HIST 202: European Civilization, 1648-1945

Lecture 7

 - Napoleon


One way of understanding Napoleon’s life is through attention to his Corsican origins. Although Napoleon himself would later disavow his earlier identification with the island in favor of French identity, many of his actions and attitudes agree with stereotypical notions of Corsican culture. Did Napoleon inaugurate the era of total war? This question, posed in a recent book, is up for debate. On one hand, the violence of the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars may not seem uniquely devastating in comparison to the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War. On the other hand, the faltering of distinctions between civilian and combatant as well as the large-scale mobilization of state resources for war do anticipate the modern concept of total war, typically associated with World War II.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

European Civilization, 1648-1945

HIST 202 - Lecture 7 - Napoleon

Chapter 1. Popular Histories of Napoleon [00:00:00]

Professor John Merriman: Okay, I’m going to talk about Napoleon today. It was about maybe ten years ago, before the French Open, the tennis tournament that BNP puts on every late spring. They took one of the American players, a female player, on a quick limousine tour of Paris for a full day. At the end a French host asked her, “What did you like best about the tour of Paris?” She said, “The best thing was the tomb of the little dead dude.” I couldn’t make that out. Napoleon continues to fascinate, though not necessarily me. The coverage in what you’re reading is straightforward, so today I’m going to talk about a couple themes.

First of all, what remained Corsican about Napoleon? Then maybe discuss a question raised by David Bell of late. Was the Revolutionary period, and particularly Napoleon, the first total war, in the sense that twentieth-century folks — and at least you were born in the twentieth century — have come to understand? In the end — not ramble a bit, but just talk about what the most important contributions of Napoleon were. Somebody counted up, not me, that by 1980 there had been at least 220,000 books and articles published on Napoleon in a variety of languages.

Three recent books, if you’re Napoleon buffs or simply want to read about him, that are quite good in English are my old friend Steven Englund’s book, Napoleon: a Political History, which came out three or four years ago and was recently translated into French. Phillip Dwyer’s book on Napoleon up to 1799 — Phillip Dwyer hates Napoleon, but it’s a pretty interesting look at the early career. Finally, I suppose most controversially, David Bell’s book, The First Total War, which I’ll discuss some of the themes in a while. It was only about six or seven years ago, I remember this, they discovered in Lithuania a whole bunch of dead bones. Well, bones are dead, I guess, if they’ve been there for 200 years, or whatever. But not of a gravesite, because they were never properly buried, but a place where expired in the snows of 1812 a good number of soldiers of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the grand army; and, so, 1812 still goes on.

There is a book, also an interesting book if you’re looking for paper topics, that I sometimes assign in the French course called Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier. By the time of 1812, the majority of the Grande Armée were really people who had been conscripted or impounded, if you will, in various allied states. But it’s a quite interesting account of what it was like in Napoleon’s armies as he invaded further and further into Eastern Europe. By the way, I just did a subject search on Napoleon once. I don’t know why. But, of the 220,000 books, you probably will want to not read the tantalizing 1894 classic Napoleon and the Fair Sex, or Napoleon and His Women Friends, which was from 1927, Napoleon in Love,1959. There are lots of those, and Napoleon Seen by a Canadian, published in 1937.

Chapter 2. Napoleon, the Corsican [00:04:37]

I talk a lot about Napoleon’s life in the textbook, but let’s look at the theme of Napoleon and Corsica. I once took a whole flock of Yale alumni to see Napoleon’s house in Ajaccio, where he was born on the 15th of August. He wrote in a letter to the Corsican patriot with whom he subsequently broke, Paoli, he wrote on the 12th of June 1789, “I was born when the French were vomited upon our coasts,” that is the coast of Corsica, “drowning in the throne of liberty and torrents of blood. Such was the odious spectacle that first met my eyes. The cries of the dying, the groans of the oppressed, tears of despair surrounded my cradle at my birth.”

Corsica, as I’m sure you know, is an island, a big island. It’s north of Sardinia, which belongs to Italy. He, at first gloried in his Corsican origins, hating the French who had conquered his island. Of course, the French Revolution would change all that. That’s why it’s a good idea to look at him, as you look at Robespierre and others, and see what difference the French Revolution made. Between 1785 — and here I’m drawing on Dwyer — and 1795, that is between the age of 16 and 26, he wrote a number of notes, and sketches, and short stories that reveal much about his attachment to Corsica, but also that suggest the dramatic nature of the change as he embraces the Revolution and France.

