Saturday, June 11, 2022

Why I Hate Napoleon Bonaparte

J. Christopher Herold, The Age of Napoleon.1963

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: a Life. 2014

I embarked last month on a Napoleon Bonaparte double, listening to Andrew Roberts' prize-winning biography and reading Christopher Herold's older "life and times" book. This was valuable because Roberts likes and admires Napoleon and Herold detests him. And yet the difference in opinion makes very little difference to the story. Napoleon's life is so extraordinary, his achievements so immense, that, well, he ended up with an age of European history named after him. Which is my problem: it really doesn't matter that I think he was a despicable rat, because he just did so much that my opinions can't be anything but petty grievances in comparison.

Napoleon was the younger son of a minor Corsican noble family who went hungry in military school because he couldn't afford to buy food, yet he rose to become the Emperor of France and one of history's most famous men. He had an almost unbelievable energy and a mind that, while not especially deep, had an incredible capacity to consider a hundred different things at once, and to give intelligent attention to any topic that came before him. During his time in power he wrote more than 2,500 letters a year; there were days when he was on the march with his army but still managed to send out twenty letters to officials back in France. In any given day his letters might chastise a local official for poor management, demand that a lagging building project at some minor port be speeded up, demand that an allied state supply his army with 40,000 pairs of  shoes, assure his wife that his health was good, profess love to one of his mistresses, compliment a leading scientist on the publication of a new book,  establish a pension for the widow of a particularly brave common soldier, and suggest to the Paris police that they were looking at the wrong suspects in the murder of an opera singer. One example: on the night before the battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon dictated to one of his secretaries a 120-article constitution for a girls' school he was setting up near Paris while simultaneously dictating military orders to two other aides. 

Napoleon brought to a conclusion the process of government reform that began in the 1770s and got a big boost from the Revolution, making France Europe's most modern state and establishing many institutions that still endure. French-style reform swept Europe in the wake of Napoleon's armies. It was imposed by France on states it annexed, willingly copied by allies, and adopted by defeated enemies in a desperate attempt to compete. Everywhere the bureaucrat replaced the nobleman as the chief agent of government power. This was, of course, not Napoleon's personal achievement, and probably would have happened anyway, but these changes came to be associated in many places with him and his invincible armies.

On the battlefield, Napoleon was extraordinary. I have read two different attempts to arrive at a quantitative judgment on who was the greatest commander in history, and Napoleon came out first in one and second in the other. When he was asked who was the greatest captain of the age, his enemy Wellington answered, "in this age, in any age, Bonaparte."

He was even funny. Once when he had negotiated an agreement with the Papacy, the Pope had immediate misgivings and tried to re-open negotiations. Napoleon responded, "But since Your Holiness is infallible, surely you cannot have made a mistake?"

Was Napoleon a warmonger? He did not start the wars of his era; they began in 1792, when the European powers attacked France to stop the Revolution and Napoleon himself was only a lieutenant. The wars of his rise to power were not his fault and he only fought in them as well as he could. The situation after the year-long lull that followed the 1802 Peace of Amiens is more complicated. In most of the wars of 1803-1815 France was not the initial aggressor, and they started when someone else broke a treaty. But other nations kept breaking those treaties because after every victory Napoleon imposed humiliating terms on his rivals that he should have known they would not live with, and after Napoleon's defeat in 1812 the wars re-ignited because of Napoleon's refusal to accept a peace that would damage his "glory." It was only his gloire, Napoleon believed, that kept him in power in France, so he fought to the death to avoid anything that smacked of the humiliations he had so many times imposed on others. My view of those years follows that of Talleyrand, who was Napoleon's own Foreign Minister but essentially went over to his enemies in 1808 because he realized that Napoleon could never accept a workable peace, and his existence in power therefore condemned Europe to unending war.

But, anyway, the question of who started the wars in which Napoleon fought is complicated, and admirers like Andrew Roberts (and Winston Churchill) can make a case that the wars were not really his fault.

So what is my beef?

I hate Napoleon because he treated his fellow humans as expendable pawns on the chess board where he maneuvered for greatness, and millions of them responded to his contempt by idolizing him.

Napoleon was not a particularly vicious dictator; his rule in France was not marked by mass executions or campaigns of torture. He didn't care enough about other people to bother with that sort of thing. He believed that what people wanted from government was order, low taxes, and the sense of being led toward Glory by a Man of Destiny.

What if he was right?

