Was Napoleon Bonaparte a good person?

Napoleon - dream and trauma

For a long time he polarized opinions. He was considered either a genius or a monster. But now, almost 200 years after Napoleon had to abdicate for good, it is easier to understand why he left such a bloody mark in history and what services he has nevertheless earned to Europe. For the development of the German states around 1800 it is clear:

"In the beginning there was Napoleon."

The historian Hans Ulrich Thamer, professor at the University of Münster, quotes what his colleague Nipperdey once put in a nutshell: The modernization of Germany was triggered by Napoleon.

"Napoleon is the big challenge and you either have to implement reforms that have not yet been implemented in order to simply remain competitive or resilient", "

- in Prussia, which had proven hopelessly inferior in the catastrophic defeat of 1806 -

"" or you have to unite the newly won territories into a new state, standardize administration, codify laws, also in the area of ​​economic and social policy. "

This is what Napoleon did in occupied territories such as the Kingdom of Westphalia, which was conceived as a model state. There he introduced a new legal system based on the epoch-making "Code Civile", a preliminary form of the civil code, and founded Germany's first parliament. He did this not to implement the republican ideals of the French Revolution, but because it enabled him to break the power of the defeated noble families.

French engineers then built solid country roads - the first since ancient times, drawing precise maps, planning bridges and canals. This primarily served military purposes. But ultimately the successful industrialization of Germany in the second half of the 19th century was due to the abundance of Napoleonic reforms liberating the country from the shackles of the traditional feudal state.

"Anyone can acquire property, but he can also lose it - and he can because of his achievements and not because of his origin or his privileges. He can operate in a free trade system where there are no internal customs barriers, Napoleon does that for his own - but only his domain. The guilds will be abolished and everyone will be given the opportunity to work as a small business owner. "

In France, Napoleon's assessment is less clear. One does not like to thematize the probably most famous French, says Bénédicte Savoy, curator of the exhibition in Bonn:

"In France, Napoleon is little treated among historians. In France there are actually only two chairs for this period, for structural reasons: Either you are a professor for the period up to 1789 or for the period after 1815 and if you are for the period in between The fact that this time is left out in the curricula, including in schools - Napoleon always comes at the end of the school year, which means, for example, I never heard anything about Napoleon when I was at school. "

Official France remained largely silent on occasions such as the 200th anniversary of his coronation as emperor in 2004. One still feels uncomfortable about its conflicting historical role. In doing so, he brought so many new things to the nation - including a flower of art that Savoy - professor of art history at the TU Berlin - has researched herself:

"The young painters, Gros, Ingres, who were 25 years old, were interested around 1800 in completely different forms, models outside of the ancient heritage. And the fact that through the wars of the French Revolution, but then also through Napoleon For example, the old German art, Cranach, Dürer, Holbein came to Paris and suddenly had an unheard of visibility in the Musée Napoléon, i.e. in the Louvre, electrified this entire generation of painters, whether French or German who came to visit Paris . "

But this departure also leaves ambivalent feelings, because Napoleon had the pictures collected from art chambers and museums in the occupied countries. Most of it was returned after 1815, but some found the systematic art theft as a downright traumatic experience. During the First and Second World Wars, German art historians maintained the revanchist illusion that they could bring back pictures stolen by Napoleon from Paris.

For Bénédicte Savoy, however, the greatest trauma is the widespread devastation of Europe and the bloody decimation of an entire generation of young men in Napoleon's wars:

"I actually see Napoleonic rule, which is so often portrayed as the first step towards Europeanization, as the first fundamental destruction of Europe. In the 18th century Europe is a great cosmopolitan entity, the French language existed as a lingua franca, the exchange of scholars, The intellectuals were very intense, that was a space that was very networked. With Napoleon, the communication channels were improved, but the consequences of his rule are what is called the birth of nationalisms, a hardening of national positions, which then this shaped the whole of the 19th century, which contributed to the 70-71 wars, the First World War and the Second World War. "

It is undisputed that Napoleon's wars among the opposing states as well as in France promoted nationalism. But it seems questionable that his endless campaigns triggered a long-lasting split in Europe. Hans-Ulrich Thamer points out that the collapse of Napoleon's rule in 1815 was followed by a long, stable, relatively peaceful epoch.

The difficult to understand sequence of never-ending wars was systemic, explains the historian: This was the only way Napoleon could maintain his rule, because he lacked a solid power base in France. During the revolution a bourgeois class emerged, which became rich in the newly won freedom. But between the representatives of the ancien régime, the disempowered nobility and the Bourbon royal family on the one hand and the radical Jacobins on the other, it could not grow into a stabilizing political factor. Therefore Napoleon could only hold himself as long as the brilliance of his deeds did not fade. Thamer:

"Napoleon embodies what is called charismatic rule. He does not legitimize himself through his origins, his noble birth and also not democratically, but he legitimizes himself through extraordinary abilities and achievements. First of all, he is the instigator of order, the national Savior, and then, of course, through successes in foreign policy. "

The fact that he got caught in a spiral of violence on the hunt for spectacular victories is due to the nature of the "charismatic rule" that the sociologist Max Weber characterized at the beginning of the 20th century: Only ever new brilliant achievements can prevent the extraordinary ruler from finally but looks everyday and average.

Napoleon secured his rule through an autocratic system and after his failure the Bourbon dynasty was reinstated on the throne. Nevertheless, the self-proclaimed "Emperor of the French" - viewed from a historical distance - preserved the values ​​of the Great Revolution. Thamer:

"It remained a democratic political culture, the idea of ​​political participation, public discourse about politics and the idea that this is feasible, that is very important, that people can take it into their own hands and that it is not caused by the forces of nature or by divine grace or whatever is shaped. "