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Coins of the month - October 2013
Anti-Napoleonic satirical coinage after Sedan
The coinage of Napoleon III was subject to one of the largest episodes of political attack, mixed with vandalism, satire and commercial speculation. It began after the defeat of Sedan at the hands of a Prussian-led coalition of German States in September 1870. The Second Empire collapsed and the Third Republic was proclaimed, while the country was invaded. Paris was besieged until it surrendered in the winter of 1871, after the population had come close to starvation. Civil war between the Versaillais and the Communards extended death and destruction further, leaving substantial portions of Paris in ruins after bombing and fire. The enormous war indemnity of 5 billion francs to be paid to Germany and the loss of Alsace Lorraine extended further the feeling of unmitigated catastrophe looming over France in 1870-71.
Napoleon's name was suddenly execrated as the author of national humiliation and his coins were defaced in massive numbers, in what is probably the most acute phenomenon of that kind in European monetary history. His portrait was mutilated by counterstamps with the words "Sedan", "1870", "lâche" (coward), "traitre" (traitor), "infame", "honte" (shame), "bourreau" (executioner), "putain", etc... Napoleon's head was given a Prussian helmet or a chain of slavery attached to his neck, when his face was not replaced by that of Bismarck or of the new German Emperor, who had achieved in the Palace of Versailles the unification of the German Reich so feared by the French. The nickname forged by Victor Hugo after the Coup d'Etat, "Napoleon the small", was resumed. The French imperial eagle was transformed in an owl, its thunder replaced by human bones and the "Empire français" was rechristened "vampire français". The 80,000 French soldiers taken prisoner after the surrender of Sedan were also part of the indictment. A cigarette was added to the lips of the fallen Emperor as a symbol of his indifference to the plight of his army, as it had been reported that he had been seen smoking on the battlefield. Such a sight would not have shocked anyone in the wars of the twentieth century, but at the time it was considered to be a sign of carelessness; the Emperor was also seen moving around on the front line by carriage and not on horseback, because of his illness. The violence of the damnatio memoriae was such that Napoleon's face could also be transformed into a skull or into the groin of a pig.
In addition to the transformation of legal currency by hammering countermarks or engraving by hand the desired changes, a variety of new satirical anti-Napoleonic tokens were also privately minted, some of them in Belgium. The wide circulation of such artifacts was facilitated by the enormous availability of bronze coinage, reformed and minted in unprecedented numbers under Napoleon III. Moreover given the situation, the police would not clamp down on political criticism of a past government. Some anti-Napoleonic tokens with the shape of 5 and 10 cent coins had already circulated in the years before Sedan, taking advantage of the liberalization of the regime; in 1867, for example, criticizing the French expedition in Rome and the use of the Chassepot rifles against Garibaldi, or supporting the satirical newspaper La Lanterne, created in 1868 by Henri Rochefort; Rochefort was rapidly forced to flee to Belgium to escape judicial persecution for offences to the Emperor.
The initial crude and angry popular protest gave way, in turn, to more commercial transformation, with an increasing display of professional engraving skills. It became a remunerative activity to sell such mementos and proofs of hatred against a fallen monarch. These included the transformation of the Emperor into pope, monk, workman, or bourgeois, as well as pornographic inventions. Some larger pieces were produced to be hung on walls, showing a desolate Napoleon III leaving for exile, depicted as a homeless person, losing all the trappings of his former power from his bag (throne, scepter, medals) and followed by a depressed imperial eagle on a leash and unable to fly. Clearly many Frenchmen found relief from their own misery by contemplating the downfall of the man who had caused it. This phenomenon was all the more remarkable given that Napoleon III had won a landslide referendum in favour of his policies just four months before he was deposed, and that the republican opposition was then resigned to many more years of exile. Napoleon III died in exile in England in 1873.
Once the phenomenon of satirical coinage had been developed so successfully, the countermarking of coins continued to be used a medium of mass communication in France and elsewhere, thanks to the fact that Napoleon's coins circulated as legal currency until after World War I. Again politics and trade were combined in this pervasive instrument of communication. Commercial advertisements included alcohol in France ("Le Picotin Aperitif", "Flamment, Vins de Naples"), as well as British entertainment or hygiene ("Empire Theater - Tremendous Success", "Pears Soap"). Political propaganda was tried both on the left ("Vive l'Anarchie") and on the right with the liberal monarchists and legitimists ("Vive le Duc d'Orleans"), or by the supporters of General Boulanger in 1888 ("Boulanger Empereur" with his portrait re-engraved over that of Napoleon III). None of those successive episodes, however, ever reached a level comparable to the destruction of the reputation of Napoleon III in 1870-71.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics