Tyrant or genius – or both?

On May 5, 1821, Napoléon Bonaparte died at the age of 51, imprisoned on the isolated British outpost of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.

The diminutive Corsican that went from obscure French artillery officer to the emperor who dominates continental Europe is still a violent dispute 200 years after his death. Was he a visionary genius or a brutal tyrant – or really a combination of the two?

The famous French writer and diplomat François-René de Chateaubriand from the early 19th century summed up the ugly ambivalence that Napoleon has long provoked: “This man whom I admire and whom I detest my despotism.”

In France, many Bonaparte fans call him “the eagle” – praising an ingenious military strategist who spreads liberal French Enlightenment ideals across the continent. Destroyers described him as “Ogren” – a bloodthirsty big-hearted man who restored slavery and whose war plunged Europe into chaos.

Jowhardiscussed the many aspects of Napoléon Bonaparte – and the politics of memory around him – with Charles-Éloi Vial, author of several books about him, including Napoléon – La Certitude et ambition (“Napoléon: Certainty and Ambition”).

Reproduction of a painting by Napoleon during his coronation as Emperor of France in December 1804. AFP

Napoleon’s rise was meteoric: he was only a young artillery officer from France’s longest periphery in Corsica when the revolution broke out in 1789, advanced when he saved revolutionary French ruling catalog in 1795 by overthrowing royal rebels, became the first consul of the Republic in 1799 and was crowned to the French emperor in 1804. Was he a brilliant visionary or a terrible tyrant?

Both terms are probably too strong. One must see the nuance of the story – that Napoleon should not be seen in black and white but rather in shades of gray. His rule over France had some very positive aspects, especially with regard to the modernization of the administration. But he was very authoritarian. You can definitely see that he favored the French revolutionary ideal of equality over that of freedom – in a way that looks shocking today. But more than a visionary or tyrant, Napoleon was simply a human being – with all the virtues and shortcomings of all human beings.

Bonaparte’s vision took him to great heights from obscure origins – making him emperor at the age of 35. But it was also naive – as evidenced by his disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia, his foolish decision to return to war in 1813 and 1814, his stubborn refusal to sign a peace treaty and then, of course, his escape from Elba and final defeat. [at the Duke of Wellington’s hands] at Waterloo in 1815. Napoleon’s vaulting ambition was his downfall.

To begin with, it was a success, especially in military campaigns on land – such as his victory over a major Austrian and Russian force at Austerlitz in 1805, exactly one year after his coronation as emperor. But Napoleon was intoxicated by this triumph. He did not know how to get easier.

Napoleon said he loved war as an artist. He was very calm on the battlefield – where he could show his extraordinary military skills, which even his bitterest enemies easily recognized. Bonaparte’s main purpose was to defend revolutionary France until 1808. Then you can see that his ambition took him away. During the half-war in Spain – and especially in Russia – it was clear that Napoleon was waging war for an idea of ​​honor. The stakes got higher and higher, the number of deaths increased and the battles became even more bloodied.

Reproduction of a painting depicting Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, where he was defeated by a coalition of forces led by the British General Duke of Wellington on 18 June 1815. AFP

It has often been said that Napoleon does not care about human pain – was that really so?

First of all, testimonies give conflicting opinions about this. Some people who knew Napoleon described him as completely insensitive – but others said he was very attentive if someone was ill, and his letter shows that he urged his wife and brothers to take special measures when they were ill.

It can be said that there was a difference between how he acted as a military leader and how he acted in his private life. His order in 1804 to kill plague-stricken French soldiers in Jaffa [in modern-day Israel] who fought in their Egyptian campaign has always been considered a sign of heartlessness.

But at other times – even on the battlefield, where he would force himself to be uneven – he was deeply moved by the horrors of war, especially after [ferocious, inconclusive] The battle of Eylau [against Russian and Prussian forces in 1807], where he was shaken by the image of blood-soaked snow.

Napoleon is understandably admired in France for creating the modern, centralized state – and the extraordinarily influential legal system of civil law he formed in 1804. But the code introduced a patriarchal model that confirmed the legal incapacity of married women. And after his famous marriage to Joséphine de Beauharnais, he dumped her because she did not produce an heir. Would it be appropriate to call Napoleon misogynist?

Napoleon was not immune to the prejudices of his time – although it should be noted that the Civil Code, deeply flawed even though it was, gave women a certain degree of legal status. Meanwhile, there was a difference between the letter of the law and the conditions on the ground in Napoleonic France: Many recent archival research shows that many women developed independence as the sole managers of companies and farms during that period.

Bonaparte used the prejudices of the time to discredit enemies like Germaine de Staël [a French woman of letters famous for urging political moderation].

But he appreciated many women and sought advice from many, including Joséphine. More than that: he was the first political leader to give a woman responsibility for a diplomatic mission, in the case of the Countess of Brignole in 1813. He also appointed his second wife, the Austrian Archduchess Marie-Louise, as his regent and signed imperial decrees. in his place for a year and a half.

The Divorce of Emperor Joséphine, December 15, 1809, by Henri-Frédéric Schopin. © Wikimedia

As first consul, Bonaparte decided in 1802 to reintroduce slavery “in accordance with the laws before 1789”, after the abolition of the convention that then governed France in 1794. At present, this is the main criticism of Napoleon. Is this criticism justified?

Napoleon was ambivalent about slavery: he freed hundreds of slaves in Malta in 1798 and then forcibly employed slaves in the army, which he sent to Egypt weeks later. For several years one of his closest servants was a former slave, Mamluk Roustam Raza dit Roustan.

The restoration of slavery was a cruel moral failure. It was shocking at the time and rightly still shocks us today. Bonaparte probably traded without enough thought and sought short-term economic gains in the pursuit of stability. this was unfortunately symptomatic of his attitude to power – where calculations of suitability too often throw great ideals aside.

He probably ended up regretting this decision – which was suggested in his order to end France’s role in the slave trade during his brief return to power in 1815.

That being said, it is very good that the issue of slavery is being addressed when people think of Napoleon today.

Two hundred years after Napoleon’s death, there are some in France who say we should not celebrate his second birthday – do you agree with them or not?

The question is what exactly we should remember in 2021. As I see it, above all, it is a question of remembering that Napoleon’s death marked the end of an extraordinary, tragic, complex chapter in the history of France that began with the revolution of 1789.

His actions made a colossal impact on the lives of millions of French people who lived during his reign, and perhaps we should also focus on remembering their different experiences – whether as soldiers or civilians.

The Bicentennial is also an opportunity for historians to review and publish nearly six decades of research since the bicentennial of his birth in 1969 – which was a landmark in the transition from a public image of Napoleon as just an ingenious force of nature to a much more nuanced understanding. for his character.

The issue of slavery in the first French empire in Napoléonic has been increasingly explored through archival research – as has the history of homosexuality and the history of women during this time, and more technical issues of Napoleon’s administration.

There is still much to discover about Napoleon, even though he is one of the most studied historical figures in the world. So the hype around the second anniversary is a great opportunity to make the latest academic research known to as many people as possible. And if there is an aura of controversy, it is probably because critical historical analysis has come to influence the general perception of Napoleon at the expense of past myths and legends.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More