He spoke Corsican and not French. French was his second language. Corsican is a language. It’s a patois that is more closely tied to a patois or dialect of northern Italy. In fact, when you drive around Corsica, most of the radio stations that you can get are Italian and not French. He learned French and he made errors. Even at the end of his life he made errors in French, though he wrote French very well. He was bilingual, but he never lost his accent. One of the things about northern French people, in particular, is that they’re less likely to forgive southern accents.

Of course, one of the stereotypes of Corsicans is they all become policemen in Paris. Many of them have an “i” at the end of their last names. They have a very strong southern French accent. It’s not really a Toulouse accent or our part of France, an Ardèche accent, where you can always tell. Those of you who know French — and again, if you don’t know French it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference — but somebody who says ”quatre-vaigne” instead of quatre-vingt, or “Cassaigne” instead of the great human rights advocate René Cassin, or “vigne,” a glass of wine, moi, je prends un verre de vigne, instead of vin. It’s a famous story about Napoleon when he goes off to military school as a very young boy that they made fun of his accent. More about that in a while.

But anyway, at the beginning he hated the French and espoused the fact that he was a Corsican. He felt culturally marginal and this was compounded by his personal loneliness. When he was assigned to Valence, which could make anyone sort of mildly depressed, Valence on the Rhone River, he contemplated suicide quite seriously. He spent a lot of time reading and sort of hanging out by himself and through much of his early days he lacked friends. In 1768, Corsica, which had been part of the Republic of Genoa, that is the port city of Genoa, en face, just across the sea, gave up Corsica to France or, really, sold it.

The French state actively worked to try to create a loyal Corsican nobility, and thus, the family of Napoleon, the Bonapartes, B-O-N-A-P-A-R-T-E-S, who had a “u” that he subsequently took out of his name in the first four letters, were ennobled in 1771 by the French. But all nobles aren’t rich, as you know. He was sort of what you’d call in French un hobereau, a poor noble. Four of Carlo — that is his dad — Bonaparte’s eight children received scholarships to study in France, including Napoleon, who was sent to a place called Brienne, in the north of France. Fifty of the 110 students in this school were called “royal scholars.” Here again, here’s kind of a comparison to that case of downward mobility — Robespierre, who is also a scholarship guy. There was nothing wrong with that at all, except that there were a lot of fancy noble offspring there, too, who had another reason to mock Napoleon.

He wrote in Valance, when he was posted to Valance, again on the Rhone River about an hour now by car south of Lyon. He wrote that life was a burden, “because there’s no pleasure. It is nothing but pain. It is a burden because the men and women with whom I live and probably will always have to live have customs that are as far from mine as the light of the moon is different from the light of the sun.” But yet there was French influence in his life. He read thephilosophes. He read Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and in 1791, again, I don’t want to push this comparison because he was different in many ways than Robespierre, but like Robespierre he enters an essay contest sponsored by an académie, in this case the Académie of Lyon.

His writings mostly reflect an obsession with his origins. I haven’t read a lot of his early writings, but Phillip Dwyer has. One of his colleagues in school drew a cartoon of Napoleon rushing to Corsica to aid the Corsican rebel Paoli. He must have discussed this with his friend. And he also battled with those he saw as his rivals. A long time ago, in the 1920s I guess it was, the producer Abel Gance produced this three-and-a-half hour film, which actually is extremely boring, called Napoleon, without sound. But the most famous scene in it arguably is a snowball fight, where Napoleon takes a snowball fight to a more serious dimension, and tries out tactics, and all of this. In a way, he’s fighting for his independence and the status as a non-French Corsican, but who has been washed up on the shores of France by a fortune, good or bad. At that point he wasn’t really too sure what it was.

He began to write a history of Corsica less than 100 pages, which he took seriously enough to begin to revise in the early 1790s after the French Revolution. In it, according to Phillip Dwyer, he portrays Corsicans as courageous, even heroic in throwing off the rule of Genoa and battling the French. “For over twenty-four centuries,” he wrote, “the same scenes have been repeated without interruption, the same vicissitudes, the same misfortunes, but also the same courage, the same resolution, the same audacity.” But his letters and his writings reveal the folks that he was reading, that is, the influence of the philosophes portraying Corsica seeking liberty in the shadow of oppression, in opposition to royal authority.

