chapter  1
6 Pages

Napoleon III and the historians

T he basic explanation for the wide divergence of opinion is that, well into the twentieth century, the writing of history continued to be a highly partisan activity in France, both reflecting and reinforcing the ideological divisions created by the Revolution and the revolutionary tradition. From a republi­ can perspective, Napoleon III was not only the ignominious failure who had led France to shameful defeat in the FrancoPrussian W ar but also the man of blood, the usurper who on 2 December 1851 violently overthrew the Second Republic.2 The fact that prominent writers and artists with republican sympathies were among the fiercest critics of the regime also helped to damage his reputation with posterity. Victor Hugo pilloried the Emperor as a ‘bandit’ and dubbed him ‘Napoleon the Little’ .3 The painter and satirist Daumier invented the character ‘Ratapoil’ , a louche, cynical and self-seeking adven­ turer, to epitomise the Empire.4 O ut of the same historiographi­ cal stable came Taxil de Lord’s Histoire du Second Empire (six volumes 1867-75), a rambling and abusive work by an opposi­ tion journalist and future republican deputy.