Napoleon's Bicentenary: The Emperor Who Liberated the Jews

Napoleon Bonaparte’s legacy may be tainted by his reinstatement of slavery, among other things, but his achievements include emancipating the Jews, explains Napoleonic expert Thierry Lenz

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Napoleon emerging from his tomb, 1869. From the Musée de l'Armée's exhibition 'Napoléon n'est plus.'
Napoleon emerging from his tomb, 1869. From the Musée de l'Armée's exhibition 'Napoléon n'est plus.'Credit: Muse de l'Arme, Dist. RMN-Gr
Gaby Levin
Gaby Levin

“I want my remains to be buried on the banks of the Seine, among the French people whom I loved so dearly,” Napoleon wrote in the will he dictated about two months before his death.

And he would be, but only long years after he died on May 5, 1821 on the small, secluded island of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, to which he was exiled by the British after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The occasion of his demise is marked in France by grand exhibitions (such as 'Napoléon n'est plus' at the Musée de l'Armée's exhibition and 'Napoléon L'exposition' at La Villette, both in Paris), dozens of books, articles, films, and TV shows, culminating in a ceremony at Les Invalides in the presence of the French President Emanuel Macron. 

An exterior view of Qasr al-Basha in Gaza City, where Napoleon Bonaparte slept for several nights during his campaign in Egypt and Palestine. Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND - AFP

Even after his demise at the age of 52, after years of exile under heavy guard, the regime refused to allow his remains to be repatriated to France, partly based on sheer vindictiveness and partly on the fact that King Louis XVIII of France, who rose to power following Napoleon’s exile, feared a groundswell of unrest should he return. Only King Louis Philippe, the last of the Bourbon and Orleans dynasty, agreed to allow his posthumous return to France in 1840.

More than a million Frenchmen escorted Napoleon’s gilded coffin along the Seine, through the Arc de Triomphe that Napoleon had erected in honor of his soldiers, to the final resting place reserved for him at Les Invalides, “on the banks of the Seine” as he had requested.

A woman views the original 1804 painting of "Bonaparte visiting the plague stricken in Jaffa" by French painter Antoine-Jean Gros, on display at the Louvre museum in Paris, this week.Credit: MARTIN BUREAU - AFP

Writing on December 15, 1840, in ‘Funérailles de l’Empereur. Notes prises sur place’, Victor Hugo described the coffin’s return as a festive occasion for a return in triumph; a grandiose finale, as he had wished.

In 1808, Napoleon granted the Jews the same rights as other citizens, after the Revolution had already recognized freedom of worship

Napoleon's death mask is on display during the exhibition 'Napoleon: From Waterloo to Saint Helena, birth of the legend', at the Waterloo 1815 memorial in Braine-L'Alleud, this week. Credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD - AFP

Two hundred years after his death, the Napoleonic legend is alive and well. On May 5, France marked the bicentennial of the death of “Le Petit Caporal” who would become emperor, culminating in a ceremony at Les Invalides in the presence of the French President Emanuel Macron. And in truth, France has never abandoned Napoleon. Streets, squares, and bridges bear the names of his generals and their most significant battles: Avenue Carnot, Boulevard Murat, Avenue de la Grande Armée, Austerlitz Railway Station (Gare de Austerlitz) and the Jena Bridge, (Pont d’Iéna) all commemorate his memory.

Is it appropriate to honor a figure who remains so controversial – at first a Republican, and later crowned as Emperor?

“This is recognition due to a French historical figure and also to one of the most important figures in world history,” says historian Thierry Lenz, who heads the Fondation Napoleon which funded some of the day’s events. “Napoleon established ‘government based on the rule of law.’ Thanks to his social legacy, the ‘Code Napoleon’, some of these institutions exist to this day, including the Council of State responsible for legislation, the Court of Cassation [the French supreme court], the Bank of France and the Legion of Honor.”

The French Revolution may have been fought under the banner of human rights, Lenz adds: But the late 18th century was a time of disorder and Napoleon established constitutional administration, bringing order to the chaos in the country.

The poster for the new exhibition at the Musée de l'Armée in Paris.Credit: Doc Levin

To date Lenz has published 40 books about Napoleon. The latest was “For Napoleon,” published in France. Asked if he defends the emperor, he replies: “No. But I wanted to refute claims that he was a dictator, racist and murdered millions of soldiers in unnecessary wars.”

Is there no truth to that?