So, he links the themes of the philosophes in defense of Corsica’s fight for freedom. Even in the 1790s, if this interpretation is correct, he did not see his identity as both Corsican and French, but rather as Corsican. But by 1799, when he with the help of the wily Abbé Sieyès comes to power on the 18th of Brumaire, the French identity had overwhelmed his Corsican identity. The question is, did he merely catch the nearest way? Is it opportunism? Or was it his belief that the French Revolution and la belle France offered liberating possibilities for humanity? In a short story that he wrote in the summer of 1789, a rather important summer, the French were portrayed as tyrants, still — in his story called the Nouvelle Corse or the New Corsica.

He used violence, and his life would be one characterized by violence, as a way of increasing sympathy for the Corsican people. Also it was a cultural expression of Corsican vengeance. Corsica, because of — this isn’t just a stereotype, but because of the sort of flashing knives of clan and family rivalries, there were so many crimes in Corsica in the nineteenth century that the island of Corsica, which became a department, now it’s two, but one of the departments of France, had to be excluded when somebody was doing a study of crime. There are so many more crimes in Corsica. In fact, still their tradition of flashing knives — and the Corsican independence movement still places bombs — there are various independence movements — and blows up a lotissement, a housing development being built for Parisian or Marseilles lawyers, or something like that. There are still these kinds of resentments.

Chapter 3. The Transference of National Allegiances: Becoming French with the Revolution [00:15:37]

In the beginning he’s still identified with Paoli, but he would break with Paoli. Paoli, the Corsican patriot, was sort of seen as the George Washington of his island. Napoleon was constructing a vision of what he thought he could become — that is, to help liberate Corsica from French rule. How ironic! His father, Carlo, had in his own view, that is Napoleon’s view, betrayed the Corsican cause by going over to the French. In a way, you could argue that he’s rebelling against his father, at least in the early stages. But the Revolution did bring a change, obviously. It transformed the relations between France and Corsica.

In 1789 there were four deputies elected to the Estates General, and in 1790 Corsica is recognized as a département, a department. Corsicans demanded a royal decree that would recognize the island as an integral part of France subject to the laws of France, and declared that those who had fought against France ought to be permitted to return to their homeland. On the 27th of December there were celebrations in all Corsican churches. Napoleon had a banner hung in his not inconsiderable house in Ajaccio, in the family house. “Viva la nation, viva Paoli, viva Mirabeau,” who had supported the decree. “Long live the nation. Long live Paoli. Long live Mirabeau.” He’s trying to play it both ways.

He wrote, “From now on we,” that is Corsica and France, “have the same interests, the same concerns. The sea no longer separates us.” Indeed, that’s hardly the case. Even today, in Corsica, there have to be subventions to help keep the cost of food down in Corsica because of the enormous cost of transporting things that are not produced locally. You can’t just live on goat cheese and things like that, and red wine produced in Corsica. The sea does matter. But the Revolution helped Napoleon reconcile some of the contradictions that had bothered him all the way along. At this point, he’d become a French Corsican. He renounced publishing some of his letters and began to enter these political struggles in the Revolution. Indeed, he was lucky.

One of the amazing things about Napoleon was his luck. When he might have well been guillotined as being a Jacobin, he was in Corsica or in the South of France. He always seemed to be in the right place. This was true in his battles, as well. He was a tremendously courageous guy. His bodyguards are always trying to get him to move back in the traditional way as an officer, a commander, which he was — the commander from the battles. He, in fact, is only wounded very lightly two or three times. So he’s pretty lucky. When bodies are falling and horses are falling all around him, he remained an extremely lucky guy. This also accounts for his success, although even though on the 18th of Brumaire in 1799, clearly it would be a military person who was going to put an end to what has been indelicately called the War of the Chamber Pots that was the Directory, that is the period of the post-Thermidor, the Directory, the battles between left and right.

