Monday 3 May 2021

Week 18: The troublesome centenary of Napoleon's death

100 years ago this week: Week 18

Paris is marking the bicentenary of the death of Napoleon this year with low-key exhibitions and sober colour supplements. 100 years ago however, the centenary was far more controversial. Given ongoing tensions with Germany, was it appropriate to celebrate the life of an imperialist and one of history's biggest warmongers? If opinions differed wildly in the press, a significant Anglo-French moment in the sporting arena brought more unanimous cheer!

Find out more.

After how many years does history become history? On the 100th anniversary of Napoleon's death, the French - explained newspaper L'Oeuvre - might try to justify the lavish ceremonies by explaining that "Napoleon is, like Louis XIV or Louis XII, the past", but his legacy was clearly still impacting the present a century later. The First World War was fresh in everyone's minds, and continuing in a certain manner around negotiation tables, and many could trace the origins of the conflict - as well as other wars - back to the actions of Napoleon. 

To many others though, basking in a recent glow of victory and revenge, Napoleon was a leader who had brought greatness, splendour and order to France. These two viewpoints could clearly be seen in the major press titles on May 5th, 1921.

The ceremony
On May 5, 1921, 100 years to the day after the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, the principal commemorative event was a celebration at Notre Dame. The location was of course significant. It was here that he experienced one of his most triumphant moments - his coronation as Emporer in 1804 in the presence of Pope Pius VII. 

The ceremony celebrated in Notre Dame for Napoleon's centenary

Most newspapers - including Excelsior which placed a series of photos on its front page -highlighted the splendour of the event, the impressive guest list, and the crowds outside, without questioning the legitimacy of such an occasion. It was "a very moving mess" with "superb singing from the choirs" reported La Croix, who went on to add that "Napoleon, we are sure, would have liked the ceremony."

This was not quite the angle chosen by Communist daily L'Humainté, who provided a headline that needs no translating.

L'Humanité lead with a quote from Adolphe Tiers, not 'a fierce opponent of Napoleon' they note, and certainly not a friend of the left either. "He sacrificed more men than were ever sacrificed by the Asian conquerers".

"Between 1814 and 1815", says Taine, "Napoleon was responsible for the deaths of 1,700,000 French born within the limits of the old France, to which we must add probably another 2 million men born outside of those limits, and who died for him, as allies, or were killed by him as enemies."

A significant percentage of these two million were 'German', sewing the seeds of resentment, humiliation, mistrust and anger that would provide the embers for a series of bloody conflicts many years after Napoleon's death.

If most nations celebrate heros of the past who owe their 'glory' to victories on the battlefield, there are moments to mark their anniverseries that are more oportune than others. This was certainly the sentiment of newspaper L'Oeuvre who (in its rather attractive font!) felt that the importance given to the centenary was a provocation with international post-WW1 peace talks still ongoing. 

The untimely centenary
The Americans suspect us of imperialism
And we are doing everything, such as today, to justify their suspicions

"...why celebrate Napoleon rather than another? It is not possible to the celebrate the centenary of a conquerer who personifies imperialism more than any other, without seeming to proclaim that we see imperialism as desirable. Does this celebration not signify, for foreigners, that we admire the person who, over many years, had under subjugation the German people, who obliged Germans to die for his glory, and by consequence, that we wish to imitate him?"

Glory on the football pitch
Curiously - and seemingly without any specifc link to the centenary - another significant event took place on May 5, 1921. A battle between France and England, but this time on the football pitch. This game takes us back to the Stade Pershing alongside 30,000 spectators to see France - for the first time - beat England in a football match (2.1). Napoleon - one can be sure - would have liked this occasion too. 


C-Marie said...

My thanos for all of this History of France and Germany. My interest is now such that I am goong to read up on what happened and maybe fond the cause of Germany's start-ups of a few wars, so it appears.

God did say in 1 Samuel 8: 7,when the people wanted a man to be King, instead of God for their King:

7And the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you. For it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected Me as their king. 8Just as they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking Me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. 9Now listen to them, but you must solemnly warn them and show them the manner of the king who will reign over them.”

10So Samuel spoke all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11He said, “This will be the manner of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them to his own chariots and horses, to run in front of his chariots.

12He will appoint some for himself as commanders of thousands and of fifties, and others to plow his ground, to reap his harvest, to make his weapons of war, and to equip his chariots.

13And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers.

14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his servants. 15He will take a tenth of your grain and grape harvest and give it to his officials and servants. 16And he will take your menservants and maidservants and your best cattleb and donkeys and put them to his own use.

17He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18When that day comes, you will beg for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you on that day.”

God Grants the Request
19Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We must have a king over us. 20Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to judge us, to go out before us, and to fight our battles.”

21Samuel listened to all the words of the people and repeated them in the hearing of the LORD.

22“Listen to their voice,” the LORD said to Samuel. “Appoint a king for them.”

Sometimes we get what we ask for.

God bless, C-Marie

C-Marie said...

Ouch!! Those typos!! God bless, C-Marie

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