This January marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Napoleon III while in exile in Chislehurst, England. While it deserves consideration by some of the rulers of our time, it is not remembered as much as the recent bicentenary of Napoleon I: representatives of authoritarian and populist governments, capable of subverting or emptying democratic institutions of the content of the interests of individual power . That is why it is no accident that the historian Pierre Rosanvallon places Napoleon III prominently. The century of populism. But long before that, two contemporaries of the emperor, Victor Hugo and Karl Marx, also paid attention to him.
the french writer satirized him viciously in his collection of poems punish and in the booklet little napoleonSo much so that he is considered the perfect embodiment of evil and tyranny. Napoleon disappointed Hugo. He had supported his candidacy for president of the republic in 1848, but quickly turned against the authoritarian prejudices of the first popularly elected French president. This situation culminated in a spontaneous coup on the anniversary of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz on December 2, 1851, an angry response to a constitutional order that did not consider re-election. This was a necessary step in the establishment of the Second Empire the following year, and Victor Hugo, until then a representative of the National Assembly, spent almost twenty years in voluntary exile.Later, the author presents the chronicle of the Bonapartist seizure of power crime storya fictional work of technology published more than a quarter of a century after the events.
During these populist boom times, the image of a rebellious Victor Hugo was omitted, perhaps because the pugnacious and bombastic style of his writing was ineffective in exposing the populist Caesar who controlled the levers of power and anaesthetized society. In those countries where they prevail, they are usually the underdogs. These leaders are able to convey the message that they are the saviors of society, order, authority, progress or stability, because they and their environment have official definitions of what everything means. So it’s not easy for the Victor Hugos of our time to find enough echoes to influence a society that seems incapable of appreciating nuance, as polarizing discourse leads to finding a persistent internal enemy that has permeated it.
In the case of Karl Marx, he criticized Napoleon III during his exile in London Brumaire XVIII of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. The work always quotes the opening line: «History happens twice: the first time as a great tragedy, and the second time as a tragic farce.» The populism of our time, however, can be both . His government has always led to tragedy for those who supported it, but at the same time that same government can also be grotesque, in which the seemingly otherworldly can easily reach absurd extremes. All in all, Marx’s book is largely constrained by his previous ideological assumptions. It does not recognize any merit in Napoleon III, described as «banal and grotesque in character». From the point of view of a writer who explains everything in terms of the blind determinism of class struggle, he turns out to be an insignificant figure. However, Marx is quite right in describing how Louis Napoleon manipulated one group and the other during his rise to power, starting with the liberal bourgeoisie who brought about the revolution of 1848, although later he ended up relying on small farmers, mostly in France with a low degree of industrialization. Thus, the Second Reich was born under the banner of populism. The new Caesar, like his ancient Roman ancestors, unceremoniously assumed the role of tribune of the populace. We have triumphed over their eternal populism.
Contemporary populist leaders are rarely educated enough to appreciate the literary style of Hugo and Marx, but they should at least read the biography of Napoleon III, because history is also a reminder that rulers, too, have their own limits. Unfortunately, as we have seen in the Americas in recent years, one of the problems with populism is that it does not recognize any other legitimacy than itself. Legitimacy ultimately imposes itself on all previous legitimacy.
It was time for Napoleon III to convince himself of his own myths, including those that reminded him of his predecessors in the Empire. He was sure he could re-enact the events of the Hundred Days War in 1815, when Napoleon I unexpectedly returned to France after finishing his golden captivity in Elba. In December 1872, Louis Napoleon believed he was the only solution to a France divided by conflict between the Republicans, Legitimists, and Orleanists. He was not overly concerned that there were only five Bonapartist representatives in the National Assembly. In his mind he contemplated the possibility of leaving England, detouring through Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, to Lyon, where the military garrison would stand up for him. He would then march his army on Paris while his supporters arrested parliamentary representatives. He even had a date for taking power: January 31, 1873. But reality trumped the plans of one patient, debilitated by chronic kidney disease, whose strength was declining at the age of 65. He finally decided to postpone the uprising until March 20, the anniversary of Napoleon’s return from Elba, but on January 9 he died after emergency surgery.
Victor Hugo wrote that Napoleon III had endeavored to prove that two plus two equals five, that is, that truth is established by authority. This is quite an Orwellian 1984 precedent. However, the official truth does not stand the test of time, although populist leaders basking in their «glory» moments do not seem to worry about that.
Image: Emperor Napoleon III on his deathbed, 1873. Photo: William & Daniel Downey, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.