Napoleon the Great?

A recent debate between Adam Zamoyski and Andrew Roberts recently aired the idea that Napoleon should be both considered and named, Great.

I listened to this discussion via Intelligence squared.

By the end of this debate, nothing that was said had changed my mind. My already formed opinion unshaken, nothing new presented to change it. Napoleon was a remarkable man, in many ways admirable, but he was not “Napoleon the great.”

His greatness is the greatness of fame, of infamy, not deed, his reforms do not outweigh his detractors. He was progressive, much more so than those Kings he overthrew, but for me I cannot get around the fact that, no matter what uniting influence he had, no matter what feudalism he washed away, no matter what modernism he introduced, it was all achieved in as totalitarian a way as any King.

His was the enlightenment of a bully, he who knows best, who knows more and then forces others to listen, even if they are right, they did not accomplish their reform in the right way. Much is said of the unifying nature of the Napoleonic conquest, of the multi national Grande Armée, but it wasn’t exactly a spontaneous surge of loyalty to him that made them die for him in Russia, they were all French satellite vassal’s, conquered and required to provide cannon fodder.

As far as I can say Napoleon was not a European Unifier, he was a European exploiter. The glory of France and his own Imperial ambition for France, or rather through France was his goal, not an early EU, there was little beautiful brotherly love in his achievements, gained as they were at the point of a bayonet.

Through all this, the enlightened legacy everyone talks about occurred, but it occurred at a cost, one that more peaceful reform would not have caused. Thus even though he lost part of his aims did succeed, for the box he opened could not be closed, rather like the French Revolution he said he embodied. He did shape Europe, but then earthquakes and eruptions shape the land too.

Roberts made some very interesting comments in his defence of Napoleon. The first that struck me was that he ended the war in Vendée, which to my knowledge started first as a Royalist rebellion against the republicans and then continued against the bonapartists, ending in 1815.

The second is the cry all historians seem to be shouting. Napoleon was not short. And this is true, but the work of caricaturists is not the real source of the impression of the diminutive Corsican, rather they are the reason the idea was propagated. As a young man Napoleon was average height, but also very small in frame, it was noted that he was almost femininely petit, which made him appear very small but with a kind of galvanic energy, the caricaturists picked up on this Because well it was good material.

The third is the idea that “Napoleon the dictator” image comes from the prism of the 2nd World War. Where he was likened to Hitler, unjust in hindsight, though at the time no one knew what the genocidal Nazi nutcase was really up to, and looking in from the outside his expansionist aims looked faintly Napoleonic, casting back into history looking for guidence there was no one else in recent histry to compare him with. Napoleon though was not like Hitler, Churchill was right in this. Napoleon was much more like Caesar, a man of exceptional military and political talent, (who was actually more successful a general than Napoleon) but tyrannical and capable of great cruelty at the same time.

The idea that Napoleon’s police and secret police were not extensions of his control over his state is to me as hard to swallow as cod liver oil. I was rather surprised to find that no one brought up the matter of Napoleon’s flagrant looting of Europe’s art treasures, or say his manipulation of heads of state like the Pope, but perhaps that’s neither here nor there.

Napoleon’s military record is the best reason to call him great. Yet from the Italian Campaign to Austerlitz he showed greatness only in the 1st Italian campaign. The rest, Egypt and the subsequent Italian campaign’s were either downright disasters or very jammy. Austerlitz marks the turning point, but his successes were short lived, by 1807, even the outdated Russian army was giving him a run for his money, and in 1809 he was beaten by the Austrians at Aspern Essling. Thereafter his conquests continued, however the cracks were widening, and split in 1812, thereafter he never regained the initiative.

Despite Roberts’ assertion that the majority of the responsibility for the death toll must lie with the allies. Zamoyski was astute when he pointed out that Napoleon’s demands for peace were utterly unreasonable, and would only ever treat from a position of domineering strength. If a foreign power refused to do something his way, he crushed them.

