Here’s Why You Should Care About Napoleon More Than You Do
We’re still living in the world that emerged from his paradoxes.
A FILM ABOUT A HISTORICAL FIGURE who has been dead for over two centuries is not very likely to stir controversy—but Ridley Scott’s Napoleon has done exactly that with its depiction of the emperor as an insecure, buffoonish, hollow man whose true legacy was some three million dead. The biopic has ruffled feathers in France and drawn criticism from Napoleon aficionados in other countries, not only with its jaundiced view of its antihero—Scott has compared Bonaparte to Hitler and Stalin—but with its historical inaccuracies. Others have lauded the film for stripping away the mystique of the romantic hero and enlightened despot to reveal a proto-Hitlerian mass murderer.
Columbia history professor Mark Mazower argues that Napoleon, made small by the passage of time and by an era in which the very notion of individual greatness seems suspect, “no longer exists for us as either myth or model.” Yet that point was quickly belied by the disputation in the comments beneath his article.
Why, so long after his death, is Napoleon still so fascinating and controversial?
Scott’s two-and-a-half-hour film is hardly the first attempt to cut Napoleon down to size. The Napoleon in War and Peace is also a ridiculous hollow man. Yet Tolstoy’s takedown was a response to a long literary and artistic tradition of romanticizing Napoleon, even if the romanticization was often laden with ambivalence. This ambivalence was rooted, above all, in Napoleon’s essential duality, first as a torchbearer of freedom and progress when he was still General Bonaparte, then as the conquering tyrant who crowned himself emperor in 1804. Beethoven, who had dedicated his Third Symphony to First Consul Bonaparte, was so enraged by news of the coronation that he famously scrubbed out the dedication. Almost two decades later, Byron compared Napoleon to Julius Caesar:
Alas! why passed he too the Rubicon—
The Rubicon of Man’s awakened rights,
To herd with vulgar kings and parasites?
COMING TO POWER AFTER THE CARNAGE of the Great Terror and the chaos of the Directory, Napoleon brought not only order but authoritarianism, laying waste to hard-won freedoms and fledgling liberal institutions. His rule eviscerated a once-vibrant free press, reducing its leftovers to “miserable tools of government” (as Washington Irving, visiting France in 1804, put it in a letter), and neutered political opposition. His minister of police Joseph Fouché created a surveillance system that, in the words of one French historian, “turned Paris into a vast mousetrap.” In that sense, Napoleon can be seen as a distant precursor of Vladimir Putin, obviously minus the “cowering in a bunker” part. (Upon briefly reclaiming the throne in 1815, he enacted a charter that restored many civil and political freedoms.) He also restored slavery in (some) French colonial possessions eight years after its abolition.
But while Napoleon’s detractors believe it’s grotesque to credit Napoleon’s self-trumpeted achievements—as if things like the Europe-wide introduction of the metric system could balance a catalogue of crimes against humanity—maybe the “It’s complicated” cliché actually fits in this case.
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Napoleon was undoubtedly warlike, but the Napoleonic wars began with the European powers’ war against revolutionary France in 1792. Which is to say, Europe was hardly peaceful before Napoleon: Wikipedia’s (incomplete) list includes 39 wars in Europe in the eighteenth century alone. While some of these wars were fairly minor affairs leaving “only” three or four thousand dead, others were massive, protracted conflicts that killed hundreds of thousands. The War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Polish Succession, and the War of the Austrian Succession combined took a total of about two million lives, counting both battlefield casualties and deaths from disease and famine. The Seven Years’ War—which some regard as the first “world war,” and of which the French and Indian War in North America was a theater—had a death toll close to a million. By contrast with the hordes of unruly mercenaries and abused conscripts who fought in these conflicts, Napoleon’s Grande Armée was a professional army of citizen soldiers in which men were treated with dignity and could rise based on merit.
Of course, it would be incomplete to judge Napoleon on his military career to the neglect of his political accomplishments. The Code Civil, which he regarded as his one lasting achievement, deeply influenced post-feudal European laws as well as legislation in Latin America and even Louisiana. While the Code was geared toward a big, centralized, regulatory government and institutionalized patriarchal norms in family law in ways that slowed the movement toward female emancipation, it also promoted and established crucial liberals norms, from equality before the law—at first only for white males, but eventually for other groups admitted to full citizenship—to the principle that no secret laws can be in effect and no new law can be enforced retroactively. These may be things we take for granted in 2023; they certainly weren’t taken for granted at the time.
Napoleon didn’t just build repressive institutions; he also destroyed them. In 1808, he abolished the Spanish Inquisition via his brother Joseph, installed as the king of Spain. Napoleon’s reforms also played a key role in the emancipation of Jews across Europe, starting with his Italian campaign in the late 1790s, though here too the story grows more complicated with his shift toward greater conservatism as emperor: In 1808, seeking to placate both the French public and conservative European allies, he moved to defer full civil rights for Jews in some regions of France for a ten-year period and allowed the newly created Polish Duchy of Warsaw to do the same. (In an apparent attempt to rally Middle Eastern Jews to his banners, he also reportedly attempted to create a Jewish state based in Jerusalem during his Egyptian campaign in 1799.)
