In May of 2021, France marked the 200 years that have passed since the death of Napoleon. It was interesting to note the degree to which the great dictator is still controversial. That is to say, a large segment of the population still cannot recognize the unnecessary disasters caused by his rule.
A report in Yahoo News noted that President Macron felt compelled to commemorate Napoleon but not celebrate him. He said the history must be faced and the era must be accepted as part of France’s legacy. The report summed up the good and the bad thus:
Napoleon was to some a military genius, a modernizer and national hero. To others he was an imperialist, warmonger and enslaver… He rolled back advances in women’s rights and reversed the abolition of slavery in France’s colonies as France and England fought for supremacy in the West Indies sugar trade. A master administrator, he created France’s penal code as well as the administrative system of prefets and Lycee high schools that exist today.
To elaborate, Napoleon Bonaparte…
… buried the first Republic by coming to power in a military coup d’etat, backed by class of plutocrats who had gained control of the economy
… restored slavery, suppressed press freedom, reversed rights gained by women, and established a ruthless military (and police) dictatorship in France.
… built the French state apparatus on the authoritarian model, based on military structures—it was a state apparatus established to dominate society instead of putting itself at the service of the people—his legacy still plagues the country today.
… was responsible for the death of 5,000,000 Europeans, including 1.5 million French (in a Europe which had at the time 190 million inhabitants and a France that had 29 million)
…, through his abuses and aggression, managed to turn most of France’s neighbors into enduring enemies
… caused the first military occupation of the country since the hundred-year war and left it much smaller than he found it
… gave the world the term “Bonapartism” to refer to the rise of fascist demagogues (Napoleon III, Mussolini, Hitler, Suharto, Pinochet, Bolsonaro, Trump…) who gain power in desperate times when the liberal and bourgeois elements move to the right instead of aligning themselves with the working class
… remains, despite all of the above, the idol of France’s reactionaries, authoritarians, and embittered chauvinists nostalgic for the so-called “greatness of France”
… demonstrated the power of a fully-mobilized modern state, and established a modern code of laws—these are often stated as Napoleon’s positive contributions, his great legacy by those who idolize him, but the few positive things he accomplished could have been done by a different government
… marked the end of the revolution’s progressive and democratic ideals—after his defeat, the monarchy was restored, then there was a short-live second republic (1848-1852), followed by the second empire led by Napoleon’s nephew—the reigns of the two Napoleons were the source of Marx’s famous saying, “History occurs the first time as tragedy; the second time as farce.”
To understand better how Bonapartism continued to recur in the next century through similar historical processes, read this passage by historian Luciana Bohne on the rise of Mussolini in Italy:
I watched Il Delitto Matteotti (The Murder of Matteotti) last night, a 1970s Italian film, directed by Florestano Vancini.
The crime in 1924 of the kidnapping, beating, knifing, and carving up of the corpse of Socialist Party Senator Giacomo Matteotti by Mussolini’s death squads resulted in the closure of the parliament, the shutting down of the press that was unwilling to promote fascism, the establishment of a tribunal for trying crimes against the (fascist) state, the suppression of strikes and demonstrations, the reinforcement of the secret police, the violent beating of liberal intellectuals, who died in exile of the injuries.
The murder of the socialist senator Matteotti inaugurated the fulsome season of Italian fascism, which lasted two decades, from 1922 until the summer of 1943.
During these two decades, Italy invaded and colonized Ethiopia and Somalia, responding to resistance with poison gas, torture, imprisonment, executions, and massacres. The fascists entrenched their power in Libya, already colonized between end of 19th and beginning of 20th century.
They defeated the decades-long Libyan resistance, led by great guerrilla leader Omar Mukhtar, by rounding up the population, starving them herded in killer concentration camps, killing them by poison gas, and, naturally, by bullets. The count is 88,000 dead Libyan civilians, but who knows?
The fascists invaded Yugoslavia, and occupied Slovenia and Dalmatia. They encircled Ljubljana with barbed wire. They heeded the fascist complaint that not enough of the inferior Slav race were being killed. Villages went up in flames.
After the war, the fascist war criminals were protected from prosecution by the Americans, specifically by members of Alan Dulles’ CIA-to be.
All this terrorism could have been nullified if, as a result of the murder and the national indignation that followed, the fascist government, only two years old, had been made to fall. It could have been rubbish but, instead, it survived, more violent and vicious than before.
The conditions that made it survive are the subject of the film and a good lesson from history as to how the seizure of power by fascism is facilitated.
First, let’s mention who really opposed fascism, as the film presents the case. Alone among the parliamentarian parties that opposed fascism, the Italian Communist Party proposed a politically, strategically, and logically sound counteroffensive.
Senator Antonio Gramsci, leader and deputy of the Italian Communist party, argued that in the factories and the countryside, workers and laborers were seething with anger and a readiness to fight and set back fascism. “Let’s mobilize the masses,” Gramsci said. “Let’s knock down fascism with the armies of workers and peasants.”
“No,” said the socialists. This proposal was too extreme. It would incite the violence of the fascists. “You socialists,” said Gramsci, “prove once again that you fear the power of the people and the people in power,” and he walked out of the opposition’s meeting in disgust.
The socialists approached the Catholic Populist Party. They were of one mind. To unleash the armed people against the fascists was to risk their taking over state power.
One by one, the opposition parties—from monarchists, to liberal, to republicans, to Catholic, to socialists, embarked on an alliance of appeasement, instead of struggle.
They were backed fully by elite industrialists of Milan and Turin, from the die-hards to the reluctant Agnelli, Pirelli, and Olivetti.
And so, with the Communist Party overwhelmed and marginalized by the democratic parliamentarian parties, fascism survived to commit genocides.
In 1928, Antonio Gramsci was arrested and tried by the Fascist Special Tribunal, instituted by Mussolini in February 1927.
He and other communist leaders were accused of “conspiratorial activity, incitement to civil war, apology for crimes, and incitement to class hatred.”
The prosecutor concluded his indictment with a famous phrase: “For twenty years we must prevent this brain from functioning”; and in fact, Gramsci, on June 4, 1928, was sentenced to twenty years, four months and five days of imprisonment. He died in prison on April 27, 1937. No Catholic cemetery would accept his body, so he’s buried in the Protestant Cemetery of Rome, where I eventually paid my respects to him, Shelley, and Byron.
And what had been Matteotti’s crime to end up murdered? He asked in parliament for the dissolution of the 1924 elections which had stuffed the parliament with fascist deputies through bribes, coercion, and violence.