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Perspectives on Napoleon

Perspectives on Napoleon

Did Napoleon change Europe for better or for worse?

Mike (Minnesota):

Though his achievements in law and the rewarding of merit were significantly positive, overall Napoleon changed Europe for the worse, as measured in total number of lives lost -- not just losses in the armies of Napoleon and his enemies, but losses caused by future tyrants inspired by Napoleon's rags-to-supremacy story.

G. (California):

Napoleon changed Europe. While he may have acted like a tyrant, he also gave the people of France and other countries in Europe a reason to hope - a glimmer in the dark. His visions still last to this day (legal code). Change is always accompanied with pain and a sharp knife. Napoleon was the knife.

Brian (West Virginia):

I think it can be argued that Napoleon both changed Europe for the better, and for the worse, which gives one an idea of how big is impact is on modern history. First of all, his beliefs in the right of equality for people helped usher in the era of democracy, at least in theory, because he didn't necessarily buy it that the aristocracy should be more privileged than the common man. This line of thinking essentially was the forerunner to the civil service system, which remains to this day. As a result, of course, the common man/woman in Europe enjoys a much happier life than they did 200 years ago. However, Napoleon's politics as a whole can be said to have affected Europe negatively. His grandiose image he created for himself, as well as his tightly controlled society that he established once in power, was nothing less than a model that Hitler and Stalin would follow with such ruthlessness in the next century. In fact, I would go so far to say that Napoleonic France was the model for the modern totalitarian state. So we must keep in mind that Napoleon's legacy leaves us both positive and negative aspects.

Thomas (Texas):

Both. He introduced the concept of total war, with the implied consequences for civilian populations. Before Napoleon, European Armies were basically professional soldiers. Local incidences of rape, plunder, and pillage were practiced, but did not affect the morality of the entire populance. Napoleon introduced conscription, and the concept of the duty of a citizen to fight. This led to the Civil War in the US, and indirectly to the first World War, with the consequent decimation of the civilian populance, and the concept of targeting the civil populance to reduce the fighting capacity of the enemy, in any way possible.

His imposition of the Napoleonic Law system improved almost all occupied countries, because of written law. But law based upon the assumed guilt of the accused is directly opposed to English Law. Still, it was an improvement over 'make it up as you go' systems.

His conquests of distant regions led to the concentration of relics and antiquities in Paris. He sponsored many artists for his own self-aggrandisement, which allowed them to keep from dying of starvation, and to produce many significant works of art. The suppression of the tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church allowed freedom of expression which would have been suppressed immediately under previous regimes. His sponsorship of scientific inquiry led directly to major discoveries. He instituted the metric system, which has had a profound influence on our world. He's a mixed bag at best.

Falstaff (Maryland):

Napoleon changed Europe for the better. Had he not become the embodiment of "The Revolution" and committed himself to achieving hegemony, Europe would never have modernized. It was after Napoleon's conquests that other nations began having an uplifted sense of nationalism. One such nation is Germany; authors such as the Brothers Grimm began using the German language instead of the French that Napoleon would have preferred his empire to use. Soon after Napoleon left Europe in disarray, the Congress of Vienna was set to resetting boundaries in order to prevent such a figure as Napoleon from evolving ever again. Nationalism was a spirit that was too difficult to quell, and so revolutions that modernized Europe began occurring. Without revolution, Europe would still be in the midst of a feudal system of government. Napoleon was a catalyst for the modernization of Europe.

Jack (California):

The series has yet to show the influence Napoleon actually had on Europe and the role of social liberator that he actually played. Upon coronation, his choice of clothing himself in the insignia of Charlemagne (the bee) showed that he viewed himself as European lawgiver and reformer, not unakin to his idol. It might be argued that his reliance on power to guarantee change throughout Europe was a correct assessment of the politics of his age. It was only after his military defeat and banishment that the European aristocratic restoration began in earnest. A restoration which itself relied upon force of arms to quash the spirit of independence which had arisen among the new enfranchised segments of society unleashed by Napoleonic influence. If nothing else, Napoleon suspended the status quo for a brief moment of time giving all Europeans a temporary glimpse at the future direction of European society and the forces that would eventually shape it. It is truly a shame that these elements were not empowered long enough to consolidate and protect their gains. Perhaps the intervening 135 years of European history would have progressed differently had Napoleon been able to hold the candle glowing a just a little bit longer!

Dan (Colorado):

Trying to look at all his achievements, I would say he changed it for the worse. Because of the wars he persisted to start simply because another country wouldn't recognize his superiority(What was to be gained by invading Russia). He led millions to their death, meaninglessly I say. His wars were a begining to a hatred and repeated revenge that would take place between the countries for many years. It is true he implemented some revolutionary institutions, but one should not overlook the fact that he also had everyone of them only to satisfy his own desires. A genius, but not a great man in my opinion.

