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Sep 11, 2017

Napoleon: Hero or Villain?


Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the best known people in history. Over the last 200 years there has been intense debate on whether he should be remembered as a hero or a villain. Read the page on Napoleon's legacy under the 'Napoleonic Wars' tab above, and then post your thoughts below.

There are always two problems with this debate: First, there is no placebo with which we can compare the character concerned. A chaotic state like Revolutionary France will always end up with an authoritarian strongman, but how differently would another person have acted? Secondly, a big character will always be written about to suit the current agenda - Churchill has been invoked by both sides in the EU argument. Thus, the selection of material and indeed, whether a character is a hero or villain, usually tells you more about the subjective views of the author than any objective view of the character involved. This is exacerbated where the character represents the last great outing of a fading power - which applies to both Churchill and Napoleon. In Napoleon's case, it is made worse by the fanboys denouncing any new material, which does not fit the mythology, as somehow "anti-Napoleon/French" when all that has been done is that new material has been unearthed, but that's probably the same with all celebrity fanboys.


Thus we finish up with the recent biographical output - Roberts' hagiography seeks to portray Napoleon as the man in charge, directing events, while Zamoyski strips Napoleon back to basic character and seeks to portray him as someone, who got lucky, amidst some very strong tides in history - yet they are writing about the same person. Both have failings, which are common in Napoleonic biography (and elsewhere):


First, they do not consider the wider context. The Code Napoleon is regularly trotted out as benefiting France and much of Europe. Even the hagiographer, Vincent Cronin, admits that the Revolutionaries had started work on a legal code in about 1795 to bring the country together and increase central control. Half had run on Common Law and half on Roman law - the Romans having devised the latter and famously codified it under Justinian in particular. One engine of English power was its Common law, introduced by Henry II in the 12th century. Joseph II introduced a Criminal Code and a series of commercial codes in the 1780s, but ran into stable vested interests, which had been largely eliminated for Napoleon and Henry II.


Secondly, they avoid the question of responsibility for the outcome. The BBC series 'The Nazis: A warning from history', revealed that contrary to the popular view, Hitler was rather idle and only set policy, leaving the donkeywork to his lieutenants, but Hitler is then viewed as responsible for every unpleasant result, let alone atrocity. Napoleon, his hagiographers tell us, worked tirelessly sending out instructions for everything, yet somehow he has no responsibility for The Second of May and other events portrayed by Goya, let alone the death and damage across Europe.



This is a beautifully considered response David - i agree with a lot of what you say here. I'm certainly no fan of Napoleon, but when i've heard Zamoyski speak I've often been left feeling that the situation is being oversimplified.


I'm certainly not inclined to believe the 'Man of Peace' argument about Napoleon though. Such an argument misses the point that various European nations declared war on Napoleon because he extracted intolerable terms in his peace treaties - his aim in such treaties was exploitation rather than prioritising compromise which could have resulted in a lasting settlement.

Jun 12

As I guess everyone on this site knows well enough, I loathe Napoleon and all he stands for: talented he may have been, but in the end he was nothing but a warlord and an adventurer. Indeed, as I once remarked to Adam Zamoyski, he always reminds me of a squirrel - i.e. a tree-borne rat with great PR! As for said biographer’s book, it is better than the disgraceful ‘Napoleon the Great’, but Zamoyski loses his way and ends up arguing that Boney was trapped by his own success, that he was in fact a victim of his own military might. This, however, is complete nonsense: the invasion of Russia, for example, was quite unnecessary, whilst a compromise peace could have been achieved as late as Febrairy 1814. Finally, the Code Napoleon contained many features - almost all of them the work of Boney himself - that were highly repressive, and was not adopted nearly as widely as has often been argued.

Yes, ultimately Napoleon can only blame himself for his downfall, given that he could not compromise.

You can hide behind an online pseudonym, Charles, but we all know it's you ;)

It is interesting that Hitler, Stalin and Napoleon were all foreigners to the countries where they had taken power. Napoleon may have been good for a few in France but there is a huge amount of blood on his hands. The French state had been bankrupted by their support of the American Revolution. The only way that France could survive was to asset strip and pillage further teritory whether of the enemy, satelite or ally. He was a poor judge of character and re-instated the slave trade.

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  • As the 214th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar looms, I'd like to open up discussion on the battle's importance. Whilst Trafalgar may have broken the back of the French navy, the commonly held perception that it prevented a French invasion of Britain is wrong - Napoleon had already moved his army from the English Channel to the River Rhine to start what would become the Austelitz campaign. Does this mean that we have exaggerated Trafalgar's importance? If so, is that mainly due to the death of Admiral Horatio Nelson in the moment of victory? How should we remember Trafalgar?
  • Metternich is usually dismissed, especially by Bonapartists, as a reactionary with no effect on Europe. However as this helpful introduction to the Austrian Chancellor argues, his influence was perhaps broader and longer-lasting than Napoleon's.
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