Napoleon's Empire and the International System
NAPOLEON'S Empire reached its zenith in 1809; all his later annexations and campaigns really weakened it. This is therefore the point at which to discuss its nature and its impact on Europe. Both subjects are controversial, and include the question of whether it had any lasting impact at all. Thomas Nipperdey begins his magisterial history of nineteenth-century Germany with the words, 'In the beginning was Napoleon'. With him came Germany's breakthrough to modernity, bourgeois society, and the strong centralized state. But Nipperdey's view has been challenged, and Louis Bergeron's equally authoritative work on French history in the Napoleonic era suggests in its title, L'Épisode napoléonien, his belief that Napoleon changed little in the deeper rhythms of French life -- demography, social structure, religious, cultural, and intellectual life, and economics. Not only the Empire's overall results, but also the individual aspects of its putative legacy in France and Europe -- modernization, centralization, the rationalization of politics and public life, industrialization and economic progress, advances toward social and legal equality, democracy, nationalism, state-building -- remain topics of debate.
In contrast, the question of how the Empire affected international politics and the international system has provoked little controversy in recent decades. Historians may differ over the kind of empire it was and the type of imperialism it represented, and on occasion still speculate, as they once commonly did, on how European history might have been altered had the Empire survived instead of collapsing in military defeat. But given the actual course of events, it seems obvious that in international history the Empire was a brief, sensational episode with no lasting consequences; the spectacular rise of a military leader and the state he commanded to unprecedented power and glory, followed by their even swifter fall and a restoration of the old balance-of- power system.
Neither the purpose of this book nor its author's expertise justify any confident judgements about Napoleon's overall legacy.