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Project B5

National Crisis and Political Heroism in the Long 19th Century: Bonapartism in European Comparison

Prof. Dr. Jörn Leonhard
Benjamin Marquart

Department of History

This project researches how, when and why the image of a new kind of political hero developed around the personas of Bonaparte, Napoleon I and Napoleon III between ca. 1800 and the 1870s. Furthermore, this project asks the questions, how, when and why did this image become differentiated across Europe? This project also investigates what historical and political applications of the Napoleon heroism became effective in the course of these processes in various European societies. The calamitous experience of the French Revolution and the political, societal and military upheavals between 1789 and 1815 led to a break with conventional paradigms in legitimating political sovereignty not just in France. Against this backdrop, Bonapartism, which is understood as a contemporary and controversial interpretation of Bonaparte, Napoleon I and Napoleon III, developed into a highly contentious model of post-revolutionary political heroism. It filled a gap in an interpretational vacuum by drawing upon the suggestive narrative of a charismatic and exceptional figure as rescuer and sovereign which developed out of the Revolution. This figure was no longer to be understood with the societal roles of the monarch and noble nor did it merge into the personification of a normative type of constitution or of a static constitutional culture. On the contrary, as a leader in times of national crisis it amalgamated democratic-egalitarian and monarchal principles into a new personal figuration. And so a new paradigm for a political hero emerged, which became a model for the unique legitimation of a single, exceptional figure well beyond France and even after 1815. Referencing the model of Napoleonic heroism was punctuated by Louis Napoleon’s ultimately failed attempt at an imitatio heroica of his uncle in 1851.
While Bonapartism was and is understood in political history and political science one-sidedly as a strategy for the usurpation of power, this project aims to compare the long-term change of politics in the 19th century – understood not as ‘the great politics of great men’ but as a meaningful context of communication – on the basis of the contemporary debate over Napoleonic heroism. Personal heroizations, affirmative and critical perceptions and the development of contra-heroizations in France, Germany and Great Britain from the end of the 1790s until the 1870s will be investigated – essentially during a phase in which political-ideological mass markets were arising and revolutionary crises were worsening and came to a head in 1830 and 1848/49. In contrast to the narrower political history, not just political opinion makers and publicists are at the center of this inquiry, but forms of mass media communication as well with their characteristic, new relationship between text and image.
What was said about Bonaparte/Napoleon as a political hero, by whom and why in the societies of France, Germany and Great Britain with their entirely different political cultures and memories, allows for decisive conclusions about political and ideological self-understanding as well as the handling of the legacy of revolution and revolutionary wars since 1789. For its method this project combines the political discursive tradition with a systematic comparative component.