Napoleon’s empire was doomed

He was born 240 years ago, on August 15th, 1769.


1. In 1785 he was a second lieutenant in artillery regiment. After 15 years he was the ruler of the France. Why him?

2. Do you think he had a chance to build the sustainable empire in Europe or his fall was just the matter of time no matter what?

3. Many people admire him. Others put him in the same groups with the biggest dictators in the history. Is he in your opinion also the admirable character or his legacy is first of all wars, destruction and death of millions?


Mike Rapport, Senior Lecturer, Department of History, University of Stirling

1. Good question: this was partly because of the French Revolution. Although Napoleon came from gentry stock, he was a Corsican and a bit of an outsider before 1789. While he became an officer under the Old Regime, he was unlikely to have become a general without the reforms of the Revolution, which opened careers to talent and allowed him to rise through the officer corps so rapidly. But the other underlying reason is the war, which broke out in 1792 and continued almost unabated until 1815: it gave young, thrusting NCOs and officers the chance to shine – and Napoleon first famously came to the notice of the French government when his artillery helped to drive the British from Toulon in 1793. Still, it is one thing to rise up to the rank of general, quite another to become the head of state. So the second part of the answer lies in the circumstances of 1799, when he came to power. France was ruled by republican regime called the Directory, but it suffered from too many problems which it could not control or deal with. These were: the opposition of the radical left (the surviving Jacobins from the Terror) and of the right (royalists, including a full-blown counter-revolution in western France), a breakdown of law and order (France’s biggest-ever crime wave), a financial and economic crisis and, of course, the war, which took a turn for the worse in 1799. Moderate republicans wanted to avoid a return both to the Jacobinism associated with the Terror and to the old monarchy, but they also believed that the Directory was not working. So they wanted to strengthen the government, but as it took so long to amend the constitution legally, they opted for a coup d’etat. So the final part of the question is why they chose Bonaparte and not some other general. The reason is twofold. Firstly, Bonaparte was victorious: he had triumphed in Italy in 1796-7 and his Bulletins from the campaign were published in France, making him a popular hero. He may have been effectively defeated in Egypt, but, again, it was sufficiently distant to allow him to present the campaign as an exotic success (and indeed the French army was still in Egypt when he took power). Secondly, the other potential candidates were exluded for various reasons: General Hoche had died of tuberculosis, Joubert (actually the first preference) was killed at the Battle of Novi in August, Joubert was a Jacobin and Moreau was suspected of being a royalist. So when Bonaparte deserted his army in Egypt and landed in France in October 1799, he was the best remaining candidate for the coup, which took place on 9-10 November (18 Brumaire). So in some respects he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

2. His Empire might have been sustainable had he been able to make peace with Britain and to have kept the peace he made with Russia at Tilsit in 1807. But he couldn’t do either: the former because the British had plenty of fight in them owing to their dominance of world commerce, which gave them the money not only to keep fighting, but also to subsidize France’s enemies and so to build coalition after coalition – and, of course, to support the resistance in Spain. Moreover, the British were never reconciled to the idea of a Europe dominated by a vastly expanded France. Consequently, the peace which WAS made by Napoleon and the British at Amiens in 1802 could only last until 1803: it was merely a truce. As for Russia, the war which broke out there in 1812 was probably avoidable, but diplomatic finesse simply wasn’t in Napoleon’s nature. Ultimately, such questions as the enforcement of his Continental Blockade (aimed at British trade) and the fate of Poland (a French ally and satellite, which really worried Russia), became issues which neither the Tsar nor Napoleon could resolve peacefully. So an Empire would only have been sustainable if it brought peace, not least because peace would have assured the many people who had worked with Napoleon and the French that their wealth and influence would survive. But the continuation of the war meant that there was always the possibility of defeat – and once defeat came, as it did between 1812 and 1814 and then 1815, the whole system unravelled and his former supporters, both in Europe and in France, deserted Napoleon.