Consider Napoleon's relationship with women. He was appallingly sexist; he said several times that women were only machines for making babies, and he seems to have meant it. The Napoleonic Code was a step forward for Europe in some ways, but in terms of women's rights it was a major step backward, and this was very much because of Napoleon's personal influence. Yet he had dozens of mistresses, many of them famous beauties. His feminine ideal seems to have been his Polish mistress Maria Walewska, who was universally held to be beautiful, sweet, and dumb as a post.

Every single report Napoleon sent out after a battle was a lie. Even when he won great victories he still exaggerated his enemies' losses and understated his own. So far as I can tell, this never hurt him in any way, not even after his soldiers made "to lie like a bulletin" a common phrase. 

Napoleon liked to josh with his soldiers, some of whom adored him. He would often say to the men of a regiment, if you do not fight bravely enough, I shall have to come lead you myself and risk my life. They would shout back, no, you are too valuable, we will fight bravely so you can remain safe. So far as we know, nobody ever responded that Napoleon should bear the same risks as his men.

Napoleon's rise to power was achieved via complete contempt for the people, the nation, and everything else besides his own power. His appointment as First Consul after a sleazy coup was approved by a plebiscite in which the official count gave him more than 99% of the vote; since Napoleon's enemies boycotted the vote he probably would have won in an honest count, but that was not good enough, so his agents reported 99%. He did this twice more, when he made himself First Consul for Life and when he made himself Emperor. So far as I can tell the repeated rigging of elections did not hurt him any more than his constant lying. He also kept playing a horrible game in which he hinted to his flunkeys that he wanted something; to be Consul for Life or Emperor, to take the two most famous examples. They would then propose it as if it were their own idea, and Napoleon would reluctantly acquiesce. When it was first suggested in public that he be made Consul for Life he said, "So ten years of service is not enough, and France seeks to extract even more sacrifice from me." Again, I can't see that this foolery hurt him in any way.

Making himself Emperor was of course the most ridiculous act of all. And yet, only a few radical Republicans protested, and only a few old-line royalists laughed. Most people kept straight faces and began addressing him by his royal titles. His followers all accepted the made-up noble titles he bestowed on them, even the ones who had been Revolutionaries. (Marshall Bernadotte accepted a dukedom even though he was said to have "Death to Kings" tattooed across his chest. But that was only the beginning of an aristocratic career that ended with him becoming King of Sweden and founding a dynasty. Napoleon wasn't the only man of the age with no principles.)

Napoleon treated women with contempt and had an absolutely unreasonable number of lovers. He treated France with contempt and was made its leader. He treated history with contempt, leaving behind such a thoroughly lying record that it took historians more than 150 years to get the facts straight, but ended up one of history's most famous actors. 

Nobody laughed at Napoleon, or scoffed at his absurdities. Well, a few people did, but this gets us to one of the key reasons Napoleon earned and kept such loyalty: his enemies were worse. Europe's crowned heads were a sorry lot, without a shred of ability among them, and the regimes they headed were reactionary monstrosities. Napoleon was able to find many supporters in Italy, Germany and Poland with the most paltry gestures toward their rights, since their old rulers would not even do that. Even in Britain the conflict against France brought the dark side of the regime to the fore, with the violent suppression of any kind of workers' agitation, death sentences for hungry people who stole bread, and so on. Everyone remarked on the contrast between the modernizing energy of Napoleon's France and the old empires that were modern only in the way their new police forces battled reform. 

But this earns him no credit with me, because for Napoleon modernization was all about the power of the state. Napoleon personally abolished the election of mayors in France, which went back in some areas to the 14th century. The mayors were annoying to his rational system, so he replaced them with sub-intendants he appointed himself. The notion that the people should be consulted about how they should be ruled did not even amuse him; they and their wishes were too far below him for him to even notice.

And so he went on, building more monuments to himself, gathering more power into his hands, placing his incompetent relatives on a slew of thrones, everything for him, everything for his gloire. His career raises the question: is there anything ordinary people can do about history, except either worship great achievers and bask in their radiance, or slink sourly off to our hovels? Was Napoleon right, that the best we can hope for is order, reasonable taxation, and adventures we can follow in the newspapers – like, say, the moon landings? Is the notion that ordinary people might rule themselves simply ridiculous? To the extent that life is a competition, is it always the monstrous narcissists who win?


szopeno said...

"Napoleon was able to find many supporters in Italy, Germany and Poland with the most paltry gestures toward their rights, since their old rulers would not even do that. "

Yup. ON one side you have bad guy who abolishes serfdom, introduces modern civil codex (and gives a lot on a symbolic level). On another side you have reactionary powers all about keeping all order. Not much of a choice.

