after victory. His military success in
Egypt was overshadowed by the total destruction of the French fleet by
Britain’s Horatio Nelson. Unannounced, Napoleon returned to France and,
following further revolutionary turmoil, emerged as first consul.
France’s autocratic constitution of the year X soon gave its approval to
Napoleon as consul for life. The next step, after further military
victories, was to crown himself emperor of the French, with the
Pope as witness.
Women were never very important to Napoleon and, when he fought his
first campaigns, his place in Josephine’s bed was taken by a series of
lovers. How much of this Napoleon knew or suspected is not known but,
as the years went by, Josephine slowed down her escapades and, once she
was empress, they came to an end. But her husband’s ambition was
unceasing — the new emperor had his marriage to Josephine annulled and
then married Marie Louise, the Hapsburg royal princess, daughter of the
Austrian emperor. His brothers, sisters and other family relatives he
appointed king of this and duchess of that.
And so it went until he invaded Russia, one of history’s great
turning points. Napoleon gathered the largest army Europe had ever
seen. Russian troops fell back, systematically devastating the land as
they retreated. Napoleon entered Moscow in June, 1812, and found it
virtually empty. Fires broke out all over the city, set by the
populace, and with his supply lines empty, his stores exhausted, and his
winter quarters burned, Napoleon sued for peace. After crossing the
Berazina, Napoleon’s forces, which had lost four-fifths of their number,
were in full flight. Offered peace by the anti-French coalition if
France returned to its “natural” boundaries, the Rhine and the Alps,
Napoleon refused, and Paris fell to the invaders.
Napoleon abdicated, and the allies gave him the tiny island of Elba
as a sovereign principality. But Napoleon would not accept defeat,
landed on the Riviera and, in the course of a triumphant march
northward, once again rallied France behind him. Louis XVIII fled and
Napoleon entered Paris, beginning what histories refer to as the
“Hundred Days.” At the end came his final defeat at Waterloo. Napoleon
surrendered. He was shipped as a prisoner of war aboard a British
warship, to Saint Helena, a small south Atlantic island a thousand miles
west of Africa. Far from common shipping lanes, Napoleon had only half
a dozen years to reflect on his place in history.
Scholars differ widely as to his historical importance. Napoleon was
beyond doubt one of history’s greatest conquerors. Spreading the
achievements of the French Revolution throughout Europe, the Napoleonic
legend continued to have many adherents throughout the 19th century. In
France Napoleon introduced many legal and administrative reforms that
remain in force to this day. His overturning of the principle of
hereditary rule encouraged nationalist movements all over Europe.
Although millions died during the wars he instigated — and his ruthless
police chiefs suppressed all opposition — he did not leave behind him
the memory of an Adolf Hitler. In fact, he is one of the great symbols
of the Romantic Movement.
Napoleon remains to this day an inspirational figure. His body was
ordered returned to France by Louis Philippe in 1840. With almost royal
ceremony, the corpse was entombed under the dome of Les Invalides, on
Paris’s Left Bank, where thousands and thousands still visit it in awe.