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'Napoleon' argues for the humanity of the infamous French emperor

Was the ruler of the first French Empire a hero, or a tyrant? The answer lies in how you read him, writes Charles Reinhardt.

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    Napoleon: A Life
    By Andrew Roberts
    Penguin Publishing
    976 pp.
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Five years ago, my undergraduate French history professor passed out copies of a strange-looking poem at the beginning of class, which contained the following lines:

"What are the duties of Christians ... towards Napoleon I, our Emperor?

... We owe to Napoleon I, our Emperor, love, respect, obedience, loyalty, military service....

Why are we bound in all these duties towards our Emperor?

To honor and serve our Emperor is to honor and serve God himself."

He then explained that from 1806 until the end of Napoleon’s reign, these words were recited daily by every schoolchild in the French Empire. That document, known as the Imperial Catechism, is one of the best exhibits of the status held by one of the most consequential figures in European history.

Napoleon I, celebrated general of the French revolutionary army, first consul of the French Republic, and ultimately ruler of the first French Empire, made such an indelible stamp on the modern world that it is almost impossible to conceive it without him. For nearly 20 years, Napoleon’s armies swept aside feudal states across Europe, replacing them with secular civil codes and centralized governments. As shown by the catechism above, however, it’s equally hard to conceive his accomplishments without taking into account his extreme personality and the ego that came with it.

British historian Andrew Roberts’s new book, Napoleon: A Life, aims to recast the so-called Man of Destiny in a more humane light, following the recent release of thousands of new letters from Napoleon’s estate, which offer, Roberts claims, a fuller picture of the man and his motivations. Indeed, Roberts argues throughout the biography that negative portrayals of Napoleon that have persisted in the popular imagination are due to propaganda from the Bourbon dynasty that replaced him after his defeat and exile: “The lure of employment or a pension or merely the right to publish under the Bourbons wrecked objectivity.” Roberts uses a wealth of historical documents to portray Napoleon as a controversial but ultimately benevolent figure who suffered from uncharitable depictions after his fall from power. This aim is only slightly undermined by Roberts’s admission that Bonaparte displayed “a persistent untruthfulness in the telling of his own life.”

Roberts’s admiration is grounded in the appeal of Napoleon’s intense contradictions. An immensely detail-oriented and opinionated man, he was “one of the most unrelenting micromanagers in history” and yet was able to inspire such emotion in the artists of his time that the founder of Romanticism himself, René de Chateaubriand, lamented that life after his reign was “like falling from the summit of a mountain into an abyss.” Napoleon was fond of sarcasm, once using the pope’s own “infallibility” argument against him while negotiating with the Church, and yet he was also capable of great sincerity, arousing such loyalty among his officers that even after banishment his army rallied immediately at the prospect of his return during the Hundred Days campaign. At the height of his power he embodied the French state for his supporters, despite an adolescent embrace of Corsican nationalism and an Italian accent so thick his own palace architect, Pierre Fontaine, found it “incredible in a man of his position.”

For a work of dense historical detail, Roberts’s book is gripping, propelled both by the enthusiasm of its author and the speed of Napoleon’s own vertiginous rise to power. Roberts’s eye for detail and historical context adds fresh resonance to the sequence of events that led the son of a minor Italian landowner to become a leading artillery strategist, then a general, and finally a head of state.

Nevertheless, the richness of the details Roberts furnishes contains many facts that weigh against his own benevolent thesis about the character and importance of the work’s subject. Speaking of the emperor’s penchant for cross-examination, he notes that “the conversational method of quick-fire questions was pure Napoleon.” He also touches on his famous unflappability, “So rigid a control of one’s emotions might seem distasteful to the modern temperament, but at the time it was considered a classical virtue.” This emotional coldness and lack of remorse has remained one of the principal historical accusations against Napoleon, bolstered by an account from one of his own soldiers, a German named Jakob Walter, who wrote that in the ruinous and blood-soaked aftermath of his failed invasion of Russia, “although the French and Allies shouted into his ears many oaths and curses about his own guilty person, he was still able to listen to them unmoved.”

Again and again, Roberts contextualizes Napoleon’s actions by reference to personal preferences and opinions revealed by primary documents – a curious way to evaluate someone’s historical importance. Napoleon created an “unprecedentedly efficient surveillance system, but he had no interest in controlling every aspect of his subjects’ lives,” Roberts writes. Despite Napoleon’s unforgivable re-establishment of slavery in the French colonies in 1802 and his brutal crushing of Toussaint Louverture’s emancipatory revolt in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), “he later acknowledged that the brutality of his policies had compromised their effectiveness.” Roberts also tries to contextualize Napoleon’s actions by means of comparison: “Napoleon is often accused of being a quintessential warmonger, yet war was declared on him far more often than he declared it on others.”

Roberts has put together one of the best, most comprehensive accounts of the life and deeds of the great dictator and military genius. It is up to you, however, to decide if you share Roberts’s conclusions about the man himself.

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