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. 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 15^(th) of August.
He wrote in a letter to the
Corsican patriot with whom he subsequently broke,
Paoli, he wrote on the 12^(th) 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 the philosophes.
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 18^(th) 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. 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.
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 27^(th) 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
18^(th) 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 more
champagnois,” 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
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.
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 the levée 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.
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 defending la 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 200^(th) 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. 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. An académie,
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 rectrice,
madame la lectrice or monsieur 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.
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.