Napoleon's uniform, shown at the Musée de l'Armée's exhibition 'Napoléon n'est plus.'Credit: Muse de l'Arme / Pascal Segr

“Napoleon was no dictator,” Lenz says. “A dictatorship entails the involvement of the military, but his officers wore feathers and medals, and only dealt with military matters. Napoleon, as consul, surrounded himself with statesmen such as his deputy Justice Minister Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, Finance Minister Martin-Michel-Charles Gaudin, Police Minister Joseph Fouché and especially Foreign Minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who was a diplomat of the highest order. These were not yes-men. They stood up to him and he respected their opinion. Elections were held every year and by all accounts this was not a dictatorial regime, although Napoleon himself was no great democrat. He had an authoritative and strong personality that was a necessity in a time of disorder.”

The Consistory, the main representative body of French Jews, operates to this day in Paris and preserves the interests of the community and freedom of worship through synagogues, schools and charities

Moreover, the estimates of millions of war fatalities are exaggerated, Lenz contends: “His ‘Grande Armée’ numbered only two million recruits and the number of fatalities was actually 900,000. That is quite a bit, I agree. In fact, he continued the wars he inherited from the revolution, primarily those waged against the European monarchies, led by the Habsburgs who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire and part of Italy. The war against the British Empire had become almost a tradition since the Hundred Years’ War. Even today, whilst France seeks to strengthen the European Union, Britain has chosen Brexit.”

Scenes that never occurred

Napoleon was a sort of celebrity before the age of big media. He grasped the power of image and effect of visual appearance, Lenz contends. He effectively created a logo when he wore his famous hat sideways, not how it was supposed to be worn. That became his trademark, making him instantly recognizable anywhere. He admired artists and made sure they immortalized him in huge portraits – which were, for the most part fabrications and depictions of scenes that never occurred.

Thierry Lenz. 'I wanted to refute claims that he was a dictator, racist and murdered millions of soldiers in unnecessary wars.'Credit: Bruno Klein

“For example, the famous ‘Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcola,’ by Antoine-Jean Gros, showing him riding a horse across the bridge during the Italian campaign, is an invention (he fell in the water and hardly looked regal). Ditto Jacques-Louis David’s ‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’, which hangs in the Louvre. Napoleon never crossed the Alps on horseback, but on a donkey and certainly was not alone.”

Testament de Napoleon, now on display at the Musée de l'Armée in Paris.Credit: Archives nationales (France)

Names engraved in stone in the foreground of the painting, Hannibal, Charlemagne, and himself, also demonstrates his desire to be remembered as one of the great generals of history. The coronation painting by Jacques-Louis David took months of preparation and the construction of a stage set in the Notre Dame Cathedral. Hundreds of statues of Napoleon were placed in public spaces. Gold coins were minted with his image crowned with a wreath of bay leaves, like the Roman emperors.

“He had a great sense for slogans that are still in use today, such as ‘Impossible is not a French word (impossible n’est pas français)’,” Lenz says. “Even during the campaign in Egypt, at the foot of the pyramids, he found the right phrase to motivate the troops: ‘Soldiers, from the height of these pyramids, forty centuries look down upon you.’ On this trip he was accompanied by a delegation of scientists and was exposed to the treasures of ancient Egypt, including the Rosetta Stone, with the aid of which the Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs. The sizeable artistic loot he stole during the campaigns in Italy, Berlin, Potsdam, Vienna and of course Egypt, we displayed, at the Louvre, which during his reign became the ‘Napoleon Museum’. A significant part of this loot was repatriated after his fall.”

French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron stand in front of the tomb of Napoleon, yesterday.Credit: CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON - AFP

Reinstating slavery but freeing the Jews

However, Napoleon’s memory is controversial for a range of fundamental issues, one of which is the status of women under his rule. If anything his regime reinforced the patriarchy that was dominant even during the revolution. And on May 20, 1802, as consul, he approved a law restoring slavery in the French colonies, effectively repealing the abolition of slavery legislated by the 1794 Revolutionary Assembly. Slavery would only be banned again in 1848.

Why would he have done that? Many historians claim that Napoleon sought to re-establish a French colonial empire in America, not only to gain prestige but also economic advantage. In 1789, one in ten French people made a living from colonial trade and the island of Santo Domingo supplied more than half of the world’s sugar consumption. In the early 19th century, the wind of rebellion began to blow among the slaves in Santo Domingo, St. Anne, and Guadeloupe, endangering the integrity of France’s Caribbean Empire. Napoleon was pressed to quell the riots.

Horace Vernet's Napoléon sur son lit de mort, 1821.Credit: Musée de la Légion d'honneur, Paris

“As soon as he came to power in 1799, Napoleon was surrounded by businessmen and former colonial officials who pushed him to rescind the resolution of the Revolutionary Assembly. He regularly replied, ‘We should not rob the liberty of those who received it.’ But eventually he gave in to the business lobby, for geopolitical reasons and to prevent the British from taking over the former French colonies,” Lenz explains.

