Napoleon Bonaparte, 200 years old



Who does the world remember today, the young man of brilliant revolutionary victories or the enemy of the Jacobins and emperor of concessions?

In 1808 Napoleon went to hear a concert in Erfurt during the Congress of Princes. There he decorated Goethe and confessed to him that he had read his Werther… He had become a demigod. Even a saint named Neopolis, a martyr of Alexandria, was canonized because his name could be pronounced like Napoleon.[I] But, from canonization to opposition, there was an abrupt change provoked by Bonaparte himself.

Upon knowing him emperor, Beethoven withdrew the dedication of the Symphony Heroica. The young Italian poet Ugo Foscolo had already been disillusioned before when Venice, then a democratic republic, was returned to Austria by virtue of the Peace of Campoformio (April 1797). But then he thought that, despite everything, Bonaparte continued the Revolution.[ii]

After the coronation, Bonaparte began to be confronted with the same passion that the Revolution of 1789 had instilled in the French. But now they were Germans, Spaniards, Russians and many others moved by the new national ideology. When a certain Dessorgues wrote “Oui Le grand Napoleón / est un grand cameleón”, he paid for his verses with prison, but revealed the emperor's ambiguity.

The Empire consolidated bourgeois property and the irrevocability of the sale of national goods by the Revolution. It is true that Pius VII was called to Notre Dame Cathedral to crown Napoleon I. But on December 2, 1804, Napoleon took the crown from the Pope's hands and placed it himself on his head. Then crown the Empress.[iii] He was Emperor by talent and not by birth.

If he exchanged a Josephine who had been unfaithful to him (in Barras' bed) for Maria Luiza of Austria, he was also the glory of a France whose territory between 1795 and 1811 almost doubled in size. Napoleon was as much a product of the French Revolution as of the army it created for practical needs. He wrote: “Strategy is the art of utilizing time and space. I'm more parsimonious with the first than the second. The space, we can recover; lost time, never”.[iv] His surprising attacks were only possible because in combat the speed of march of the French soldier could reach 120 steps per minute against the average of 70 of the opponents.[v]

Mandatory subscription, the levée en masse; Bivouac and not camp; and substituting looting for transporting supplies were some of the elements that enabled General Bonaparte's genius. Geography also played a role. In densely populated western Europe his armies won, but they were exhausted in Russia's territorial expanses, as we shall see.

Yet, as Sartre asserted, Napoleon was no mere accident. The development of the Revolution forged this Napoleon with the personality and personal powers demanded by his time. And also those soldiers imbued with the national feeling that amazed Goethe at the Battle of Valmy. Individuals never fully recognize themselves in the results of their actions, but that does not mean that historians should not emphasize their role, precisely because historical agents are alienated.[vi]

The chameleon empire would end, of course. Once, an 18-year-old soldier approached him with a kitchen knife. Arrested, he was interrogated by Bonaparte himself and then shot, causing great repercussions in Europe. When the Emperor asked him the reason why he wanted to commit that act, the young man declared: “Affranchir l'Allemagne".[vii]

Bonaparte was crowned Emperor in 1804 and the following year subjugated Austria at Austerliz. In 1806 he defeats Prussia later at Jena. At sea, he had been restrained in 1805 by Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. He thus established a continental domain based on the blockade of British goods. It was the Tsar's decision to open its ports to the British that motivated Russia's campaign in 1812. The Russian withdrawal and fire devastated Russia's sources of supply. Grande Armée. Many attributed the loss of around half a million French troops (out of the six hundred thousand who had left) to the rigors of winter. According to Clausewitz, it was not the sufferings of winter that defeated Napoleon, but the privations of summer.


Napoleon, defeated, was reduced to the chief of an island (Elba). Returned to power, after the government of the hundred days, he was definitively banished to the Island of Saint Helena.

