It is about time Britons finally revised their estimation of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French. For 200 years, Britons have seen him either through the lens provided by the great British caricaturists of his day, as a physically small warmongering tyrant, or even worse — through the equally ludicrous prism of the Second World War, as a proto-Hitler figure.
These misconceptions might have the effect of making us feel morally superior to him, but as the bicentenary of his fall approaches, we ought to look at him anew, and in so doing, we may take another look at ourselves, too. During the Napoleonic Wars and for long afterwards, mothers would warn their children that if they didn’t behave “Boney would come”.
It worked, because artists of the day, such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruickshank depicted Napoleon as a terrifying, fiendishly evil figure capable of committing any atrocity — despite his dwarfish stature. In fact, at 5ft 6in, Napoleon was the average height for a Western European of the day, and was only made out to be a midget for wartime propaganda purposes.
This portrayal of Napoleon as a blood-thirsty warmonger willing to wade through oceans of gore in order to satisfy an insane, hubristic ambition is as flawed as the image of him as a short man with a Napoleon complex. There is, indeed, such a psychological disorder, but Napoleon himself didn’t suffer from one. The first wars of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were declared by Britain, Austria and Prussia against France in 1792, when Napoleon was a mere artillery lieutenant, so they cannot be blamed on him.
Similarly, once he became ruler of France in 1799, the wars of 1800, 1805, 1806, 1809, 1813, 1814 and 1815 were all declared against him by allied coalitions. He usually offered peace before the clashes took place. He was not, therefore, the sole, or even the principal, warmonger of the age. Ironically enough, the two wars that he did indeed start — the appallingly opportunistic Peninsular War of 1808-14 and the Russian campaign of 1812 — were the same ones in which he was comprehensively defeated, with huge losses to France.
Yet, it was not a lunatic hubris that led him to invade Russia, as so many historians have alleged. He had beaten the Russians twice before, in the Austerlitz and Friedland campaigns. He had an army twice the size of Russia’s, indeed the same size as the whole of Paris. The typhus that devastated his army was not to be diagnosed until 1911. He had even allowed enough time to return to Smolensk from Moscow to avoid the horrors of the Russian winter. He was defeated in Russia once he chose the wrong route back home, but it was not as a result of some tyrannical impulse.
The British reviewers of my book Napoleon the Great have tended to take exception to its title and have likened Napoleon to Saddam Hussain, Muammar Gaddafi, Adolf Hitler and even Silvio Berlusconi, although the last is not totally outrageous because Napoleon did notch up a total of no fewer than 22 mistresses.
Yet, although Napoleon was undoubtedly a dictator who had seized power in a military coup, he was, unlike those other figures, a lawgiver of quite astonishing capacity. Napoleon was a creator who saved the best parts of the French Revolution — equality before the law, religious tolerance, meritocracy and so on — while discarding the ludicrous parts, such as the Cult of the Supreme Being and the 10-day week.
When he came to power, he found no fewer than 46 different legal codes operating in France and replaced them with one comprehensible one, the Code Napoleon, which today can be found in the legal system of 40 countries in all six inhabited continents. He reformed France’s educational, administrative and financial systems and founded many institutions — such as the Banque de France, the Legion d’Honneur, the Cour des Comptes, the Conseil D’Etat — which still exist in France today, as well as building some of the most gorgeous public architecture in Paris.
He represented the Enlightenment on horseback, not some Gaddafi or Saddam-style tyrant. Britons have not always felt the need to denigrate their enemies. Winston Churchill’s maiden speech in the House of Commons praised the Boers against whom he had fought, and even during the Second World War he was able to praise Erwin Rommel as a “daring general”. Britons ought to listen to him when he said in December 1940: “I certainly deprecate any comparison between Herr Hitler and Napoleon; I do not wish to insult the dead.”
After two centuries of sneering, the bicentenary next Thursday is the perfect time to appreciate Napoleon for what he truly was: An enemy, certainly, and one who hoped to invade Britain, but also a worthy foe and benevolent dictator who was a genius in peace and war and far removed from the common ruck of history’s despots.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2015