Last spring I finally got around to visiting the tomb of Napoleon in the Invalides in Paris. I was hoping I might finally understand how the French see Napoleon. I’m still baffled.
Who was this man who now lies in solitary splendor under a very grand dome? Why do tourists pay actual money to gaze down at the marble sarcophagus? (It was covered under my Paris Museum Pass, so at least admission was painless).
I understand that Napoleon Bonaparte was a great military genius–that is, until suddenly he wasn’t. After conquering most of Europe, he led his Grand Armee into a ruinous march on Moscow–the subject of my very favorite novel, Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” The locals simply abandoned their city, when he got close. So instead of the customary obsequious welcome by those he conquered, Napoleon was greeted by deserted streets, empty warehouses, and a city ablaze. His troops died by the thousands as they retreated back the way they had come, through the frozen Russian landscape.
Napoleon certainly cut a dashing figure when he first appeared in Paris, after his early military victories. I understand why the French welcomed a strong leader able to restore order after the bloodbath of the French Revolution. I don’t understand why the French went to all the trouble of rejecting their hereditary line of kings, only to allow Napoleon to declare himself Emperor. I don’t really understand why a man who left the nation defeated and almost bankrupt is revered.
But then, maybe he is not so revered. Maybe his tomb stands, for the French, as a place of contemplation of national destiny–the failures as well as the successes. Napoleon is one of the most controversial of all historical figures. Maybe the whole point of visiting his tomb is to realize how little we really understand of history.
Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!