The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We’re still living in the age of Napoleon


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The eras we live in overlap. Americans find themselves still at the forefront of an international political order defined by what emerged from the ashes of World War II. But that post-1945 era lurches alongside a post-9/11 era, marked by foreign wars and domestic upheavals. The frames used to bracket history — and to place ourselves within it — are malleable. On that note, indulge me as we consider the relevance of a different lingering epoch: We’re still living in the age of Napoleon.

This week marked the 200th anniversary of the death of the Corsican general, who spent his last days in exile on a lonely island in the middle of the Atlantic. His passing only cemented his legend: “No man ever lived whose personal agency had so immediate and so vast an influence on the concerns of the world,” the Daily National Intelligencer, a 19th-century Washington newspaper, noted at the time.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the German philosopher who popularized the idea of the “zeitgeist,” saw Napoleon as its embodiment, as “history on horseback.” He reinvented military tactics through his campaigning and battles, broke Europe’s old feudal order with his conquests of swaths of the continent and, depending on one’s 19th-century convictions, died a romantic world hero or as a doomed tyrant, consumed by insatiable hubris and self-regard. To this day, myriad nations can trace their legal codes to Napoleonic edicts, myriad academics can locate the origins of their disciplines in Napoleon’s ambitious study of Egypt, and myriad people who are short of stature can get accused of harboring his fiery temper.

Everywhere you look, we inhabit a world that, in some sense, Napoleon helped bequeath. He “is nearly synonymous with the spread of the modern bureaucratic state, not only the institutions themselves, but the modern outlook that goes with them: meritocracy, liberal property rights, public service and equality before the law,” Everett Rummage, creator of “The Age of Napoleon” podcast, told Today’s WorldView.

“In much of Europe, Napoleon’s armies were the force that smashed feudalism and ushered in the turbulent, dynamic 19th century,” Rummage added. “Those countries he didn’t conquer were forced to emulate French methods to survive the onslaught. Napoleon was a harbinger of the modern world, with all its terrors and abuses, but also all its progress and possibilities.”

In France, the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death has only provoked more intense debate. On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron chose to lay a wreath at Napoleon’s tomb under the dome of Les Invalides in Paris. Given the long-standing public interest in Napoleon’s vast legacy, Macron’s move was clearly political. The centrist president faces a tricky reelection campaign next year, particularly against an emboldened far right.

“Macron will please a restive French right dreaming of lost glory and of a moment when, under its turbulent emperor, France stood at the center of the world,” wrote Roger Cohen in the New York Times, nodding to the appeal of the Napoleonic era in a country now habituated to narratives of decline. “The French obsession with the romantic epic of Napoleon’s rise and fall is undying, as countless magazine covers and talk shows have underscored in recent weeks.”

Critics on the left objected to Macron’s commemoration of the despot, whose takeover in a 1799 coup led to the destruction of France’s fledgling revolutionary republic. They also pointed to a darker history in France’s Caribbean colonies, where Napoleon reinstated slavery and spearheaded brutal crackdowns on insurrections led by formerly enslaved people.

“France is the only country that ever abolished and then reinstated slavery, and it took until 1848 for it to be banned permanently,” wrote my colleague Rick Noack. “On the French Caribbean island of Martinique, birthplace of Napoleon’s first wife, the statue of Joséphine de Beauharnais was beheaded in 1991 and ritually splashed with red paint each year. But during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests and the global debate about symbols of discrimination and suppression, demonstrators tore the statue down altogether.”

In this, too, Napoleon casts a shadow on our present. The conversation about Napoleon’s resumption of slavery is part of a broader reckoning in the West, where numerous societies are waking up to — if not always reconciling — the racism and violence that underlay their bygone imperial glories. Macron himself initiated a controversial process of inquiry into France’s colonial abuses during Algeria’s war for independence more than half a century ago.

But the focus on Napoleon has exposed a deeper frustration. “The issue of slavery, which has long been downplayed, must now be placed at the center of reflection,” French political scientist Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison told Noack, adding that “it is quite unique to see a president of the republic honoring someone who was the craftsman of a crime against humanity.”

In his remarks, Macron attempted to cut a more nuanced position, saying that by paying his respects, he was not engaging in “exalted celebration” but “exalted commemoration.” He said Napoleon’s life was “an ode to political will,” and that the fallen emperor “could be both the soul of the world and the devil of Europe.” (Macron’s main rival, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, scolded the president for not simply eulogizing “an eternal French hero.”)

“Napoleon is a step in the process that brings us to the republic,” a presidential aide told reporters. “Slavery is a fault of Napoleon; the republic has corrected it and eradicated it.”

In 2017, Macron took then-President Donald Trump to see Napoleon’s crypt. It was a notable move, which previous French leaders had eschewed because of a similar visit paid in 1940 by Adolf Hitler. Undaunted, one of the youngest European leaders since Napoleon still decided to take the step. Macron has never disguised his belief in France’s role at the heart of a more powerful and unified Europe — nor his desire to be the figure driving that continental reinvention.

Trump, though, was more prosaic in his analysis of the scene. “Well, Napoleon finished a little bad,” he concluded.

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