What a saga my life has been! This is how Napoleon I himself is said to have evoked his extraordinary destiny in the autumn of his existence. From Ajaccio to Saint Helena, half a century has gone past; less than a quarter, from the siege of Toulon in December 1793 to Waterloo in June 1815 – from the advent of Captain Napoleone Buonaparte in History to the final defeat of the Emperor Napoleon the Great. In-between all this, so much of activity! Such a great amount of energy displayed on a stage which moves from Madrid to Berlin, from Cairo to Moscow!
From 1799 to 1814, his hand rectifies the map of Europe almost every year, distributes crowns, from the most ancient ones as the Crown of Spain to the more ephemeral ones such as the Crown of Westphalia. In 1807, he enters Berlin as a victor, humiliates Prussia and deals on a one-to-one basis with the Tsar Alexander I. In 1808, Madrid falls; in 1809, it is Vienna's turn to fall. In 1810, the Emperor of Austria Francis I gives him the hand of his daughter Maria-Luisa of Austria in marriage.
However this vitality eventually exhausts the instruments which made an inconsequential Corsican Second-Lieutenant the Emperor of the French people: France initially, followed by the army and especially its chiefs, who owed him so much, tire of the frantic pace that Napoleon imposed on them, the sacrifices that he demanded of them, and above all the upsets which were piling up ever since the disastrous Russian campaign in 1812. The victor of Austerlitz will have to abdicate, twice over, as he always simply had to exceed common measures. History could subsequently get back to a peaceful run. As for the exiled man, he will still have six years at his disposal in order to polish up his legend.
This out of the ordinary existence has spawned an incredibly abundant array of works. For two centuries, historians, essay writers and novelists have described it, analyzed it, emphasized on it or on the contrary vilified it. The ambitious ones found in Napoleon Bonaparte an unparalleled example; pacifists treated him as an ogre; Leo Tolstoy reduced him to a mere puppet; Stendhal made him the great man of Sorel; Hippolyte Taine described him as an Italian condottiere of the Renaissance period who strayed into the modern world; Léon Bloy proclaimed him to be a prophet.
And the man who conquered Europe during his lifetime conquered the world after his death. In 2008, Beijing has devoted to him an exhibition in the prestigious residence of the emperors of China : the Forbidden City. The same year, the Museum of Fine Arts of Montreal has opened new rooms to expose Napoleonic objects donated by Mr. Ben Weider. In 2010, Berlin hosted the exhibition Napoleon and Europe. Dream and trauma. And these are just a few examples!
So many judgments that are as decisive and as opposed to one another, so many celebrations, however stem from the same facts: these incredible upheavals in the aftermath within which context Napoleon arose, give them such extraordinary splendour that a Honoré de Balzac, royalist, can barely mask his admiration.
These facts are the ones that we shall attempt to gather herein so that each person can in his turn make his own studied opinion on an essential personality of the history of France. A personality who, two thousand years later, revived the great figures of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, and who, like them, had been much more than a mere conqueror. His contributions on the administrative plane, considerable in scope, survived him. Today's France, irrespective of whether one is delighted with the way it is or whether one deplores the way it is, is the by-product of this France of the Revolution and the Empire – indissociables periods – and was fashioned by Napoleon Bonaparte.
A France where he rests, at Paris, in the Hôtel des Invalides, since December 15th, 1840.
The last time I visited the Dome Church in the Hôtel des Invalides located in Paris' seventh arrondissement, I stopped to admire a fresco some 90 meters (nearly 100 yards) above my head . It depicts Saint Louis (King Louis IX of France) presenting arms before Jesus Christ, the Virgin and a host of angels. I could never grow tired of this scene. I knew that my next step would be to walk around the circular balustrade overlooking the crypt. As soon as I began climbing the staircase between the tombs of the compatriots Duroc and Bertrand, I was filled with a unique feeling of awe. I was sure this emotion would reach its height at the twin sight of the burial of the King of Rome and the imposing sarcophagus of the Emperor. And I would undoubtedly shed a tear as a testament to my emotional state during my visits to the imperial tomb.
It was then that a young couple temporarily interrupted my reverie. From their smiles and the camera the man was holding, I understood they wanted me to take their picture in front of the crypt.
– Are you English?
I heard myself explaining, in broken English, that it was traditional for visitors to proclaim Vive l'Empereur! while having their picture taken here. Visibly delighted upon learning this custom, the couple repeated the words enthusiastically with a slight, but charming, accent and the moment was immortalized on film.
I wondered at these two young Americans. As citizens of one of the oldest republics in the world, the emblem of freedom par excellence, would they have proclaimed Vive le Roi! ("Long live the King!") if they had visited the Basilica of Saint-Denis? Nothing is more uncertain... It amused me to think that their enthusiasm was a testament to their subconscious attachment to the values of 1776 (and to the constitution of 1787) that had spread to France, in their own way, first in 1789 and then under the Empire...