BTW as most Poles I was enamoured with Napoleon when I was younger.

Shadow said...

There's a lot of Napoleon envy out there.

The Napoleon of 1800 was not the Napoleon of 1812. He got a little too full of himself :). The monarchies could not accept him because his continued existence meant the end of theirs. If you admit he was better than the rest of Europe's best, yet you still don't like him, who would you rather have seen come to power after the revolution? Even Jefferson got sick of the endless bloodletting, and he was a great fan of the French revolution. If there had been no Napoleon, how would the West look at the French Revolution today?

David said...

I recommend John Munro's Napoleon: the End of Glory, available at Audible. He's done a careful trawl through the diplomatic archives for 1813, and didn't find much sign that the monarchies were that determined to overthrow Napoleon. There was much negotiating, and the main points seemed to be that the Austrians and the Russians wanted him out of Germany, and the British wanted him out of the Low Countries. He was determined to give up as little as possible, because he was convinced his standing with the French people depended on his image of never having been truly beaten, and if he gave up Germany and/or the Low Countries, he would look beaten. Munro argues, based on the reports of the emperor's own police, that what the French people wanted in 1813 was for the wars to be over, and that they would have been grateful to him for peace.

The unwillingness of a narcissist to admit failure may remind some readers of more recent events.

When it became clear Napoleon would never negotiate in good faith to give up his domination of Germany, the eastern monarchies closed in. At that point, though, there still wasn't much enthusiasm among them for restoring the Bourbons. Alexander's favorite replacement for Napoleon was actually Bernadotte. And everyone seemed to think there would have to be some sort of assembly that would put a new French monarch on the throne. So there wasn't much devotion at that point among the monarchies for pushing divine right or anything like that.

David said...

Whoops, I just came back to myself and remembered John already said all that stuff. I got distracted with my own enthusiasm for Munro. Doink.

It may be that Munro wasn't as original as I thought he was, since it sounds like that stuff is also in Herold and Roberts.

szopeno said...

@David that's very interesting, thanks. What I remember about Napoleon is mostly from my youth (and things I read later were rather about our own history during the epoch), when I was reading a lot about the epoch, coming from the Polish authors of course. A lot of those books were written before 1989 and were rather pro-Napoleon, so I guess my knowledge is now rather outdated.

szopeno said...

@David I'm pretty sure John had not mentioned monarchies being OK with Bernadotte :)

David said...

Still, it's interesting that so many of those who had to deal with Napoleon decided at some point that he had to be gotten rid of, or it would be war forever. In that sense, although their governments weren't good governments in our sense, I find it hard not to sympathize with his opponents. He meant trouble, and not in a good way.

David said...


FWIW, it seems to me there are some pretty good reasons why Bonaparte would be remembered fondly in Poland. :)

OTOH, there's an interesting story about a Polish unit that was part of the army he sent to reconquer Haiti. When they figured out that they were there to restore slavery, they switched sides and joined the Haitian rebels.

szopeno said...

I've read the story about Haiti many times and it's often recited in Poland - that Poles (and I think Germans?) were the only whites who were allowed to stay on Haiti, that there are still descendants of Poles near las Casales (sp?) etc. However I've also read that actually our soldiers were not that different from French, most fought obediently and the reputation they've earned could be possibly because general Jablonowski was half-black.

Shadow said...

It's been a while, and my memory could always be faulty, but I do seem to remember the British breaking treaty and declaring war on France after Napoleon took power. Or was that Austria? Or was it Prussia? :) I'm also remembering that Napoleon didn't start any of those wars. So maybe there came a time when Napoleon thought he was always going to be at constant war with Europe unless he defeated all of Europe. Maybe it wasn't monarchies per se, but something about Napoleon had them worried. And also, Napoleon did a damn good job of putting France back together after the revolution.

Shadow said...

He created a government run by institutions run by bureaucrats that worked. Maybe that's what they feared before they feared his megalomania, which came later, imo.

G. Verloren said...

His career raises the question: is there anything ordinary people can do about history, except either worship great achievers and bask in their radiance, or slink sourly off to our hovels?

"Ordinary people" tried to assassinate Napoleon literally dozens of times. Any one of them might have succeeded and changed the course of history forever, and most failed due to simple bad luck. To frame it as somehow inevitable is bizarrely fatalistic.

Was Napoleon right, that the best we can hope for is order, reasonable taxation, and adventures we can follow in the newspapers – like, say, the moon landings? Is the notion that ordinary people might rule themselves simply ridiculous?

