Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Napoleon and the Jews

Chris Viner, our speaker at the Museum on June 14, is a Fellow of the International Napoleonic Society and has customers throughout the world for his models of military figures.  In Rye, he is  best known for his shop Soldiers of Rye on the High Street where he can be viewed through the front window at work on yet another meticulously crafted and painted model possibly bound for yet another collector of his work living in a farflung country.

Chris is also known for compelling presentations – without notes or screen distractions – made possible by combining two rare gifts: an encyclopaedic knowledge of his chosen field: — Napoleon — and a talent for compulsive, flowing story-telling.  The combined talents were on full display last Thursday evening for an audience curious about an aspect of Napoleon’s career few had ever heard of before.

One of the first stories was of  Napoleon’s curiosity in Ancona, Italy  in 1796  when he saw  people wearing yellow armbands and bonnets.  Why was  this?  So they could be tracked and at night herded into a ghetto and locked in.  Napoleon ordered that the gates of the ghetto be removed and that the wearing of yellow should be compulsory for no one. While most other nations kept Jews in bondage, Napoleon held that they should have equality and was the only government leader to ensure they were given it.  To accomplish this he had to overcome much opposition, but held to the idea that listening, consultation and acknowledging other views were essential prerequisites in achieving changes which he considered would be of political and economic benefit to France.  

He managed to close ghettos and in the years 1806 – 1808  a series of new laws lifted other  restrictions on Jews, moving toward a time when they could be acknowledged as fully equal citizens: e.g.  live where they wished, practice their religion openly, choose an occupation, in other words  be treated as equal human beings. There was one proviso in his offering of full citizenship to Jews:   there was to be an end to usury, i.e. lending money at unreasonable rates. And, in fairness, aristocrats,–  equally guilty —  were to stop it too.

 In 1808 the Jewish faith. as well as Protestantism  achieved equal status with Roman Catholicism as an established state religion. 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 Netherlands, and the German states, the Jews were emancipated and able to act as free men for the first time in those nations.

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 Napoleons’ 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/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.

Another exceptionally enjoyable and informative evening at Rye Museum!

                                With thanks to Rye Museum and Soldiers of Rye for the photos.

Jean Floyd

First posted in East Street Posts, Featured, Talks Summaries on 18th June 2018
Last updated: 18th June 2018