Thu, 17 Jun 2021

Napoleon Bonaparte left an enormous legacy after he died on St Helena two centuries ago on May 5, 1821 - from the Civil Code that influenced legal systems across the world to his inspirational effect on writers and visual artists.

After Napoleon died imprisoned in the remote British south Atlantic outpost St Helena, the revered early-nineteenth-century French writer and diplomat Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand prophesied a colossal legacy for the onetime emperor: "When alive, he put his stamp on the world; now that he is dead, he owns it."

Two centuries later, Napoleon's imprint remains on an array of institutions, ideas and monuments: The extremely influential Civil Code legal system he founded in 1804; France's Legion of Honour; the renowned baccalaureate exam system; the lycee, or upper-level secondary school; the Council of State that advises the French government; and a range of more banal matters such as the French rubbish collection system.

The list is similarly endless when it comes to Paris monuments. The Arc de Triomphe Napoleon commissioned in 1806 is the most imposing; others include the Rue de Rivoli - the grand thoroughfare through central Paris - and the Canal d'Ourcq, the waterway through the city's working-class east.

FRANCE 24 looks back on some of Napoleon's enduring achievements.

Civil Code 'will live forever'

The spread of the Civil Code across Europe was a major legacy of Napoleon's occupations. Bonaparte was especially proud of promulgating this clear, accessible system of codified law: "My real glory isn't that I won forty battles; [the final defeat at] Waterloo will erase most of them - but nothing will erase my Civil Code; that will live for ever," the deposed emperor said from his St Helena exile.

Bonaparte imposed the code through his conquest of Italy, Spain, Switzerland, swathes of Germany, the Netherlands and what is now Belgium. Many of these territories already had civil law codes - but they were often abstract and sometimes archaic; mixing Roman law with feudal principles.

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"Napoleon's enforcement of the Civil Code in various local languages meant that everyone could access the rules that governed them - especially when it came to matters like marriage, divorce, property and inheritance that touched their daily lives," noted David Chanteranne, a French historian and editor-in-chief of specialist publication Le Souvenir Napoleonien.

But Napoleon's Civil Code did not just spread through force; Bonaparte's legacy was also to conquer hearts and minds. In the 19th century the likes of Poland and Romania used the Civil Code as the basis for their legal systems out of admiration for Napoleon and for the liberal Enlightenment ideals of revolutionary France.

"Such was Napoleon's influence in Poland that even today his name is sung in their national anthem," Chanteranne pointed out.

"To this day, you can see the traces of Napoleon's Civil Code in so many countries - many European nations, Japan, South Korea, Chile and so on - that you could even describe it as a universal code," said Thierry Lentz, a historian and director of the Fondation Napoleon.

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"Even more than the Civil Code, the whole French model of the administrative state was exported during Napoleon's lifetime," Lentz continued. "It was a different manner of conceiving the state; but at the time, there was neither an administration nor bureaucrats in Europe, which still operated under feudal principles."

Napoleon's promotion of equality and social mobility carried influence thousands of miles away. Determined to break his country free from the Spanish Empire, the young Venezuelan Simon Bolivar was impressed by Bonaparte and the Enlightenment principles he championed.

Bolivar's visits to Paris in 1802 and 1804 kindled this sense of inspiration - prompting him to take advantage of Spanish weakness when Napoleon turned on his former ally in 1808, launching his victorious battles for independence in Latin America.

In this sense, the ideas Napoleon propagated made much more of a difference than any of his First French Empire's concrete achievements.

But Napoleon also inspired some of the most blood-stained tyrants of the 20th century. "Mussolini, Hitler, Franco and Stalin all claimed the Napoleonic mantle in some form," Chanteranne observed.

Cuba's former communist dictator Fidel Castro was an especially big Napoleon fan - visiting Bonaparte's tomb at Les Invalides during his sole visit to France in 1995 and creating what Chateranne called the world's "finest Napoleon museum" in Havana.

Other 20th century dictators preferred other leaders and generals, Lentz pointed out: "Hitler wasn't a fan of the French and he kept insisting that Bismarck was superior to Napoleon; Mussolini most admired the emperor Augustus, etc."

'The poets' most fruitful muse'

Napoleon also left a major legacy in the creative arts - with architecture, painting, sculpture and the decorative arts flourishing as incarnations of the grandeur of his First French Empire, as exemplified by the pomp and circumstance of the Arc de Triomphe. In particular, Bonaparte "encouraged" the Egyptian style in the visual arts after his 1798-1801 campaign there, Chateranne said.

Bonaparte became "the poets' most prolific muse", 19th-century French poet Pierre-Antoine Lebrun wrote.

Generations of writers have been drawn to Bonaparte as a romantic, hubristic hero: Most famously, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace revolves around his disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia, but other giants of Russian literature such as Pushkin, Lermontov and Dostoevsky were inspired by Napoleon - as displayed in the latter's portrayal of the crazed young antihero Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who regards himself as a Napoleonic figure.

Whether praised or reviled, Bonaparte was a major reference point for British writers, from Lord Byron to Thomas Hardy to Anthony Burgess - and in similar fashion by their Italian, German and Polish counterparts.

A similar Napoleon-inspired corpus can be seen in cinema, Chanteranne said: "Over 1,000 films have been made across the globe about Napoleon - more than have been made about Jesus, who comes in second."

Napoleon's life continues to fascinate because it is the story of a "self-made man with a tragic fate", Chanteranne put it. But, alongside his soaring achievements, it is important also to note the darker side of Bonaparte's hegemony over France and Europe: He reinstituted slavery in 1802 and subordinated women to patriarchal authority in his Civil Code. "These were very unfortunate decisions," Lentz said. "But slavery and the subjection of women were widespread at the time, so on these issues, Napoleon wasn't really innovating."

This article was translated from the original in French.

Originally published on France24

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