Kathryn (Arizona):

Napoleon, in many ways, changed Europe for the worse. Why? He contributed to the resurgence of conservatism, the growth of nationalism, and the rise of a new phenomenon, romanticism. This deadly trio led to two world wars.

Napoleon's legacy is quite complex because he was the embodiment of the Enlightment on the one hand, and on the other, he inspired fear. He exhibited unbridled power and found that he too like many before him wanted to rule the world. Leaders tried to regress when the box had been opened. They did not want to see their newly formed country taken over by another Napoleon. Hence, conervatism, nationalism, and jingoistic pride leading to romanticism. In some ways, it could be said, that Napoleon inspired Hitler. Look at who he read and and listened to and you'll find romanticism through and through.

Chris (Pennsylvania):

In my opinion, there is really no question of whether the impact Napoleon had on Europe was positive or negative when one examines his record of achievements. First, he is responsible for the spreading the liberalizing ideas of the French Revolution throughout Europe, which help bring to an end the remnants of feudal social structures still existing in parts of Central and Eastern Europe. These ideas would help plant the seeds for the move away from absolutism towards more liberal governments in many of these countries throughout the course of the 19th Century. Secondly, he was responsible for setting down the Code Napoleon, a written set of laws the provided equality before the law, protection of contracts and property and other liberal acts that ended the practice of providing different laws for different class. The Code Napoleon was also responsible for setting the legal groundwork for the development of capitalism in Europe outside of Britain. Lastly, Napoleon himself served as a symbol of a future where men could rise up to great heights based on personal merit rather than birth. Thus, Napoleon is responsible for establishing many of the ideas that the democracies of Europe represent to this day.

Robert (Florida):

Better. Even though he was an Emperor he actually started the demise of Kingdoms and royalty.

Vicki (Michigan):

I personally think Napoleon made Europe realize that the rule of Royalty and the Aristocracy was dead. I believe it opened their eyes to the ideals of democracy and the free world. I also think he paved the way for modern warfare. He was the first of his kind on the battlefield.

John (New Jersey):

Yes, he did change Europe for better. Made them all think about what one — just ONE — person could do if determined enough.

Bob (Georgia):

The question would be better if it was whether Napoleon changed the world for better or for worse. Aside from the previously mentioned reforms, Napoleon heavily influenced the New World. The United States doubled in size from his sale of Louisiana. Without control of the Louisiana territory, the United States could not have possibly expanded to the West and without the Mississippi River, it is difficult to see the US becoming a super power. The invasion of Iberia by French forces weakened the power of Spain such that the likes of Martin and Bolivar were able to fight for independence. Back to Europe, the Napoleonic Wars lead to nationalistic feelings throughout. Prussia, emerging victorious lead the unification of Germany.

Anonymous (North Carolina):

The constant warfare of the period did hurt Europe, but was not of Napoleon's making. He inherited most of it in 1799 and tried to bring peace to Europe. Most of his campaigns, Spain and Russian excepted were defensive in nature. Spain was invaded because they had planned to betray him had he lost in 1806. Russia was something on the level of a preemptive strike, he finding out that Alexander had planned for war with France starting in 1810.Napoleon's civil achievements, especially abolishing the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and limiting the temporal power of the Church all benefitted Europe in the long run. He was neither dictator nor tyrant, and ruled as a just civilian head of state, his rule having the popular mandate of the French people. He was a true lawgiver, and his internal reforms in France have persisted to this day. To compare him to the virulent strain of dictator in the twentieth century is an insult to Napoleon and a compliment to the likes of Hitler and Stalin.


It is difficult to balance hundreds of thousands of dead with civil rights and institutions, however, I would vote for an improved Europe.

Should Napoleon have not existed, other wars and battles would have occurred in Europe anyway as most monarchies would have keep on trying to eradicate the new Republic and the danger it represented to them. France may have been defeated and monarchy (constitutional?) restored, then maybe less suffering may have happened although who he's to say that Austria, Prussia and Russia would not have turned on each other in quest for more control over Europe? With France defeated, the emergence of civil rights and institutions may have taken 50 more years to appear or may not have appeared at all.

Napoleon brought an organised state and its institutions to most of continental Europe long enough, to get the peoples of Europe realise that there was something else to monarchy. This eventually led to 1830 and 1848 revolutions. Today we are still reliant on most of the institutions and laws that were developed during his reign. This even reaches out of Europe with Japan copying our administration models during the Meiji era.

Read posted reponses to another question:

Could Napoleon have won the battle of Waterloo?
What was Napoleon's greatest achievement?
Are there lessons to be learned from Napoleon?

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