Napoleon the Great?


Was Napoleon a Great man, or tyrant? That’s the big question which Andrew Roberts’ lengthy new biography sets out to answer.

Bonaparte took a country that was on its knees, crumbling under the weight of an acute fiscal crisis and waves of social unrest, and transformed it into the most powerful nation in Europe. In doing so, he signalled the end of anachronistic regimes across the continent, changed the face of government and single almost single-handedly laid the foundations for the modern France that we know today. All of these achievements have stood the test of time. Roberts argues that those historians who have preferred to characterise Napoleon as the first totalitarian dictator have got it all wrong: he was certainly not perfect, but he has arguably had more influence on the Europe of the last two centuries than any other man.

If we’re looking for proof of Napoleon’s greatness, then we need look no further than his immortality. Hitler’s death was mostly met with an embarrassed silence, while Stalin’s demise was followed by denunciation. But when Napoleon died on St Helena in 1821, he immediately leant his name to an ‘era’, and the term Napoleonic entered the history books, never to be removed. Much of Europe and the Americas immediately saw itself as a post-Napoleonic generation.

The debate runs as fervently today as it did in the past. Indeed, in the eyes of many, we are entering something of a new golden age of Napoleonic literature. Andrew Roberts’s engagingly written and meticulously research new book is the second of two major studies of his life to appear this year. So what kind of Napoleon do we want today? The last one tried knocked him off his pedestal, emphasising the love of power and control that drove him to wage war almost permanently against his neighbours. As such, he comes to represent a precursor to the dictators of the 20th century. Roberts thankfully disregards this approach, and is keen to relate the ruler’s success rather than his crimes; above all, he wants us to respect Napoleon.

There are many reasons to agree with Roberts. After all, although Roberts does not labour the fact, Napoleon did more than anyone to make greatness achievable – by showing not only the importance of the individual, but more importantly to most of our predecessors, that talent was more important than birth. Glory was dependent on achievements was than status, and no one worked harder than Napoleon to demonstrate that by his actions.

But it was not all down to hard work and, as Napoleon readily admitted, he also had his fair share of luck. Because Roberts has an impressive of the details of the battles, he highlights the combination of skill and good fortune that battlefield tactician into the emperor. But once we leave the battles, the treatment of Bonaparte is more biased. Roberts’ treatment of the civil code, for instance, is far more uncritical than it need have been. One could present Napoleon not simply as the great institution-builder he was, but as the man who failed to extend significant rights beyond the male property owner; Roberts overlooks the fact that he largely ignored women’s rights, for example. With such a focus on the battles, the larger impact of Napoleonic administration on law and politics across Europe tends to get somewhat overlooked.

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