Michel Kerautret: “Napoleon’s relationship with Eugène was unique. Napoleon did have a paternal streak to him, but it was only with Eugène that he was only able to show it over time.” (January 2021)

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As the historian Michel Kerautret points out, few people were as close to Napoleon for as long a time as Eugène de Beauharnais. Although Eugène appears to have lived in the Emperor’s shadow, there is great value in an unbiased study of his position alongside Napoleon, of the challenges he faced on the battlefields as well as of his role as Viceroy of Italy. Michel Kerautret is the author of many books on Franco-Prussian relations in the 18th and 19th centuries, but has also published on international relations at the time of Napoleon, Here he looks back for us on the highlights of his recent biography (in French) of Eugène de Beauharnais, published by Tallandier. Interview by Irène Delage, January 2021. (translation RY)

Michel Kerautret: “Napoleon’s relationship with Eugène was unique. Napoleon did have a paternal streak to him, but it was only with Eugène that he was only able to show it over time.” (January 2021)
© Tallandier 2021

napoleon.org: You have written that Eugène de Beauharnais lived in Napoleon’s shadow. What can you say about their relationship over the years? It was a relationship that speaks as much about Eugène as it does about Napoleon. What would you say were the key moments?

Michel Kerautret: Napoleon’s relationship with Eugène was unique. Napoleon had a very fatherly streak about him: this was clear already when as a young man he took care of his brother Louis, then with his nephew Napoleon Charles, and, of course, with the King of Rome. But it was only with Eugène that Napoleon would be able to show this paternal role over a long period. He didn’t choose his stepson: the 14-year-old Eugène entered Napoleon’s life with his mother Josephine. He first gained Napoleon’s affection and later became his adopted son. Bonaparte set about educating Eugène and found in him the ideal qualities of seriousness, good will, modesty. As for Eugène, he admired his stepfather and asked for nothing, he only tried to follow his guidance and satisfy him in every way.

It was during the time they spent in Egypt that they first became really close. There the two men braved together not only the dangers of war but also weathered the storm that shook the family when Bonaparte learned of his wife’s infidelities. His affection for Eugène helped to preserve the couple.

From then on, Eugène followed his stepfather in his rise to prominence. He became a sort of prince, rapidly climbing the ranks, then at the age of 23 he was given a role for which nothing had predestined him: viceroy of Italy. He was also later placed at the head of several important army corps.

This career path was unusual in that Eugene was not simply a puppet. He didn’t hold these positions simply for appearances’ sake in the manner of most princes of the Ancien Régime, while someone else did the hard work. He actually did the job, and indeed did it rather well. Obviously, he first had to learn the ropes. He made mistakes, but he learnt from them and ended up doing quite well.

All this stood Eugène in good stead to succeed Napoleon in Italy, and even in France. The divorce (from Josephine) and the birth of the King of Rome would however change this predestined course but without changing the quality of the personal relationship between the two men.


napoleon.org: In 1805, Napoleon appointed Eugène de Beauharnais, somewhat by default, as Viceroy of Italy. The latter was only 23 years old and recognised from the very first days that “it is a hard job to be king when you have not been brought up for it”. It is true that Eugène was more a military man than a politician, but did he prove to be the efficient right-hand man that Napoleon had hoped for?

Michel Kerautret: Eugène went down in history for his role in Italy. For his contemporaries, he was above all “the viceroy”. The fact is that he administered the kingdom of Italy from Milan for eight and a half years and implemented the important reforms decided by Napoleon. Italy was essential to the imperial system and had a special place in Napoleon’s heart; it was there that he had first found glory, and it played a crucial role in his foreign policy, situated as it was on the southern flank of Germany, and between the Mediterranean, the Balkans and Central Europe.

The Emperor had initially thought of making Italy a kingdom allied with France and entrusting it to his brother Joseph, who had strong affinities with Italian culture. When Joseph refused, Napoleon kept it for himself, placing Eugene as viceroy. The young prince had no administrative experience and no particular knowledge of Italy, but his loyalty and diligence could be counted on. Hindsight would prove him to be a good choice. Eugene was dedicated and efficient in his government. Beyond the kingdom of Italy strictly-speaking, he was able to control the entire peninsula from Milan and defend its Adriatic margins.

Above all, this viceroy always carried out the Emperor’s orders scrupulously, he did not create the same kind of quarrels that the kings of Naples or Holland would. This did not prevent Eugène from identifying more and more with this Italy that he was destined to rule one day. But he never put his popularity before his obedience to the Emperor. The Italians do not seem to have held this against him.


napoleon.org: Eugène de Beauharnais appears modest, affable, withdrawn, good-tempered, always grateful to Napoleon. Was this lack of ambition to his benefit or not?

Michel Kerautret: For his contemporaries, Eugène was the very image of the fearless and honourable warrior, entirely loyal, who would rather give up personal profit than obtain it through intrigue or treachery. “Honour and loyalty”, that was his motto.

This may have been detrimental to his later reputation. Too smooth, too modest for some. Lacking the “virtu” [in the Machiavellian sense] of the magnificent villains, or the energy of the ambitious. In this age of great personalities, he does not stand out as much as the protagonists who were forged in the fire of the Revolution.

It is partly a matter of generation (he came of age a little too late to make his mark). But it’s also a question of temperament. But even more of reason. Eugene knew how to respect relationships and propriety. Too much, some would say. He didn’t force his destiny, and he avoided suicidal temerity. He could say, like Sieyes after the Terror, that he had “lived”. In any case, unlike the many other families destroyed in the hecatomb of the Restoration, his survived it, and they did so without descending to low behaviour or intrigue.


napoleon.org: His motto was “Honour and Loyalty”, but did he live up to it in the face of the political, military and family challenges presented to him? I’m thinking of Napoleon’s divorce from his mother Josephine, but also the difficulties brought about by the fall of the Empire in 1814 and then in 1815, and the controversy, which arose in 1827 and then in 1857, over his actions in 1814?

Michel Kerautret: Eugène remained loyal to Napoleon when the Emperor divorced his mother. But he did not betray her. Indeed, far from it. He offered to renounce everything, and in the end only remained because his stepfather asked him to do so. There was on the other hand the polemic whipped up by Danthouard (and which caused a posthumous trial) concerning Eugène’s actions in Italy in February 1814. It was claimed that Eugène did not comply quickly enough with his first orders to withdraw to France. Whatever one thinks of the substance of this claim, the polemic was in any case undignified and motivated by base personal grudges. Eugène may have hesitated to execute immediately an order that seemed to him to be out of step and difficult to apply at the time. It appears moreover that Napoleon said later that Eugène had done the right thing. In any case, in that period of general disintegration, when the French in Italy were caught off guard by Murat acting in concert with the Austrians and the British, Eugène never considered putting his own interests before those of the Emperor. He refused categorically the propositions and bribes made to him by the allies.

He then remained true to his honour in 1815 and did his best in the following years to reconcile an unhappy loyalty to Napoleon with the constraints of necessity.

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