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The Fall of the Third Napoleon

By Theo Aronson

For centuries, until the debacle of 1870, France had been mistress of Europe and Paris the capital of the civilized world.

Then suddenly, in a matter of weeks, culminating in the Prussian victory at Sedan, the centre of European gravity swung from Paris to Berlin; Germany became the dominant country on the Continent and it took two of the greatest wars mankind has ever known to oust her from this position.

Under its creator, the romantic, inscrutable Napoleon III, and his beautiful Empress, Eugenie, the Second French Empire had known ‘eighteen years of luxury, pleasure, recklessness and gaiety, of gallantry and incomparable elegance’. In the spring of 1870 a massive vote of confidence in the so-called Liberal Empire had seemed to assure the future of the regime; yet, by the end of the summer, the French armies had suffered ignominious defeat; the Emperor himself had been taken prisoner at Sedan, and the bewildered young Prince Imperial, robbed of his hopes of military glory, had made his escape to England.

The Fall of the Third Napoleon gives both a splendidly clear-cut analysis of the reasons for the collapse of the Empire, and a sympathetic, freshly angled presentation of the two main characters – of Napoleon, hardly the ‘coward of Sedan’ of his enemies’ imaginings, and Eugenie who, though highhanded and impetuous, was far from the war-mongering virago of popular legend.

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