Napoleon Anniversary Renews Debate Over Legacy

Roundup: Talking About History

John Thornhill, Financial Times (London, England), 1/18/05

In 1882, Ernest Renan, the French historian, gave a lecture at the Sorbonne university in which he posed the question: what is a nation?

His answer was that nations were about far more than customs posts or geographical frontiers, or even races, religions or languages. They were, he claimed, the accumulation of shared glories and sacrifices and a common desire to achieve future goals."A heroic past, great men, glory . . . this is the social capital upon which one bases a national idea," he said.

Few individuals can have created so much national social capital so quickly as Napoleon. In two frenetic decades, the Corsican-born petit caporal (little corporal) drove France to the heights of glory and the depths of despair, leaving behind a rich legacy: the civil code, the Bank of France and the beauty of Paris.

Napoleon has remained a figure of huge fascination and controversy. Last month's bicentenary of his coronation as emperor occasioned a fresh flurry of historical debate and national self-analysis.

Dozens of books have been printed to mark the event, adding to the library of 60,000 already published (more than three for every day of his life). Several exhibitions, most notably in the Louvre and the Jacquemart-Andremuseum in Paris, have also commemorated Napoleon's vaulting act of ambition, when he invited the Pope to his coronation and then proceeded to crown himself.

"Napoleon was a self-made man," as one of his recent biographers, Steven Englund, noted,"and he worshipped his creator."

Napoleon remains such a contentious figure in France because almost every political tradition, from Gaullist nationalists to internationalist republicans, stakes some claim to him, however tenuous.

But Thierry Lentz, director of the Napoleon Foundation, a private institution devoted to the study of the emperor, says that interest in Napoleon spans all strata of the French population, from business magnates who are captivated by his genius for leadership, to workers who turn out at weekends to re-enact his victorious battles.

The French emperor has also become a subject of international controversy, highlighting the extent to which the history of a single nation can become a global property. Inevitably perhaps, there is a marked divide between predominantly French and"Anglo-Saxon" interpretations of his legacy.

For some (with a selective memory), Napoleon is viewed as the inheritor of France's anti-monarchical republican traditions who used force to promote revolutionary values and national liberation movements across Europe.

To others with a national bias, he was nothing more than a warmongering, dictatorial, proto-Hitler who left hundreds of thousands of corpses scattered across Europe's battlefields.

These divergences of view are reflected in an opinion poll published by Le Figaro magazine to coincide with the bicentenary. Almost half of the 1,000 French respondents agreed with the proposition that Napoleon was above all a great political figure in advance of his times; 39 per cent said he was a dictator who had used all means to satisfy his thirst for power.

This ambiguous legacy helps explain why the French state has been so wary of embracing the latest frenzy of Napleonmania. While the French government went to extraordinary lengths in 1989 to promote the bicentenary of the French revolution, it has steered well clear of endorsing any celebrations of Napoleon's coronation.

Some French historians suggest that much of the fuss about Napoleon is the fault - albeit inadvertent - of the British. During Napoleon's years in exile on St Helena, his British jailers allowed him to dictate his memoirs, enabling him to justify his actions and create his own legend. The"illustrious villain" was transformed into a"practical genius" and the militaristic aggressor was turned into a national hero forced into fighting defensive wars.

Napoleon skilfully used his time on St Helena to reinvent himself as a liberal emperor and one of history's victims, says Mr Lentz:"Napoleon himself used to say that Christ would not have been God had he not been crucified."

In this sense, Napoleon's enduring power as a national symbol lies as much in his humiliation as in his glory - he triumphed even in defeat.

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