Modern World History

The Rise and Fall of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon was the product of prevailing political, administrative, social, economic and religious conditions in France. The rise of Napoleon as a first counsel in 1799 opened a new chapter in French history. This revolution had played an important role in his rise. The socio-economic order of pre revolution France was characterized by class privileges and intense discrimination. The revolution overthrew these discriminations under the old system. The ideals of nationality, merit and equality initiated by the revolution that allowed a commoner like Napoleon to attain high office in military and earn admiration from French people. The revolution of 1789 had destroyed the existing political order of France. The monarchy was abolished and king was executed and state was declared as republic. These principles allowed Napoleon to claim his right over the state authority. The noble and progressive ideals of revolution had threatened the absolute monarchies of Europe and they joined hands together to invade France. This invasion threatened the very existence of revolution. During this hour of crisis; Napoleon won number of victories and exhibited his military genius.

In 1799 Napoleon was the most acceptable leader in France because of his success on external front had transformed him into an invincible hero. The failure of the rule of directory had played important role in creating conditions responsible for the rise of Napoleon.

The rule of directory (1795-99) was weak and inefficient. It failed to work in cohesive manner and this led to increasing hardships for the common masses. The rule of directory failed to initiate any strong steps to counter the prevailing economic difficulties. Their decision to devalue the French currency led to high inflation. The increasing prices of necessary commodities had led to hardships in masses and they started looking for change. The French forces were losing at multiple fronts. The news of military reversals hurt the nationalistic spirit of French masses.

Napoleon was an epitome of peace and order as he had proved his genius in Italy and Germany. His administrative capability in Italy and France had inspired the French masses to look for his leadership. The military success of Napoleon had brought glory to France. The French people wanted French nationalism to succeed everywhere and they were ready to forsake the grand ideals of French Revolution.

Napoleon was acceptable to all the sections of French population. He was supported by the monarchist as they were looking for the revival of monarchy in France. The bourgeoisie were looking for peace and stability as the ongoing anarchy had ruined their economic activities. The peasants were looking for securing their gains as Napoleon had promised all these to different sections of the society. The excesses of revolution had also played an important role as France was undergoing a phase of anarchy created by the internal civil war. The reign of terror took away lives of many French civilians. After a period of almost a decade the common masses were ready to submit to the leadership of strong man who could pull them out from the morass.

The works of Napoleon were inspired by the ideals of equality, fraternity and he emphasized upon rule of equality and law. He also guaranteed the right to choose profession for the citizens. He undertook steps to end the ongoing exploitation. He also followed the principle of religious freedom for the citizens. He reached an agreement with Pope in 1801 and this led to the soothing of religious sentiments of the masses. Napoleon also represented the ideal of nationalism cherished by the revolution.

In 1803 Napoleon created a new civil service and it became the precedent of modern French civil service. He appointed prefects and sub prefects at local level and this system is continuing to this day. The code Napoleon enacted by him to establish the rule of equality and law is being followed even today and it inspired the legal system of many countries of the world. The economic reforms initiated by him also proved to be long lasting. He founded the Bank of France in 1800.He developed number of road networks in France. The educational reforms were also very effective as he opened many schools and colleges and in 1808 he set up the French university. The Paris Museum set up by him can be seen even today.

By July 1807 Napoleon had captured almost whole of Europe and only Russia was outside his dominance. He had conquered Italy and in 1802 had signed Treaty with Britain where Britain tactically accepted the supremacy of Napoleon. In 1805 he defeated the countries of Prussia and Austria in the battle of Austerliz.They were forced to sign the treaty and accepted French supremacy. The Holy Roman Empire was also dissolved and with this Pope was also come under the political supremacy of Napoleon. He brought together more than 300 smaller states of Germany and created a confederation of Rhine having 39 states. By the treaty of Pressburg Napoleon was accepted as the savior of the confederation. In 1807 he defeated the Russian forces in the battle of Fredland and forced the Russian czar to accept his supremacy by the Treaty of Tilsit.This became the high watermark of career of Napoleon also because after this treaty his decline started.

Napoleon had fought a number of battles against British army. He was successful in most of these battles but since these battles were fought in continental Europe their outcome did not affect the British much. He knew that without subjugation of Britain he couldn’t have permanent peace, he made number of attempts to conquer the British mainland but these attempts failed as British had naval supremacy. When he failed to conquer British with help of force he adopted different strategy. He knew that Britain supremacy lies in its flourishing commercial activities and therefore he decided to restrict the British trading commerce .He issued decrees to prohibit all commercial activities with British ports. By another decree he ordered blockage of all commercial ports in Europe for British traders and ships. In another decree he publicly ordered burning of all British products. All of these orders aimed at building French economic dictatorship in Europe.

Napoleon’s imperialism linked the history of Europe with the history of France because after 1796 each and every activity of Europe came to be influenced by the conquest of Napoleon for almost two decades. The military success of Napoleon resulted in subordination of large parts of Europe to his authority and over the period of time the liberal and progressive rule of Napoleon turned despotic and exploitative. This resulted in the birth of nationalism in Europe. It raised the prestige of Paris in Europe and led the hunger for glory among French masses. A number of wars and battles erupted in future and it opened new chapter in European history and paved the way for the beginning of new age.

The fall of Napoleon’s Empire was also as quick as it emerged. After reaching its peak in July 1807 his empire got shattered within 6 years. After his defeats in the battle of Lipzeig and Waterloo the territorial boundaries of France were fixed at pre 1789 levels. Napoleon was a child of revolution. He proclaimed that he himself was a revolution. But after capturing the political power in France he undermined and negated the grand ideals of revolution. The spirit of nationalism had played an important role in the rise of Napoleon. It was the French hunger of glory that inspired the French men to submit absolute rule of Napoleon. But he himself undermined the nationalist aspiration of masses outside France. He established his despotic rule over Italy, parts of Germany and Spain. The undermining of Spanish nationalistic aspirations had resulted in creating unforeseen problems for Napoleon.

The inherent contradictions of Napoleon’s policies also found expression in the implementation of his continental system. The system was devised to carry out the economic blockade of Britain. Though he pressurized the other countries of continental Europe to stop all kinds of commercial transactions with Britain but he himself continued commercial activity with Britain secretly. He supplied food grains to Britain when the continental system had succeeded in blockading the inflow of food grain in Britain. He also used to purchase the daily necessities of his palace from the British merchants. He had failed to undertake effective steps to develop French industries to fill the void of necessary commodities. This led to sufferings among the common masses and anti Napoleon ideals emerged in many parts of the empire.

The limitation of personal character of Napoleon played an important role in his downfall. He was highly ambitious person. His ambition had inspired and motivated him to work for grand success but his ambition knew no limit. His early successes motivated him to look beyond the frontiers of France. He controlled most parts of continental Europe. But he wasn’t satisfied. With the unconventional strategies adopted by him to subdue Britain exposed the limitation of his empire. He did not discriminate between moral and immoral means. He changed the game plans as per the convenience and used the weaknesses of his adversaries to oust them. The act of cheating committed by Napoleon in case of Spain also weakened the moral foundation of his empire. This exposed the real character of Napoleon to the Europe. His facade of singular revolution became ineffective and the masses of Europe realized his real intentions. It led to popular reaction against the rule of Napoleon.

Napoleon in the beginning of his career represented the liberal and progressive forces and he was welcomed as liberator. But over the period of time he became the symbol of despotism and exploitation. His despotic domination over parts of Europe resulted in the birth of nationalism in many countries. In the battle of Lipzing he found himself standing against the soldiers of Europe inspired by nationalism. He lost support of the masses.

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