If you look at his military record side by side with Wellington’s he comes off worse, as the Duke never lost a major battle, and failed to take only one town.
Robert’s says that out of his total battle count, some 60 or more battles, the Emperor lost about 6-7, not to mention two wars. However his enemies, like Wellington, considered him one of the finest soldiers in Europe, and at the time of Waterloo, he thought he was the finest, and I won’t argue with that.. Roberts tries to argue that Napoleon was the victim of British coalitions, and yes, the allied powers did start allot of the fighting, yet it was because of his precocious and unbending policy’s that this happened at all.

All in all I started with Zamoyski, who I think played the better game, though Roberts got to the point slightly faster, and though his judgement was doubtless a little harsh (both historians got a tad vitriolic, as did administrator Jeremy Paxman) I heard nothing new from Roberts to shake my thinking that, Napoleon had great talent, ambitions and ideas, he was progressive and in many ways brilliant, but “Napoleon the Great”, not in my opinion.


4 thoughts on “Napoleon the Great?

  1. well done land of history – astute and reasoned based on extensive knowledge and understanding of the time and events – cant help but agree with your analysis and evaluation of the debate we must leave things as they are – true he was not Hitler – but he cant be considered great.

  2. I’m sorry but Caesar commanded the 13th legion while Napoleon ruled a nation of France and her army’s also implanting the Napoleonic code.. There is a huge difference between them both that would say napoleon was greater than Caesar and I have seen debates saying the same..The battle of Aspern Essling. Napoleon faced overwhelming odds. Infact vast majority of the time napoleon was outnumbered especially when you put together the British coalitions in the wars. When you read about the peninsular wars Arthur duke of wellington slowly pushed back the French with Spanish gorillas. but. from October 1808 Napoleon himself led the French armies. Napoleon quickly retook Madrid and forced the British into a terrible retreat through the Spanish mountains believing the peninsular was won he left in early1809 to his marshals a mistake on Napoleons part. Since Arthur duke of wellington Quote says “Napoleon was worth 40,000 men on the battlefield but he was just one man who could not be everywhere at once” Meaning his marshal would take orders but could not think for themselves. Even at waterloo the Duke of Wellington said he would not fight against Napoleon unless Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher arrived with his Prussians There by vastly outnumbering Napoleon. I’m sorry but Arthur duke of wellington does not have anything on him to Napoleon……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. “Read over and over again the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus, Turenne, Eugene and Frederic. … This is the only way to become a great general and master the secrets of the art of war. …”
    – Napoleon Bonaparte, “Military Maxims of Napoleon”

    • First: thank you for that well reasoned reply.
      Second: Caesar never commanded just one legion, he commanded armies of legions, one of which at one point was the 13th, you have unfortunately condensed an entire career into the crossing of the Rubicon. (And if he did all he did with the 13th alone, the yes he was greater than Napoleon.)
      Third: I never said that Napoleon and Caesar were two peas in a pod, (Indeed I used the comparison to defend Napoleon from comparison’s to Hitler) much of Napoleonic strategy came from Caesarian principles, Napoleon was a natural soldier and clumsy politician, Caesar a natural politician who had the gift of the Roman Army. My personal feeling is Caesar accomplished what Napoleon did, but without gunpowder.
      Fourth: Wellington defeated the French in Spain in six years, by winning every major battle, and major battles are not won with “Guerrillos” these invaluable troops he used with many others like any other, to ensure Victory.
      Fith: The retreat to Corunna was not undertaken by Napoleon, nor did it have anything to do with Wellington, and he never fought a British army during the campaign, only the Spanish, and proves very little other than the unsurprising conclusion that the British could retreat. Marshal Soult conducted the pursuit and botched it at the end.
      Sixth: I am aware of the Duke’s high regard for Napoleon’s military talents. Napoleon’s disregard of Wellington’s is just as well known. But the short answer to “Wellington had nothing on Napoleon” is that he most obviously did in some way, otherwise Napoleon would have won. The Waterloo scenario ends with a Napoleonic victory every time if you remove Wellington from command.
      Seventh: This post was not about Wellington, nor Caesar, it was about whether I myself dignified Napoleon with the term “The Great” and though he may have been, I do not.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.

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