Ultimately, there probably isn’t a single issue on which Napoleon’s legacy doesn’t come with a “but”—for better or for worse. His sexism, for instance, coexisted with important steps promoting secular education for girls, professional midwifery, and even a recognized role for women in the army as canteen keepers/food suppliers, or vivandières.
No wonder, then, that attitudes toward Napoleon, in his own time and later, have been so rife with contradiction and paradox. His dreary exile and early death helped tilt the mixed feelings toward the positive. Pushkin’s poetic eulogy for Napoleon begins “A wondrous destiny is ended, / A great man’s life is now extinct,” but then goes on to speak of Napoleon’s slide into autocracy, his trampling of France’s “newborn liberty,” the greed of his conquests, and his mad invasion of Russia. Yet Pushkin concludes: “From exile’s gloom, he is bequeathing / Eternal freedom to the world.” Meanwhile, Pushkin’s contemporary, Mikhail Lermontov, extolled Russian heroism at the Battle of Borodino, but also wrote several other works in which the romantic figure of the fallen Napoleon took center stage. (Pushkin and Lermontov, themselves geniuses forced into exile, may have had more reasons than the average Russian to sympathize with Napoleon.)
For his part, Byron lamented Napoleon’s fateful turn from Washington to Caesar, but also portrayed his St. Helena exile as the noble plight of Prometheus chained to the rock. And in the United States, a surge in anti-Napoleon sentiment at the time of his downfall was followed by a change of heart. Here’s how historian Howard Mumford Jones, writing a century ago, described the shifting American sentiment of a century earlier:
American admiration for Napoleon began early, wavered only as he took on despotic character, and, after his death, his faults forgot, wove around him their own version of the Napoleonic legend.
CONTEMPORARY ASSESSMENTS of Napoleon are inevitably influenced by a new sensitivity to issues of race and gender. That is a positive thing; his decision to restore slavery is a massive mark in the “bad guy” column. But does that make Napoleon an “icon of white supremacy,” in the words of University of Virginia scholar Marlene L. Daut? If he was out to enforce white supremacy, he failed at it spectacularly: The French attempt to reimpose slavery in the Caribbean colonies ended up being a fiasco as disastrous in its own way as the Russian expedition. After massive loss of life, not only among the black and mixed-race population but among white French soldiers and colonists, Saint-Domingue—now Haiti—gained full independence, which led to the crash of Napoleon’s colonial project. Not surprisingly, Napoleonic mythology elided this part of its hero’s story; ironically, Scott’s myth-busting film ignores it as well.
It’s also worth noting that Napoleon’s decision to reimpose slavery, however unconscionable, did not appear to stem from a militant racist ideology but rather from an effort to accommodate the more conservative European powers (including England, at one point) with which he sought to cultivate pragmatic relationships. Years later, on Saint Helena, Napoleon told his Anglo-French doctor Barry O’Meara that he had “committed a great oversight and fault in not having declared St. Domingo free [and] acknowledged the black government”; he also expressed a more general view that Europe should give up “the colonial system.” Yet, while the former emperor claimed that he “acted contrary to [his] own judgment” in trying to quash black independence in Haiti, he quickly followed this with the responsibility-dodging assertion that he was “obliged to comply” with the national mood in France.
What to make of this terrible and ugly story? A detailed study by scholars Pierre Branda and Thierry Lentz concludes that the then-first consul was not guilty of active racism—a tendency that was “if anything rather less pronounced than was generally the case among his contemporaries”—so much as “indifference to the ‘black question.’” That’s hardly an exoneration, but it is part of the larger picture of Napoleon’s indifference to the lives of millions.
IF THE THEME OF THE SCOTT FILM is the hollowness, pointlessness, and brutality of vaulting ambition, it is a theme familiar to Napoleon’s contemporary admirers. Stendhal’s 1839 novel The Charterhouse of Parma portrays Bonaparte’s liberation of Italy in its early pages, but fast-forward to 1815 when the character Fabrizio del Dongo, a 17-year-old Italian nobleman, tries to join his idol’s army and blunders into the Battle of Waterloo: The narrative depicts an absurd and inglorious spectacle which culminates in Fabrizio being robbed and beaten by fellow French soldiers and rescued by a sympathetic vivandière. And Byron, who apparently held every possible opinion of Bonaparte at once, muses:
How, if that soaring Spirit still retain
A conscious twilight of his blazing reign,
How must he smile, on looking down, to see
The little that he was and sought to be!
These acknowledgments of the tragic futility of Napoleon’s quest also coexisted with acknowledgment of greatness and achievement. The new Napoleon film just offers futility with a farcical slant. Even in 2023, the Napoleon myth will probably survive; it’s too essential a part of the story of modern civilization. The next Napoleon biopic, from Steven Spielberg (and Stanley Kubrick), is already on its way to HBO. Stay tuned for the next Napoleon debate.