From the earliest conceptions of Democracy, it was plainly put forth that the success of ordinary people ruling themselves depends entirely on the quality of the people who compromise "ordinary". If the average person is uneducated, immoral, and unfit to rule, then a Democracy will produce a failure of governance. But if the average person is informed, principled, and fully capable of sound rulership, then the potential of Democracy to be the most ideal form of governance can be realized.

There's nothing ridiculous about the concept - it just demands rigorous dedication to the ideal of Democracy, and to the necessary qualities that enable such a system to succeed.

To the extent that life is a competition, is it always the monstrous narcissists who win?

How can you ask this when Napoleon didn't win? He was a man unmade by the end of his life, dying in misery and isolation at the ends of the earth, tormented by the knowledge that in his hubris and his arrogance, he had lost everything he ever stole for himself.

History was shaped far more by people's opposition to him than it ever was by his own deeds. His legacy is not one of "gloire" and the future flourishing of France, but rather one of infamy and laying the groundwork for future French catastrophes in the centuries to come. Virtually none of the good that France enjoyed during his reign was brought about by him, while much of the evil it would suffer in later generations was. He was an opportunist who exploited the spirit of the times, to no productive end except the satisfaction of his own greed and whims, and ultimately to the detriment of France and much of Europe itself.

Napoleon's narcissism didn't make him a "winner" - it made him a living Greek tragedy.

David said...

"Is the notion that ordinary people might rule themselves simply ridiculous?"

"Simply ridiculous," no. For one thing, France hasn't seen another figure who comes close Napoleon since 1815. So it's not the case that we "need" rule by glamorous narcissists, since here's a major society that has survived without them for more than 200 yrs.

OTOH, it's probably naive to expect one could have rule by the people, tout simple, in any complex, modern society. One obvious problem with such an idea is that complex societies depend on systems that require a certain amount of more or less specialized management, often with some coercive power. A good example is the well-known way that feeding Paris was an issue throughout the French Revolution. This had to be done every day, in all weathers and all moods of the market and the food producers. Right there, you have the makings of a power not "of the people," and yet one that is a necessary condition for the continued existence of the people in their contemporary arrangement (spatial, occupational, numerical, and so on), and one that you could not get rid of without a lot of the people becoming very unhappy (which would itself be undemocratic, no?).

Another problem is the tendency of populations in complex societies to divide and fight over fundamental questions. This was the most obvious internal French problem that Napoleon offered to solve--France at that point was, as we all know, deeply divided, with real violence and disorder, dramatic electoral swings, etc. One often does need something like a state with a certain amount of undemocratic power to keep a lid on this (though one does not necessarily need a glamorous narcissist at the head of it; unglamorous Weimar managed to give Germany five or so years of relatively stability and even prosperity in the 1920s, and the unglamorous Bundesrepublic has done the same, with some American backing, since its founding).

One could say all this is just a rationalization of power for snobbish elites, and there is some of that in it. But my survival depends on an extremely complex system of food production, storage, transportation, price assignment, shelf-stocking, and credit (for the system and for me). That system is a sort of power, and it isn't particularly democratic, but it's also not "elite" in the latte-sipping, art-gallery-going sense. It can also make mistakes, go hugely wrong, and serve the greed and short-sightedness of small groups (as in 2008)--but that doesn't make me and most Americans any less dependent on it. And seeing that dependence, which would be more coercive and undemocratic--to let us keep it, which most of us want to do, or force us to do without it because doing without it would be more virtuous and democratic?

David said...

To be clear, I'm not saying one can't have rule by the people *at all* in a complex society. I am saying one needs a mix of forms, where each form is balanced against the others and works to keep down its worst aspects. I don't think that's too cynical or despairing.

I also don't see any absolute human need for having a glamorous narcissist at the top. I don't think history shows that at all. Napoleon was really a brief episode, and, as Verloren points out, he was a complete failure in the end.

(OTOH, it is striking that, in conversations about someone like Napoleon, it's often necessary for some person to pipe up and remind the assembled company that he lost in the end. I often found myself writing in the margins of student papers on WWII, "Is it clear to you that Hitler lost the war, completely and utterly?" Aggressive narcissists do have a tendency to grab attention; but I think this tendency can be and has been counteracted time and again. And there are whole decades, at least, of history where such persons are not too notable.)

G. Verloren said...


It's seem like a pretty universal quirk of human psychology that we over-invest our attention into flashy outliers, and ignore the importance of the ordinary and the routine.

