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Napoleon: flawed hero or power-mad tyrant?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

On 5 May 1821, one of the most iconic figures in world history died while in bitter exile on a remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Napoleon Bonaparte, who rose from obscure soldier to new Caesar, remains a uniquely controversial figure to this day. Should we think of him as a flawed but essentially heroic visionary who changed Europe for the better? Or was he simply a military dictator, whose cult of personality and lust for power set a template for the likes of Hitler?

The problem is that nothing with Napoleon is simple, and almost every aspect of his personality is a maddening paradox. He was a military genius who led disastrous campaigns. And he was a liberal progressive who reinstated slavery in the French colonies. And take the French Revolution, which came just before Napoleon’s rise to power. As historian Professor Chris Clark ponders, 'His relationship with the French Revolution is deeply ambivalent. Did he stabilize it or shut it down? He seems to have done both.'

A nation which had boldly brought down the monarchy had to watch as Napoleon crowned himself Emperor...

On the one hand, Napoleon did bring order to a nation that had been drenched in blood in the years after the Revolution. The French people had endured the crackdown known as the 'Reign of Terror', which saw so many marched to the guillotine, as well as political instability, corruption, riots and general violence. Napoleon’s iron will managed to calm the chaos. But he also rubbished some of the core principles of the Revolution. A nation which had boldly brought down the monarchy had to watch as Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, with more power and pageantry than Louis XVI ever had. He also installed his relatives as royals across Europe, creating a new aristocracy. In the words of French politician and author Lionel Jospin, 'He guaranteed some principles of the Revolution and at the same time, changed its course, finished it and betrayed it.'

He also had a feared henchman in the form of Joseph Fouché, who ran a secret police network which instilled dread in the population. Napoleon’s spies were everywhere, stifling political opposition. Dozens of newspapers were suppressed or shut down. Books had to be submitted for approval to the Commission of Revision, which sounds like something straight out of George Orwell. Some would argue Hitler and Stalin followed this playbook perfectly.

But here come the contradictions. Napoleon also championed education for all, founding a network of schools. He championed the rights of the Jews. In the territories conquered by Napoleon, laws which kept Jews cooped up in ghettos were abolished. 'I will never accept any proposals that will obligate the Jewish people to leave France,' he once said, 'because to me the Jews are the same as any other citizen in our country.'

He also, crucially, developed the Napoleonic Code, a set of laws which replaced the messy, outdated feudal laws that had been used before. The Napoleonic Code clearly laid out civil laws and due processes, establishing a society based on merit and hard work, rather than privilege. It was rolled out far beyond France, and indisputably helped to modernise Europe. While it certainly had its flaws – women were ignored by its reforms, and were essentially regarded as the property of men – the Napoleonic Code is often brandished as the key evidence for Napoleon’s progressive credentials. In the words of historian Andrew Roberts, author of Napoleon the Great, 'the ideas that underpin our modern world… were championed [by] Napoleon'.

What about Napoleon’s battlefield exploits? If anything earns comparisons with Hitler, it’s Bonaparte’s apparent appetite for conquest. His forces tore down republics across Europe, and plundered works of art, much like the Nazis would later do. A rampant imperialist, Napoleon gleefully grabbed some of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance, and allegedly boasted, 'the whole of Rome is in Paris.'

Yet, defenders of Napoleon will say his reputation as a war monger is largely due to British propaganda at the time. They’ll point out that the Napoleonic Wars, far from being Napoleon’s fault, were just a continuation of previous conflicts that arose thanks to the French Revolution. Napoleon, according to this analysis, inherited a messy situation, and his only real crime was to be very good at defeating enemies on the battlefield. He was, by any measure, a genius of war. Even his nemesis the Duke of Wellington, when asked who the greatest general of his time was, replied: 'In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.'

And, while Napoleon’s Russian campaign has been held up as a fatal folly which killed so many of his men, this blunder – epic as it was – should not be compared to Hitler’s wars of evil aggression. Most historians will agree that comparing the two men is horribly flattering to Hitler – a man fuelled by visceral, genocidal hate – and demeaning to Napoleon, who was a product of Enlightenment thinking and left a legacy that in many ways improved Europe.

The arguments over Napoleon’s status will continue – and that in itself is a testament to the power of one of the most complex figures ever to straddle the world’s stage.