While it might have been the Duke of Wellington, fighting for the British, who defeated Napoleon Bonaparte for the final time at Waterloo in 1815, that hardly prevented Napoleon from subsequently becoming a worldwide cultural icon. Much of this was probably due in a significant part to Napoleon’s own efforts during his time as First Consul and then Emperor of France, and even in exile on the South Atlantic Ocean island of St Helena in the last six years of his life. Efforts to do what? Efforts to develop his image as first a military genius, then a powerful statesman, and then, while in exile, a wronged fallen hero.
Napoleon’s propaganda campaign evidently began as early as the late 1790s, during which time he was merely a soldier, albeit an increasingly well-known and respected one, fighting for the relatively young French Republic. It was during this period that medallions in five different designs were struck and intended to commemorate Napoleon’s military victories during his first Italian campaign. Napoleon’s name was even explicitly inscribed on some versions of the medallions, which can only have assisted the then General in promoting and improving his public image.
Later, during Napoleon’s tenure as First Consul (read: ruler) and then Emperor of France, he exerted tight control of the Paris press and established a state newspaper, informally dubbed Le Moniteur, through which his career and achievements could be reported in the most flattering possible light. Many of even the lowest points of Napoleon’s career, such as France’s defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar (a battle that, ironically, Napoleon had no direct involvement in), were effectively glossed over (as much as they could be, anyway) by the writers of Le Moniteur.
While Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo was hardly the kind of defeat that any state newspaper could easily gloss over, Napoleon nonetheless succeeded in perpetuating the image of himself as a tragic fallen hero even during his captivity on St Helena. Indeed, the long-established and widespread unflattering perception of Napoleon’s gaoler on St Helena, Sir Hudson Low, has been suggested by academic Frank Giles as arising from reports of Napoleon’s complaints – which, he adds, evidently could have been deliberately unreasonable as part of an ongoing smear campaign against Lowe and the British.
Indeed, it is probable that this campaign assisted Napoleon in rehabilitating the perception of himself in the eyes of many during the decades following his death. Just roughly two months following his death, the usually hostile The Times newspaper published a letter from an officer on St Helena who reported Napoleon as dying “rather heroically”. Furthermore, many British plays throughout the following decades portrayed Napoleon sympathetically. And this doesn’t even touch upon the legacy of Napoleon which developed in France and influenced the election of his nephew, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, to the presidency of France in 1848. But that’s almost a whole new subject…