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DHIS 25A02 - Napoleon and the Empire of words

Type d'enseignement : Seminar

Semester : Autumn 2018-2019

Number of hours : 24

Language of tuition : English


A minimum level of French of B2/C1 is required. Most of the required readings are in French. There is, however, the possibility to write the final paper in French or in English.

Course Description

This course proposes to study the political tools used by Napoleon to control public opinion as he enacted his vision of the French nation after the Revolution. Posing as the incarnation of Enlightenment values and acknowledging public opinion as a source of his political legitimacy, Napoleon reinvented state propaganda by monitoring, controlling, and using words. This state propaganda focused on seizing information, understanding it, and reshaping it. We will try to trace back some of his major philosophical Enlightenment influences in order to consider the legitimacy of his claim of being an heir of the Revolution. We will first examine in detail his intellectual formation (personal libraries, readings) and deduce how it shaped his vision of governance and his construction of the French state. We will then consider a few examples in major French literature that acknowledge or refute this intellectual heritage. We will then examine two levels through which Napoleon controlled public opinion. On the national level, Napoleon eliminated the diversity of press organs and merged them into a few state-controlled newspapers (for example, the Moniteur universel). However, the suppression of a free public press forced Napoleon to find new ways to measure public opinion. A network of literary espionage in salons and intellectual circles in Paris served this purpose. Finally, we will examine the failure of Napoleon's system of propaganda on the European level using the German states as a study case. The 1806 campaign was motivated by Napoleon's revolutionary aspirations to erase the feudal vestiges of the medieval Holy Roman Empire. This resulted in the creation of the fragile Rhine Confederation where Napoleon attempted to monitor and censor anti-French propaganda, with for example the assassination of Johann Philipp Palm, printer and diffuser of an anti-French insurrectionary pamphlet. Napoleon's failure to control German public opinion engendered the leitmotiv of German humiliation, which became a recurring basis of conflict in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries.


NOVAK, Maximilien

Course validation

10% of the grade will be based on class participation (relevance and regularity) 40% of the grade will consist in an oral group presentation in class of one of the required readings (or facultative readings). 50% of the grade will be a final research paper (in French or in English) that will demonstrate the student's ability to have assimilated the factual knowledge of the period taught in class, and to develop further on a specific topic related to censorship, propaganda, the intellectual heritage of the Revolution, or the building up of hostilities and tensions between France and Germany during Napoleon's reign and beyond. It is strongly recommended to meet once with the instructor in order to discuss possible topics or interests for the final paper, and to get advice or further recommended readings.

Required reading

Napoléon, Jacques Bainville (1931)

Additional required reading

See syllabus for required readings of extracts, articles, and for suggested additional bibliography.