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A Short Biography of Napoleon




            Napoleone Buonaparte was born into an aristocratic family in Ajaccio (Corsica) in 1769. That year, France had annexed his home island. Young Napoleon began to learn French at the age of 10. He studied at the military academy of Brienne-le-Chateau.
            During the French Revolution, Napoleon was an ardent supporter of Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre. When Robespierre was guillotined in 1794, Napoleon feared himself to be arrested in a wave of White Terror, which did not materialize.
            During the War of the First Coalition (1792-1797) many French military officers were noblemen. They saw their position in French society threatened and they sympathized with the enemy. Some switched sides, others pursued a policy of inaction. This situation provided an unusual career opportunity for young ambitious officers - many vacant positions of high rank to be filled.
            One such young officer quickly rising in the ranks was Napoleon Bonaparte. He embraced the ideals and reforms of the French Revolution. While the noble officers who had received their appointment before the revolution regarded themselves "persons of quality", as opposed to the simple soldier, young Napoleon often chose to face danger among his soldiers, and thus gained their respect. His success in battles gave him the aura of invincibility.
            During the expedition to Egypt (1798-1799) Napoleon remained undefeated. He was a general, responsible for warfare on land; the commander of the French fleet suffered defeat at the hands of British admiral Lord Nelson in the Battle of the Nile.
            When Napoleon returned from Egypt, he entered politics. A coup d'etat (1799) had toppled the Directorate and replaced it with the Consulate (1799-1804). One of the three consuls, and the only one to ever hold office, was Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon realized that some reforms introduced by the French Revolution had been accepted by the people, others had not. Napoleon reindroduced the Gregorian Calendar, abolished the Metric System, reinstated the Catholic Church. Other, successful reforms he upheld or extended. Napoleon emancipated the Jews.
            On land, Napoleon's armies went from victory to victory. He dictated peace treaties to his opponents, who usually were monarchs descending from centuries-old dynasties. They regarded Napoleon an upstart, a person lacking the education, manners and pedigree of an aristocrat capable of ruling. In response, the upstart in 1804 crowned himself Emperor of France, and elevated many of his officers to noblemen.
            By doing so, the turncoat alienated many of his supporters, in France and abroad : he no longer held an appointed office, but a title which he planned to pass on to his heirs. He had betrayed the revolutionary ideal of egality.
            Napoleon was a nepotist. He made his brothers kings of Naples, Spain, Holland and Westphalia. The nepotist made his brothers-in-law rulers of smaller states.
            With France winning war after war, through annexation it grew in size, and many states in Central Europe became French satellites. In all these lands, many French reforms, such as the abolition of serfdom, the Code Napoleon, the emancipation of the Jews, civil marriage, state oversight over education, mandatory military service were introduced. French historians emphasize Napoleon as the person who liberated Central Europe from Feudalism. But the French also squeezed money out of the annexed/occupied territories (by paying in almost worthless paper money and taking all coin they could get) and forced young men from the annexed/occupied countries to serve in the French army. The Grande Armee invading Russia in 1812, 600,000 men strong, consisted mainly of Germans.
            In many countries treated this way, such as Flanders, Germany, Spain and Russia, an anti-French Nationalism emerged. Historians of these countries tended to regard Napoleon as the invader, occupant, exploiter.
            An exception is Poland : just before Napoleon became a statesman, Austria, Prussia and Russia had partitioned Poland amongst themselves. In 1807, Napoleon recreated a Polish state, and by doing so earned the gratitude of Polish patriots. Many of them willingly served in the French army.
            In the Russian campaign of 1812, Napoleon marched his army to Moscow and occupied the city. He was accustomed to wars being decided by battles and by holding strategic points, such as Russia's old capital. But the Russians did not play by his rules. They cut off his supply lines, pursued a strategy of fighting many small skirmishes, and waited for the winter to take its toll. Napoleon realized that he could not hold on to Moscow and ordered the retreat. Harrassed by Russian cavalry all the time, lacking provisions, the retreat on muddy and then frozen roads turned into a debacle. His army had numbered 600,000 by the time it entered Russia, 130,000 by the time it reached Moscow, 30,000 when it reached the Berezina river on its retreat. 5,000 made it across and reached Poland.
            Now countries which had been forced by the situation to be French allies one by one switched sides. Napoleon was defeated in the Battle of Leipzig 1813; in early 1814 he abdicated as Emperor of France. The victorious allies granted him the small Principality of Elba as his fief.
            In France the Bourbon dynasty was restored, many reforms abolished, a class society reintroduced. King Louis XVIII was very unpopular. Napoleon did not remain in Elba. The Paris newspapers reported "The Usurper has landed". With just a few men he landed in France and marched on Paris. Many former French soldiers flocked to his side. The troops sent to stop him refused to take action against their former commander and joined him. When he reached Paris, the Paris newspapers wrote : "The Emperor is back" (1815).
            The Battle of Waterloo 1815 decided the matter. Defeated again, this time Napoleon was sent to St. Helena, not as its prince, but as its prisoner.
            Napoleon is one of the most multi-faceted persons in history. A firebrand revolutionary idealist, a charismatic, genial military officer, ruthless in sacrificing large numbers of soldiers in pursuit of victory, as politician a realist, who spread and implemented reforms he believed in, and a nepotist who recreated monarchy and nobility, in stark contrast to the ideals he supported as a young man.
            Thomas Nipperdey begins his 1966 book "Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck" with the sentence : "At the beginning of everything was Napoleon."

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