Anonymous asked: I enjoyed reading your posts about Napoleon’s death and it’s quite timely given its the 200th anniversary of his death this year in May. I was wondering, because you know a lot about military history (your served right? That’s cool to fly combat helicopters) and you live in France but aren’t French, what your take was on Napoleon and how do the French view him? Do they hail him as a hero or do they like others see him like a Hitler or a Stalin? Do you see him as a hero or a villain of history?
5 May 1821 was a memorable date because Napoleon, one of the most iconic figures in world history, died while in bitter exile on a remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Napoleon Bonaparte, as you know rose from obscure soldier to a kind of new Caesar, and yet he remains a uniquely controversial figure to this day especially in France. You raise interesting questions about Napoleon and his legacy. If I may reframe your questions in another way. Should we think of him as a flawed but essentially heroic visionary who changed Europe for the better? Or was he simply a military dictator, whose cult of personality and lust for power set a template for the likes of Hitler?
However one chooses to answer this question can we just - to get this out of the way - simply and definitively say that Napoleon was not Hitler. Not even close. No offence intended to you but this is just dumb ahistorical thinking and it’s a lazy lie. This comparison was made by some in the horrid aftermath of the Second World War but only held little currency for only a short time thereafter. Obviously that view didn’t exist before Hitler in the 19th Century and these days I don’t know any serious historian who takes that comparison seriously.
I confess I don’t have a definitive answer if he was a hero or a villain one way or the other because Napoleon has really left a very complicated legacy. It really depends on where you’re coming from.
As a staunch Brit I do take pride in Britain’s victorious war against Napoleonic France - and in a good natured way rubbing it in the noses of French friends at every opportunity I get because it’s in our cultural DNA and it’s bloody good fun (why else would we make Waterloo train station the London terminus of the Eurostar international rail service from its opening in 1994? Or why hang a huge gilded portrait of the Duke of Wellington as the first thing that greets any visitor to the residence of the British ambassador at the British Embassy?). On a personal level I take special pride in knowing my family ancestors did their bit on the battlefield to fight against Napoleon during those tumultuous times. However, as an ex-combat veteran who studied Napoleonic warfare with fan girl enthusiasm, I have huge respect for Napoleon as a brilliant military commander. And to makes things more weird, as a Francophile resident of who loves living and working in France (and my partner is French) I have a grudging but growing regard for Napoleon’s political and cultural legacy, especially when I consider the current dross of political mediocrity on both the political left and the right. So for me it’s a complicated issue how I feel about Napoleon, the man, the soldier, and the political leader.
If it’s not so straightforward for me to answer the for/against Napoleon question then it It’s especially true for the French, who even after 200 years, still have fiercely divided opinions about Napoleon and his legacy - but intriguingly, not always in clear cut ways.
I only have to think about my French neighbours in my apartment building to see how divisive Napoleon the man and his legacy is. Over the past year or so of the Covid lockdown we’ve all gotten to know each other better and we help each other. Over the Covid year we’ve gathered in the inner courtyard for a buffet and just lifted each other spirits up.
One of my neighbours, a crusty old ex-general in the army who has an enviable collection of military history books that I steal, liberate, borrow, often discuss military figures in history like Napoleon over our regular games of chess and a glass of wine. He is from very old aristocracy of the ancien regime and whose family suffered at the hands of ‘madame guillotine’ during the French Revolution. They lost everything. He has mixed emotions about Napoleon himself as an old fashioned monarchist. As a military man he naturally admires the man and the military genius but he despises the secularisation that the French Revolution ushered in as well as the rise of the haute bourgeois as middle managers and bureaucrats by the displacement of the aristocracy.
Another retired widowed neighbour I am close to, and with whom I cook with often and discuss art, is an active arts patron and ex-art gallery owner from a very wealthy family that came from the new Napoleonic aristocracy - ie the aristocracy of the Napoleonic era that Napoleon put in place - but she is dismissive of such titles and baubles. She’s a staunch Republican but is happy to concede she is grateful for Napoleon in bringing order out of chaos. She recognises her own ambivalence when she says she dislikes him for reintroducing slavery in the French colonies but also praises him for firmly supporting Paris’s famed Comédie-Française of which she was a past patron.
