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Napoleon’s last victory: the battle for posterity

Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the second return of Louis XVIII to power, all attempts at remembering the man who had presided over Europe’s fate for 15 years were deliberately crushed. And yet, the aura of the former emperor never faded. His death, on 5 May 1821, was welcomed with shock and disbelief. As French author and diplomat Chateaubriand then stated, Napoleon had never been more alive than in death.

As early as 1796, following his victorious campaign against the Austrians in Italy, Napoleon began forging his legend. A master communicator, he understood the importance of public opinion and the means by which it might be shaped. He cleverly published embellished accounts of his military exploits in various newspapers and pamphlets, such as the Journal of Bonaparte and virtuous men or the Bulletin of the Great Army. But he did not stop there. He ordered the erection of monuments such as the arch of triumph in Paris to glorify his victorious military campaigns across Europe. Paintings also were meant to contribute to the image of the man who had managed to put an end to ten years of revolution, thus restoring order and stability.

Exiled on the island of Saint-Helena, he worked on his memoirs, with the help of Las Cases, his secretary. Describing key episodes of his rise to prominence, the Memorial of Saint-Helena projects the image of an emperor more liberal politically than he ever, the father of a unified Europe.

His enduring fame would never have been possible, however, without the literary contributions of both former enemies and admirers, Victor Hugo or Balzac to name only a couple. Napoleon also owes his posterity to the soldiers of his Great Army. Nearly 1.5 million soldiers returned home following his first abdication in April 1814. As Napoleon had imposed mandatory conscription, those soldiers came from all regions of France. They told their stories, often focusing on the glory and forgetting the challenges and difficulties they had encountered on the battlefields of Europe.

The July Monarchy of King Louis-Philippe (1830-1848) sought to capitalize on Napoleon’s enduring popularity. In 1836, the completed Arch of Triumph was inaugurated with much pomp and circumstance. The following year, Louis-Philippe inaugurated the Museum of Versailles, dedicated to “all the glories of France”. Louis-Philippe has done a great thing at Versailles,” wrote Victor Hugo. “He has given this magnificent book that is the History of France, a magnificent binding called Versailles.” The Gallery of Battles and the Empire rooms glorified Napoleon’s victories. In 1840, huge crowds witnessed with emotion the return of Napoleon’s remains.

In December 1848, following another revolution, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew, was elected president of the short-lived Second Republic (1848-1852). Unknown the previous year, Louis-Napoleon incarnated Napoleon’s legend. Emperor of the French as of 1852, he associated his uncle’s fame to his regime. Soon, however, his desire to build his own legacy prevailed. The transfer of Napoleon’s remains to the Invalides did not generate much publicity. In 1869, Napoleon III delegated his wife, the Empress Eugenie, and his son to Corsica to celebrate, discreetly, the centennial of his uncle’s birth.

Following the collapse of the Second Empire in 1870, the Third Republic emphasized the role of Napoleon in turning his back of some of the Revolution’s ideals. Soon enough, as the French dreamt of avenging their defeat to Prussia and regain the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, Napoleon’s military exploits could not be ignored. In 1921, France’s costly victory over Germany reconciled the French with the Emperor. French president Georges Pompidou, celebrated Napoleon’s unification of Europe under France’s leadership. Today, if Napoleon’s military glory and his extraordinary rise to power still fascinate, his heritage is not without controversies: the human cost of his military campaigns and his decision to reinstate slavery, abolished in 1794, in the French colonies, among others. The commemorations of his death have been surrounded by heated debates. But then again, to commemorate is not to celebrate…


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