The Revolution made military men extraordinarily important. There wasn’t a king anymore, and the War of the Chamber Pots and the sort of sleaziness of the period, though it was important in giving France some sort of parliamentary experience in a meaningful way, meant that some military person was going to be imposing “order.” When Abbe Sieyès, who would survive what is the Third Estate, who had also survived all of the vicissitudes of the Revolution, when he thinks about one general, another military man says, “There’s your man. There’s Napoleon,” who is again in the right place. “He’s going to do a better coup d’etat than the other guy could have done.” So, Napoleon there happened to be a lucky fellow as well.

In 1793 the followers of Paoli broke with the convention during the federalist revolts, which you know about. During the expulsion of the Girondins from the convention, the uprisings come in Leon, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Toulon, et cetera, et cetera. Those on the outs with Paoli, including Napoleon, now embrace the Jacobin cause. The Corsican assembly in Ajaccio — by the way, it’s A-J-A-C-C-I-O — condemn the Bonapartes, who had dropped the “u” in their name, that’s in the book, as having been born in the mud of despotism. So, Napoleon turned his back on the independence movement to which he had pledged in the privacy of his room in Valence and other places, in Brienne, fidelity. He now hated Paoli, who he blamed for having turned so many Corsicans against France.

Again, is this opportunism? Had he merely caught the nearest way? He had embraced the national identity of being French and he did take ideas seriously. It’s possible to argue, I would believe this, that the philosophes eventually won out and he saw the Revolution as a liberating experience for France and the construction of a new way of imagining the state. Of course, he turns that into out and out political repression in his own country and the megalomaniac conquest of all of these other places. When he married Josephine, who once somebody said would have drunk gold out of the skull of any of her lovers, he made sure that the French spelling on the marriage certificate was there and that the Corsican “u” had been taken out of his name.

On the island of Saint Helena in the middle of nowhere, where he had a lot of time to think, he wrote, “I am morechampagnois,” that’s where the town of Brienne was, his military school, Reims, Épernay Champagne, and all these good things. “I am more champagnois than Corsican, because from the age of nine I was raised in Brienne. It would have displeased the French if I’d surrounded myself with Corsicans. On the contrary, I wanted absolutely to be French. Of the all the insults I have had heaped upon me in so many pamphlets, the one to which I was most sensitive was that of being Corsican.”

Napoleon was an inveterate liar, particularly when he was trying to craft, it was quite clear he was already ill, his legacy. Much of what he wrote on the island talking about his eternal devotion to the principles of liberty, fraternity, and equality, was trying to plan these 220,000 articles and books that would be written about him until 1980. This was a sheer invention of the past, because the record is quite clear in his writings and what he said that he considered himself Corsican. Yet, the Frenchness of the Revolution overwhelmed that in him. In the end, he remained a Frenchman, like very many people with a strong accent, in his case, that of Corsica.

There are some other obvious things that are Corsican about him that remained. Again, this is part of the stereotype. In France, like other countries, one has stereotypes about different regions. In France people think, for example, that those from the center of France, from Auvergne, are cheap, radin in French. Or that people in Marseilles exaggerate. You say to somebody in French, “You’re from Marseilles, aren’t you?” after they just said that they caught a 1,000 pound perch, or something like that, or that Marseilles had just scored the goal of the century. There’s a tendency of people from Marseilles to exaggerate. These sort of regional stereotypes are part of any country. One of the stereotypes, though there’s some truth with this, is the idea of family loyalty.

Most people are loyal to their families, but Napoleon took the kind of clan identity a bit strong. Of course, what he does is he perches his various brothers on the thrones of almost everywhere, this kind of family loyalty. It’s not just people from Corsica who might, given that situation, do the same thing. Also there’s the settling of scores. Napoleon, and we’ll talk about this in a while, if you do believe that the period is — we can see the origins of total war there. I’m a little skeptical about this. Nonetheless, when people turned against Napoleon or against the French armies, his reaction was “We’re going to pay them back and we’re going to get them.” Not with flashing knives, but with execution, burning of villages in Palestine, more about this later, in the south of Italy, and in the Tyrol, in the mountains of Austria.

Whether vengeance is more of a Corsican thing than a champagnois thing or a lyonnais thing or Briton thing or a North German thing or a Polish thing or whatever, one can’t say. Yet lots of the thinking about Napoleon looks for things that remain Corsican about him.