On the other hand, he relieved the Jewish population of onerous decrees. When he was still quite young, during the Italian campaign in 1797, Napoleon encountered Jews enclosed within the walls of the Ancona ghetto, who were forced to wear signature yellow hats on their heads and ribbons with a Star of David on their arms. He ordered them to remove the symbols and wear tricolour ribbons instead.

This was the first symbolic step of the young General Bonaparte on the way to granting Jews freedom of movement and the possibility of preserving their tradition. Napoleon later applied this to the Jews of Rome, Venice, Verona, and Padua. He then repealed the laws of the Inquisition and decreed that the Jews as have the same rights as other Italian citizens

Women walk past a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte with a sign marking the area as a historical site in the old city of Jaffa.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP

“During the French Revolution, about 40,000 Jews lived in France, most of them in the Alsace region,” says Lenz. “They lived in ghettos, were restricted in their movements and occupation. Their prominence in financial occupations aroused hostility among the French who once again associated Judaism with money. In the south of France, the situation was different: the Jews there lived in relative freedom, obtained civil rights such as the right to move freely and even live in Paris. They were also permitted to engage in various trades.”

In 1808, Napoleon granted the Jews the same rights as other citizens, after the Revolution had already recognized freedom of worship. The Jews of France emerged from the ghettos and were organized into regional associations that registered community members, encouraged them to take up productive economic activities and even to enlist in the military.

The Consistory, the main representative body of French Jews, operates to this day in Paris and preserves the interests of the community and freedom of worship through synagogues, schools and charities. The body established by Napoleon first allowed dialogue between the Jewish communities and the State and their assimilation into mainstream society, Lenz explains.

A statue of a French commander in Jaffa. In January 1799, at the head of an army of 13,000 soldiers, Napoleon captured Jaffa within two days and advanced up the coast towards Acre. Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP

Defeat in Acre

In 1798, Napoleon embarked on a campaign in Egypt, in order to disrupt British maritime routes to India. He won the Battle of the Pyramids but lost a key naval battle with Admiral Nelson’s British fleet at Abu Qir Bay. Then he decided to make a push for Syria, planning en route to conquer Palestine.

In January 1799, at the head of an army of 13,000 soldiers, he captured Jaffa within two days and advanced up the coast towards Acre. But to his surprise, the city’s ruler and Ottoman representative, Ahmad al-Jazzar, managed to withstand the French siege. Al-Jazzar also relied on seven British ships that were heading to the port of Acre. Plague claimed many lives among his soldiers and supplies were short; Napoleon gave it up and returned to Egypt.

There is a tale that while besieging Acre, Napoleon planned to declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Ottoman Palestine. He intended to publish the announcement upon arrival in Jerusalem, after conquering Acre. Some historians posit that if such a statement was indeed prepared, it was intended only as a means of propaganda among the region’s Jews.

Lenz doesn’t believe it. “There was no such thing. This is a myth,” he claims. “He had no such intention and there is no evidence of it. Nor did he intend to go to Jerusalem because he did not want the Egyptian campaign to be considered a crusade. He fought several small battles, such as near Mount Tabor or near Nazareth, which he then pompously named ‘The Battle of Mount Tabor’ or ‘the Battle of Nazareth,’ but these were very minimal affairs.”

The statue of Napoleon I in chasseur uniform (1962) by French sculptor Pierre Stenne, atop the Column of the Grande Armee.Credit: SARAH MEYSSONNIER/ REUTERS

What kind of person was he? “He represents a new era in which someone who started at the bottom, from nothing, and reached the highest position,” Lenz answers. “He was an inspiring figure in the eyes of the people, and the eyes of his soldiers who loved him and followed him anywhere.”

But Napoleon would constantly be judged through the filter of the political reality at any given time. After his fall, followed by the Bourbon Restoration in 1815, he was seen as a leftist who established the revolutionary legal code. But Republicans see his empire as a dictatorship that abolished freedom of speech and reinstated slavery in the colonies.

“As a person, according to testimonies, he was impatient, worked 24 hours a day, ate quickly, and demanded that those around him keep up,” Lenz sums up. “They say he didn’t laugh much, didn’t engage in small talk, or flirt. He preferred to dictate his ideas and decisions, claiming that ‘ my hand is slower than my mind’. When he married Marie Louise and had a son, Napoleon II, the ‘King of Rome,’ he softened a little and became more bourgeois. He was not a friendly man and except for Josephine, who remained his friend for the rest of his life, he was only close to his brother Joseph. At the end of the day, he was a pretty annoying person.”

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