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Napoleon, tyrant or genius?  The controversies surrounding the emperor


On May 5, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte died at the age of 51 in Saint Helena. Two hundred years after his death, the emperor is still talking about him. Visionary genius or true tyrant? France 24 invites you to come back to the various controversies surrounding his personality.

“This man, whose genius I admire and whose despotism I abhor”, François-René de Chateaubriand summed up. For two centuries, Napoleon Bonaparte has not ceased to be the subject of controversy. Adored or criticized, a concentrate of French passions, he is sometimes “l’Aigle”, brilliant strategist, sometimes “Ogre” warrior, misogynist and who has reestablished slavery.

The bicentenary of his death is an opportunity to once again revive the controversies around this figure in the history of France. While some believe that this date should not even be commemorated, the historian Charles-Éloi Vial, author of several books about it including “Napoleon – La certitude et ambition” (published by Perrin / BNF) is back for France 24 on the shadowy areas surrounding “the Little Corporal”.

France 24 : Promoted general at 24, then general-in-chief of the Home Army at 26, Napoleon had a meteoric rise. Key man in the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire Year VIII (9 November 1799), he won the stakes by seizing the Consulate before confiscating power as First Consul “for life”, then crowning himself Emperor of the French, December 2, 1804. Napoleon then brought France into line and established a police state. Would you rather call him a visionary or a tyrant?

Charles-Éloi Vial: The term tyrant is perhaps a little strong, that of visionary also: in history, one must know how to adopt nuanced points of view, and admit that Napoleon was not black or white, his government had very good aspects, especially in terms of administration, but he led France in a very authoritarian manner, favoring equality over freedom, which inevitably may shock us. More than a tyrant or a visionary, he was quite simply a man, with his qualities and his faults.

Reproduction of a portrait of Napoleon I painted in December 1804 on the occasion of his coronation. AFP

Can we nevertheless underline that his ambition was disproportionate?

We can of course blame him. His ambition takes him very high and allows him to become emperor at the age of 35. But it was also she who pushed him to launch into too much war against Russia in 1812, to go back to war in 1813 and 1814, to stubbornly refuse to sign the peace and to attempt a final return in 1815, which ends with the defeat of Waterloo. His ambition loses him. He leads the “Great Empire” in its fall, but he then shows himself capable of transcending it in Saint Helena by laying the foundations of his legend.

At the start of his reign, everything succeeds for him, especially on the battlefields, such as at Austerlitz, a year to the day after his coronation. Intoxicated, Napoleon does not know how to ease off. After his return to power in 1815, the Napoleonic armies were no longer able to stand up and were defeated at Waterloo. Was he too fond of war?

Napoleon himself said that he loved war as an artist. He felt at ease on the battlefield, because he could deploy his military talents there which were extraordinary, which everyone, including among his enemies, readily recognized. Most of the wars of the time were defensive, until 1808, when he was carried away by his ambition. In Spain, and especially in Russia, he shows that he makes war above all for the sake of glory. The stakes are higher and higher, the death toll increases and the battles become more and more bloody. However, it is estimated that around a million French soldiers died during the wars of the Revolution and the Empire, which is certainly a lot, but less than contemporary conflicts.

Napoleon, tyrant or genius?  The controversies surrounding the emperor
Reproduction of a cropped painting representing the Emperor Napoleon I (1769-1821) during the Battle of Waterloo where the European countries united against France imposed defeat on June 18, 1815. AFP

Others speak of his insensitivity to human pain. What was it really?

The testimonies on this subject are divided. Some describe him as an insensitive being, others as someone very attentive to illnesses, to the suffering of his relatives, himself recommending remedies to his brothers or his wife in his letters. He just doesn’t have the same attitude when he is in his role as a warlord as he is in his role as a private man. His decision to euthanize patients in Jaffa, during the Egyptian expedition, in particular caused much ink to flow. This being the case, even forcing himself to be insensitive, he sometimes feels moved, as after the particularly deadly battle of Eylau, where he was touched by the spectacle of blood on the snow.

Napoleon completes the modern, centralized state and promulgates the Civil Code in 1804. But this one imposes the patriarchal model and affirms the legal incapacity of the married woman. After marrying Joséphine de Beauharnais, he repudiates her because she does not offer him an heir. Napoleon is today accused of misogyny. Is this an appropriate term?