Consider how most people have at least heard of Julius Caesar (noted for his warmongering, his political ruthlessness, his seizing power in a civil war, and his ultimate assassination), but not many people can tell you which leaders ruled Rome during the two centuries of peace and prosperity we call the Pax Romana.

Plenty of movies have been made depicting life in "The Wild West", but not many films focus on life in "The Civilized East" during the same period from 1865 to 1890. We love media about war and conflict, not about peace and prosperity. Watch a television show about police and it'll show you beat cops getting into shootouts with nefarious criminals, not desk officers filing paperwork and being consummate professionals toward the people they are paid to serve. Watch the evening news and you'll be told the running tally of how many homicides and violent crimes there were during the day, but not how many lives were saved by firefighters or how many hungry people were fed by local soup kitchens.

Something in our ape brains just doesn't really care about the simple, the ordinary, the quiet, or the routine. Instead, we fixate on the disruptions to those things - probably a good thing, evolutionarily speaking, but it does leave us with a pretty powerful bias and cognitive blind spot.

szopeno said...

Re Napoleon - he lost, but Frenchmen still seem to love so much his legacy that they brough back his nephew.


"It's seem like a pretty universal quirk of human psychology that we over-invest our attention into flashy outliers, and ignore the importance of the ordinary and the routine."

I've read that during 1980/81 this particular weirdness of human minds was used by communists. That is, befre the strikes they were suppressing the news about crime (you know, because under socialism everything should be good and better than under corrupt, criminal West). In 1980 they stopped suppressing it and the news was filled with reports about crime. The effect, supposedly, was to imply to population that the Solidarity movement created chaos and martial law was necessary to bring back the order. I do not know whether its true, but I know that crime did not peak in 1980/81 compared to the earlier decade and I know people convinced that the massive unrest in 1980 resulted also in rise of crime.

Another matter is new coverage might be a reason why so many liberals (44%) in USA hundredfold or even thousandfolds overestimate number of unarmed blacks killed by the police.

David said...


That's a good point about Napoleon III. He did win considerable support from the glamor of his family name.

G. Verloren said...


It's... not really as good a point as it may seem.

France went through bad times between the Napoleons. In 1830, Charles X, who had reigned for six years, tried to impose an Absolutist reign on the country, disenfranchising his political opponents and abolishing the free press.

This sparked a revolt which removed him from power, and the Orleanist branch of the royal family stepped up to install Louis Phillipe, by means of giving out a bunch of privileges and powers rather than trying to take them away, reducing the king to almost a figurehead in some respects, and placing much of the power of the state in the hands of Capitalist and land-owning interests.

The Capitalists, as they always do, immediately set about putting their newfound power to use enriching themselves by screwing over the poor and the middle class. The set about revoking the rights of the common people much as Charles X did, just more subtly and slowly. By 1848, only one in every one hundred Frenchmen was permitted to vote - France was literally ruled by the 1%.

While all this was happening, Napoleon III tried to sweep in and seize power via a coup in 1836. It was an absurd attempt and it failed spectacularly. He went into exile in England, then tried again with another coup in 1840 - which was even more absurd, and failed even more spectacularly. This was all quite natural - no one supported him except for the most extreme die-hard Bonapartists, who longed for the old "glory days".

That said, as conditions kept getting worse, the common people got more fed up. In 1848, they revolted. King Louis Phillipe was forced to abdicate, largely as a sort of sacrificial lamb for the factions that actually held power in the country, and the Second Republic was set up.

Napoleon III saw this as his big chance - he came out of exile, and immediately started meddling. He appealed to the working class and promised to eliminate poverty. He rode to victory in national elections largely by exploiting the infighting and instability that plagued the formation of the new republic. He essentially won by presenting himself as the least bad option in a time of chaos and uncertainty - no one wanted to vote for the corrupt Capitalists or the conservative Monarchists, and all the other liberal choices lacked the name recognition and cache of being a "Napoleon".

But there was a catch - the new Constitution prevented him from serving a second term. In his third year, he introduced a measure to change the law so that he could be re-elected, but failed to garner enough votes. So once again, he staged a coup - this time succeeding because he had immense resources to draw upon, he slowly worked to undermine the legislature and consolidate power for himself, and because he was able to leverage enough support in the army. He then immediately set about falsely legitimizing the coup, with coerced elections.

Basically, Napoleon III had ~just enough~ support to rig things in his favor during the height of massive national crisis and social upheaval, and then once he was in power, it was too late. Most of his "support" came from people either falling for his lies, or from people being rendered powerless to oppose him.