This week marks 200 years since the death of the French emperor, and his legacy is as controversial as ever.
Why is he so divisive?
Admirers hail a military genius who rose from obscurity to drag a brutalised France back together after a decade of revolution, giving it a legal system, a central bank, world-class schools and, most of all, glory. Detractors say he was a warmongering imperialist tyrant who reversed the abolition of slavery and set back the cause of women. When President Macron carefully commemorated Napoleon this week, calling his life an “ode to political will”, he copped flak from political rivals on both sides. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said he had failed to celebrate the “eternal French hero”, while far-left politician Alexis Corbière said he was wrong to lionise the man who “buried” the revolution. Two centuries after his death, Napoleon’s powerful influence is still alive in Europe.
How did he die?
Holed up in a rat-infested house on the remote island of St Helena, way out in the South Atlantic. The island was owned by the British, who sent him there after he was trounced at Waterloo, expressly condemning the great man to an obscure and demeaning death. But his obscurity didn’t last long. When his followers dug him up and brought him back to France in 1840, a million people lined the streets of Paris to watch his funeral cortege pass by. A century later, Adolf Hitler made a beeline for Napoleon’s tomb after Paris fell to the Nazis, describing it as “the greatest and finest moment of my life”. Ever since the two have been linked in the public mind, much to Napoleon’s discredit.
So was he really a tyrant?
He rose to power in the classic tyranty way: through chaos. In the late 1790s, France’s post-revolutionary ruling class was openly corrupt and incompetent, and inflation was out of control – shoes cost 40 times more in 1797 than in 1790. In Napoleon’s words, “the pear was ripe” for regime change. After years of bloody revolution, purges and a period called the Terror, the French were crying out for stability. And that was what the 30-year-old Napoleon gave them in 1799. After a swift and expert coup (he had been a general since the age of 24), this son of a Corsican noble installed himself as supreme leader and declared the revolution “finis”.
Was he a tyrannical ruler?
Far from it. If anything, he was a classic French bureaucrat, far more interested in creating systems than in exercising arbitrary personal power. The Napoleonic code forms the basis of much European law to this day. His approach to foreign policy was more robust: he believed France was the natural ruler of Europe, saying “there must be a superior power that dominates all the other powers with enough authority to force them to live in harmony with one another, and France is best placed for that purpose.”
So he wanted to dominate Europe through war?
Not exactly. Although he is often depicted as the leading warmonger of his generation, war was declared on him far more often than he declared it on anybody else. The old European monarchs formed no fewer than seven coalitions against France in the revolutionary and Napoleonic period. The British and the ousted Bourbons made an estimated 30 attempts to assassinate him. That said, he wasn’t a pacifist: at its height in 1812, Napoleon’s empire counted more than 44 million European subjects across Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and much of eastern Europe. But he did bring enlightened values to the people he conquered, many of whom would otherwise have remained without rights or equality under their old laws. He abolished the Inquisition, for example, banned obscure feudal practices and stamped out institutional anti-semitism.
Was he just a military man?
No. Napoleon was something of an intellectual, much admired by the cultural heavyweights of his day, including Goethe, Byron and Beethoven (who initially dedicated his Third Symphony to him). He championed science, socialised with astronomers and went along to public lectures, the theatre and the opera. He travelled everywhere with a large, well-thumbed library.
How did he become emperor?
In 1804 he named himself emperor of the French Republic. For his coronation at Notre-Dame, he wore two crowns. The first was a golden laurel wreath invoking his heroes in the Roman empire. The second was a replica of Charlemagne’s crown, which had to be made specially because the Austrians wouldn’t lend him the real thing. Rather than being crowned by the Pope, Napoleon did it himself – the ultimate triumph for this self-made man of the Enlightenment. But it was also a sign to his international admirers that he had gone over the edge into egomania. Wordsworth denounced him and Beethoven removed Napoleon’s name from the Third.
It ended where it all began.
Napoleon met his end on St Helena, a funny little island nobody much cared about, much like Corsica, the island where he was born. But in between, for 51 busy years – including two marriages, two illegitimate children and an heir, Napoleon II, King of Rome – he lived arguably the greatest life of any European since his hero Julius Caesar. What he really showed, Macron said this week, is that “a man can change the course of history.”
⚔️ Contemporary historians are obsessed with Napoleon: there are thought to be more books with his name in the title than there have been days since he died. And they argue bitterly over his legacy. He was a great man, says Andrew Roberts, a “profound thinker, a proper intellectual”. No, he was a monster, says Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, a political scientist focused on racism and colonialism. “The issue of slavery, which has long been downplayed, must now be placed at the centre.” Both arguments are correct, according to the late David Chandler: Napoleon was the archetypal “great bad man”.
⚔️ Contrary to the myths, Napoleon wasn’t short at all. He was 5ft 7in, average for a Frenchman at the time and taller than Admiral Nelson. He was just unlucky that his rise to power coincided with that of Britain’s first fully professionally political cartoonists, who needed something to poke fun at.
⚔️ Once Napoleon had a battle in mind, he was hard to tear away. He was three hours late to bed on his wedding night because he got carried away planning the invasion of Italy. Not that he lacked romantic vigour. During his 13-year marriage to the famous sexpot Joséphine, he found time for more than 20 mistresses.