Another French neighbour, a senior civil servant in the Elysée, is quite dismissive of Napoleon as a war monger but is grudgingly grateful for civil institutions and schools that Napoleon established and which remain in place today.
My other neighbours - whether they be French families or foreign expats like myself - have similarly divisive and complicated attitudes towards Napoleon.
In 2010 an opinion poll in France asked who was the most important man in French history. Napoleon came second, behind General Charles de Gaulle, who led France from exile during the German occupation in World War II and served as a postwar president.
The split in French opinion is closely mirrored in political circles. The divide is generally down political party lines. On the left, there's the 'black legend' of Bonaparte as an ogre. On the right, there is the 'golden legend' of a strong leader who created durable institutions.
Jacques-Olivier Boudon, a history professor at Paris-Sorbonne University and president of the Napoléon Institute, once explained at a talk I attended that French public opinion has always remained deeply divided over Napoleon, with, on the one hand, those who admire the great man, the conqueror, the military leader and, on the other, those who see him as a bloodthirsty tyrant, the gravedigger of the revolution. Politicians in France, Boudon observed, rarely refer to Napoleon for fear of being accused of authoritarian temptations, or not being good Republicans.
On the left-wing of French politics, former prime minister Lionel Jospin penned a controversial best selling book entitled “the Napoleonic Evil” in which he accused the emperor of “perverting the ideas of the Revolution” and imposing “a form of extreme domination”, “despotism” and “a police state” on the French people. He wrote Napoleon was "an obvious failure" - bad for France and the rest of Europe. When he was booted out into final exile, France was isolated, beaten, occupied, dominated, hated and smaller than before. What's more, Napoleon smothered the forces of emancipation awakened by the French and American revolutions and enabled the survival and restoration of monarchies. Some of the legacies with which Napoleon is credited, including the Civil Code, the comprehensive legal system replacing a hodgepodge of feudal laws, were proposed during the revolution, Jospin argued, though he acknowledges that Napoleon actually delivered them, but up to a point, "He guaranteed some principles of the revolution and, at the same time, changed its course, finished it and betrayed it," For instance, Napoleon reintroduced slavery in French colonies, revived a system that allowed the rich to dodge conscription in the military and did nothing to advance gender equality.
At the other end of the spectrum have been former right-wing prime minister Dominique de Villepin, an aristocrat who was once fancied as a future President, a passionate collector of Napoleonic memorabilia, and author of several works on the subject. As a Napoleonic enthusiast he tells a different story. Napoleon was a saviour of France. If there had been no Napoleon, the Republic would not have survived. Advocates like de Villepin point to Napoleon’s undoubted achievements: the Civil Code, the Council of State, the Bank of France, the National Audit office, a centralised and coherent administrative system, lycées, universities, centres of advanced learning known as école normale, chambers of commerce, the metric system, and an honours system based on merit (which France has to this day). He restored the Catholic faith as the state faith but allowed for the freedom of religion for other faiths including Protestantism and Judaism. These were ambitions unachieved during the chaos of the revolution. As it is, these Napoleonic institutions continue to function and underpin French society. Indeed, many were copied in countries conquered by Napoleon, such as Italy, Germany and Poland, and laid the foundations for the modern state.
Back in 2014, French politicians and institutions in particular were nervous in marking the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's exile. My neighbours and other French friends remember that the commemorations centred around the Chateau de Fontainebleau, the traditional home of the kings of France and was the scene where Napoleon said farewell to the Old Guard in the "White Horse Courtyard" (la cour du Cheval Blanc) at the Palace of Fontainebleau. (The courtyard has since been renamed the "Courtyard of Goodbyes".) By all accounts the occasion was very moving. The 1814 Treaty of Fontainebleau stripped Napoleon of his powers (but not his title as Emperor of the French) and sent him into exile on Elba. The cost of the Fontainebleau "farewell" and scores of related events over those three weekends was shouldered not by the central government in Paris but by the local château, a historic monument and UNESCO World Heritage site, and the town of Fontainebleau.
