Hashtag History: The Forerunner Fascist, The Tiny Tyrant, Napoleon Bonaparte, from Provincial Pauper to Europe’s First Modern Dictator

It’s a story recently reawakened by George Lucas in the new Star Wars trilogy. The low-level political idealist who is in the right place at the right time to bring a promising republic crashing to the ground, as he assumes more and more power within the republic’s systems, eventually proclaiming himself Emperor, and renaming the republic he has taken in a similar fashion.

Most people know that George Lucas based a lot of the story in Star Wars on the Second World War, and the actions Palpatine (the evil emperor in Star Wars) took parallel those of real-life evil emperor Adolf Hitler, a man who has, in the modern day, become a symbol for all things anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic. Hell, look on your standard internet forum argument, and try and count how many posts before a person’s belief system is compared to Hitler or the Nazis.

In reality, Hitler hated religion, tried to ban smoking, and promoted vegetarian ideals, while also promoting a system wherein corporations had absolute control over the state. He also firmly opposed gay-rights, and wanted to rid society of Jews, homosexuals, the insane and the disabled. He doesn’t fit in any modern party, and yet, all of them.

In reality, Hitler hated religion, tried to ban smoking, and promoted vegetarian ideals, while also promoting a system wherein corporations had absolute control over the state. He also firmly opposed gay-rights, and wanted to rid society of Jews, homosexuals, the insane and the disabled. He doesn’t fit in any modern party, and yet, all of them.

But who did Hitler base his rise off of? Well, contrary to Hitler’s general distaste for the Allied powers of the First World War, he actually did look to France for inspiration.

Well, yes and no, you see, Napoleon wasn’t from France proper. He was from Corsica, and even during Napoleon’s life time, Corsica went from French hands to Genoan hands (Genoa was a city-state in modern day Italy.) and back again. By the time Napoleon was old enough to enrol himself in a military academy, Corsica was under French domination.

Napoleon’s family were bankrupt aristocrats. They had become aristocrats after his father ‘embraced’ the invading French government, and became a court noble representing Corsica to King Louis XVI. But Napoleon’s father was a drunk and a gambler. Every time he remade a fortune through land-deals (mostly confiscating other people’s properties. Yeah, the ways of le Ancien Régime) he tended to gamble it away. Making, and losing, all his money in mainland France while his wife and children in Corsica rarely saw a Franc.

'I am, how you say, a dead-beat father'.

‘I am, how you say, a dead-beat father’.

Perhaps this became a part of Napoleon’s interest in the military. He would build himself up, progress through the ranks, and work within the great social mobiliser of the late 18th century! The military! Which, even in absolutist France was a mix of aristocracy and meritocracy. Once he was in the academy, he focused on becoming an artillery officer. His fondness for artillery would show itself through all his later military campaigns. At the academy, he was mocked by his fellow officers for his ‘quaint’ Corsican accent and crude dialect of French.

Good to see the French never abandoned their national sport, snobbery.

Good to see the French never abandoned their national sport, snobbery.

Nonetheless, as France descended into civil war in 1789, Napoleon was ranked Second Lieutenant in an Artillery Regiment, and after the revolution began, took an extended leave to go home to Corsica, and join Corsican Nationalists in a riot against the French Army stationed in Corsica. Yes, the French Army in which Napoleon was a part. Napoleon’s punishment for his actions against the French Army? He gets promoted to Captain. After his promotion, he splits ranks with the Corsican Nationalists, and moves his family to mainland France, in 1793.

After this move to mainland France, Napoleon begins to suck up to the Robespierre family, who at this time were in power over the ‘Committee of Public Safety’. (Reign of Terror in progress here). He writes several pamphlets in favour of Robespierre, the Revolution, and a Republic. He also uses his artillery know-how to crush a rebellion in Toulon and scare the British Royal Navy away from a potential intervention. The Committee of Public Safety is impressed by Napoleon’s complete disregard for public safety, and put him in charge of France’s ‘Army of Italy’, and send him off to invade Italy.

Then Robespierre’s government collapses, and the new ‘Directory’ put Napoleon under house arrest. When the Royalists in France rebel against the National Assembly, the Directory remembers Napoleon’s actions in putting down the rebellion at Toulon, and bring him to face off against the Royalists. He does face off against them, with a cannon or two. Using ‘Grape Shot’, which is best described as the 18th and 19th century equivalent to a massive shot-gun, he kills 1,400 royalists, and sends the rest fleeing. The Directory conveniently forgets their previous condemnation of Napoleon’s relationship to the Robespierre family, and send him to Italy, again.

'Zose Italians won't invade zemselves, you know'!

