The Great Soviet Encyclopedia on Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon I

(Napoleon Bonaparte). Born Aug. 15, 1769, in Ajaccio, Corsica; died May 5, 1821, on the island of St. Helena. French statesman and general. First consul of the French Republic (1799–1804); emperor (1804–14 and March-June 1815).

Napoleon was the son of Carlo Buonaparte, a Corsican noble and lawyer of modest means. At the age of ten he was sent to the College d’Autun (France) and later in the same year (1779) was transferred to the military school at Brienne, where he was supported by a government stipend. In 1784 he graduated from Brienne and went to the Ecole Militaire in Paris (1784–85). He entered the army in October 1785 as a second lieutenant of artillery. Brought up on the progressive ideas of the French Enlightenment, Bonaparte, a follower of J.-J. Rousseau and G.-T. Raynal, greeted the Great French Revolution with enthusiasm. In 1792 he became a member of the Jacobin club. At this point in his career he was active primarily on Corsica, where he came into conflict with Corsican separatists led by Paoli. In 1793 he was forced to flee from Corsica. During the republican army’s long unsuccessful siege of Toulon, which had been seized by monarchist rebels and British interventionists, Bonaparte proposed a plan for capturing the city. On Dec. 17, 1793, Toulon was taken by storm. The 24-year-old Captain Bonaparte was promoted to the rank of brigadier general for his role in the capture of the city. This marked the beginning of his precipitous rise to power. Because of his friendship with A. de Robespierre, Napoleon fell from grace for a short time and was even arrested during the Thermidorian reaction. But he soon drew attention to himself again, this time in Paris, by his energy and decisiveness in suppressing the monarchist revolt of 13 Vendémiaire (Oct. 5), 1795. Subsequently, he was appointed commander of the Paris garrison and, in 1796, commander in chief of an army that had been created for operations in Italy.

The Italian campaign of 1796–97 revealed Bonaparte’s military talent and his understanding of the social aspect of war, for he attempted to raise antifeudal forces against powerful Austria and to obtain for France an ally in the Italian national liberation movement. Although the first Italian campaign was accompanied by requisitions and the plundering of the countryside, its progressive nature won the French army the support of the Italian people. The Treaty of Campo Formio (1797) revealed Napoleon’s diplomatic capabilities. In Napoleon’s subsequent military campaigns his taste for conquest became stronger.

Returning to Paris in triumph, Napoleon easily persuaded the Directory to pass a resolution organizing a campaign for the conquest of Egypt. Despite Napoleon’s victories in a number of battles, the Egyptian campaign (1798–1801) was doomed to defeat after the British destroyed the French fleet at Aboukir, cutting off the French army in Egypt from France, and after the French undertook an unsuccessful campaign in Syria. On the pretext of news that had reached him concerning the defeat of the Directory’s army and the victories of A. V. Suvorov, Napoleon arbitrarily left the expeditionary army and returned to Paris in October 1799, at the peak of the crisis of the Directory. The weakness of the Directory and its constant vacillations, which impelled the bourgeoisie to seek a “firm authority,” contributed to Napoleon’s success in carrying out his personally ambitious plans. Relying on influential circles of the bourgeoisie, he staged a coup d’etat on Nov. 9–10, 1799 (18–19 Brumaire, Year VIII), establishing a consulate under which he, in fact (although not immediately), held full authority.

This dictatorial power, which was concealed until 1804 by a “screen” of republicanism, was exercised by Napoleon for the defense of the interests of the bourgeoisie and rich peasants and, on the whole, for the strengthening of the bourgeois state. He abolished national representation, even in the restricted form that had survived under the Directory, and he did away with electoral self-government, replacing it with a bureaucratic police system of prefects, mayors, and subordinate officials, all of whom were appointed by the central government. He also eliminated the free press, and he suppressed other vestiges of the Revolution’s democratic conquests. In 1801 he concluded a concordat with the pope, thus guaranteeing himself the support of the Roman Catholic Church. The civil, commercial, and criminal codes drawn up under his supervision established the legal norms for a bourgeois society.

Strengthening and protecting the principal economic gains of the bourgeois revolution, particularly the promulgated redistribution of property, Napoleon decisively suppressed attempts from the left as well as from the right to change the new regime. He dealt blows to both the Jacobins and the militant royalists. His regime’s economic policy concentrated on developing industry and trade. In 1800 the Bank of France was founded. Industry enjoyed Napoleon’s special protection, because he viewed industrial development as a means of strengthening the power of the state. Fearing disturbances by the workers, Napoleon tried to avert them by organizing public works projects to prevent unemployment and by retaining the Le Chapelier Law (1791), which prohibited workers from forming associations. In addition, a decree issued in 1803 obliged the workers to carry passbooks, or labor permits.

In 1802, Napoleon had himself appointed consul for life, and in 1804 he was proclaimed emperor. To strengthen the new bourgeois monarchy and give it superficial splendor, he created a new imperial nobility and a luxurious imperial court. After divorcing his first wife, Josephine, in 1810, he married Marie Louise, the daughter of the Austrian emperor Francis I.

Napoleon I owed his extraordinary fame to his victorious wars against the coalition powers; to his brilliant victories at Marengo (1800), Austerlitz (1805), Jena and Auerstadt (1806), and Wa-gram (1809); to the enormous expansion of the Empire; and to his own transformation from emperor of France into de facto ruler of Central Europe and all of Western Europe, excluding Great Britain. The destiny of Napoleon I, who had achieved unprecedented power in only ten years and who had compelled the monarchs of Europe to reckon with his will, seemed inexplicable to many of his contemporaries and gave rise to various Napoleonic legends. A man of enormous personal endowments, with an exceptional capacity for work, a powerful, sober mind, and an unbending will, he was ruthless in attaining his objectives. Napoleon I was an outstanding representative of the young, rising bourgeoisie, the most complete embodiment of its strong points, as well as of its vices and shortcomings—aggressiveness, profit seeking, and adventurism.

