Napoleon the social reformer

Chris Viner from soldiers of Rye in his High Street shop/workshop

A talk on Napoleon was given by military historian Chris Viner last Thursday June 14 at Rye museum.


In 1808 the Jewish faith, as well as Protestantism, achieved equal status with Roman Catholicism as an established state religion in France. Thanks to his conquests in Europe in the first years of the 19th century, Napoleon was able to spread the truly modernist ideas of freedom, equality and fraternity for all citizens – not just for those of the Catholic Church, and in the space of a few years greatly improved life for Jews – and Protestants – throughout Europe.  All the states under French authority applied Napoleon’s reforms. In Italy, the Netherland, and the German states, the Jews were emancipated and able to act as free men for the first time in those nations.

Chris Viner and models of the Napoleonic wars

Napoleon even published a proclamation in which he invited Jews of many countries to gather under his flag to re-establish Jerusalem as a Jewish state – but then came Waterloo and his defeat. One of the great what ifs of history must surely be: What if  Napoleon’s forces had not lost to  the Allies at Waterloo, thus preventing his reforms from continuing?  The defeat also allowed a counter-revolution in many countries resulting in restoration of discriminatory measures against Jews – which meant another 150 years would pass before some of the plan in the proclamation was fulfilled.
There were questions after the talk, all expertly answered, and much lively conversation over tea and coffee, usually beginning with expressions of astonishment at the performance and often going onto thoughts arising from it. Though our speaker did not mention the politics of 2018 his story of changes so soon undone sparked in more than a few minds potential future scenarios for present-day political struggles.
This was another exceptionally enjoyable and informative evening at the museum

Photos: Rye Museum and Soldiers of Rye


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