‘Zose Italians won’t invade zemselves, you know’!

In Italy, he drives the Austrian Empire out of Lombard, and beats the Kingdom of Naples and the Papal States into submission. The Directory, filled with Atheists, desires for Napoleon to knock the Pope himself out of power. Napoleon withdraws, but not for any love of the Pope, per se, but rather because he feared the absence of the Papal authority in Italy would allow Naples to unify the Italian peninsula against France. This isn’t the last time Napoleon argues with the Directory.

During this time, Napoleon begins his press tour. Like Hitler, who wrote Mein Kampf to justify his rise, Napoleon was similarly gifted at using print to drive public opinion in his favour. He establishes two newspapers, and works to woo Talleyrand, France’s foreign advisor, in order to bring more high-ranking government officials into his corner.

Napoleon then invades Egypt under direction of the Directory. He reaches Jaffa, where he has men, women, and children alike murdered. His army begins to fall ill, and Horatio Nelson and the British Royal Navy defeat the French Navy at the Battle of the Nile. Napoleon begins his retreat from Egypt, and has all his injured or sick men killed in order to speed the retreat. Increasingly, Napoleon’s true colours are showing.

In France, the Directory’s fights with France’s neighbours and internal threats had weakened its power, and completely bankrupted the nation. They tried to pin the failed invasion of Egypt on Napoleon, calling him a deserter. Public opinion, however, was in Napoleon’s favour, as he was hailed a hero, despite the massive failure of his Egyptian campaign. He decides the best way to respond to the Directory’s accusations against him is to overthrow the Directory.

On 10 November, 1799, Napoleon and a regiment of Grenadiers enter the National Assembly, first accosting the Directory itself, and the ‘Council of Ancients’ and then proceeding to the Council of 500. Napoleon himself declares the Revolution over, and accuses the Assembly of destroying the Constitution. He declares himself and two of his supporters the ‘Consulates’ of France, and force decree after decree through the Senate.

He brings peace to France, the Revolutionary war does end in 1799, and France does rebuild. He rapidly expands and reorganises the French military. Putting France square as a world power again. He even manages to fight the Haitian revolutionaries to a standstill.

He sends French forces to the Netherlands, to establish the Batavian Republic. William Pitt the Younger, the British Prime Minister, tells Napoleon to evacuate French forces from the Netherlands and from Switzerland. Napoleon does not, and on 18 May, 1803, Britain declares war on France. Napoleon uses the conflict to his advantage, and holds an election in France, with the ballot question reading something like, ‘Do you think Napoleon should become emperor for life and defend France against any future revolutions and foreign invasions’? The public ‘voted’ yes, and Napoleon proclaims himself The Emperor of the French on 18 May 1804, giving himself absolute power. He reorganises France in a way truly ‘Enlightenment Era’ friendly, namely he reorganises France in the way the Roman Empire reorganised itself after the collapse of the Roman Republic.

'I feel like we could've learned how to prevent zis in some sort of class about previous world events'.

‘I feel like we could’ve learned how to prevent zis in some sort of class about previous world events’.

Of course, as this rearrangement finished, the world was at war, and France and France’s ‘interests’ were fighting brutal wars in South Asia, the East Indies, Africa, South/Central/North America, the Caribbean, and of course, Europe itself, in Spain, Germany/Austria, and Russia. (And don’t forget France’s Ally, the Ottoman Empire, waging war in the Middle East and Central Asia against Russia and Britain).

Say what you will about infamous persons in history such as Napoleon and Hitler, but they do start these major wars that mark decided shifts in eras. The Napoleonic War brought a swift and crashing end to the dynastic nature and social order of the world that had built itself into a very unstable tower in the 18th century, just as the Second World War would be the final death kneel for the Victorian social order over a hundred years later. In both cases, Hitler and Napoleon had poor tempers, and perhaps their poor tempers were because the social orders they were raised in were stacked against them. Hitler, the German Army grunt from Austria, Napoleon, the disgraced, poor, provincial, ‘noble’ from Corsica, which wasn’t French when Napoleon was born, and both had neglectful/absent fathers. Some of the parallels from Hitler and Napoleon’s life are far too sinister to overlook. Both men took advantage of economic, social, and political upheaval within the nation they adopted as their own. Both men had inferiority complexes that led to genocidal, regicidal, out-right homicidal tendencies. Both men became political mouth-pieces for their parties, and used their status as a veteran to win the good favour of their countrymen. Both men became the leaders of democracies, and then swiftly ended anything democratic about said democracies.

