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Napoleon’s Complex Legacy

Napoleon has been dead for two centuries, and yet he remains at the center of French politics. May 5th, 2021 marked the 200th anniversary of his death in exile on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena. Unlike his predecessors, who chose to ignore all-things Napoleon, Presidential Emmanuel Macron decided to commemorate the date by visiting The Little Corporeal’s tomb at Les Invalides in Paris. In a 20-minute, flowery speech, Macron walked a cultural tightrope. “The life of Napoleon is firstly an ode to political will, to those who believe destinies are frozen, lives are written in advance, the journey of the child from Ajaccio who became the master of Europe clearly demonstrated that one man can change the course of history,” the president proclaimed. Macron slyly sprinkled in comparisons between himself and the honoree as well. Moments later, he denounced Napoleon’s reinstitution of slavery as “a mistake, a betrayal of the spirit of the enlightenment.” Macron’s words seem contradictory. Yes, one man rose from obscurity to become emperor of France and conqueror of continental Europe. But did he change the course of history for the better?

The bicentennial of Bonaparte’s death has reignited a contentious debate within France. Napoleon’s legacy has long been bitterly debated. He is heralded as an ingenious general and liberal reformer in some circles, and as a mass murderer and protector of slavery in others. The Napoleonic era represents either France’s finest hour or a shameful period of colonialism and needless bloodshed. The fact of the matter is that Napoleon is one of history’s most enigmatic figures. The claims from Napoleon admirers and detractors are simultaneously true. He was all of that, and his legacy cannot be neatly folded into one box or the other. In 2021, partisan actors have turned Napoleonic history into a barometer of one’s devotion to France and visions for the future. For them, denunciations of Napoleon are akin to vilifying the country itself. Politicians are being closely monitored on how they behave during this anniversary.

Napoleon has turned into a political football. This is a disservice to the French public. Grandstanding of this kind will only further fracture France and spread an inaccurate, politicized version of history. Politicians throughout time have appropriated the past for their own personal, trivial gains. That is what is happening here. What is lost is the public being presented with a comprehensive set of facts which would allow them to decide for themselves their thoughts on this indispensable historical figure. It is important to investigate the good, the bad and the ugly of Napoleon to form an unbiased opinion.

Napoleon enacted numerous reforms that were quite liberal and modern for his times. The lycee system of secular education was introduced in France during Napoleon’s reign, which emphasized scientific and technological learning. The influence of the Catholic clergy on secular society was greatly reduced as well. In 1800, he founded the country’s first central bank, the Banque of France.

Before the Napoleonic Code, France did not have a single set of laws on the books. Different regions of the country followed different rules. The King, and later the Jacobins, arbitrarily imprisoned and hung their enemies. In 1804, the Napoleonic Code codified France’s criminal and civil law. It established a uniform legal system for the entire country and was written in an accessible manner for common people to understand. Some of the reforms included liberalizing property law and ending manorial taxes (which greatly weakened feudalism and helped create Europe’s middle class), eliminating primogeniture and hereditary nobility, legalizing divorce, closing Jewish ghettos throughout Europe and ending the Spanish Inquisition. All men became equal under the law. The ideals of the French Revolution were enshrined into the constitution and the Enlightenment fervor spread throughout Napoleon’s conquered territories. The changes underway in France inspired the popular Revolutions of 1848 in Prussia, Austria, Germany and Italy. Modern countries throughout Europe, the Americas and Africa base their legal systems on the Code.

The Enlightenment fervor did not include the people of the Carribean for Napoleon. The means in which Napoleon killed black slaves fighting for their freedom during the Haitain Revolution are indescribably cruel. Claude Ribbe, one of Bonaparte's famous detractors and author of Napoleon’s Crimes, writes that Napoleon was the first person in history that “asked himself rationally the question how to eliminate, in as short a time as possible, and with a minimum of cost and personnel, a maximum of people described as scientifically inferior.” The Emperor ordered his soldiers to kill any islander over the age of 12. Black Haitains were stabbed to death, put in sandbags and dropped into the sea. Dogs ripped prisoners to pieces in front of cheering crowds. Their heads were put on spikes, adorning the sides of roads.

Napoleon’s crimes extend outside the Carribean. During the Battle of Jaffe, between 2,500 and 4,000 mostly Turkish prisoners were shot and stabbed to death. Infamously, half a million men in his own army died when he invaded Russia in 1812 during the bleakest of winters. Many of them were found frozen to death embracing each other in a final effort to stay warm. Napoleon also plundered treasured art throughout Europe after his conquests, many of which can be found at The Louvre today. Women were deemed the property of men in the Napoleonic Code, and there was no legal recourse for marital rape. His Infamous Degree of 1808, which banned Jewish money-lending, impoverished the Jews of France.

Napoleon’s legacy is now wrapped up in France’s cultural wars. France grapples with him just as Americans weigh Jefferson and Washington’s contributions to the country with their ownership of slaves. However, history is not black and white. Both sides leave out large swaths of history when making their cases. Macron, ever the politician, attempted to appease them both by visiting the Little Corporeal’s tomb at Les Invalides, while also attacking him in his remarks. The self-proclaimed emperor of Europe has turned into a pawn in France’s 2022 presidential elections. The conqueror of Europe is dividing France today. Selectively remembering history only inflames tensions in the present. Politicians, institutions and the broader society alike need to be more responsible in order for an honest telling of history to be remembered.


Written by Benjamin Karlin


Benjamin Karlin is a columnist at DecipherGrey.