Napoleon was a European to his core – except when it came to England

Napoleon deeply distrusted the ethos of globalised British capitalism, unfettered by any social contract between rich and poor, a suspicion with Brexit-era echoes

Napoleon Bonaparte 1769-1821 crossing the Alps (Grand Saint Bernard Pass) by Jacques Louis David. Image: The Art Archive / Musee du Chateau de Versailles / Dagli Orti

Napoleon Bonaparte 1769-1821 crossing the Alps (Grand Saint Bernard Pass) by Jacques Louis David. Image: The Art Archive / Musee du Chateau de Versailles / Dagli Orti


Napoleon didn’t get the English. As he drove the British army out of Spain in the first weeks of 1809, and finally closed in under what was left of the redcoats on the beaches near La Coruña in the country’s far north-west, he witnessed a small incident that opens a window on his mind.

As the horses of the retreating British fell victim to disease and exhaustion, their riders shot their mounts by the roadside to prevent them falling into enemy hands.

More had to be killed on the beaches at La Coruña, something which upset the hardened British soldiers deeply, and many memoirs recount that “the incessant cracking of hussars’ pistols, as the unfortunate chargers were shot was the thing the lingered longest in their memories of all the sounds of those unhappy days.”

To Napoleon, however, this proved not only just how cruel the British were, but how very odd: “The English have lost...3,000 horses, which they slaughtered themselves, according to their bizarre custom.” He was convinced he was dealing with something alien and unhinged.

Napoleon soldiered far and wide. He had ruled Egypt for a short time and took an interest in Islamic culture. He was an early and often ferocious proponent of Jewish liberation and integration, levelling the walls of ghettos wherever his armies passed. He was a great admirer of the great German poet Goethe, even offering his the post of poet laureate of the Empire.

He summoned the best minds and talents from all over Europe into his service, and his court was deliberately peopled with able young men – rising stars – from all over the lands of his vast hegemony: Dutch, German, Italian and even Polish “auditors” worked in the highest offices of his imperial civil service and served – often with valour and distinction - in the ranks of his Grande Armée.

His bodyguards were Egyptian cavalrymen, the Mamelukes, whose families he settled in Marseilles and looked after personally. He was escorted by Polish lancers when he fled the field at Waterloo, and over 2,000 Polish troops assembled to fight on with him after his last battle. His second wife was Austrian. His dearest mistress, Maria Walewska, Polish. Napoleon’s youngest sister, Pauline, was the godmother to Camillo di Cavour, the future unifier of Italy and Cavour’s great friend and mentor, Cesare Balbo, was one of Napoleon’s “auditors” in his Council of State, the nerve centre of the Empire.

His vision for that empire was of greater and deeper union and the core of his hegemony bore a striking resemblance to the boundaries of the original European Economic Community. An autocrat and a warmonger Napoleon may have been, but he was a European to his core. Except when it came to England.

As I recounted in the first volume of my life of Napoleon early in 1803, the mayor of Orléans wrote to Napoleon, asking his support to erect a statue of Joan of Arc in honour of her first great victory over the English there in the 100 Years’ War.

His hatred for the English is palpable in his reply: “The illustrious Joan of Arc proved that it was no miracle that French genius could prevail in circumstances when national independence was threatened. United, the French nation has never been defeated; but our neighbours – more calculating, more adroit – abusing the openness and loyalty of our character, constantly sowed dissentions in our midst, from which stemmed all the misfortunes of those times, and all the disasters in our history.”

Napoleon paid for the statue from his own pocket, which was never deeper than that of a brigadier general’s salary.

His sentiments bear a notable resemblance to those of George Bernard Shaw in his play, Saint Joan.

Ironically, the British spoke of the French in exactly the same terms. Perfidy, sly calculation, the abuse of the inherent honesty and trusting nature of a good-hearted people by vicious foreigners, it could all have been Tom Paine railing against the Norman yoke in The Rights of Man.

Napoleon could play at this game, too, and had the historical tropes to do so. When modern politicians invoke stereotypes of this sort, it is always with a strong dose of cynical ingenuity.

As a leader often credited with being the first to drape authoritarianism in democratic trappings, Napoleon was doubtless being calculatingly cynical in exactly this way. It was no coincidence that the always fragile peace brokered at Amiens in two years earlier was on its last legs in February 1803, when this letter was written: the following month, France and Britain declared war on each other and Napoleon began the construction of the base at Boulogne, from whence he intended to invade Kent.

There is more to this rant than the politics of the moment, however.

In personal terms, this outburst shows that Napoleon embraced a certain vision of France – and of Europe – as his own: A vision of the peasant smallholder and modest bourgeois landowner – hard-working, self-sufficient leaders of tightly knit rural communities and small towns – to whom the ethos of his legal and financial reforms appealed so much.

His outburst invoked that most ethereal of the republican values, fraternité, with its roots in the inherent generosity of a free people, contrasted openly with the debased commercialism of the British.