While the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution that toppled the monarchy and delivered thousands to death by guillotine was officially celebrated in 1989, Napoleonic anniversaries are neither officially marked nor celebrated. For example, over a decade ago, the president and prime minister - at the time, Jacques Chirac and Dominque de Villepin - boycotted a ceremony marking the 200th anniversary of the battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon's greatest military victory. Both men were known admirers of Napoleon and yet political calculation and optics (as media spin doctors say) stopped them from fully honouring Napoleon’s crowning military glory.
Optics is everything. The division of opinion in France is perhaps best reflected in the fact that, in a city not shy of naming squares and streets after historical figures, there is not a single “Boulevard Napoleon” or “Place Napoleon” in Paris. On the streets of Paris, there are just two statues of Napoleon. One stands beneath the clock tower at Les Invalides (a military hospital), the other atop a column in the Place Vendôme. Napoleon's red marble tomb, in a crypt under the Invalides dome, is magnificent, perhaps because his remains were interred there during France's Second Empire, when his nephew, Napoleon III, was on the throne.
There are no squares, nor places, nor boulevards named for Napoleon but as far as I know there is one narrow street, the rue Bonaparte, running from the Luxembourg Gardens to the River Seine in the old Latin Quarter. And, that, too, is thanks to Napoleon III. For many, and I include myself, it’s a poor return by the city to the man who commissioned some of its most famous monuments, including the Arc de Triomphe and the Pont des Arts over the River Seine.
It's almost as if Napoleon Bonaparte is not part of the national story.
How Napoleon fits into that national story is something historians, French and non-French, have been grappling with ever since Napoleon died. The plain fact is Napoleon divides historians, what precisely he represents is deeply ambiguous and his political character is the subject of heated controversy. It’s hard for historians to sift through archival documents to make informed judgements and still struggle to separate the man from the myth.
One proof of this myth is in his immortality. After Hitler’s death, there was mostly an embarrassed silence; after Stalin’s, little but denunciation. But when Napoleon died on St Helena in 1821, much of Europe and the Americas could not help thinking of itself as a post-Napoleonic generation. His presence haunts the pages of Stendhal and Alfred de Vigny. In a striking and prescient phrase, Chateaubriand prophesied the “despotism of his memory”, a despotism of the fantastical that in many ways made Romanticism possible and that continues to this day.
The raw material for the future Napoleon myth was provided by one of his St Helena confidants, the Comte de las Cases, whose account of conversations with the great man came out shortly after his death and ran in repeated editions throughout the century. De las Cases somehow metamorphosed the erstwhile dictator into a herald of liberty, the emperor into a slayer of dynasties rather than the founder of his own. To the “great man” school of history Napoleon was grist to their mill, and his meteoric rise redefined the meaning of heroism in the modern world.
The Marxists, for all their dislike of great men, grappled endlessly with the meaning of the 18th Brumaire; indeed one of France’s most eminent Marxist historians, George Lefebvre, wrote what arguably remains the finest of all biographies of him.
It was on this already vast Napoleon literature, a rich terrain for the scholar of ideas, that the great Dutch historian Pieter Geyl was lecturing in 1940 when he was arrested and sent to Buchenwald. There he composed what became one of the classics of historiography, a seminal book entitled Napoleon: For and Against, which charted how generations of intellectuals had happily served up one Napoleon after another. Like those poor souls who crowded the lunatic asylums of mid-19th century France convinced that they were Napoleon, generations of historians and novelists simply could not get him out of their head.
The debate runs on today no less intensely than in the past. Post-Second World War Marxists would argue that he was not, in fact, revolutionary at all. Eric Hobsbawm, a notable British Marxist historian, argued that ‘Most-perhaps all- of his ideas were anticipated by the Revolution’ and that Napoleon’s sole legacy was to twist the ideals of the French Revolution, and make them ‘more conservative, hierarchical and authoritarian’.
