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Research Subjects: Government & Politics

Student Paper Award

Napoleon and the Unification of Europe

By Matthew D. Zarzeczny, student at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio

"I wished to found a European system, a European Code of Laws, a European judiciary: there would be but one people in Europe," declared Napoleon nearly 200 years before Europe finally unifies under the new currency of the European Union.  The dream of a strong Europe in which the French, Spanish, Italians, and Germans coexist peacefully as a single united body is being realized today, but it is a dream that was held by Napoleon, based on his vast knowledge of history, and hoped for by many great men after him. Finally at the end of this century this dream is beginning to become a reality.

The Grand Empire of Napoleon replaced the ailing Holy Roman Empire which was basically a continuation of the ancient Roman Empire.  Napoleon had crowned himself emperor of the French in 1804 and in 1806, he ended the Holy Roman Empire once and for all by replacing it with the Confederation of the Rhine, a French protectorate.  An admirer of Alexander the Great, Napoleon created a new system in Europe that in some ways mimicked the ancient Macedonian Empire.  Just as Alexander was king of Macedon, hegemon of the Corinthian League, great king of Persia, and pharaoh of Egypt, Napoleon was emperor of France, king of Italy, mediator of the Swiss Confederation, and protector of the Confederation of the Rhine.  It is also possible, had he succeeded in Russia, that he would have been protector of a Northern Confederation composed of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw (a possible precursor to a new Polish kingdom), Sweden, and Denmark.

Alexander was not the only historical figure Napoleon emulated.  Just like the Bourbons and Habsburgs before him, Napoleon placed his family and marshals on the thrones of other conquered European nations and he himself married an Austrian princess named Marie-Louise in 1810.  His brother Joseph was king of Naples and then king of Spain; his sister Caroline and his marshal Murat were king of Naples; another brother, Louis, was king of Holland; and still another, Jerome, was king of Westphalia.  One of Napoleon's marshals, Bernadotte, became king of Sweden, but he was an opponent of Napoleon facing him on the battlefield at Leipzig in 1813.  All this territory was bound to Napoleon by personal and familial rule cemented by the strength of his Grand Army.  With crushing victories like Mantua (1796-7), Austerlitz (1805), and Wagram (1809), Napoleon became a god of war, the Caesar of his time, and also like Caesar he dreamed of great projects that would carry on his memory for many years to come.  He tried to make Paris the capital of the world and created beautiful monuments and buildings like the Arc de Triomphe and La Madeleine church.  He planned others like the Bastille Elephant Fountain, a palace in Paris for his son, and another palace in what was to become the second city of the French Empire, Rome. 

Like the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian the Great, Napoleon wished to give to his empire a unified code of law which is known as the Napoleonic Code, something which has influenced European law and even the law in Quebec and Louisiana to this day.  To reward his subjects he created the Legion of Honor and like Charlemagne before him Napoleon was mindful to the importance of education and so he created the University of France and the baccalaureate exam.  All of this was to create the memory of greatness that Napoleon wanted for his vast European empire.

Napoleon had wanted to conquer Europe (if not the world) and said, "Europe thus divided into nationalities freely formed and free internally, peace between States would have become easier: the United States of Europe would become a possibility." This idea of "the United States of Europe" was one later picked up by Victor Hugo, Aristide Briand, and Winston Churchill.  After suffering two World Wars which devastated Europe in the early half of this century, the people of Europe and their leaders finally realized the horrors of modern warfare and the absolute necessity to end disputes with the pen and not the sword.  Further while the United States and the Soviet Union gained in importance during the Cold War, the once great European empires crumbled as their colonies gained independence.  It became evident that the only way for the nations of Europe to play a prominent role in world affairs was to unify.  By itself, Germany is an industrial powerhouse and by themselves the United Kingdom and France are militarily capable nations as nuclear powers and politically powerful as members of the United Nations' Security Council. But by themselves they cannot compete with the economic, military, and political dominance of the United States.  With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the only possible counterbalance to the United States is a unified Europe. As many European nations are allies to the United States and are members of N.A.T.O., having the two most powerful forces in the world as friends could lead to more peaceful resolutions of the world's problems.  For Europe, its role in world affairs will once again be prominent and many of the old hatreds and rivalries amongst the great European states may finally begin to die.  While Napoleon sought to create such a union through military victories like the Romans before him, perhaps by creating this union through peaceful diplomacy, it will not be swept away by the guns of war.  Although each state of Europe may keep its language and culture, through a common coinage and common interests, there may at last truly be "but one people in Europe."


Durant, Will & Ariel, The Story of Civilization: The Age of Napoleon New York : Simon & Schuster; 1975.

Gallo, Max, Napoléon Le Chant du départ Paris : Pocket; 1997.

Haythornthwaite, Philip J., The Napoleonic Sourcebook London : Arms and Armour Press; 1990,

Lentz, Thierry, Napoléon "Mon Ambition Était Grande" Découvertes Gallimard, Italie; 1998.

Markham, Felix, Napoleon New York : Penguin Books; 1963.


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