Chapter 4. Looking for the Origins of Total War [00:26:37]

Having said all of that, what shall we do? Let’s now turn to this question of whether we think — and it’s just a rhetorical question — whether my dear friend, David Bell, is right that you can see the origins of total war in this period. One thing that I’m a little skeptical about is that if you compare this to the Thirty Years’ War — and you saw those ghoulish illustrations before of different ways you could perish at the hands of enemies determined for no particular reason, in many cases, to simply destroy you — it’s not clear that the Revolutionary period and the Napoleonic wars really was the first.

Yet, if we think aloud, and that’s what I’m doing, if we see the origins of total war in World War I, where the mobilization of state resources, as much as possible to the war, and again in World War II — and particularly in World War II the breaking down of the differentiation between civilians and non-civilians. That happens a little bit in 1914, but not that much. It happens in the Turkish massacres of the Armenians in 1895 and 1915. That happens, too. But it is possible to argue that the Revolutionary and particularly the Napoleonic period — from that point of view, the mobilization of — melting church bells and transforming almost every available industrial site into war production, and turning out all these cannonballs, and all these rifles, and all these swords, and all these bayonets, with the total resources of the state directed toward war. There is a point there.

There’s really two sides of that argument. That’s one, the mobilization of resources. The levée en masse, a mass military conscription that all male citizens are going to be in the army. This starts with the French Revolution. After all, Valmy was the battle near the windmill in Chalon, near Champagne in the east of France, the Sans-Culottes going to war — was thelevée en masse where ordinary people are full of enthusiasm in singing patriotic songs or heading off to fight the enemy. But the other side of this total war story is, of course, what happens to the civilian population? Napoleon once said in one of his rare moments of real introspection that he didn’t give a damn if a million people died because of him. He believed — part of his great failing is — a great weakness, and the suffering of humanity because of it was his sense that no matter what he did, it was the right thing to do.

He has this sort of hallucination moment in about 1796 after one of his battles, I think it’s Arcole, where he sees after himself — he sees himself transported in the air and that the whole world seemed to be like you’re taking off in an airplane. The whole world is beneath him. At that point, he has this sort of sense that what he would will as a human being would inevitably become reality because he willed it. The other half of this sort of total war aspect is that, to be sure, not only did something like one of every French male born, who would have been eligible for military service, died during the Revolution and Napoleonic wars. But this sort of meting out of a brutal vengeance, more than just in a Corsican sense to people who crossed his will does anticipate in some ways, and I’m not even sure how much I believe this, but the twentieth century.

On one hand is the difference between soldiers and civilians — is being eliminated with the end of the really just professional army of the eighteenth century. It’s possible there were a lot of people killed in the eighteenth century, too, in those professional army wars and all that business. But victims, too, are not just military people. Of course, the worst atrocities committed by French troops were in this sort of madcap Egyptian, Middle-Eastern adventure when he goes off with a boat packed with scientists as well as munitions and lots to eat. He goes off to Egypt. Imagine conquering India. He had an idea how far India was away. Of course, when people don’t put up with this, then he massacres them in Palestine. They raze villages and that’s the end of that. As I said before, the examples before would be in Calabria in the south of Italy when there are persistent rebellions, resistance to French rule — and why not? — then they just start massacring people.

Of course, the famous case of Spain where you have forever on these magnificent canvases of Goya where French troops are shooting down Spanish peasants who are resisting in the Peninsular War. These too, I guess by more modern definitions, not contemporary ones necessarily from that period, but would be classified as massacres. It’s possible and this isn’t too far fetched to imagine the sort of total war as being part of that experience. From 1792 to 1815, the experience of ordinary people in much of Europe was war. There is that, too. Napoleon’s reaction to all of that was, “je m’en fous.” He didn’t really care.

After every big defeat the next step was to plan the next war. The most famous example, of course, is when you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people that are picked off by Russians partisans — and why not? — or freeze to death in the Russian winter. When Napoleon, with his ragtag band of survivors, when they get back to France one can see why that French expression, “to lie like a military bulletin,” comes into existence. The military bulletin that church people had to read, the priest had to read at mass, said that the emperor’s health had never been better. Of course, that was true enough.