There was a whole universe Napoleon and many other contemporary Europeans deeply distrusted: the ethos of what they perceived as modern, globalised British capitalism. Unfettered by any ‘social contract’ between rich and poor; all connections with the land and a traditional way of life severed in the interests of the pursuit of Mammon; anarchic deregulation of every aspect of economic life; an economy locked into dangerous cycles of ‘boom-and-bust’; and all backed by a huge, aggressive and utterly ruthless navy – which had razed neutral Copenhagen to the ground with the help of its lethal Congreve rockets – a sign of how the English warped their technological superiority in the cause of evil – not once but twice, first in 1801 and again in 1807.

England was Carthage to Napoleon’s new Rome, be it the Rome of the virtuous early Republic or that of the great, universal empire, the vessel of civilisation, standing against a maritme, crass materialism which had no roots or moral compass, the Carthage portrayed by Roman historians as having the veneer of civilisation, but no philosophy underpinning it: Perfidious Albion.

In this vision of France as virtuous Rome standing against Carthage, Napoleon stood at one with the most radical of the French revolutionaries, even as he silenced their press and threw many of them in gaol as he tightened his grip on power. When he compared the men of his beloved Grande Armée to “the rest”, it came from the heart.

His troops were citizens, not subjects; they were free men, doing their duty, not mercenaries, Napoleon trumpeted to his enemies. Unwilling conscripts the mass of his army may have been; they may have been hauled to their depots by brutal, cruel force, but – although conscripts – they were not slaves.

The French soldier was not a Prussian or Russian serf. He was not flogged excessively at the random whim of an aristocratic officer who saw him as chattel, for that officer, however brutal, was not his social superior. Flogging was abolished, and Napoleon declared how much better this made his army than the British, where discipline was as savage as in the feudal east.

The raw French levies – soon joined by Italian, German, Dutch, Belgian and Polish – were not the dregs of society, criminals who had been scoured from the prisons to fill the ranks: “The armies of the Republic (before he came to power) did great things because they were made up of the sons of tenant farmers and good small holders, not of rabble, because these men took the place of the officers of the old order,” Napoleon said in his memoirs. Britain’s reliance on convicts and mercenaries was a sign of degeneracy in his eyes.

However idealised a picture Napoleon painted of his soldiers on St Helena, his armies were undeniably pan-European. As I describe in chapter three of the second volume of my biography, Napoleon. The Spirit of the Age, following the shattering of his VII Corps at the battle of Eylau in 1807, when that corps was rebuilt, it now included only one French division.

Its real lifeblood was two Polish and two Italian divisions, alongside units from Baden and Saxony. The Grande Armée had taken its first official step to becoming a truly European army, although conscripts from Italy, western Germany and the Low Countries had been serving under French colours many years earlier.

Nor was Napoleon alone among Europeans in his innate antipathy to England. As I recount in the final pages of The Spirit of the Age, in 1810 the young German Princess, Catherine the daughter of Napoleon’s ally, the King of Württemberg, the wife of his youngest brother, Jerome, went with Napoleon when he inspected the Channel defences – she had never seen the sea before – and noted in her journal:

“We are not far from the coast of England...with a good wind, the Emperor could easily debark 24,000 men, who could be transported on the flat boats he is building. These 24,000 men would have ten to twelve warships to protect them. If this expedition succeeds, it would put an end to this ghastly England...How many ills, how many calamities this awful war has made! How can it be that civilised peoples like the English be capable of such inhumanity and cruelty! Still, my pen is wandering. I am philosophising instead of recording!”

Many of those close to Napoleon opined on what a fine wife Catherine, rather than Marie-Louise, would have made Napoleon. She had certainly come to share his view of the English.

Britain was a problem for many Europeans, not just the French, and Napoleon gained considerable support for his plans to choke off British imports. He failed spectacularly, because then – as now – the British economy was too intimately linked to most European countries for the ties to be shattered. That did not stop many Europeans resenting British competition and hoping a powerful France could drive out the powerhouse of the industrial revolution.

Napoleon’s blockade and his attempt to reorient the European economy away from the Atlantic world was too selfish – an “un-Common Market” designed primarily to serve France first. As I will explore in the third and final volume of my biography, Napoleon systematically dismantled a thriving light metallurgical industry in the Ruhr, forcing Germans to supply French industry with raw materials, instead; he destroyed the Milan textile industry, complelling Italians to send their raw silk to Lyons, the designated “silk city” of the Empire.

The blockade reduced the great ports of Europe to nightmare landscapes. As I describe in the penultimate chapter of The Spirit of the Age, the once proud, thriving port city of Amsterdam plunged into harrowing decline in every sense. Emigration caused by the collapse of commerce was compounded by the spread of diseases related to poverty, reducing its population from 202,000 in 1808, to little more than 180,000 by 1815.

Its shipyards, which had employed 2,000 men in 1800, had barely 500 by 1808. Empty houses stood in ruins, while shanty towns sprang up along the canals. Even the number of taverns declined. Between 30 and 40 per cent of its population depended on poor relief by 1809.

Abandoned new born babies reached a record 740 in the city in 1810, and these are only the figures which reached the authorities. Amesterdam’s plight was far from unique. Yet, for all this, the return of British imports and competition after Napoleon’s fall in 1814 was anything but welcomed. Albion had her own form of tyranny, the soft power of the industrial revolution, shielded by the very hard power of her incomparable fleets. Napoleon’s tactics brought ruin; Britain’s informal strategies, tutelage.

At the heart of The Spirit of the Age is the story of a commander and his army, and how they swept across Europe, tearing its map to shreds, as well as the armies sent to stop them. There is far more to the Napoleonic adventure than the din of battle, however. Wherever the French went, so too did a new political order. When the dust settled after Napoleon’s conquests, the foundations of modern Europe were laid, even in places the French failed to take or hold, such as Portugal and Spain. This is when his vision of every deeper union took more solid form than welding individuals, be they his foot soldiers or the gilded ‘Euro’ high-fliers in the corridors of power, to his service.

The “other story” within The Spirit of the Age – begun in the final chapters of Solider of Destiny with Napoleon’s great reforms in France – is how the French imposed their core public institutions and the value systems that went with them, on much of the rest of Europe – that ‘inner empire’ so akin to the original EEC – and beyond.

Napoleon’s empire was ‘an empire of the laws’; where the French ruled, their law codes went with them: Not just the famous Civil Code of 1804 – the justly renamed Code Napoleon – and its companion Criminal Code, but also the French Code of Procedure, which brought open, public trials and the abolition of all judicial privilege for nobles or clergy to the rest of Europe. With it came the equal division of inheritances among all siblings – sons and daughters alike – and an insistence that only civil marriages were legally valid. Indeed, there was the whole concept of codified law, itself. Napoleon gave Europe a law code that was concise, clear and accessible to most people, in plain language they could grasp. The Civil Code was all embracing; it swept away all existing laws and statutes – one state, one nation, one law – and imposed a uniformity hitherto unknown and even undreamed of in many places. The great French writer Stendhal, who had served Napoleon and idolised him, called the Code “the greatest family novel ever written”.

By 1814 when Napoleon’s armies were crushed and the map of Europe he had drawn was torn up by the Allied statesmen at the Congress of Vienna, the Codes endured. This is not to say their arrival was not met with consternation, bewilderment or outright rage, because its birth pangs across Europe were long and loud. For all that, when the French departed, soundly beaten, their tails behind them, where the Codes were not retained by restored rulers, they returned, sooner rather than later.

On the west bank of the Rhine, now under Prussian rule after being held by France since 1797, the Codes were retained – in French – until 1849 when the whole of Prussia adopted them in essence. Even Spain followed suit by the 1830s, a Pyrrhic victory for Napoleon over Wellington. All these Napoleonic legal practices remain in most states of the European Union to this day, as do the fundamental administrative institutions honed – if hardly conjured from thin air – by Napoleon and his team in the first years of their rule.

Prefects – at the head of all local government – remain ubiquitous in the territories of Napoleon’s former empire ever since, if still an alien concept in these islands. Centralisation and uniformity were the watchwords of the Napoleonic system of government and this concept of the civil state survived and prospered under the regimes which succeeded him as he slunk into exile.

And this new state was given a new set of sharp teeth. Napoleon re-founded and honed a new kind of police force and planted in behind his lines as he advanced over Europe: the gendarmerie, a paramilitary corps, dedicated to rural policing and able to impose degrees of law, order and oppression on isolated communities hitherto often beyond the close attentions of the state. Housed in barracks, with deliberately military uniforms, and composed of big men on big horses, almost every European state has had its own version, ever since, Ireland – but not the British mainland – included. Robert Peel took his cue from Napoleon when he created the RIC. Its successor, the Garda, still retains many Napoleonic attributes, certainly its nationwide competence. Had Peel got his way as home secretary in the 1820s, he would have created an identical force in Britain and the London Met would have looked very different from the corps he had to settle for.

Napoleon set great currents flowing in Europe. His vision of the civil state was the single greatest – if not the sole – influence on the nature of modern Europe’s civil sphere. It survived the ghastliest wars imaginable, and the common public institutions of the states of the EEC helped immeasurably in the reconstruction of postwar Europe. Whatever their ideological or cultural differences, all parties concerned understood the fundamental workings of each other’s administrative and legal systems. Nothing of the kind has ever happened in these islands, Britain’s “wooden walls” had stood between these islands and this political culture, ensuring it has remained alien here. The Civil Code was alien even to English literature, for no society under it could grasp the melodramatic denouement of “the reading of the will” so beloved of the Victorian novel.

Napoleon always longed to invade these islands, but it is doubtful he intended to integrate them as he did so much of Europe. He could never admit that the task of invasion was beyond him, but he seems to have realised the futility of bringing the British into his European fold. Ireland might have been different – there were many ready to welcome him and the United Men – so clear from their (our) flag – may have been of a mind with him on many counts. We shall never know.

There can be few statesmen more different that Charles de Gaulle and Michel Rocard, yet De Gaulle uttered his infamous “Non” in 1963, only for the socialist Rocard to echo it half a century later when he told Britain “Go, before you wreck it”. Both men had a strong sense of history.
Michael Broers is Professor of Western European History at Oxford University. Broers’ Napoleon: The Spirit of the Age was published by Faber last week

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