On the 23rd of June, 1940, the day after France surrendered its Army, Navy, and colonial possessions to Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler visited the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparté. He left the site, grinning, saying it was the grandest moment of his life. He then ordered the remains of Napoleon’s son be moved from Vienna to Napoleon’s side in Paris, in tribute to Napoleon.

I suppose if you're a power hungry dictator willing to plunge the entire world into war in order to achieve your means, this becomes hallowed ground.

I suppose if you’re a power hungry dictator willing to plunge the entire world into war in order to achieve your means, this becomes hallowed ground.

One has to wonder how much of himself Hitler saw in Napoleon, or even if Hitler had modelled himself after the French dictator.

History is stranger than fiction.

‘History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time’. – Abraham Lincoln


Hashtag History: ‘Let Them Eat Cake’, A PR Nightmare and the Fall of the French Monarchy

So, here’s the deal, we’re opening the French section here on Hashtag History, as we continue to roll out all the other national sections of each of the ‘empires/powers’ that Hashtag History will be covering in either the 19th or 20th centuries. (20th century coverage starting soon). And as with the introductory entry on the other nations we’ve here on Hashtag History so far (Britain, the Ottomans) we will have to begin the 19th century by putting it in the context of the late 18th. So bear with us as we take a step back, once again into the late 1700’s.

Firstly, every country has ways of dividing up its historical eras. The British, for example, tend to use ‘Regal Eras’, that is, we name our eras for the monarchs who reigned over them. As covered over in the British section, three of these Regal Eras that we have/will cover here on Hashtag History include the Georgian Era (Kings George I, II, III, IV, and, confusingly, King William IV’s reign 1714-1837), the Victorian Era (Queen Victoria, 1837-1901), and the Edwardian Era (King Edward VII, also, confusingly, part of King George V’s reign, 1901-1918), and of course, Shakespeare’s time was known as the Elizabethan Era (Queen Elizabeth I, 1558-1603). The deviations from this are the Civil Wars (1640’s and 1650’s), and the era of the ‘restoration of the monarch’ (King Charles II 1660-1685). The other exception is the ‘Interwar Period’ (1918-1939) and the ‘Modern Period’ (1945-Present). Of course, we can’t really know what the future will call our era. Personally, I’m rooting for the ‘Second Elizabethan Era’. (Queen Elizabeth II, 1952-2???, the old girl may have another century in her at this rate).

The Americans tend to have a simpler view, they go ‘Colonial Times’ (1650-1776), ‘Revolutionary Times’ (1776-1783), the ‘Pre-Civil War Times’ (1783-1861, including the ‘oops, that time we drew/lost at war with Britain time’ in 1812-1814), the Reconstruction Era (1865-1879), the ‘Gilded Era’ (1880’s, 1890’s, 1900’s), the ‘times leading up to and including the First World War’ (1910’s), the ‘Interwar Period’ (1918-1941), the Second World War (1941-1945), the ‘Babyboom/Post War Years’ (1945-1955), the ‘Cold War’ (1946-1989), and the ‘now-a-days’ (1990-present). Of course, America’s lack of distinct eras may be due to America’s relative youth, none the less, as American history is further written, refined, and studied, I’m sure the Americans will figure out how to properly codify, and give eras to their own history.

'It was in those days that avid American historian Nicolas Cage did step up, and lo, he begun to divide up the American epochs into Nic Cage films'.

‘It was in those days that avid American historian Nicolas Cage did step up, and lo, he begun to divide up the American epochs into Nic Cage films’.

This brings us to the French. The classical divisions of French history depends on the ‘regimes’ in control at that time. In other words, which method of rule, which constitution is in effect. So, for example, when you’re talking about the era of French Kings and Queens, you’re likely talking about Le Ancien Régime. Which translates to ‘old’ or ‘former’ regime. While the starting point may be hard to nail down precisely, I’m going to go with 1461, and the reign of King Louis XI, the first uncontested King of France, although it would be Louis XIII and XIV (1610-1715) that would bring the fully realised notions of ‘absolutist monarchy’ and a strong central state to France, and would grow France into the international competition to Britain.

I say this because here in the 17th century we see the beginnings of French and British acting as the foils to each other. Previous conflicts between France and England (Prior to Britain unifying in the 17th and 18th centuries) were dynastic in nature. That is to say, they were about which royal family had right to various lands in France. (At one point in history, way back in the middle ages, the regions of France known as ‘Britanny’ and ‘Normandy’ were claimed to be a part of England, stop to think about that). By the 18th century, however, the clash between the British and the French had grown into an Imperial contest, an arms contest, and an ideological contest. You see, the British quite liked their constitutional monarchy, wherein the powers of the monarch were shared with the elected Parliament. What is more, a free-trade system existed in Britain, as was noted and celebrated by British economist, political philosopher, and social scientist, Adam Smith. (Again, Wealth of Nations fame). Smith had noted that Britain was a ‘Nation of Shopkeepers’. France, meanwhile, was a nation of a very strong and powerful King, who had no interest in any form of a legislative body, and the French economic system was not one of free trade, but one dominated by price-fixing over powerful guild and aristocrats. For the peasants of France, upward mobility was very difficult, and the early Bourgeois of France had absolutely no power, unlike their British counterparts.

