Overrated: Napoleon

As we mark the bicentenary of Waterloo, there is an alarming trend towards rehabilitating Napoleon

Europe France History Overrated
Napoleon Bonaparte (illustration by Michael Daley)

A few years ago, Napoleon’s star did not burn as brightly as it does today. The great dictators of the 20th century were still fresh in most people’s memories, and Bonapartism too obviously prefigured their megalomania. But this month’s Waterloo bicentenary falls in a period of revisionism, when the Corsican condottiere’s sanguinary exploits have been repackaged for a 21st-century that fears theocracy and anarchy more than enlightened despotism, especially when the latter appears robed in republican virtue. A new generation has put seductive flesh on the bones of Boney.

What is most striking about the Napoleonic revisionists is that they hail from both ends of the political spectrum. On the Right, Andrew Roberts (of this parish) has recently made a plausible case for seeing the subject of his magnificent biography Napoleon the Great (Penguin, £12.99) as a Renaissance man, a force of nature who transformed Europe into the engine of modernity while preserving what was best of the ancien régime.

On the Left, Patrice Gueniffey, an eminent Parisian academic, makes a similar case in Bonaparte, the first volume of an even more monumental work which has just appeared in English (Harvard, £29.95). For Gueniffey, Bonaparte’s real work—the consolidation of the Revolution—was accomplished in the brief, frenetic years before he had himself declared Consul for Life in 1802, the prelude to his even more grandiose self-coronation two years later as “Napoleon, Emperor of the French by the grace of God and the constitutions of the Republic”. The contradictions implied by styling himself thus did not disturb him at all. He knew that his power depended on military genius, political charisma and not much else. The British agreed: unlike their allies, they never recognised his imperial pretensions. To them, he was just “General Bonaparte”.

For many artists and intellectuals who, like Beethoven, had thrilled to his early triumphs over the absolute monarchies, religious hierarchies and feudal aristocracies of a moth-eaten age that deserved to be swept away, Napoleon’s unmasking as emperor, as just another hereditary tyrant was a bitter disappointment. Yet though Beethoven could revoke the dedication of his “Sinfonia Grande” to Napoleon, titling it Eroica instead, the symphony revolutionised music no less surely than its original dedicatee revolutionised Europe. It was the Eroica that condensed the notion of glory, la gloire, on which the whole Napoleonic myth has rested ever since. The memory of that glory survived even Waterloo, as the restoration of the Bonaparte clan a generation later demonstrated. Indeed, a Napoleon complex afflicts France and the French to this day.

What, then, is the case against Napoleon? There is, first and foremost, the human cost. Some five million soldiers and sailors were killed in the two decades of the Napoleonic Wars—a higher proportion of men at arms than died in either of the World Wars. In his exhaustive two-volume Napoleon and the Struggle for Germany (CUP, £29.99), Michael Leggiere says that the dead and wounded in a single four-day battle, Leipzig (1813), amounted to 92,000 men. That civilian casualties in the Napoleonic era were lower in relative terms than in the 20th century should not obscure the fact that this was a truly global conflict, a total war creating carnage not seen in Europe since the Thirty Years’ War. The harrowing images of Goya’s 82 prints known as The Disasters of War record the depths of cruelty to which one man’s ambition had subjected a continent, as the artist’s own title for his series makes clear: “Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte.”

But the fatal consequences of Bonaparte are not limited to the millions who died at the time. The ideology of the “Great Man” that Napoleon personified was a pernicious one, however brilliant his devotees. From Hazlitt, who wrote an adulatory biography, to Stendhal, who followed his master from Italy to Russia, Napoleon cast a spell over a generation of writers and intellectuals. The magic has never quite worn off, although the sorcerer’s apprentices have grown ever more dangerous. Napoleon cannot be blamed for his posthumous hero-worship, but his example of ruthless self-aggrandisement on a world-historical scale was as unprecedented as it was unforgettable. If it is unfair to see him through the prism of Hitler, it is surely only just to see how Napoleon anticipated the dictators of a later epoch: for example, in his development of a secret police whose tentacles reached throughout Europe. True, the emperor despised Fouché, his minister of police, as “a man who engaged in base intrigues”; but Fouché was his chosen instrument to enforce total control over the Zeitgeist. Napoleon may have loved glory, but he loved power even more; and he unleashed pandemonium on the world.

When the philosopher Hegel glimpsed the emperor riding into Jena after his victory in 1806, the exultant professor wrote that he had seen the “World Spirit on horseback”. In fact, he had seen the four horsemen of the Apocalypse rolled into one: Conquest, War, Famine and Death.