3. He made some positive achievements: the Napoleonic Code of 1804, when introduced to parts of Europe outside France, certainly made a lasting impact, including the abolition of seigneurialism (sometimes wrongly called ‘feudalism’) in western Europe, as well as introducing a cheap, accessible legal system free from corruption. All this was quite popular, so much so that in places like Belgium, the Rhineland, Piedmont (in northern Italy) and Poland, all or some of the Napoleonic legal system was retained or later reintroduced after the fall in 1814-15. Also, the Concordat, signed between Napoleon and the Pope in 1801 and published in 1802, extended religious freedom to everyone, including Jews, which was another positive step (though not always popular with the more conservative, Catholic peasantry in some parts of Italy, for example). So Napoleon was no Hitler. Yet, on balance, I am left wondering whether Napoleon’s undoubtedly progressive steps were worth all the sacrifices in the long-run: the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-15, in proportion to the population of Europe at the time, killed the same percentage of people as the First World War of 1914-18. Moreover, many of the liberating effects of his reforms were offset by Napoleon’s main priority, which was military power (so here, again, the war ruined things) and his own dynastic ambitions, both of which left Europeans burdened by conscription, heavy taxation and censorship. So, in my view, while Napoleon was not some kind of early Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot, he was neither a liberator or forerunner of the European Union. He lies somewhere in between. Some historians, in fact, suggest that he was the last of the ‘Enlightened Absolutists’, putting him as the last in a line of eighteenth-century rulers like Joseph II or Frederick the Great, who offered some positive reforms for their people, but always with the underlying goal of enhancing the efficiency of the state, expanding their military power and so ensuring the prestige of their dynasties.

William Doyle, Emeritus Professor of History and Senior Research Fellow, University of Bristol

1. He was in the right place at the right time, more than once. The emigration of so many other officers in the revolution created lots of opportunities. As an artillery officer, he was lucky to be at the siege of Toulon in 1793, where he made his name. And Barras, whom he met there, was a Director by 1795 and gave him his first two breaks as a general. And after winning the war in Italy in 1797 he could do whatever he wanted. But that victory was more than just luck. It was then that he proved himself as a general, which was the basis of his power until 1815.

2. The trouble with N. is that he was NEVER satisfied, sooner or later his was bound to overreach himself. And neither Britain nor Russia, neither of which he could ever hope to defeat, would have tolerated his power the moment they saw signs of weakness. I don’t think there was ever any long-term chance of his empire surviving.

3.What you have to admire about N. is his sheer ability and intelligence. He was a very able man. On the other hand he just loved fighting and once said ‘What are a million lives to a man like me?’ But the death toll of his career was twice that number at least. For the French, he restored order and brought military glory after revolutionary chaos. But for much of the rest of Europe he brought upheaval and destruction. Only in Poland, I think, was his rule at all popular. I’m not sure what the Slovaks thought of him!

Michael Rowe, Lecturer in Modern European History, Department of History, King’s College London

1. Good question! Napoleon was of course lucky that events unfolded the way they did. But it wasn’t entirely luck that propelled his career forward. First, Napoleon was ambitious and pushy: he connected himself to patrons, and exploited connections and contacts to the full. This helped when it came to crucial appointments, such as when he was made commander of the artillery at Toulon in 1793, and to the command of the Army of Italy in 1796. This political skill was in large part learned in the ruthless clan politics of his native Corsica. Second, Napoleon was an accomplished military leader: once he was given an appointment he generally did very well, winning battles for France.

2. I don’t believe things are inevitable. I think he could have built an empire in Europe, though perhaps not one so large as briefly dominated the Continent from c.1805 to 1812. However, an expanded Greater France, including Belgium and the Rhineland, and parts of North Italy, and surrounded by buffer states in central and southern Italy and the rest of Germany, might well have remained the dominant European power in the nineteenth century. Britain and Russia would have remained as independent Great Powers, but Prussia and Austria (to which Napoleon was dynastically tied after 1810) would have been relegated in such a scenario. However, an empire covering almost all Europe …. from Portugal to the Urals … that seems highly unlikely. France simply did not possess the resources to win and hold something that big!

3. Napoleon did cause the death of millions through the wars for which he was chiefly (but not solely) responsible. However, unlike the later dictators, he did also leave something positive, especially when it came to the famous Code Napoleon. Also, C20th dictators generally followed ideological paths based on the effective elimination of whole categories of people, be they defined by race, class, or politically. Napoleon, in contrast, did much to heal the bitter divisions left by the French Revolution. In that sense he was a unifier rather than a divider, something that must be seen as positive.

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