Here we see avid historian Nicolas Cage working to understand French class struggles of the 18th century.

Here we see avid historian Nicolas Cage working to understand French class struggles of the 18th century.

French political philosopher, Montesquieu (1689-1755) was often jealous of his British counterparts. Montesquieu’s most famous of works, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), is much of the basis for both the US Constitution as well as the ‘guiding light’ of the early French revolutionaries. He also wrote an essay called Notes on England, which he wrote during his tour of Europe after the 1721 publication of another of his great works, The Persian Letters. In his Notes on England, he writes, ‘At present, England [Britain] is the freest country in the world; I don’t except any republic. I say free, because the prince lacks the power to inflict any wrong imaginable upon anybody at all, since his power is controlled and limited by statute’.

Firstly, let me point out his misuse of the phrase ‘England’ was common among Frenchmen in his day. The term used for Britain until very recently was the same term used for England, that is l’Angleterre. The French used the term l’Angleterre to refer to the whole UK for quite sometime. Some still do. This, of course, would upset any true-blooded Briton who knows that Britain includes Scotland, Wales, and at that time all of Ireland, as well as England. Indeed, by the time Montesquieu wrote these notes, Britain had been a unified country for quite some time, and so let me assure you that in his ‘Notes on England’ he actually meant Britain nearly every time he used the term ‘England’. French arrogance and ignorance aside, Montesquieu’s fondness for the English system (met by some of his personal ire, as he felt that the ‘cold’ and ‘unkind’ British didn’t deserve this system) was due in large part to the fact that it wasn’t ruled entirely by the Legislative Body (Parliament) nor by the Executive body (the Monarchy). It was the perfect mix, and served as a model for his thesis on the importance on the Separation of Powers. Montesquieu viewed this as preferable to the absolutist power in France.

'If zer is any doubt, let me make clear, I 'ate ze British'.

‘If zer is any doubt, let me make clear, I ‘ate ze British’.

So this brings us to an interesting crossroad. As I’ve laid out here, the British and the French were competing with each other economically, militarily, and colonially, the problem though is that while the British may have been competing with the French, the reality is the people, er, person competing back with the British weren’t necessarily the French writ large, but mainly the French Royal Family, and perhaps the inner circle of French nobles and aristocrats. The so-called ‘First and Second’ Estates in French culture.

Indeed, I’m sure the peasants of France, who made up the bulk of the French population, didn’t give a damn about France’s colonial empire or competition with Britain. In large part, they were just as colonised by the French government as Haiti (Then known as San Dominique) was.  No vote, 3rd class citizen status, exploitive labour practices, an inability to own land, nor profit from the land, this is the life of the average French peasant. And this life gets worse after the French lose the 8 Years War (and Canada) to the British, as this makes the French treasury run dry. The French economy begins to tumble, and this is further worsened when France fights on America’s side in the American Revolution (1776-1783), expecting trade with the Americans after the Americans are independent.

The Americans favoured the British post-independence in trade, as Franco-phobia (not phobia as in ‘fear of’ but in the other definition, ‘hate of’) in the US is hardly a recent phenomena.

If economies are the kinds of things that need to be stimulated from time to time, each and every one of France’s attempts to stimulate their economy failed. (Turns out, the French aren’t good lovers after all).

Sorry, sorry, my British blood is still genetically predisposed towards making disparaging remarks about the French...

Sorry, sorry, my British blood is still genetically predisposed towards making disparaging remarks about the French…

Now, I don’t want to make jokes based on cultural stereotypes (okay, I do, they’re usually funny, so long as they’re well-intended, and not malicious) but bread is really bloody important to the French. This becomes very much more so when bread is all you can afford and therefore serves as the staple (if not the entirety) of your diet. So when the French lost control of their bread prices, they also lost control of their peasants, who now truly had nothing to lose.

So, theoretically here comes the infamous quip by the unpopular French Queen, the Austrian (to them that made her an unbearable monster) born Marie Antoinette. From the moment she set foot in France upon her marriage to Louis XVI, Marie was deeply unpopular with the French people and when her and Louis XVI failed to copulate the marriage right away, her image with all circles of French culture suffered even more. Men, women, clergy, rich and poor, in France didn’t like, didn’t trust, and often even despised Marie, who’s greatest sin was being born among the Germanics. (Some things in France never change).