Her figure, however, would not die. In 1840, his remains were taken with great pomp to France, during the reign of Louis Philippe. It was no coincidence that Napoleon returned in the government of a man full of ambiguities like himself: called the “bourgeois king”, he had supported and betrayed the Revolution; he had lived in Switzerland, USA and England and reconciled with the Bourbons; he had led a new Revolution in 1830 and his father was Philippe Égalité (Felipe Equality), a revolutionary guillotined in the terror of 1793.

With the Revolution of 1848, Luiz Bonaparte, Napoleon's nephew, was elected President of the Republic. The vicissitudes of the political process made him "Prince President" after a coup d'état in 1851, and finally Emperor of France as Napoleon III, until his defeat by the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan in 1870.

Left and right Napoleon was claimed by conservative generals and revolutionary leaders.

In Soviet Russia, whose phases and language often referred to the history of France, Alexandre Kerenski was called Napoleon during his short provisional government. Trotsky, one of the creators of the Red Army, was accused of Bonapartist ambitions. And after him Stalin. Bonapartism became a controversial concept among Marxists. When the Soviet historian Tarlé wrote his biography of Napoleon, critics and party censors weren't quite sure what to make of him.[viii] On the one hand, it demonstrated the extraordinary role of a man who could refer to Stalin, on the other hand, he dealt with an enemy of Russia, a country that in the 1930s sought to rescue the anti-Napoleonic resistance from the past, in addition to praising generals like Kutuzov, who had buried by a revolutionary historiography that only cared about the impersonal forces of history.[ix]

France officially dealt with Napoleon on the bicentennial of his birth in 1969, after the May 1968 revolt had cooled down. Now, with the bicentennial of his death, the remembrance coincided with a manifesto by right-wing generals. Although uncommon in advanced democratic countries, remember that France in a sense invented the coup d'état and Napoleon was an excellent master of this art in the 18th Brumaire of the year VIII (9/11/1799).

However, after boulangism, an ephemeral political tendency in 1889 related to the indecisive general Georges Boulanger (1837-1891), the country ceded to Germany the succession of coups and the popularized term was Coup. After the Second World War, the attempted military coup of May 1958 was the last breath of a colonialist policy and ended with the return of Charles De Gaulle to power and the beginning of the V Republic.

The manifesto of French reserve generals in 2021 looks like a revival of the past and coincides with the celebration of the greatest of the generals of the contemporary era. But one must be careful when looking at that event from a Latin American point of view. Despite the global right-wing wave, France has a civilian and female Minister of Defense, Florence Parly; soldiers who criticize governments are punished; in addition, the inexperienced President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, for budgetary reasons, humiliated the Chief of Staff, General Pierre de Villiers, who resigned and was applauded by his peers.

Contrary to what the Brazilian press says, the manifesto was not headed by “24 generals in pajamas, grouped in a kind of French Military Club, nostalgic for colonial times” (G1, 03/05/2021). It's about the wishful thinking of the media of a dependent country. In Europe, military personnel are not usually very intelligent and the advancement of specialization has only made them more or less competent technicians. But the primarism of Latin American generals is not expected of them, like that of a Minister of Health who does not know his own specialty and ignores even the geography of Brazil.

General Pierre de Villiers is not of that type. He doesn't even look like some Brazilian official whose writing ability is the size of a twitter. Villiers became a writer capable of fomenting a national call around a right-wing policy, contrary to the shallow memoirs published here. Whether it will be De Gaulle's farce in the XNUMXst century, we don't know. What is clear is that he did not randomly choose the bicentenary of Napoleon's death to speak to a country that invented so many traditions.

Which Napoleon?

Napoleon is probably today a statesman for the rightists and a “racist, misogynist and authoritarian” (Time, 16/04/2021) to the left part. He created the Napoleonic code, consolidated an army of a new type, and maintained the revolutionary calendar, but he restored slavery in the colonies.

