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September 11     |     OUT OF STEP      |     No. 1     |     2002

 

Reaping the Harvest of Bonapartism

by Milton Batiste

 

Napoleon. Empire. War. The three go together. Could there be a lesson for our modern times here? Historian Paul Johnson certainly thinks so:

"At the beginning of the twenty-first century, anxious as we are to avoid the tragic mistakes of the twentieth, we must learn from Bonaparte’s life what to fear and what to avoid."

Indeed. And what better place to start, than the slim Johnson biography called Napoleon?

Napoleon Bonaparte seems to have been the opportunist incarnate. No one ever saw him drunk. Power was the only drug he was interested in. Revolutionary France of the 1790s provided the perfect background for this ambitious Corsican soldier.

America fought a revolutionary war of independence against the British empire.With independence came the desire for peace, trade and prosperity in an American republic. The revolution took a different course in France. The slogan of the French Revolutionaries soon became: "War with all kings and peace with all peoples." In practice this translated into simply "war with all". In the spring of 1792 the Girondin Ministry forced king Louis to declare war on Austria and Sardinia. And in February-March 1793 Revolutionary France declared war on Britain, Holland and Spain. To make things even worse, civil war broke out in France itself.

War meant fast promotion for a young artillery commander like Napoleon Bonaparte:

"He blew himself into the stratosphere of power from the brazen mouth of his own guns."

Bonaparte was associated with the Jacobins and first attracted notice by his distinguished part in dislodging the British from Toulon (1793). In October 1795, there was a royalist uprising in Paris. Paul Barras persuaded the Convention to place Bonaparte in command of the troops. Napoleon dispersed the mob with what he called "a whiff of grapeshot", killing about 100 insurgents. He was given command of the army of the interior. After drawing up a plan for an Italian campaign, Napoleon Bonaparte was made commander in chief of the army of Italy. Johnson notes:

"He had already, in effect, ended the Revolution itself. His assumption of the new command marked another historical turning point: the moment when the republican regime moved from the defensive to the largescale offensive and became an expansionist force, determined to roll up the old map of Europe and transform it on principles formed by its own ideology."

Yes, the French liked to think of themselvs as liberators as they marched to war, and for a while many European intellectuals were inclined to agree. Keats and Shelley recognized in Bonaparte the romantic hero. So did Bonaparte himself:

"He saw himself as the Enlightenment embodied, bringing rationality and justice to peoples hitherto ruled in the interests of privileged castes."

His benevolence did not last forever, or even for long:

"Bonaparte was always forced in the end, and usually sooner rather than later, by financial and military necessity to impose burdens that made his rule even more unpopular than the old regimes."

Early on in his new career, during the Italian campaign, Bonaparte ceased to be a mere general. He became an imperial proconsul, in fact if not yet in name. He became First Consul a few years later, after the military coup in 1799. And after that -- Emperor, in 1804. That move cost him most of the remaining support of European liberals.

The institutions of Revolutionary France -- a police state at war not only with foreign kingdoms but also with its own people -- made it relatively easy for Bonaparte to consolidate his power. The dictatorship of Bonaparte was a disaster for the French people, and for the victims of his wars. The imperial adventure ended in military ruin:

"In 1812 and 1813 Bonaparte had lost, in killed wounded, prisoners, and simply disappeared, about one million men. About half were Frenchmen. Yet all had been in vain, as germans and Russians were now pouring across the frontiers into France, often led by marauding squadrons of Cossacks. All looted, raped, and murdered, as the French had once looted, raped, and murdered in their homelands."

It was not the first empire to fall. It will not be the last one. Could the disaster have been avoided? Not with someone like Napoleon in charge. "It does not seem to have occurred to him, " Johnson writes, "to study the example of his older contemporary George Washington, who translated victory inte civil progress and renounced the rule of force in favor of the rule of law."

George Washington was not a role model in the France of Napoleon Bonaparte. How about in the America of George W. Bush? No, Washington's wisdom is not greatly valued in his country of birth today.

President Bush is eager to impose democracy on countries whose government he disapproves of. His administration is geared up for global war for world wide democracy. America may, therefore, one day find itself reaping the harvest of Bonapartism. I hope not.