Napoleon Bonaparte helped create the foundations of today’s France: a country with an organized state, which tries to ensure a comfortable life and values education and the arts. However, this country model was also achieved through military victories and slave labor, and remembering this creates a dilemma for the French, says historian Adam Zamoyski.
The death of the emperor celebrates its 200th anniversary this Wednesday (5), and France is debating whether or not to celebrate his heritage. Some names on the left and civil rights activists question him for overturning the abolition of slavery in 1802 and for creating a civil code that places women in a subordinate position. Far-right leaders like Marine Le Pen praise him for his military talent and constant pulse.
French President Emmanuel Macron took a wreath from the emperor’s tomb in Paris on Wednesday. He was the first leader of the country to pay tribute to him since 1969, when the bicentenary of his birth was celebrated, according to the AFP news agency.
Macron said Napoleon was complex and deserved to be analyzed head-on. He asked the French not to give in to the temptation to judge the past by the laws of the present. The president praised the emperor for strengthening the state and unifying the country, but criticized him for not caring about the large number of deaths in battles and resuming slavery.
For British historian Adam Zamoyski, 72, who wrote two books on Napoleon, the French leader (1769-1821) had a pragmatic view of forced labor – it brought results – and was even a little progressive on women – he even made the divorce easier, because Example.
Author of “Napoleon – The man behind the myth” (Critical ed.) And “1812 – Napoleon’s fatal march to Moscow” (Record ed.), Zamoyski also emphasizes that views on the French statesman have changed several times throughout history. He spoke to Folha by email.
How do you see the current controversy in France over Napoleon’s legacy? Napoleon remains a fundamental problem for the French. He was an imposing figure who sums up a period when France dominated the world in many areas. It was a great force in creating the modern world. Despite numerous regime changes, France is still the France he created today. And the structures and procedures of most of Europe (and many countries around the world) are deeply influenced by his worldview, which he has applied to institutions of all kinds.
Therefore, it is very difficult for a Frenchman to treat him as a mere historical figure. He is present around them in the form of the institutions he left behind. At a time when militarism and nationalism are out of fashion and institutions like slavery are doomed, this puts most French people in a dilemma.
Some groups criticize Napoleon for reestablishing slavery. How did he solve the problem? Napoleon was a pragmatist. All he wanted was to reclaim the French colonies, which were an economic asset for France, and make them work efficiently. Slavery had proven to be very effective in producing these results, so he was inclined to keep it, especially since the French living in the colonies were determined to maintain it. We need to see people’s actions through the eyes of their time, and the issues that preoccupy us today will be seen as absurd, if not bad, for future generations.
Napoleon is praised for creating a civil code, but he is currently being criticized for putting women in the background. What was Napoleon’s relationship with women? He had a very Mediterranean attitude towards social structures, starting with the family, and women had a very special place in the family. In many ways, they were a base, but also their most fragile pillar. Napoleon was a little obsessed with control, hated “disorder” and was also a moral proud: he liked to seduce women, but he considered those he had seduced as fallen. This is why he surrounded them with several provisions of his code. But it also made the divorce much easier. Again, we must keep in mind the times he lived. His views were, in a way, more progressive than those of his contemporaries.
How has the view of historians on him changed over the past 200 years, especially over the past few decades? It has changed dramatically, especially over the past 30 years or so, as a new generation of French historians have used bicentenaries. [de nascimento e morte] to re-evaluate many things considered set in stone.
In 1815, with the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Napoleon was officially considered a monster. The monarchy of Louis-Philippe in 1830 rehabilitated him, his nephew Napoleon III [que governou de 1848 a 1852] idolized him, and since then most French people have accepted him as a great historical figure whose legacy is, in general, positive. And many, not just in France, are very sensitive to Napoleon’s imaginary “glory”, with his wonderful uniforms and epic military exploits.
One of Napoleon’s main legacies was the model of an organized state, run by bureaucrats. Today, many politicians attack this model and place these officials as enemies of the people. How do you see this problem? Napoleon’s main goal in taking power in 1799 was to end the chaos and demagoguery that began with the French Revolution of 1789. Order and stability were what everyone in France wanted after ten years heavy fighting and civil war. He achieved this by creating new structures to organize everything, by giving everyone a role in society, in the economy, in the state, in the army, etc. People felt safe and knew their place.
The problem is that this state of affairs generates a huge bureaucracy, largely inefficient, and institutions that see no other purpose than their own perpetuation. This is why, for example, the structures of the European Union are totally incapable of reforming.
In your book, you say that you consider Napoleon to be a very ordinary man. How did you come to this conclusion? I just reminded people that he is not some kind of divine genius. He was a man like all of us. In some ways, he was a boring little man with limited tastes. What made him extraordinary were the events he was involved in, in addition to his ability to ride this great wave, successfully, for so long. But when he fell, as seen on Elba Island and St. Helena [ilhas onde foi exilado], became boring again.
Adam Zamoyski, 72 years old
Born in New York, in a family of Polish descent, he grew up in the United Kingdom and graduated in History and Modern Languages at Oxford in 1970. He has written 12 books, on themes such as Napoleon, the French Revolution and the history of Poland.