He immediately begins to start planning another war. When Cossacks are camped on Montmartre and start the first Russian restaurant in Paris in 1814 and he’s packed off to the island of Elba, not too far from the Italian coast — he makes his 100 days escape and lands at Fréjus in the south of France. Marshal Ney famously throws himself into his arms after having been sent to arrest him. Napoleon is immediately planning the next war and that ends happily for the rest of Europe at Waterloo, when Napoleon typically does not delegate enough authority, and Marshal Grouchy does not come to rescue him, and he’s rounded up and sent so far away. It’s a little difficult to plan the next European war if the closest port is some 600 miles away and is in Peru or someplace like that.

I made this part of what I’m saying today in kind of a rhetorical way. I’m posing a question, because I don’t really have a good answer to that. I don’t believe that history runs on railroad tracks and all you need is the timetable to see when modern times show up. But if you look at the horrors of the twentieth century and the butchery of the civilians, in 1895 the Armenian massacre or the butchery of civilians after the Paris Commune of 1871, it’s not too hard to see all of this. We’re not yet talking about the Holocaust. We’re not yet talking about World War II. But yet, some of that was out there.

One more point is that, and I’m obviously not defending the French soldiers. It’s very unusual for me not to be defendingla France and all things French, but nonetheless, one of the cases that you might say total war comes before Napoleon, and this is of course the Vendée, which I alluded to the other day, the civil war in the West. There you had cases of them simply razing villages, and lining people up against the wall, and gunning down priests, and drowning nuns, and this extremely asocial, antisocial behavior. One of the things about these civil wars, and the case was true in Spain, was that from the point of view of soldiers in a guerilla war, anyone was a potential assailant.

Again, and this is not excusing what French troops did in the Vendée, but to have made it a big political issue, which people did in 1989, the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution and say it’s the first genocide, which is what the far right was saying — the traditional far right, not Le Pen and those folks who would be happy to massacre almost anybody who they didn’t view as French — it’s just sheer nonsense. It’s simply not the case. There are some contexts that should be provided in thinking about that. But it’s an interesting theme and it’s worth discussing. When you’re doing this reading, which I hope you’ll do, that’s not a bad idea to think about. Let me just make a few points. We have about ten minutes left. This is just to amplify what you’re reading about.

Chapter 5. Napoleon’s Lasting Contributions to the French State: Centralization, Service Nobility and the Concordat [00:37:28]

Anyone who’s ever had to wait in line at a prefecture in France for a driver’s license or, in our case, our French identity cards or almost anything else will be cursing Napoleon for having maintained this sort of centralization that emerged out of absolutism and was honed in defense of the republic by folks like the Committee of Public Safety — where Napoleon founded a rational, “enlightened way” of organizing a state. Certainly Napoleon — whether he snatched the crown out of the pope’s hand and crowned himself or let the pope crown him is not the issue. Napoleon could have pretty much done whatever he wanted, but in fact what he does is he maintains the departments. They were created in 1790. They send a prefect, who is like the intendant but even more centralized, to each department in 1800. They keep the same kind of top down centralized organization.

Somebody once said that Gaul was divided up into three parts. When thinking about France at the time of Napoleon or anytime afterward one could think the same thing, that France was divided up into the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of War. Napoleon, who ruthlessly censored newspapers, and forced them out of business, and made the costs of their continuation so extremely difficult, while organizing or orchestrating the cult of Napoleon, whether it be through paid art, some of them extremely great artists, or lesser versions — he maintains the kind of centralization that became important in France and in places where the waves of French troops, “liberty, fraternity, equality,” and all of that ended up, that is maintained. He liked to think that the Napoleonic code was his greatest contribution. He wanted to be the modern Justinian. In fact, he does oversee lots of the beatings of lawyers, and jurists, and specialists.

It’s classic looking back from our view. It’s patently ridiculous that there were many, many more times articles dealing with the sale of cattle than there were of the rights of women. This isn’t too surprising, because Napoleon — as many dictators, including much more egregious ones like Mussolini and Hitler in the twentieth century — viewed women as nothing more than machines for producing babies. He said this. He said this exactly like that. Yet, and that’s a big yet, the Napoleonic code survives and remains in many cases the basis for the French legal system. Again, this is an Enlightenment enterprise in many ways gone right. It is there.

Among the other contributions, we don’t really have time to talk about it and it’s obvious about this sort of nationalism and that one’s value comes from service to the state as opposed from royal blood, though he creates this new nobility based upon service to the state. Service to the state was above all through the army. A lot of these people who become marshals and all of this, if they were lucky enough to survive all these ridiculous wars, are military types. The Napoleonic code and this new sort of service nobility are important things. The concordat — he does a very important thing. He makes peace with the Catholic Church. He realized that as long as you had this potential contrast between juring priests and nonjuring priests, that you would still have lots of militant Catholics who wanted some sort of royalist restoration.