This contrasts deeply with the view William Doyle holds of Napoleon. Doyle described Bonaparte as ‘the Revolution incarnate’ and saw Bonaparte’s humbling of Europe’s other powers, the ‘Ancien Regimes’, as a necessary precondition for the birth of the modern world. Whatever one thinks of Napoleon’s character, his sharp intellect is difficult to deny. Even Paul Schroeder, one of Napoleon’s most scathing critics, who condemned his conduct of foreign policy as a ‘criminal enterprise’ never denied Napoleon’s intellect. Schroder concluded that Bonaparte ‘had an extraordinary capacity for planning, decision making, memory, work, mastery of detail and leadership’. The question of whether Napoleon used his genius for the betterment or the detriment of the world, is the heart of the debate which surrounds him.
France's foremost Napoleonic scholar, Jean Tulard, put forward the thesis that Bonaparte was the architect of modern France. "And I would say also pâtissier [a cake and pastry maker] because of the administrative millefeuille that we inherited." Oddly enough, in North America the multilayered mille-feuille cake is called ‘a napoleon.’ Tulard’s works are essential reading of how French historians have come to tackle the question of Napoleon’s legacy. He takes the view that if Napoleon had not crushed a Royalist rebellion and seized power in 1799, the French monarchy and feudalism would have returned, Tulard has written. "Like Cincinnatus in ancient Rome, Napoleon wanted a dictatorship of public salvation. He gets all the power, and, when the project is finished, he returns to his plough." In the event, the old order was never restored in France. When Louis XVIII became emperor in 1814, he served as a constitutional monarch.
In England, until recently the views on Napoleon have traditionally less charitable and more cynical. Professor Christopher Clark, the notable Cambridge University European historian, has written. "Napoleon was not a French patriot - he was first a Corsican and later an imperial figure, a journey in which he bypassed any deep affiliation with the French nation," Clark believed Napoleon’s relationship with the French Revolution is deeply ambivalent.
Did he stabilise the revolutionary state or shut it down mercilessly? Clark believes Napoleon seems to have done both. Napoleon rejected democracy, he suffocated the representative dimension of politics, and he created a culture of courtly display. A month before crowning himself emperor, Napoleon sought approval for establishing an empire from the French in a plebiscite; 3,572,329 voted in favour, 2,567 against. If that landslide resembles an election in North Korea, well, this was no secret ballot. Each ‘yes’ or ‘no’ was recorded, along with the name and address of the voter. Evidently, an overwhelming majority knew which side their baguette was buttered on.
His extravagant coronation in Notre Dame in December 1804 cost 8.5 million francs (€6.5 million or $8.5 million in today's money). He made his brothers, sisters and stepchildren kings, queens, princes and princesses and created a Napoleonic aristocracy numbering 3,500. By any measure, it was a bizarre progression for someone often described as ‘a child of the Revolution.’ By crowning himself emperor, the genuine European kings who surrounded him were not convinced. Always a warrior first, he tried to represent himself as a Caesar, and he wears a Roman toga on the bas-reliefs in his tomb. His coronation crown, a laurel wreath made of gold, sent the same message. His icon, the eagle, was also borrowed from Rome. But Caesar's legitimacy depended on military victories. Ultimately, Napoleon suffered too many defeats.
These days Napoleon the man and his times remain very much in fashion and we are living through something of a new golden age of Napoleonic literature. Those historians who over the past decade or so have had fun denouncing him as the first totalitarian dictator seem to have it all wrong: no angel, to be sure, he ended up doing far more at far less cost than any modern despot. In his widely praised 2014 biography, Napoleon the Great, Andrew Roberts writes: “The ideas that underpin our modern world - meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on - were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman empire.”
Roberts partly bases his historical judgement on newly released historical documents about Napoleon that were only available in the past decade and has proved to be a boon for all Napoleonic scholars. Newly released 33,000 letters Napoleon wrote that still survive are now used extensively to illustrate the astonishing capacity that Napoleon had for compartmentalising his mind - he laid down the rules for a girls’ boarding school on the eve of the battle of Borodino, for example, and the regulations for Paris’s Comédie-Française while camped in the Kremlin. They also show Napoleon’s extraordinary capacity for micromanaging his empire: he would write to the prefect of Genoa telling him not to allow his mistress into his box at the theatre, and to a corporal of the 13th Line regiment warning him not to drink so much.
