Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself

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Religion in Napoleonic France

Part IV: The Impact on French and European Religious History

By Matthew Zarzecny, FINS

Having analyzed religion during the two imperial periods in French history, I cannot ignore the ultimate impact of the imperial influence on French and European religious history.  In France, Napoleon I’s legacy signifies the reconciling of the heritage of the French Revolution with the predominant traditions of Roman Catholicism.  Additionally, while even during his reign, evidence exists of Napoleon I wishing for churches to be named “St. Napoleon,” the virtual deification of Napoleon I as being something more than a man persisted after his downfall, exemplified by a movement to canonize Napoleon I, which gained support over time and promised to be an event that “would achieve absolutely that union of patriotic and religious sentimentality to which the Church in France directs its activities.”[52]  Efforts to canonize Napoleon I long after his reign suggest that he succeeded in, at the very least, creating a legacy that reflected positively on his actions towards religious groups.

For the territories temporarily conquered by Napoleon I, though, the First Empire’s impact on the subsequent religious history of these areas of Western Europe has created rather different legacies for each region.[53]  In the Papal States, the pope reclaimed his former temporal powers that Napoleon I had removed with the annexation of the Papal States to the French Empire.[54]  Soon after Napoleon I’s fall from power, Rome also turned its attention to the goal of establishing a new network of dioceses in Central and Western Europe to be distributed among the various states that had materialized in the wake of the Napoleonic era, although state governments remained ambivalent towards the Catholic church’s project.[55]  In many ways, the Protestant nationalism that followed the battles of Leipzig and Waterloo persisted and culminated in the creation of a Protestant-led German Empire that ultimately humbled the once mighty French state and replaced the French Empire as the predominant Western European Empire.[56]  The Napoleonic aftermath of the French Revolution clearly serves as the benchmark of crisis for the early nineteenth century in Germany.[57]  Furthermore, the wars against Napoleon I continued a popular belief in the German national mission that originated during the Reformation, with ceremonies becoming the popular expression of the demands for Einheit und Freiheit after the defeat of Napoleon I.[58] The war against Napoleon I had thus led to calls for a renaissance in German culture and language that appealed to the traditions established by the Reformation and led to years of optimism before the failed revolution in Germany of 1848.[59] 

While the Napoleonic religious legacy may have signified revitalization in the newly unified areas of Europe in the nineteenth century, the contemporary situation in France, after Napoleon III’s regime crumbled, told a different story.  In 1871, the Church paid dearly for its complicity with the Second Empire.  Members of the French middle class felt that the Catholic Church and Napoleon III together betrayed the democratic ideals of the revolution of 1848 which they had.[60]  Therefore, despite Napoleon III’s efforts on behalf of both religious minorities and the Catholic church, the ultimate religious legacy of imperial France did not enjoy any universal positive endorsement in the anti-Semitic and anti-clerical environment of the Third Republic.  Moreover, that such religious animosity would develop after the fall of the Second Empire meant a tarnishing of the positive reputation of Napoleonic France, established by Napoleon I. 

While these particularly significant consequences of Napoleonic rule in Western Europe cannot be neglected, determining the actual extent of the Napoleonic influence in the religious history of Europe would go beyond the scope of what I have sought to argue here.  Therefore, I humbly hope that by enduring the last five thousand or so words that I used to elucidate my argument, you, my reader, have gained insight into what I have discovered by considering the respected work of various notable historians.  While many others tend to portray Napoleon I as merely some egotistical tyrant and Napoleon III as a fumbling want-to-be, the Bonapartes’ efforts and intentions on behalf of religious minorities, in attempting to reconcile the Catholic Church with the French government, and in working towards the creation a unified and religiously tolerant European state effectively demonstrate that the two Napoleonic regimes actually deserve praise for their truly revolutionary actions.  The Napoleons did not revoke the rights of freedom of worship that the absolutist French monarchy did before them and nor did the Bonapartes persecute Jews as anti-Semitic “republicans” did after imperial rule ended.  Despite the horrors experienced on the battlefields of imperial France, in the interests of fairness, we must give these two emperors their rightful justice by remembering their positive actions and the elation felt by those who benefited from religious toleration.  The impact of such an admirable vision of cooperation and understanding should prominently remain in the minds of religious policy-makers amongst every generation of Europeans.  Perhaps, if the current generation working to unify Europe today adheres to the tolerant tenets espoused by the Bonapartes, then Napoleon I’s dream of a Europe of “one people” will finally become a reality.[61] 




[52] Ivan Strenski, Contesting Sacrifice: Religion, Nationalism, and Social Thought in France (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002), 62. 

[53] Rémond 86.

[54] Rémond 87.

[55] Herzog 22-23.

[56] Cramer 101.

[57] Herzog 21.

[58] Cramer 99-101.

[59] Cramer 98; Zeldin 42-43. 

[60] Nicholas Atkin, “Ralliés and résitants: Catholics in Vichy France, 1940-44” in Catholicism, Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century France, edited by Kay Chadwick (Liverpool: 2000), 114; McLeod 95.

[61] Markham 257.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2003


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