Napoleon Bonaparte died on May 5, 1821. More books have been written with his name in the subject line than the number of days that have passed since.
So writing yet another biography about one of the most iconic and controversial statesman of 19th century Europe seems, at first glance, like a fruitless task.
That is, of course, unless one has something new to say about the French emperor. In Napoleon A Life the British historian Andrew Roberts seeks to revaluate what he calls the “caricature we have come to think of as Napoleon.”
Ever since Hitler visited Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides, on June 23, 1940¾ following the fall of Paris¾ a connection has been made between the two dictators that historians haven’t been able to forget about.
In his new book, Roberts seeks to persuade his readers that Napoleon was not an evil monster. The narrative is a remarkable piece of historical research that spans just over 800 pages. It presents a convincing argument that while Napoleon was certainly no pacifist, he did, during his 16 years in power, create lasting achievements that ought to be remembered by France, Europe, and indeed the rest of the world.
These include the encouragement of science and the arts; the abolition of feudalism, and the greatest codifications of laws in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. While Napoleon wasn’t shy in boasting that he “was of the race that [founded] empires,” Roberts suggests that the kind of empire he had in mind was that of Caesar, Alexander, and Frederick the Great. In other words: a world of progress achieved by force.
Roberts also vigorously challenges the conventional wisdom among historians that Napoleon’s downfall was a direct result of an inflated ego.
Instead, the author claims that it was a combination of unforeseeable events, and a handful of significant miscalculations, that led to defeats during the retreat from Moscow in 1812 and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
I spoke with Roberts in London to discuss his new book. He explained why we should today recognize that Napoleon had an incredible intellect, as well as astonishing military capabilities. And he says that those who accuse Napoleon of killing off democracy misunderstand politics in 19th century Europe.
You argue in this book that many of the ideas that underpin the modern western world — meritocracy, religious toleration, secular values, and sound finances—were championed by Napoleon: was it his administrative efficiency that was able to bring these qualities to modern Europe?
Well, he was a child of the Enlightenment. He had read Rousseau, Voltaire, and other thinkers in French society. France, and indeed Europe, was on the cusp of a new kind of living where governments needed to be efficient.
Napoleon kept the best parts of the French Revolution, such as religious toleration, equality before the law, and the abolition of feudalism. He then got rid of all the ridiculous sides of it: like the 10-day calendar, the cult of the Supreme Being, and mass guillotines. There were no mass guillotines after Napoleon came to power, except one, and that was for someone who tried to assassinate him.
So he wasn’t as bloodthirsty as the Jacobins?
No, he wasn’t. Obviously blood flowed on his battlefields. But that makes you a soldier, not bloodthirsty. What he tended to do was to exile people. And that is an awful lot less bloody than what happened during the Reign of Terror.
Is there a danger though—as we have seen in 20th century history with Lenin, Stalin, and Mao—of rulers who take Enlightenment values and believe that the ends justify the means when it comes to achieving progress in humanity?
The huge difference between those rulers and Napoleon comes down to one word: totalitarianism. Napoleon was not interested in it. He wanted his subjects to support his regime. And yes, he was very tough on those who didn’t. But he didn’t want to control every aspect of his subject’s lives. He wasn’t interested in inserting the state into the existence of the private individual. Mao, Lenin, and Stalin were obsessed with that idea.
So you are saying that Napoleon was not a totalitarian-dictator as many historians are eager to suggest?
Yes. I believe totalitarianism is a peculiarly 20th century idea. Napoleon was a dictator. But he was nothing like what you had in the 20th century. Napoleon was of course a control freak. But he wasn’t an obsessive who believed people shouldn’t have lives outside of the political system.
What were Napoleon’s greatest attributes as a military commander?
I would say timing and mastering topography were two of them. And also just playing it unbelievably cool in the course of making his decisions. He didn’t invent the new distance of warfare that allowed him to win his battles, but he did perfect them. I have visited 53 battlefields that Napoleon fought on, and it has taken me a lot of time. But I think, nevertheless, it has made me appreciate his sheer ability. There is no doubt that he was a military genius.
What were his weaknesses as a military commander: was it hubris?
No, I don’t believe there was a Napoleon complex going at all. There are plenty of reasons why he thought he could pull off the Russian campaign. He had beaten the Russians before. And let’s remember that he had an army twice the size of Russia’s (615,000 men, which at the time was the same as the population of Paris). He had no idea that Russia was going to burn down Moscow. He also didn’t know that a typhus infection was going to kill 140,000 of his men.
So there are plenty of explanations for the retreat from Moscow in 1812. But they have got absolutely nothing to do with hubris. It’s always been far too easy to come up with a psychological explanation for what happened in Moscow.
Where Napoleon went wrong was he simply took one bad decision to go north back through Smolensk, rather than going south. And that is what destroyed his army.
What about the Battle of Waterloo?