Napoleon installed a new nobility, but without the legitimacy of the old one. Renato Janine Ribeiro in The last reason of kings he remembered that the former courtier was the master of conversation, as he spent hours at court doing nothing. Deprived of weapons, his language flourished. Which brings us to the work of another USP professor, Eduardo D`Oliveira França, in his Portugal at the time of restoration, where he describes a village nobility, without court or weapons, dedicated to escape attitudes such as theater and hunting. For Janine, Stendhal mirrors the ambiguity of the Napoleonic empire. He loves the poor, but enjoys the company of the rich. He defends fairness in macro relationships and refinement in micro relationships. Why, was it not Talleyrand who said (on being dismissed) that he regretted that such a great man was lacking in good manners?[X]

Thiers recalls that on 25 Floreal year X (May 15, 1802), Bonaparte presented to the Council of State a project for the creation of a legion of honor. He wanted to start a new nobility. A councilor, Berlier, disapproved of the proposal, because distinctions were the ornaments of the Monarchy. And the First Consul replied: “I challenge (…) anyone to show me a Republic, old or new, in which there are no distinctions”.[xi] In the “Souboul” Dictionary JP Bertaud found an almost oxymoron for Napoleon's entry: roi du peuple.[xii]

in the novel The red and the black the hero Julien Sorel reads the Saint Helena Memorial. He himself mirrors the ambiguity of the poor young man who hides his class values ​​in order to rise socially. As much as Napoleon, that literary character expresses the era that Hobsbawm summarized as the “career open to talent”.

200 years

What does the French Revolution or Napoleon have to say to the descendants of Algerians, to women, to the former colonies? And to those who feel nationality in decline? For a historian the question is incomplete. What political actors dispute is memory and not history, although both are related.

The Macron Government was divided and did not know very well what to do with Napoleon. Nor a Left without class appeal. Fascists, well, they don't need to have a rational relationship with any historical issue. They may hate the Great Revolution in the name of the purity of France and kings; exalt the Republic against the use of headscarves; and rescuing the Emperor against a supposedly soft Europe in the face of barbarians. Fortunately, history creates problems.

As much as one rejects the despot, Bonaparte was promoted by Augustin Robespierre, the brother of the incorruptible.[xiii] It was also that junior officer, unknown and without an army, who on the 13 Vendémiaire of the year IV (October 5, 1795) saved the Revolution from monarchist reaction. Who does the world remember in 2021, the young man with brilliant revolutionary victories or the enemy of the Jacobins and emperor of concessions? This dubiousness is what still fascinates us 200 years later.

* Lincoln Secco He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of History of the PT (Editorial Atelier)


[I] Neves, Lucia Maria. Napoleon Bonaparte: imaginary and politics in Portugal. São Paulo: Alameda, 2008, p. 39.

[ii] Canfora, L. “Bonaparte Liberator”, Advanced Studies, no. 62, 2008.

[iii] Brousse et Tourot in: Jaurès, J. Histoire Socialiste (1789-1900), Paris, p. 200.

[iv] Strachan, H. On Clausewitz's war. RJ: Zahar, 2008, p. 53.

[v] Morton, AL The History of the English People. Trans. José L. Melo. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 1970, p. 306.

[vi] Sartre, JP question of method, The Thinkers. Abril Cultural, 1973, p. 154.

[vii] ID Ibid., p. 383.

[viii] Tarle, E. Napoleon. Trans. James and Jorge Amado. Foreword by Nelson Werneck Sodré. Rio de Janeiro: Zelio Valverde, 1945.

[ix] See Secco, L. history of the soviet union. São Paulo: Maria Antonia, 2021.

[X] See the excellent biography of: Tarlé, E. Talleyrand – a Diplomat of the Rising Bourgeoisie. Presentation by Nelson Werneck Sodré. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 1965.

[xi] Thiers, MA History of the French Revolution. Bruxelles: Société Tipographique Belge: AD Wahlen, 1840, t. II, p. 606.

[xii] Soboul, Albert. Dictionnaire historique de la Révolution française. Paris: PUF, 2005.

[xiii] As First Consul, Bonaparte ordered a pension for Charlotte Robespierre, cf. Taine, H. Les Origines de la France Contemporaine. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1986, p. 377.

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