In the art of war Napoleon I developed and perfected the innovations of the armies of revolutionary France. His chief merit was his ability to find the most effective tactical and strategic use for vast armed masses for that time. The emergence of the mass army had been made possible by the Revolution. Napoleon proved himself a master of strategy and of the tactics of maneuver. When fighting against a numerically superior foe, he endeavored to disperse the enemy’s forces and destroy them unit by unit. In such situations his principle was to “compensate for numerical weakness by rapidity of movements.” On the march he led his troops in dispersed order but with such control that they could be assembled at the necessary moment at any point. This was the origin of the principle of “moving separately but fighting together.” Napoleon I perfected a new maneuver using the column in conjunction with an extended order and based on the precise interaction of different types of troops. He made extensive use of the rapid maneuver to establish superiority in decisive axes, and he knew how to make surprise attacks, how to carry out turning and enveloping movements, and how to augment his forces at decisive sectors during a battle. Considering the destruction of the enemy’s forces to be the principal strategic goal, he always tried to take the strategic initiative. His chief method of routing an enemy was to give general battle, and he always endeavored to exploit the success achieved in general battle by organizing a pressing pursuit of the enemy.

Napoleon I gave broad opportunities for initiative to the commanders of units and groups. He knew how to discover and promote capable, talented people. However, the sudden rise of Napoleonic France and the victories of French arms are attributable less to the personal qualities of Napoleon I and his marshals than to the fact that in its clash with feudal absolutist Europe, Napoleonic France represented the historically more progressive bourgeois social system. Militarily, this assertion is supported by the unquestionable superiority of Napoleon I’s generalship to the backward, routine strategy and tactics of the armies of feudal Europe. In addition, the bourgeois system of social relations that was boldly introduced throughout Western Europe by Napoleonic legislation was superior to the backward, feudal patriarchal social relations.

Nevertheless, the Napoleonic wars gradually lost the progressive elements that had characterized them even though they were wars of conquest. They became purely predatory wars. Consequently, Napoleon’s personal qualities and efforts were doomed to failure. His powerlessness against the forces of history was revealed for the first time during the war in Spain (1808), when the people rose up against the French invaders. It was revealed again and fully confirmed by the campaign of 1812 in Russia, the consequences of which were catastrophic for the Napoleonic Empire.

As Napoleon himself acknowledged, the war against Russia was a fatal error. The first French statesman to comprehend the significance for France of an alliance with Russia, he directed his efforts toward attaining this goal. In negotiations with Paul I he came very close to concluding an alliance, but the assassination of the Russian emperor in March 1801 postponed this possibility for a long time. The Tilsit negotiations with Alexander I (1807) led to the creation of a Franco-Russian alliance that was very highly valued by Napoleon. However, at the time of the Erfurt meeting between the French and Russian emperors (1808), Franco-Russian clashes sharpened, particularly over the continental blockade and the Polish question. Napoleon I’s decision to go to war against Russia is evidence that, blinded by his successes and by his attempt to establish his rule over Europe, he had begun to lose the sense of reality that had once been his inherent strength.

The Patriotic War of 1812 destroyed Napoleon I’s Grand Army and gave great impetus to the national liberation struggle against the Napoleonic yoke in Europe. In the campaign of 1813, Napoleon was compelled to fight against the armies of the anti-Napoleonic coalition and against an unbreakable force—the insurgent peoples of Europe. Under these conditions, his defeat was inevitable. It was sealed by the allied entry into Paris in March 1814. Napoleon I was forced to abdicate on Apr. 6, 1814. The victorious allies allowed him to retain the title of “emperor” and gave him the island of Elba as a possession.

Napoleon I’s landing in France (Mar. 1, 1815) and the Hundred Days (Mar. 20-June 22, 1815) of his second reign demonstrated not only his talent but also, to a greater degree than any previous event in his career, the importance of the social forces supporting him. His unparalleled “conquest” of France in three weeks and without a single shot was possible only because the people considered him capable of expelling the Bourbons and other aristocrats from France. Napoleon I’s tragedy lay in his failure to rely fully on the people who supported him. This led to his defeat at Waterloo and to his second abdication (June 22, 1815). Exiled to the island of St. Helena, he died six years later, a prisoner of the British. In 1840 his remains were brought to Paris and entombed at the Hotel des Invalides.


Corresponda nee publ. par ordre de L ’Empereur Napoleon III. . . , 32 vols. Paris, 1858–70.
Lettres inédites …. 2 vols. Paris, 1897.
Correspondance inédite. . . , 3 vols. Paris, 1912–13.
In Russian translation:
Izbr. proizv. Moscow, 1956.


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Tarle, E. V. “Napoleon.” Soch., vol. 7. Moscow, 1959.
Manfred, A. Z. Napoleon Bonapart. Moscow, 1971.
Levitskii, N. A. Polkovodcheskoe iskusstvo Napoleona. Moscow, 1938.
Sorel, A. Evropa i frantsuzskaia revoliutsiia, vols. 5–8. St. Petersburg, 1906–08. (Translated from French.)
Vandal, A. Vozvyshenie Bonaparta. St. Petersburg, 1905. (Translated from French.)
Lefebvre, G. Napoléon. Paris, 1935.
Madelin, L. Histoire de Consultat et del’Empire, 16 vols. Paris, 1932–54.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


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