Le Petit Caporal

In the last post, we took a brief look at monarchies. In western civilization, few sagas have offered more intrigue than the millenium-traversing wars between the monarchies of England and France. Both of them would rather have the 1700’s back. As England lost its grip on the prized colonies in America, the French got tired of being told what to do with their cake. Heads literally rolled, and a new republic was born at the Bastille. Meanwhile, an ambitious young man from Corsica began a meteoric rise to power.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born from Italian nobility in 1769, just as Corsica was being conquered by France under the rule of King Louis XVI of the centuries-ruling Bourbon family, and while his parents were actively fighting with the resistance. With that one sentence, you can see in large part how his path was charted. His family’s standing and activities ensured he would get both a great and a military focused education at École Militaire in Paris. Immediately after graduating in 1785, he became a second lieutenant fighting for the Corsican resistance. He became a well-known and successful military leader quite rapidly, leading a number of victories for the French Revolution, and becoming a brigadier general by the age of 24. Around that same time, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were famously separated from their noggins, and the Republic was born. Early on, the French Republic was led by extremists under a regime called the “Terror”, until the Convention (a new constitution) was completed in 1794. Napoleon subsequently earned even greater fame and adoration for beating back a royalist rebellion in 1795.

The French Revolution, while only a blip in time relative to the prior rule of monarchs, was long, bloody, and exhausting enough that the French people were more than willing to give way to a dominating leader, and Napoleon took advantage in a series of moves. First, he led a coup d’état in 1799 and codified his new power over the Republic with a new constitution. A rigged election established him as the First Consulate. Wait a second – where have we seen that term “Consul” before? Oh yeah, it was when Julius Caesar became the dominant Consul of Rome. This was no accident on Napoleon’s part. He greatly admired the Roman Empire. He also knew Caesar didn’t rule for long before he was assassinated in the Senate. Sure enough, there were several attempts to assassinate Napoleon, including at least one backed by the Bourbon family of old. He seized on these attempts as a justification for expanding his power, while simultaneously gaining the increasing support of the French citizens. Napoleon’s then transformed from a Consul into a King and an Emperor. He was elected Emperor by over 99% of 3.6 million votes – again, a demonstration of who is often most to blame for the rise of a dictator – the “dictatees”. He was coronated by Pope Pius VII at Notre Dame in 1804, and was crowned King of Italy in Milan in 1805.

Once Napoleon became Emperor, the skirmishes that had been going on all along with other European powers came to a head, leading to the Napoleonic Wars, which took a hefty toll on many nations, not the least of which was France itself. Somewhere along the way through these wars, whatever sense Napoleon might have had about his place in the grand scheme of things was supplanted by notions of immortality and invulnerability. The Empire reached its peak in 1812, which was impressive in its scope – stretching from Spain in the West to Prussia in the East, from Belgium in the North to Italy in the South. Basically, most of continental Europe as we know it today. He then famously pushed too far, lost a great deal of both lives and support by trying to subdue Russia, and was defeated.

And here is where things took a bizarre turn: Napoleon was “exiled” to the island of Elba, just off the Tuscan coast. Elba had 12,000 inhabitants at the time, and Napoleon was actually granted the role of Emperor over them. He created a small military and did all the things you’d expect the leader of a small nation to do. Eventually, he learned there were plans afoot to banish him to a greater distance, so he took 700 men back to France, forcing Louis XVIII (whose approval rating was rather low) to flee to Belgium. And just like that, Napoleon was back in charge again. This reign was far shorter though – now known as the “Hundred Days”. His final defeat was at the renowned Battle of Waterloo, setting in motion a sequence of events that led to a Swedish disco band having another hit 159 years later.

If they had any reservations before, the other powers in Europe were finally convinced by these events that banishing Napoleon to the Atlantic was a pretty good idea. So he was sent to Saint Helena, where he was guarded by 2100 soldiers and 10 ships. He died of stomach cancer in 1821, at the age of 51. A couple of decades later, the British government gave permission to return his remains to France, where a crowd of up to a million followed the procession to the chapel of Esplanade des Invalides. So ended the journey of “the Little Corporal” (La Petit Caporal).

In the eyes of history, Napoleon might have been pleased to discover he is often treated similarly to Julius Caesar, with a strange mix of “horrified” and “reverent”. Both were brilliant military leaders. It is also unclear, particularly at the outset of their respective careers, how much they were motivated by power for themselves versus simply wanting to do something different to improve their republics. And both left a legacy of institutions that have lasted to this day. But both were also ruthless at times, and they used a common set of tools to achieve and maintain an iron grip: unrest and discontent among the populace, propaganda, convenient political alliances, elimination of opponents from positions of power, and strict control over the rights of the citizens. Napoleon in particular reduced the rights of women, children, and people of color. He also basically recreated the monarchy, barely a decade after the previous one had been overthrown in favor of a Republic. Napoleon killed thousands of Turkish prisoners of war, and the toll of the Napoleonic Wars in general was on the order of six million.

Napoleon was utilitarian, with no greater example than in the way he manipulated organized religion: “it was by making myself a Catholic that I won the war in the Vendée, by making myself a Moslem that I established myself in Egypt, by making myself an ultramontane that I turned men’s hearts towards me in Italy. If I were to govern a nation of Jews I would rebuild the Temple of Solomon.” Those words are rather chilling, and they reveal a common characteristic among dictators: regardless of where their ambitions may have begun, they end up devoid of any ideology beyond maintaining their own power. If any action taken by a dictator actually benefits those under their rule, it is largely by accident. Yet as time passes between the last one and the next one, so many forget, and the promises of a glorious new world become believable again.

Image by RENE RAUSCHENBERGER from Pixabay

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