Okay, okay, oblige me, I have another French joke, ‘How do you get a French waiter’s attention? You start speaking in German'.

Okay, okay, oblige me, I have another French joke, ‘How do you get a French waiter’s attention? You start speaking in German’.

As the fury against the French Royal family continued to build, Marie Antoinette began to represent all the flaws of monarchy in the eyes of the opponents. She was quite into fashion, and spent lavishly on hair, clothes, make-up, perfumes, etc. This at a time when most French persons could not afford bread. (In her defence, it’s not entirely clear if she was into fashion herself, or if her position forced her into being into fashion, you know, an expectations kind of thing). She was foreign born, and from Austria, no less, France’s competition for power on the continent. And she seemed to stall in giving Louis XVI a child, a clear sign that she was plotting to usurp the French Royal Family with an Austrian Royal Family and bring an end to France. (In her defence again, the real reason for the delay in, er, copulation, was likely due to a genital defect that Louis XVI himself suffered from, but in the 18th century culture was very much into blaming the woman for everything).

You have to start to feel sorry for Marie Antoinette, she can’t due right. No matter what she does, the opponents to the French absolutist monarch turned it against her. Most things she approached, she approached in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ type of situation.

Then came the bread protests, and allegedly she said, ‘Let them eat cake’.

Allegedly. In fact, we know now, she didn’t ever utter those infamous words. Again, these words were ‘put in her mouth’ by French revolutionaries looking for a good anecdote about the evils of the monarchy. (If anyone had said these words, it would’ve been one of her predecessors, Marie-Therese, the wife of Louis XIV, over a 100 years before Antoinette is alleged to have said them). In fact, in reality, Antoinette was a generous donor to charity and took great personal interest in ending the famines in France. But despite her best personal political footwork to try to appeal to the French people (she was actually a very bright woman in touch with the French people) the nobles didn’t like her because of her charity work, and the peasants didn’t like her because she was being made into an icon of the sins of the French monarchy by the revolutionaries. (Who usually just flat-out lied about her sins whenever the whole ‘AND SHE’S A DAMNED AUSTRIAN’ bit didn’t get enough anger out of the French crowds), and the nobles certainly didn’t rise to her defence when the revolutionaries trashed her, her downfall was their benefit.

Or so they thought.

So, from here Louis XVI calls the ‘Estates General’ to try to solve the problems of France, and appear like he’s willing to create a legislature. The Estates General meet, with the Third Estate, the commoners, being represented by ‘self-made’ Bourgeois men, usually lawyers, who had been well read on Enlightenment Era philosophers like Montesquieu, Hobbes, and Locke. Either on purpose, or on accident, depending on who you ask, the Third Estate is locked out of their meeting chambers at Versailles during the meetings. They go to an adjacent tennis court, and take the ‘Tennis Court Oath’ pledging the end of the absolutist monarchy. Louis XVI declines. France collapses unto itself, and the Bastille is stormed.

‘Is it a revolt’? – King Louis XVI, ‘No sire, it is a revolution’. – Reportedly a French duke

I could write entry upon entry about the French Revolution. I’ve taken entire semesters worth of courses on the French Revolution. For a ten year period (1789-1799) it is a very eventful ten year period, with a lot of things happening. But this blog focuses on the 19th and 20th centuries. And the French Revolution is 18th, and the next entry is on the rise of Napoleon, so let me summarise the Revolution as thus:

It was a civil war. Let there be no question about this. A lot of people, hundreds of thousands of people, dying. Aristocrats, political dissidents, political leaders, the Royal Family, peasants, and soldiers alike all get killed, massacred, executed, and assassinated by any of the many factions that rose and fell during this ten year time period. There was no trust to be shared among Frenchmen in this time period, and the French economy was in constant flux. The rest of Europe held on the brink, and even fought violently to contain the French revolution to make sure it didn’t cause the rest of Europe to collapse the way France did.

And out of all this smoke and confusion arose the first modern dictator. A military officer from a poor noble family in Corsica, whose accent was mocked by many of his peers, and whose height (or lack thereof) became a running joke in the British press. (Who had exaggerated how short he was, in reality, he was average height). Napoleon Bonaparte would give us a taste of the power hungry dictators that Europe would continue to produce throughout the remainder of the century, and into the next.

Next on Hashtag History:

  • Culture in a Time of Stagnation and Decay, Ottoman Culture of the 1820’s
  • 1832: Britain’s Great Reformation
  • Europe’s First Modern Dictator: The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte