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To what extent and why did the impact of Napoleonic rule vary outside France? Essay

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Despite Napoleon’s later claim that he was attempting to export the French Revolution to the ‘less enlightened’ countries of Europe this claim must be looked at sceptically. It is also dangerous to generalise throughout the countries which fitted under the Napoleonic umbrella, especially when dealing with the traditional opinion that the level of impact varied with the distance from Paris and the time spent under French role. Although this does seem to be true of some countries, there are a large number of exceptions to this as highlighted by historians such as Davico, Ellis and Villani emphasis.

The overall impact of Napoleonic rule hinges on many factors, including native customs, numbers of residents in middle class and the political history of each region

The traditional view of Napoleon as a social reformer who brought with him the ideals of the French Revolution and rationalised the government of the territories, mainly as this was the myth Napoleon attempted to spread. Often quoted examples of this are the work of Napoleon in Germany and Italy, or at least the states that would later make up these countries.

Ellis sees the defeudalisation affecting all areas of the German political system as “the necessary prelude to a modern German state”. If Napoleon did indeed lay the foundations of the modern German state then there is clearly a major impact and a similar conclusion can be made when studying Italy.

This traditional view has been criticised heavily in more recent writings over several main points, the difference in the time spent under French rule by the two areas and the varying forms of influence exerted over the areas by Napoleon. Within the French Empire there were various types of state, annexed territories, territories nominally outside the Empire but controlled by Frenchmen and allied states with their own rulers. The level of control exerted by the French is obviously a key factor in analysing their impact, especially when arguing that impact depended on the distance from France and the time under French control. States in Germany and Italy offer prime examples of the huge range of factors that affected the impact of the French, not least because of the various types of affiliation with France.

When Sieyes was drafting the Constitution of 1799, he talked of “authority from above, confidence from below”, and this summarised the centralised form of government that Napoleon employed. Paris needed to be consulted over every move satellite states made and Napoleon personally oversaw the majority of decisions however petty. It could take weeks for a request to be approved and placed into action at the outer reaches of the Empire which severely reduced the level of efficiency when implementing many of Napoleon’s wishes.

When coupled with the independence of certain rulers of satellite states, for example Louis in Holland and Murat in Naples, the level of impact of policies could be notably reduced. Although both attempted to defy Napoleon and were reluctant to implement the Continental System which would harm their subjects, neither were ultimately successful as Napoleon was swift to deal with subordinates who refused to fit in with his overall plan. The desire of Louis to rule for the benefit of his subjects and his removal by Napoleon go some way to showing Napoleon’s motivations when dealing with the Empire. He was not interested in sharing the benefits of the Revolution, simply looking to create a wide ranging group of states that could support his military desires.

Ellis uses the criteria of how far the abolition of feudal practices took place in the subject states, the impact of Napoleonic codes on old professional groups and practices in those regions and which social groups benefited most from the sale of confiscated lands around Europe to analyse the impact of French rule throughout the Empire. When studying various examples throughout the period an underlying theme begins to develop and that is the continuation of old social practices and groups through French rule, adapting and developing to stay in their positions of power. In many cases it is in fact the number of active bourgeoisie members and their desire to cooperate with Napoleon that governs the impact their states face from Napoleonic rule. Jeffry Diefendorf highlights the ‘businessmen’ of Cologne, Crefeld and Aachen to show the influence of the middle classes.

They survived as “essentially pragmatic patriots”1 who were given “allowances for their local customs and traditional interests”1 but showed little resistance to French rule. In fact Diefendorf argues that the French rule gave the German bourgeoisie a “lasting and fateful political education”1. The businessmen were prepared to argue for their local interests and as such saw little a general continuity with their lives before French rule. A similar thread can be applied to the Piedmont example used by Rosalba Davico in her studies of social trends, a definite continuity exists between the pre-Napoleon and the time during and after French rule. Much of the ‘defeudalisation’ had been achieved up to a century earlier which reduced the impact of reforms seen as dynamic in France. As in the Roer department the middle classes were able to adapt to Napoleonic rule and continue their dominance of society with little bother, possibly even being aided by the sales of the ‘biens nationaux’

Despite the finalisation of defeudalisation throughout the Empire, the sale of ‘biens nationaux’ gave the existing middle classes a chance to immediately regain their power by monopolising the land market. In Piedmont, Italy, the sale of church land was unquestionably monopolised by the wealthy elites with very few peasants purchasing their own land. Working with Ellis’ criteria, it is clear that in these two examples, French rule has done little other than officially end feudalism and secure the wealthy elite’s position in society through the sale of ‘biens nationaux’ in the annexed lands. The situation differs in the states that were brought under French control at a later time, namely Tuscany, Rome or Oldenburg, where very little was implemented in the few years of French rule. “Their legal and social assimilation to French practices could not be widely expected during the short time available”2, leaving the rationalisation lacking consistency across the Empire.

The situation remained very similar in the subject states, of which the example of the Kingdom of Italy will be used, where French rule did little to change the social frame of the area. As in the majority of places within Europe, power lay with the “established landowners and a plutocratic bourgeoisie”2. Smallholders were once again eclipsed by the wealthy, being further discouraged by having to bear a disproportionably large part of the land tax. The work of Villani shows the remarkable ability of the old feudal lords to survive and even thrive under Napoleonic rule as they had done in past decades. It can therefore be concluded that the sale of church land did little to liberate the peasantry or significantly change the social foundations of states within the French Empire.

As in France, Napoleon saw his Codes as one of the most important areas of his rule and tried to implement them in his subject states, which was met with varying degrees of enthusiasm. In Berg, a state never annexed by France, a leading German jurist objected that “Perfect laws are the beautiful and free forms of the interior life of a nation; they come out of life itself. The Civil Code has not come out of the life of the German nation”1 showing particular resistance to the Civil Code on an ideological level, not to mention the practical side. Napoleon insisted on the implementation of the Civil Code in Rome, despite Joseph’s concerns over the impact they would have on old regime society. Heavily Catholic areas of Europe, particularly in Italy and Spain resisted the introduction of divorce, the removal of the church’s authority and freedom of Jews and all other religions.

The Code Napoleon often conflicted with local customs and the existing elites which meant that the degree of success achieved when applying the Code varied greatly in different areas. The largest benefit of the implementation in the Confederation of the Rhine was the debates that surrounded it that would prove as the stimulus for liberal and inventive economic enterprise in Germany in a later period. The peasantry may have gained a short term benefit from the abolition of arbitrary labour services in 1811 but this is far outweighed by the failing of the Code. Fehrenbach believes this to be due to Napoleon’s ulterior motives, “which had more to do with military and fiscal exploitation in the furtherance of his dynastic and social designs than with enlightenment principles of legal equality”2.

Napoleon may have advocated the spreading of rational and liberal ideas to the rest of his Empire but the corruption of these ideals in favour for immediate gains for either his military campaigns or for the feathering of his own nest reduced the positive impact his regime could have. In the state of Westphalia a large proportion of land was handed out by Napoleon as land-gifts to military chiefs and other subjects of Napoleon. In order to protect the value of these donations Napoleon extended landowners’ rights and dues, undermining the Code and proving to be destructive to the legal equality and social reform. Another state used by Napoleon in his spoils’ system was the grand duchy of Warsaw in which the old regime elite again managed to reclaim their power through attempts to graft the Code Napoleon into their social structure.

It may be a logical assumption that the time spent under French control had a large impact simply because it gave more time for the reforms of Napoleon to be implemented but this disregards the changing attitude of Napoleon as time progressed. He placed more and more emphasis on his own military and economic aims, paying no attention to the needs of the Italian, German or Polish subjects, preferring to abandon the ideals of legal equality and rationalisation of resources for his personal dynastic aims. Whilst certain states such as the Kingdom of Naples benefited from the large scale reforms brought in by the French, the most striking similarity between most of the subject states in the Empire was the continuation of a devolved form of feudalism. The varying and traditional feudal structures of the subject states were allowed to continue by Napoleon as a practical compromise and in many areas became stronger during French rule.

The impact of French rule depended on a number of independent factors that prevent any wide ranging generalisations throughout the continent. Although the centralised format of French government may have reduced the impact of reforms with states further away from Paris, the continuation of feudalism in states closer to France, for example the left bank of the Rhine, proves that this is not a concrete argument. The impact often has more to do with the state and influence of the bourgeoisie in the selected areas, as well as religious preferences and the pre-existing traditions of an area. The impact did vary quite widely across the continent, but with a similar theme of power staying with the elite demonstrating the common reaction to French rule.

1 Martyn Lyons – Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution

2 Ellis – The Napoleonic Empire

2 Ellis – The Napoleonic Empire

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