Indeed, remember the king was dead and his son had died also in prison in Paris. But you’ve still got the king’s brother out there. It’s a very shrewd move. Of course, he uses the church for his own propaganda devices, and the church continues the tradition of really the civil constitution of the French clergy, the relationship between the church and the Napoleonic regime. This is a very important, clever step that basically ends the turmoil within France, at least to that extent. The old revolutionary calendar of Germinal, and Ventose, and Thermidor, that all disappears and was replaced by the basic calendar. People still in 1795 and 1796 in rural France are not thinking of ten day units called decadi, something like that. They’re thinking of weeks and they still are having mass said secretly, which was the case in our village, even in 1794, until finally the priest has to go away.

The concordat, this peace with the churches is obviously a very important thing. So is, really, the establishment of the basis of the French educational system that’s remained, for better or for worse, the same until today. I’m a big believer in the French educational system. My kids were in French schools for three or four years. There’s no higher good result of humanity’s collective good deeds than a French kindergarten or first or second grade. It begins to fall apart by the time you get to lycée. He created the lycée, the high schools — and the university system is now in total chaos, and Sarkozy will probably make it even worse if he gets his way about creating an American-like hierarchy of institutions, which would be at the expense of not the lower level, but the more modest universities in the French system.

But be that as it may, Napoleon — it may or may not be true that he once said he could look at his watch and see what everybody is studying at any given moment. And there are lots of problems with the French system, but the division of France into académies, again this has nothing to do with the academies I’ve been talking about before, but into a geographic way of organizing all education, from the universities down to kindergarten or even to crèches, nursery schools, organized by region. It has lasted through all this time. It really is an extraordinary accomplishment. Anacadémie, for example, now would be the académie of Limoges, or the académie of Grenoble, or the académie of Marseilles, or the académie of Strasbourg. It covers two, three, or four, depending on the region, departments. It’s almost impossible to get a schoolteacher fired, by the way. That’s another thing.

I shouldn’t go into — it would be very indiscreet to go into this too much, but if you try to get a school teacher in a village fired, it has to go through the head of the whole académie, who is called the recteur or rectricemadame la lectrice ormonsieur le lector. It’s very impossible. There are problems with that, but nonetheless, the reason that — and here this sounds like a very pro-French thing to say — but the reason the French children, as Finnish children, and children in most European countries test at a very much higher level than those in the United States at any level you can imagine is because they have a centralized education system which does not believe that you should have wealthy communes, wealthy parts of France having all of the advantages, and then schools that have very limited financial resources have not the same possibilities for exceptional advancement.

France has the grands écoles, the big-time, high-powered elite schools, elite universities. They’ve got their equivalents of the fancy places of which you’re all in one now. But nonetheless, Napoleon does create a system which is long lasting and which allowed, over time, the educational structure of France to advance in very, very meaningful ways in the whole course of the period. So, no matter what you think about the fact that in the end he was a megalomaniac and lots of people get killed because of him. There’s no doubt about that. But the wave of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period has long lasting results almost everywhere. Take, for example, the unification of Italy.

Italy will become unified in the 1860s and early 1870s, “unified.” Metternich said it was a geographic expression only, and to an extent he may have been correct. The unification comes through Piedmont Sardinia, which was the most prosperous part of Italy. It’s in the north. They had the benefits of this French bureaucracy, of this administration that was centralized that allow them to be more prosperous than other parts of Italy. It contributes to that. They had other advantages, too.

So, the Napoleonic wave did make a difference. Though it’s hard when you to go Paris — and if you go to the Louvre, it’s hard to not think of the fact that many of the treasures that are there were simply looted from Italy, loaded not in trains as Goering, and Goebbels, and those folks looted art treasures during World War II, but put very carefully-packed on military wagons and returned to Paris. So, we can debate about Napoleon and all of that. My view is already probably fairly clear, but one has to admit that besides just the romance of his life, and a career open to talent, and all of that, that he made a huge difference and thus was worth spending some time on. Have a good weekend. I’m going to St. Louis.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]