Napoleon did not escape the prejudices of his time. He seems to have paid little attention to the condition of women, but he still reasoned as a man of the 18th centurye century, and not, necessarily, of the XXIe. Despite everything, we can notice that the Civil Code, imperfect though it may be, recognizes a legal existence for women, and that there is a difference between the law as it is stated and the reality of society, this that we do not necessarily perceive today: more recent research in archives returns, for example, to the role of women alone managing farms or businesses.

We also forget that Napoleon held many women in high esteem. If he played with prejudices to discredit his political enemies like Germaine de Staël, he received advice from certain women, notably Joséphine. He was undoubtedly the first sovereign to entrust a diplomatic mission to a woman, the Countess of Brignole, in 1813; he appoints his sister Elisa at the head of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and finally entrusts the regency of the Empire to his wife Marie-Louise, who governs in her place for a year and a half, signs the decrees, orders the levies of soldiers and validates the death sentences for him.

Napoleon, tyrant or genius?  The controversies surrounding the emperor
The divorce of the Empress Joséphine, December 15, 1809, by Henri-Frédéric Schopin. © Wikimedia

In 1802, Bonaparte, who had become First Consul, decided to maintain slavery “in accordance with the laws and regulations of before 1789”, the first step towards restoration, whereas it had been abolished by the Convention in 1794. Two centuries later , it is today the main criticism that emerges against it. Is this justified?

Faced with slavery, Napoleon’s attitude was ambivalent: he freed hundreds of slaves in Malta in 1798, then forcibly enlisted slaves in the army of Egypt a few weeks later. For years, one of his most faithful servants was a former slave, the Mamluk Roustam Raza dit Roustan. From a moral point of view, the reestablishment of slavery is of course an atrocious fault and a stain on the Consulate’s balance sheet, which undoubtedly shocked at the time and which still shocks us today with very good reason. Bonaparte wanted to act too quickly, without thinking, seeking profit and short-term stability, which is moreover quite symptomatic of his practice of power, where great ideas are often undermined by pure pragmatism. He probably ended up regretting this decision and understood that posterity would blame him. He ordered the abolition of the slave trade during his brief return to power in 1815, and in Saint Helena, he will try to free some of the island’s slaves with whom he had the opportunity to speak.

That being said, it is very good that the issue of slavery is addressed, historians have been talking about it for decades without interest to the general public, and the attention paid to the subject lately shows that the way of looking at Napoleon is changing. It is no longer a myth, a little fossilized by its legend. Years of critical publications, trying to put his reign in perspective and escape the prism of glory have paid off. The general public is moving away from this vision inherited from the IIIe Republic of an invincible and infallible Napoleon, and we now understand better that his record can quite rightly be questioned and reassessed.

Two hundred years after his death, what do you think of the controversies? Should we commemorate this bicentenary or not?

The question is to know who and what to commemorate in 2021: in my eyes, it is above all a matter of remembering that two hundred years ago, with the death of Napoleon, an extraordinary, tragic, eventful and complex of our History, which opens in 1789 and ends with Waterloo. The disappearance of the emperor is the end of an era that he embodies, whether we like it or not, and which has marked millions of French people who lived under his reign and it is perhaps they should also be remembered, whether civilians or soldiers.

It is also the occasion for historians to present the fruit of more than fifty years of research, since the beginning of the commemorations with the bicentenary of the birth of Napoleon in 1969, where we passed as I said from a terribly frozen vision of the emperor, like an omniscient and invincible genius, with a much more nuanced character. We know much better about the First Empire in 2021 than a few decades ago, and knowledge of the period is constantly increasing because there is still a great deal of archives to go through. The issue of slavery has thus been the subject of numerous publications, works have been devoted to homosexuality under the Empire, the condition of women has also been studied, and more generally, the functioning of the society and the workings of the administration are less nebulous than in the past.

It is very paradoxical to think that Napoleon is the most studied character in the world, but that there is still much to discover. The hype surrounding the bicentennial is therefore an excellent opportunity to make the most recent university research known to as many people as possible, and if there is indeed controversy, it is perhaps also because the vision that the general public may have of Napoleon is now less dependent on legend and more influenced by historical criticism.

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