In the spring of 1812, on the eve of commanding more than 600,000 soldiers to invade Russia, Napoleon Bonaparte laid out his plans for the future of Europe. “We need,” he told his former police minister, Joseph Fouché, “a European law code, a European high court, a single currency, the same weights and measures, the same laws. I must make all the peoples of Europe into a single people, and Paris, the capital of the world.” The French emperor had not previously expressed such vaulting ambitions, but as his empire swelled, he came to believe he could bring the continent a degree of unity that it had not known since the fall of Rome. After falling from power himself in 1815, he frequently referred back to these ambitions, and lamented his failure to create an enduring European superstate.
Was Napoleon, and not the shrewd post–World War II diplomat Jean Monnet, the true progenitor of the European Union? Monnet not only led the effort to establish a European Common Market (something Napoleon also envisaged), but hoped its member states would take further steps toward union. Perhaps he was following a path Napoleon had first blazed. And if so, does Napoleon’s legacy help us understand Europe’s present-day problems? Thanks to the long string of anniversaries leading up to the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, the last few years have been overrun by new publications on the man, his campaigns, his empire, and the resistance against him. The list includes, with properly Napoleonic excess, a dozen full-scale biographies published just since the start of the century. Yet as the most recent contributions show with particular force, it remains surprisingly difficult to assess whether the institutions and style of administration perfected by Napoleon were compatible with significant participation by ordinary citizens, and with the preservation of social and cultural diversity. Given how much of the Napoleonic legacy survives in the European Union today, this is not merely an academic question.
In the Europe of the early 1800s, the ideas that Napoleon outlined for Fouché were in no sense absurd. Over the previous century, European elites had grown remarkably alike. To a surprisingly great extent, they read the same books, listened to the same music, saw the same plays. From Lisbon to St. Petersburg, they had a common second language: French. (As every reader of Tolstoy knows, many Russian aristocrats spoke it in preference to their native tongue.) As early as 1772, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had commented (implicitly, in reference to elites): “Today, whatever one may say, there are no longer any Frenchmen, Germans, Spaniards, or even Englishmen…there are only Europeans. They all have the same tastes, the same passions, and the same customs.”
Political union was a different matter, but by 1812 Napoleon seemed on his way to resolving that issue as well. Over the previous 16 years, as he rose from a general of the French Republic, to first consul in 1799 and emperor in 1804, his almost unbroken string of victories had enormously swelled France’s borders. His empire now included the Low Countries, Catalonia, large portions of Germany and Italy, and even the Croatian coastline. He had tamed much of the rest of continental Europe into a series of satellite states. French rule provoked violent opposition, but not everywhere. In Spain, for instance, there were fiercely anti-French guerrilla bands (the word first achieved wide currency during this period), but also the Afrancesados (the “Frenchified”), who greeted the rule of Napoleon’s brother Joseph as a release from the obscurantist tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church and degenerate Bourbon monarchs.