Democratic Despot: A Life of Napoleon III

Democratic Despot: A Life of Napoleon III

Democratic Despot: A Life of Napoleon III

Democratic Despot: A Life of Napoleon III

Excerpt

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, President of the French Republic from 1848 to 1852 and, as Napoleon III, Emperor of the French from 1852 to 1870, was neither the first nor the last of France's rulers to be called an enigma. In his case, however, the failure of historians to give him an entirely convincing character has left unexplained some of the key events in his career. How did he achieve his extraordinary rise to power in 1848? How, in the face of constant opposition from every quarter, did he manage to pursue so consistently and for so long his basic aim to uproot vested interests in all fields of French life, no matter how strongly entrenched they were? How did he maintain his supreme position inside and outside France for two decades of European history?

Recent research has thrown considerable light on these problems. Our knowledge and understanding of the Second Empire's economic and social background has been radically transformed and enlarged through the devoted work of such men as Blanchard, Duveau, Emerit and Girard in France and of Cameron, Landes and Pinkney in the United States. Although this process of research and revaluation is far from complete, it has undoubtedly helped to create a more convincing and life-size portrait of Napoleon III.

Napoleon appears now as a man who throughout his active life was a Saint-Simonian of mild though firmly based socialist leanings, and who as a statesman was hardly affected by 'Bonapartism'. He deliberately refused to try to revive his uncle's Empire, but seized the opportunities offered to him by the awakening of Europe after 1848 from decades of political and economic stagnation. He used to the full his considerable powers of political perception to fashion or at least to initiate the development of a new political and social order in Europe, one which in many of its aspects survived well into the twentieth century.

Inevitably a life of Napoleon III written at this time must have been coloured by subsequent and, above all, by present-day events, which can but lend retrospective meaning and significance to the . . .

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