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Paris, the French Revolution, and Napoleon

Paris, France

The success of the French Revolution in 1789 emboldened Napoleon Bonaparte to conquer much of Europe with the goal of implementing the Revolution’s modern ideals. His downfall began when he invaded Russia in winter. He died in exile.

Complete Video Script

The good life in Paris — music, culture, an appreciation of its rich heritage and fine architecture — is easy to take for granted. But today’s freedoms and a government that seems passionate about its people’s needs didn’t come to France without a struggle. And the pinnacle of that struggle — an epic event that reverberates in the spirit of its people to this day — was the French Revolution.

The symbolic launch pad of the French Revolution was a notorious prison called the Bastille, which stood on this square. In 1789 angry Parisians stormed it, released its prisoners, and tore it down. It’s one of Europe’s great non-sights: There’s nothing left to see.

While Parisian back lanes feel peaceful and content today, during times of revolution they hid hotbeds of discontent. Before French political leaders learned the wisdom of subsidizing the cost of baguettes, hungry peasant mobs would set up barricades in narrow lanes like these.

Generals, like Napoleon, were fond of quieting the streets by loading chains and nails into cannon and giving the malcontents what they called “a whiff of grapeshot.”

Later, the government commissioned Baron Haussmann to modernize the city. He ripped up most of medieval Paris and created the city’s grand boulevards.

Great city planning — but really, it was great military planning. Heavy artillery and grand armies work better with long, broad streets as battlefields. Paris was made easier to rule… and more elegant.

Today, like a citywide game of “connect the dots,” wide Parisian boulevards lead to famous landmarks, like the Pantheon… the old opera… the Arc de Triomphe… and the Hôtel des Invalides.

Built by Louis XIV in the 1600s as a veterans’ hospital, this massive building now houses Europe’s greatest military museum. And, at its center, under a grand dome — which glitters with 26 pounds of thinly pounded gold leaf — lies the tomb of Napoleon.

It’s hard to imagine a building dedicated to a mortal that’s more impressive. Gazing at Napoleon’s tomb, I love to ponder the story of the charismatic leader who took France from revolutionary chaos to near total dominance of Europe, and then, catastrophically, to near ruins.

Just a humble kid from Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte went to military school here in Paris. He rose quickly through the ranks during the tumultuous years of the Revolution. By 1799 he was the ruler of France. After that, within five years, France had conquered most of Europe, and Napoleon declared himself emperor of it all.

As the head of France’s grand million-man army, he blitzed Europe. His personal charisma on the battlefield was said to be worth 10,000 additional men.

Imagine Napoleon the emperor — all of Europe at his feet. The laurel wreath, the robes, and the Roman eagles proclaim him equal to Caesar.

As emperor he worked feverishly to implement the ideals of the Revolution into a well-designed and modern society. Probably no single individual destroyed so much and yet built so much. To this day, the French remember Napoleon for his legacy: infrastructure, education system, and legal code.

But, ultimately, his megalomania got the best of him. Napoleon invaded Russia with the greatest army ever assembled and returned to Paris with a frostbitten fraction of what he started with. Two years later, the Russians marched into Paris, and Napoleon was deposed.

After a brief exile on the isle of Elba, in 1815 Napoleon skipped parole and returned to France, where he bared his breast and declared, “Strike me down or follow me!” For 100 days, the people of France followed him, until finally, in Belgium, Napoleon was defeated once and for all by the British at Waterloo. Exiled again, Napoleon spent his final years on a remote island in the South Atlantic, until he died in 1821.

The Arc de Triomphe was finished just in time for the funeral procession that welcomed Napoleon’s body home from exile in 1840. The arch is a memorial to France’s many military campaigns, and is particularly stirring on national holidays, when it flies the French flag.