For me to have my own perspective on Napoleon is tough. The problem is that nothing with Napoleon is simple, and almost every aspect of his personality is a maddening paradox. He was a military genius who led disastrous campaigns. He was a liberal progressive who reinstated slavery in the French colonies. And take the French Revolution, which came just before Napoleon’s rise to power, his relationship with the French Revolution is deeply ambivalent. Did he stabilise it or shut it down? I agree with those British and French historians who now believe Napoleon seems to have done both.
On the one hand, Napoleon did bring order to a nation that had been drenched in blood in the years after the Revolution. The French people had endured the crackdown known as the 'Reign of Terror', which saw so many marched to the guillotine, as well as political instability, corruption, riots and general violence. Napoleon’s iron will managed to calm the chaos. But he also rubbished some of the core principles of the Revolution. A nation which had boldly brought down the monarchy had to watch as Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, with more power and pageantry than Louis XVI ever had. He also installed his relatives as royals across Europe, creating a new aristocracy. In the words of French politician and author Lionel Jospin, 'He guaranteed some principles of the Revolution and at the same time, changed its course, finished it and betrayed it.'
He also had a feared henchman in the form of Joseph Fouché, who ran a secret police network which instilled dread in the population. Napoleon’s spies were everywhere, stifling political opposition. Dozens of newspapers were suppressed or shut down. Books had to be submitted for approval to the Commission of Revision, which sounds like something straight out of George Orwell. Some would argue Hitler and Stalin followed this playbook perfectly.
But here come the contradictions. Napoleon also championed education for all, founding a network of schools. He championed the rights of the Jews. In the territories conquered by Napoleon, laws which kept Jews cooped up in ghettos were abolished. 'I will never accept any proposals that will obligate the Jewish people to leave France,' he once said, 'because to me the Jews are the same as any other citizen in our country.'
He also, crucially, developed the Napoleonic Code, a set of laws which replaced the messy, outdated feudal laws that had been used before. The Napoleonic Code clearly laid out civil laws and due processes, establishing a society based on merit and hard work, rather than privilege. It was rolled out far beyond France, and indisputably helped to modernise Europe. While it certainly had its flaws – women were ignored by its reforms, and were essentially regarded as the property of men – the Napoleonic Code is often brandished as the key evidence for Napoleon’s progressive credentials. In the words of historian Andrew Roberts, author of Napoleon the Great, 'the ideas that underpin our modern world… were championed by Napoleon'.
What about Napoleon’s battlefield exploits? If anything earns comparisons with Hitler, it’s Bonaparte’s apparent appetite for conquest. His forces tore down republics across Europe, and plundered works of art, much like the Nazis would later do. A rampant imperialist, Napoleon gleefully grabbed some of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance, and allegedly boasted, 'the whole of Rome is in Paris.'
Napoleon has long enjoyed a stellar reputation as a field commander – his capacities as a military strategist, his ability to read a battle, the painstaking detail with which he made sure that he cold muster a larger force than his adversary or took maximum advantage of the lie of the land – these are stuff of the military legend that has built up around him. It is not without its critics, of course, especially among those who have worked intensively on the later imperial campaigns, in the Peninsula, in Russia, or in the final days of the Empire at Waterloo.
Doubts about his judgment, and allegations of rashness, have been raised in the context of some of his victories, too, most notably, perhaps, at Marengo. But overall his reputation remains largely intact, and his military campaigns have been taught in the curricula of military academies from Saint-Cyr to Sandhurst, alongside such great tacticians as Alexander the Great and Hannibal.
Historians may query his own immodest opinion that his presence on the battlefield was worth an extra forty thousand men to his cause, but it is clear that when he was not present (as he was not for most of the campaign in Spain) the French were wont to struggle. Napoleon understood the value of speed and surprise, but also of structures and loyalties. He reformed the army by introducing the corps system, and he understood military aspirations, rewarding his men with medals and honours; all of which helped ensure that he commanded exceptional levels of personal loyalty from his troops.
