I’ve just been asked a great question by Adrian Jordan – http://fatpigfatcow.com/ – which I thought I must share with you all. What are your thoughts? Please do let me know! (Adrian and I already have a discussion about this topic on my Birth of Modern Europe page, but I wanted to share this discussion with you all too!)
Did Napoleon let the revolution down, or was he an inevitable consequence of the ‘Terror’?
I believe he continued many of the revolutionary aims, although extending the ‘natural frontiers’ to an extent the revolutionaries probably didn’t envisage. However, some of his codes seem to contradict revolutionary ideals…I wouldn’t say he let it down completely, but I also don’t think he carried out all they wanted.
I’m also not sure how much he was a consequence of the terror…his regime never exiled or had as many ‘disappearances’ as there were under the terror itself. Then again, had the terror not occurred and officers fled the regime, would he have gained a commission in the first place?
I think there are parallels between Napoleon and Hitler inasmuch s he depended on his continued popularity, as he claimed himself, on continued war and conquest. Defeat was not an option, though in fact Napoleon’s defeats were not infrequent but always claimed as victories.
He was, of course, a privileged man from birth and his first experience of France was from the viewpoint of a diplomat’s son visiting the French court. I am unsure how far he had any sympathy with the aims of the Revolution. Certainly his re-instatement of religion (a way of quieting the masses, as he saw it, even before Marx) most notably by involving the Pope in his crowning as emperor, went against the ideal of the revolution. His ‘reign’ relied upon war and soldiery. Any hope of the people being unburdened by a sound lasting economic base was never pursued, rather the economy of war was how France had to survive. The subsequent demise of France as a European power may be a testament to his squandering of resources, in much the same way as the court at Versailles squandered the wealth of France on frippery.
I think the Terror did come to an end under it’s own steam, however it left a vacuum insofar as the regime had divested the people of their culture and religion, and indeed their King, and after the frenzy was over a real desire for something new was desperately need, and something glorious and ‘good’. Napoleon’s victories were indeed good news and would have been welcomed eagerly by an otherwise suspicious and diluted people. Had the revolution and the Terror not happened then it is not at all certain that the son of a Corsican Diplomat would have had any chance at all of putting his wonderful nose so deeply in the trough.
The point, for me, is not whether Napoleon was ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the terror. It is that Napoleon was wedded to the effects of the Terror. Had Napoleon not come along when he did, another ‘Napoleon’ would have.
Again the parallel with Hitler is a little striking. A country undergoing huge political change, embroiled in violence and internal struggle ad reviled by the rest of Europe, eager for something different. The French revolution failed, the Terror won.
What do you think? Get in touch!