Napoleon: Saint, Sinner or Both?

Seventy years ago, interned by the Germans in Buchenwald concentration camp, the Dutch professor Peter Geyl tried out on the inmates his view that the place of Napoleon in history should be reconsidered in the light of Hitler’s tyranny. Although Napoleon was not the author of genocide and was wedded to equality and the rights of man, Geyl nevertheless thought that Napoleon was responsible for murder and massacre on a grand scale.

These ideas were subsequently developed in Napoleon For and Against (1949), in which he demonstrated how French historians were divided over what the great man stood for. For some, he was the saviour of the Revolution against the forces of reaction and the architect of French greatness, while for others he was a Corsican arriviste who used France as a platform for his ambitions as usurper, tyrant and warmonger.

Napoleon caricature 1

This division of opinion not only affected historians. During his life Napoleon’s French and foreign enemies called him ‘Buonaparte’, suggesting that he was not French, and spun a black legend about him as an ogre, worse than Genghis Khan. Against this was elaborated the Napoleonic legend. The ex-emperor’s own dictation of the Memorial of Saint-Helena, published in 1823, soon after his death, presented himself as a saviour of France, a friend of liberty and builder of a European Confederation. His imprisonment by the British contributed to a story of his martyrdom and rumours of a Second Coming. He inspired a political ideology and movement – Bonapartism – that promised a strong leader carried by the popular will, which was variously incarnated by Napoleon III and Charles de Gaulle. His charisma inspired Romantic heroes of fiction, such as Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, while his brooding presence overshadows Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862), Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) and Thomas Hardy’s Dynasts (1904-8).

Film directors have struggled to reduce the Napoleonic epic to the screen. Abel Gance’s brilliant silent movie of 1927 reached only the Italian campaign of 1796 and five further episodes were abandoned. Bondarchuk’s 1970 film, Waterloo, mobilised 16,000 Red Army extras and Orson Welles as Louis XVIII, but its financial challenges persuaded Kubrick to abandon his own projected Napoleon in favour of A Clockwork Orange. Less direct, more playful depictions have often proved more successful, as in Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975), Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981) and novellas such as Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion (1987).

Napoleon caricature

The complexity of the man and his epoque have generated a vast historiography. There are some classic accounts that are still worth reading. George Lefebvre’s Napoleon (1935, English version 1969) portrays him as the ‘soldier of the Revolution’ and the last and greatest Enlightened despot.
J.M. Thompson’s Napoleon (1953) and Felix Markham’s Napoleon (1963) are judicious and elegant accounts which see Napoleon as a product of the Revolution and a flawed genius who overreached himself. Both cite Queen Victoria’s visit to the Invalides with Napoleon III, when she told her son, the future Edward VII: ‘Kneel down before the tomb of the great Napoleon.’ Thompson also edited a selected version of Napoleon’s Letters (1934), which provide an excellent insight into the man’s thinking and a good set text for students.

The 1969 bicentenary of Napoleon’s birth stimulated a revival of interest. Some accounts concentrated on the military leader and his battles, while others explored his inscrutable character. David Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon (1966) is a comprehensive analysis of the former, over 1,000 pages long, which he obligingly summarises in his Napoleon (1973). Vincent Cronin, on the other hand, claims to have written his Napoleon (1971) because he could find no adequate account of the ‘living, breathing man’. Jean Tulard’s Napoleon (1977, English version 1984) is a mature study by a leading expert, which contrasts the switch from saviour to despot and from necessary to vainglorious war. It also gives a good account of the development of the Napoleonic legend.

Although recent works claim to be impartial and critical, the lines of debate are often clearly drawn between those who imagine Napoleon as a hero and those who see him as a villain. Corelli Barnett shows his colours in his Bonaparte (1978) by calling Napoleon ‘Napoleone Buonaparte’ and ‘a social misfit’ who used France for his own megalomaniac ends and argues that his legend was based on ‘the sentimental credulity of men’. Alan Schom’s Napoleon Bonaparte (1997) underlines Napoleon’s egoism, vanity and cruelty and claims that ‘the memory of Genghis Khan paled in comparison’, given the three million dead the emperor left on the battlefields of Europe. Accounts more favourable to Napoleon are Frank McLynn’s Napoleon: A Biography (1997), Robert Asprey’s The Rise and Fall of Napoleon Bonaparte (2000-1) and Napoleon: A Political Life (2004) by Steven Englund, who presents Napoleon as a republican emperor and takes seriously the Liberal Empire installed when he returned briefly to power in 1815.

After the bicentenary of the French Revolution there was renewed scholarship on Napoleon, much of which saw him as heir to that revolution. Recent good work has placed Napoleon in the rich context of the period, from the ruling class of notables fused from Old Regime nobles and revolutionary elites to the Napoleonic model of law, justice, and administration, which developed from the Revolution and was exported from France to the Grand Empire in much of Italy, Germany and the Low Countries. Among the best are works by former pupils of the French Revolutionary historian Richard Cobb, who himself hated Napoleon: Martyn Lyons’ Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution (1994); Michael Broers’ Europe Under Napoleon, 1799-1815 (1996); Geoffrey Ellis, Napoleon (1997), which also has a fine study of the historiography; and Alan Forrest, Napoleon (2011). Charles Esdaile’s The Wars of Napoleon (1995) is strong on the social dimension of warfare, while Napoleon’s Integration of Europe (1991) by Stuart Woolf takes seriously the idea of a European Confederation.

Finally, ways in which the Napoleonic legend and black legend developed alongside each other are explored in the chapter on ‘Bonapartism’ in my own The Past in French History (1994), in Robert S. Alexander’s Napoleon (2001) and by Sudhir Hazareesingh in The Napoleonic Legend and The Saint-Napoleon (both 2004).

author Robert Gildea, Professor of Modern History at Worcester College, Oxford.