Yet, I do find it hard to side with the more staunch defenders of Napoleon who say his reputation as a war monger is to some extent due to British propaganda at the time. They will point out that the Napoleonic Wars, far from being Napoleon’s fault, were just a continuation of previous conflicts that arose thanks to the French Revolution. Napoleon, according to this analysis, inherited a messy situation, and his only real crime was to be very good at defeating enemies on the battlefield. I think that is really pushing things too far. I mean deciding to invade Spain and then Russia were his decisions to invade and conquer.
He was, by any measure, a genius of war. Even his nemesis the Duke of Wellington, when asked who the greatest general of his time was, replied: 'In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.'
I will qualify all this and agree that Napoleon’s Russian campaign has been rightly held up as a fatal folly which killed so many of his men, but this blunder – epic as it was – should not be compared to Hitler’s wars of evil aggression. Most historians will agree that comparing the two men is horribly flattering to Hitler - a man fuelled by visceral, genocidal hate - and demeaning to Napoleon, who was a product of Enlightenment thinking and left a legacy that in many ways improved Europe.
Napoleon was, of course, no libertarian, and no pluralist. He would tolerate no opposition to his rule, and though it was politicians and civilians who imposed his reforms, the army was never far behind. But comparisons with twentieth-century dictators are well wide of the mark. While he insisted on obedience from those he administered, his ideology was based not on division or hatred, but on administrative efficiency and submission to the law. And the state he believed in remained stubbornly secular.
In Catholic southern Europe, of course, that was not an approach with which it was easy to acquiesce; and disorder, insurgency and partisan attacks can all be counted among the results. But these were principles on which the Emperor would not and could not give ground. If he had beliefs they were not religious or spiritual beliefs, but the secular creed of a man who never forgot that he owed both his military career and his meteoric political rise to the French Revolution, and who never quite abandoned, amidst the monarchical symbolism and the court pomp of the Empire, the republican dreams of his youth. When he claimed, somewhat ambiguously, after the coup of 18 Brumaire that `the Revolution was over’, he almost certainly meant that the principles of 1789 had at last been consummated, and that the continuous cycle of violence of the 1790s could therefore come to an end.
When the Empire was declared in 1804, the wording, again, might seem curious, the French being informed that the `Republic would henceforth be ruled by an Emperor’. Napoleon might be a dictator, but a part at least of him remained a son of the Enlightenment.
The arguments over Napoleon’s status will continue - and that in itself is a testament to the power of one of the most complex figures ever to straddle the world’s stage.
Will the fascination with Napoleon continue for another 200 years?
In France, at least, enthusiasm looks set to diminish. Napoleon and his exploits are scarcely mentioned in French schools anymore. Stéphane Guégan, curator of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, which, among other First Empire artworks, houses a plaster model of Napoleon dressed as a Roman emperor astride a horse, has described France's fascination with him as ‘a national illness.’ He believes that the people who met him were fascinated by his charm. And today, even the most hostile to Napoleon also face this charm. So there is a difficulty to apprehend the duality of this character. As he wrote, “He was born from the revolution, he extended and finished it, and after 1804 he turns into a despot, a dictator.”
In France, Guégan aptly observes, there is a kind of nostalgia, not for dictatorship but for strong leaders. "Our age is suffering a lack of imagination and political utopia,"
Here I think Guégan is onto something. Napoleon’s stock has always risen or fallen according to the vicissitudes of world events and fortunes of France itself.
In the past, history was the study of great men and women. Today the focus of teaching is on trends, issues and movements. France in 1800 is no longer about Louis XVI and Napoleon Bonaparte. It's about the industrial revolution. Man does not make history. History makes men. Or does it? The study of history makes a mug out of those with such simple ideological driven conceits.
For two hundred years on, the French still cannot agree on whether Napoleon was a hero or a villain as he has swung like a pendulum according to the gravitational pull of historical events and forces.
The question I keep asking of myself and also to French friends with whom I discuss such things is what kind of Napoleon does our generation need?
Thanks for your question.
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