This year it was different. Not only did a French military bishop read a soul ministry for Napoleon I in the Saint-Louis-des-Invalides cathedral in Paris on May 5, 2021, but President Emmanuel Macron also laid a bouquet of flowers on the emperor's sarcophagus after he gave it in a speech on the 200th anniversary of his death. The different reactions show again that many people, not only in France, remember Napoleon or even admire him. That can be surprising, because in contrast to his contemporary Ludwig van Beethoven, Napoleon did not leave behind very much apart from the foundation of the Order of the Legion of Honor that is still having an effect today.

François-René de Chateaubriand, another contemporary of Napoleon, suspected in his memoirs published in 1849: “After the despotism of his person, we will still have to suffer the despotism of his memory.

This despotism is even more dominant.

Even if we fought against Napoleon while he was on the throne, there is a universal approval of the fetters in which he cast us dead. ”

"The world belongs to Bonaparte": Napoleon on St. Helena

Source: Getty Images

In his forecast, Chateaubriand was able to point out that Napoleon had two admirers who emulated him during his lifetime: Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, and freedom fighter Simón Bolívar, who is revered as an idol in South America to this day.

Like their example, they failed, but this circumstance was neither detrimental to them nor to Napoleon, which is why others tried to imitate them.

One of the last was Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who proclaimed himself Emperor of the Central African Republic in December 1976.


Almost every nation had a positive image of Napoleon.

With the exception of the Spaniards, this was also and especially true of the peoples who had rather mixed experiences with his rule.

The Germans, for example, who, depending on their political attitudes, had different accentuations with him, but mostly associated beneficial memories.

Napoleon's posthumous career in Germany only ended when the Nazis believed they could establish an "identity" between him and Adolf Hitler.

An example of this is provided by the biography “Napoleon.

Comet orbit of a genius ”, whose author, Philipp Bouhler, was the head of the office of the leader of the NSDAP.

Apotheosis of the heroes of the French Revolution - by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767–1824)

Source: Heritage Images / Getty Images

His current apologists and admirers argue, for example, that Napoleon helped the modern age to break through. For this purpose, reference is made to his code of law, the Code civil, or to the comprehensive "land consolidation" of the variegated German states of the Old Reich that he put into action. The objection to this is that Napoleon was unable to create stable and legitimate political conditions.

The "despotism of his memory" still has a paralyzing effect.

The decisive prerequisites for this were created by the man who changed his Corsican surname Buonaparte to Bonaparte at the beginning of his breathtaking career and who invented himself as Napoleon I, whom many still remember today.

As a creature of the revolution, Bonaparte made northern Italy the main theater of the war that revolutionary France waged against Austria: As a very young general, he defeated opposing forces, which were superior to him, but which were led by ossified field marshals.


This constellation alone secured him sympathies, which he knew how to increase through revolutionary vigor and shrewd tactics.

This quickly gave him a reputation of superiority not only in France but also in Europe, which he knew how to consolidate with his propagandistic skill by successfully covering up occasional setbacks and portraying them as brave deeds.

Even a cool head like the Prussian strategy theorist Carl von Clausewitz was seduced by this.

Thanks to this skilful self-portrayal, Bonaparte was able to portray himself as a figure of light whom the French acclaimed as savior when he swept away the corrupted revolutionary regime with a coup in November 1799 and took power in France.

The coronation of Napoleon on December 2nd, 1804 in Notre-Dame in Paris

Source: picture-alliance / akg-images /

That was the first act, followed by the second, that he was transformed from a general of the revolution into Napoleon, the emperor of France, as it were on the open stage.

From the bankruptcy assets of the revolution, as the representative of which he still saw himself as emperor, he recovered the elements that he needed for the basis of his own power.


The most important thing for him was the égalité, which he understood in terms of legal and civic equality before the law, but which only applied to the so-called strong sex.

Consequently, man alone was the subject of the Civil Code.

Even that turned out to be revolutionary enough at the time to develop seductive charm, because it promised liberation, in the countries conquered by Napoleon, in which post-feudal encrustations still prevailed.

Incidentally, Napoleon was always careful to only allow changes in the countries he subjugated that were of use to his own power, but nothing that could have been of future benefit to them.

This difference conceals a misunderstanding that the historian Thomas Nipperdey formulated at the beginning of his "German History" with the sentence that has often been quoted since: "In the beginning there was Napoleon."

The third act that was decisive for Napoleon's posthumous despotism was the exile to St. Helena imposed on him by the victors.

He virtuously stylized this fate into martyrdom by inventing a story of suffering that his companions - the "evangelists", as Heinrich Heine aptly called them - passed on.

"Faith guarantees us the existence of Jesus": Napoleon to Henri-Gatien Bertrand (1773–1844)

Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

Napoleon came up with this ingenious idea on June 12, 1816 in conversation with Count Henri-Gatien Bertrand, when, anticipating the biblical criticism of the later 19th century, he said: “Faith guarantees us the existence of Jesus, for which we the historical evidence but are absent.

The Jewish historian Josephus is the only one who mentions him at all.

... He only says: Jesus Christ appeared and was crucified.

... The evangelists do not report anything that can be proven.

... The Gospels contain nothing but good morals and few facts. "

Above all, the "Gospel" based on Napoleon's favorite disciple Emmanuel de Las Cases reports on the suffering and death of Napoleon in the inhospitable St. Helena under the English jailer Sir Hudson Lowe.

The “Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène” made use of the life story of Napoleon as material that Las Cases not only re-cut, but also enriched through later experiences and changed expectations.

Published Napoleon's diaries from St. Helena: Emmanuel de Las Cases (1766–1842)

Source: picture alliance / Bianchetti / Le

With this he succeeded in stylizing and editing the supposed minutes of conversations with the exile, i.e. his legacy, in such a way that it could be reflected in the views of public opinion that were common in France and Europe when the work was published in 1823.

In other words: The “Mémorial” is by no means, as is popularly believed, a compilation of authentic statements by Napoleon, but the book even documents beliefs allegedly expressed by him, which often completely contradict his actions.

However, these alleged statements by Napoleon are in line with the liberal zeitgeist that prevailed in post-Napoleonic Europe.

That made it a sensation at the time the “Mémorial” was published and the book, which was translated into the most important languages, an international bestseller.

"During his lifetime he missed the world, when dead he possessed it": François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848)

Source: De Agostini via Getty Images


In this way, Napoleon's actions during his unrestricted rule of continental Europe subsequently acquired a future-oriented meaning that it never had.

Another prognosis of Chateaubriand came true: “The world belongs to Bonaparte;

what the ravager failed to conquer takes his reputation.

During his lifetime he missed the world, when dead he possessed it. "

Johannes Willms, historian and publicist, published a biography of Napoleon in 2005.

In 2020 “The Myth of Napoleon.

Promise, banishment, transfiguration ”.

(Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart. 384 pp., 26 euros).

Title ARTE Magazin 05/21 Napoleon

Source: ARTE

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