Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoleon III: Who Was the Better Man?

I’m sure you all have heard about the great general and emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte. Everybody has at one time or another. But what you may not realize is that, for all Napoleon’s battlefield knowhow, he was a stubborn and arrogant ass. I hope that doesn’t offend anyone, but even if it does, it’s the truth. Did you know that Napoleon Bonaparte literally crowned himself Emperor of France? Well, it’s true. The pope came from Rome all the way to the French capital to honor Napoleon with a coronation. But Napoleon wouldn’t have it. At the most important part of the coronation, he stood, took the crown from the pope and put it on his own head. Then he took his wife’s crown and crowned her also. In so doing, Napoleon, as far as the Catholics are concerned, openly challenged God’s authority. And God accepted his challenge. Eight years later in 1812, in what some might call the twilight years of the First French Empire, Napoleon rashly invaded Russia. His army chased the tsar’s army deeper and deeper into the Russian interior and took Moscow. But a fire started in the city and it burned down. Whether or not the Russians started the fire is a matter of debate. But what matters is that much of Moscow burned to the ground, and Napoleon’s Grande Armee was forced to retreat through the harsh Russian winter, hounded by Russian partisans. All this led to the allied invasion of France in 1814 and the ultimate defeat of Napoleon by Wellington and Blucher at Waterloo in 1815. Hence, the first empire of the French, (or, more like the empire of Napoleon,) came to an end.

Fast forward to 1854. Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, crowns himself emperor of France. Then, just as his uncle did, he goes to war with Russia. However, in Louis Napoleon’s case, it was a matter of Catholic honor. The Eastern Orthodox Church was challenging Catholic interests in the Holy Land at the time. In the eyes of the French, French blood had been spilled for the Holy Land during the Crusades, whereas the Russians had never shed a drop of their own for the holy places. So they went to war. In all honesty, the Crimean War was not as disastrous for the French as the invasion of 1812 was, as it was not a full-scale invasion of Russia. Plus the French army was one of the finest in Europe at the time. The Crimean War was hardly a victory for either side, but one has to admit that Napoleon III, unlike his uncle, was defending Catholic interests.

Fast forward once again to 1870. Napoleon III leads France into another war, this time against the newly powerful North German Confederation under the iron leadership of the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Why did they go to war against Germany? Because of what historian Michael Howard calls “the Hohenzollern Candidature.” In so many words, the queen of Spain, Isabella II was deposed from the throne and was replaced by Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, who was under the direct influence of Bismarck and Spain’s “de facto leader,” Juan Prim. This alarmed Napoleon III, who feared a combined German-Spanish assault on his country. The French ambassador demanded that the Prussian king, Whilhelm, (William,) I not allow Leopold to be a candidate for the throne of Spain. Not only did Wilhelm and Bismarck refuse, but they published the French ambassador’s message, (the Ems Telegram,) which infuriated the French government. Once again, it would seem, Napoleon III went to war to defend the honor of France. But this time victory was not to be his, as his generals proved to be incompetent and ineffective against the power of Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke’s army. Defeated at the Battle of Sedan in September 1870, Napoleon III was forced to abdicate the throne, and France became a republic, determined to continue the war against Germany, but doomed to defeat in 1871.

I believe I have made my point quite clear. While I haven’t discussed France’s war against Austria in 1859, I have shown that, at least two times out of four, Napoleon III went to war to defend his honor, and, indeed, the honor of France. Whereas Napoleon I had only his own glory in mind, his nephew at least seems to have had honorable intentions.

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