It was a complete disaster. He didn’t have his chief of staff, Louis-Alexandre Berthier, who committed suicide three days before the battle itself. So instead he appointed people in the wrong positions. He should have stuck to his own maxim: march separately and fight together. You simply cannot make mistakes like that against someone such as the Duke of Wellington, who never really lost a battle.
Many historians have tried to compare Napoleon to Hitler. You profoundly disagree with this though, why?
For a start, let’s look at the way Napoleon treated the Jews. Whenever he sent an army into Italy or Germany, the first thing he did was to liberate the Jews from the ghettos, giving them political and religious liberty. In the Papal States Napoleon stopped the Jews having to wear the Papal star. But when he was defeated in 1815, the Jews were sent back and forced to wear a yellow star again. Equating him with Adolf Hitler really is absurd. And the reason so many historians tend to do this is because they are of an elder generation that sees everything through the prism of the Second World War. And that really makes no sense when looking back at Napoleon’s career.
Can you talk about Napoleon’s relationship with religion?
He was agnostic. But he recognized the immense power of the Catholic Church in France and Europe at that time. One of the positive things about his consulate was to allow the Catholic Church— and indeed the Protestant and Jewish faiths— to be made legal again. This was after ten years in France when priests and nuns were killed and alters were being desecrated. So he actually brought [religion] back to legality in France. The trouble was, he alienated Pope Pius VI and Pius VII—the latter he actually arrested. That of course then set the Catholic Church against him.
What was Napoleon’s stance on the French Revolution? He initially supported it. But what influenced his change of heart to move away from Jacobinism as an ideology?
Well, it certainly didn’t help when the Jacobins fell and Robespierre was executed along with 60 other leading Jacobins. Napoleon was arrested and put in prison for two weeks. There was a chance that he could have been arrested as well for his Jacobin tendencies. And what he did when he took power in 1799 was to put the revolution behind France. His own words were:” the revolution is over. I am the revolution.” And in a way that was right, because he was keen to save the best bits of it and to discard the worst. I think his time in prison made him see that France would be better off coming together, rather than the revolution devouring its children.
You say that something he learned from Alexander the Great was to understand that long term achievements of a great leader should not just be not military or strategic, but intellectual, cultural, and artistic.
Yes, an important side to Napoleon was that he was an intellectual. He was of course an autocrat. But he was an enlightened autocrat. The achievements he was proudest of were not the battles, but the way in which he changed France at a time of peace, between 1800 and 1805.
And that was the time when he brought in the Code Napoleon. Hitherto there had been 42 legal codes operating in modern France, which is a completely ridiculous way to try and run a modern country. He brought in one. It worked in some 40 countries and has been adopted in every continent of the world since. He brought in the Bank of France, built up Paris with beautiful bridges and reservoirs, reformed the tax code, set up a public accounts system, and imposed the metric system. These are all achievements that have lasted 200 years.
Many historians have leveled criticism at the Code, arguing that it was too conservative and supportive of the bourgeois. What is your counter argument to this?
One of the great criticisms of the code is that it supported the property classes, but that’s exactly the point: it was supposed to. There had just recently been a revolution. The middle classes and the peasantry had bought a lot of land from the government that had been taken from the aristocracy and the church. So if you were going to have any kind of civil peace in France, you had to establish the legitimacy of that property as belonging to the people who bought it from the state. And that is really what the Code Napoleon did: it gave people the right to own property. And as many writers, thinkers, and philosophers have pointed out, when you have solid property rights, a stable society and a successful economy can flourish.
Napoleon is also accused of killing off French democracy. You disagree however. Is your argument basically that democracy, or the word democrat, meant something else during Napoleon’s reign?
Well, yes. Democrat meant revolutionary in the early 19th century. And there was no democracy in Austria, Russia, and Prussia, which were the three other great nations of the day: they were all autocracies. France did have a form of democracy after the revolution. And yes, Napoleon did extinguish it. But it wasn’t the kind of democracy that we think of today. The French Revolution had seen three coups. And if you look at Britain in comparison: it had a parliamentary system at that time. But it was still one in which the male property owners had a vote, which was a small proportion of the population.
In 1800 Napoleon closed 60 of France’s 73 newspapers, warning that any others that included articles disrespectful of the social order would be suppressed immediately. Surely this is the action of a totalitarian dictator?
Well, no, because he was fighting a war. Britain censored newspapers during the Second World War under Churchill, who famously said that the “truth was so precious that it had to be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies.” There are any number of examples of nations at war not allowing themselves to be undermined by journalists.
What is the greatest thing that Napoleon has left to the world and how should we remember him: both as a military commander and as a human being who changed history?
I think Napoleon reminds us that the individual matters in history. He is a standing rebuke to the determinist view of history that says that men and women can’t make a difference. I disagree. I think that history is certainly made by some impersonal forces, on occasion. But really history is made by myriads of individuals. And nobody personifies the great man view of history better than Napoleon Bonaparte.