On Bonaparte the Barbaric

There have not been many self-made monarchs in world history, but all of them were, without exception, to put it mildly, more than a little eccentric. As Lord Acton famously wrote, while power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the three best-known examples of politicians who started out as republican idealists and ended as self-proclaimed sovereigns are classic personifications of the dictum.

The second president of the Central African Republic, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, could claim a distinguished military career before he entered politics, joining in the Free French struggle against the German occupation of the country during the Second World War. In 1976, ten years after seizing the presidency in a coup, his ambitions achieved their crowning glory (pun intended) when he spent most of the country’s treasury coffers on his coronation as first Emperor of the Central African Empire. The ambitions proved to be bloody as well as vain: after his overthrow in 1979, the remains of some of his political opponents were found in the deep-freeze in his Bangui palace.

Closer to home in the Balkans, the Albanian bureaucrat Ahmet Zogolli was a keen campaigner for his nation’s independence from the Ottoman Turks in the early years of the 20th Century. In 1928, three years after becoming President, he had himself declared King Zog I of Albania. Despite the Albanian constitution declaring the state to be a constitutional monarchy, the new king nonetheless reserved the right to appoint one-third of Tirana’s upper house, and maintained the country’s status as a repressive police state. He even instituted his own fascist-esque gesture of allegiance, the Zogist Salute – his subjects were required to hold a flat hand against the heart, with the palm facing downwards, when so directed.

Neither Bokassa nor Zog will have been unaware of the example offered them by the ultimate self-made monarch, Napoleon Bonaparte, and that’s not the only problem that I have with the first French Emperor. There have rightly been commemorative events in Belgium and the UK to mark today’s bicentenary of Bonaparte’s final defeat at Waterloo, but now might also be a good time for a different appraisal of him. At the very least, we need an alternative appraisal that does not descend into starry-eyed hero worship, as seems to be offered by his latest big-name fan, the historian Andrew Roberts, currently fronting a Wednesday night TV documentary series on “Napoleon the Great”.


My first problem is that, almost uniquely among great men of the Modern Era, we are still referring to Napoleon Bonaparte by his first name only. Why? Do we imagine that, nearly two centuries after his death, he is our friend, or would have been if we had ever met him in his time? Or are we conferring legitimacy on his self-coronation at Notre-Dame Cathedral in 1804, as if this were the most rational and justifiable action in the world? Born into a family of Corsican nationalists, Bonaparte had started out his political life as a member of the left-wing Jacobins: his career thereafter spectacularly re-defines the term “sell out”.

Historians who decry attempts to compare Bonaparte with Hitler and Stalin are frankly wasting their time. OK, the first French Emperor’s government could not claim quite so big a body count as those of Hitler or Stalin, but his actions did nonetheless lead to millions of deaths across Europe. OK, Bonaparte created the Banque de France, a new education system, and the Code Napoleon, and revolutionised government and institutions across Europe, but does that really make up for all the bodies strewn across the continent from Madrid to Moscow in the wake of his wars? Estimates as to how many died because of the Napoleonic conflict range from 3.5 million to 6 million – with 1 million of them from France. At least some of Bonaparte’s soldiers ultimately got wise to their raw deal: towards the end of the Peninsular War, French graffiti was discovered on a Spanish wall that read:

The Spanish war: death for soldiers, ruin for officers, fortunes for generals

Furthermore, regardless as to how talented any figure from history is, megalomania is megalomania. Commenting on the 1802 referendum to name Bonaparte is Consul For Life, a soldier in the French army recalled in his memoirs:

We were summoned by our general who said “You are free to hold your own opinion. Nevertheless, I warn you that the first man not to vote for Napoleon as leader for life will be shot.”

Bonaparte’s regime was arguably the first to institute a personality cult around the leader. He arranged to have the Catholic Church’s Catechism to be rewritten and then read out by children in their schools:

– What do we owe to Napoleon?
– We owe to Napoleon I, our Emperor, love, respect, obedience, loyalty, military service, for the defence of the empire.
– Are there not particular reasons which should attach us to our Emperor?
– According to the Apostle Paul, those who do not render themselves worthy of eternal damnation.

The familiar lauding of Bonaparte as the ultimate Man of the Enlightenment thus needs to be tempered (to say the least) by the evidence. Whereas the 1789-94 revolutionary governments in France at least claimed kinship with the ideals of the Enlightenment, the country’s military dictator from 1799 had a phobia of open doors and consulted little red genies when formulating military strategy. Whereas the revolutionary governments effected religious freedom through the emancipation of Protestants and Jews, soon after he assumed absolute power, Bonaparte reinstated France’s Catholic Church as the only legal state religion. His motive for doing so was a textbook exercise in cynicism:

How can a state be well governed without the aid of religion? When a man dies of hunger next to another who is gorged, he cannot accept that disparity without some authority saying “God has decreed that there must be rich and poor, but in the afterlife for eternity it shall be the other way about.”

Put simply, the various claims that have been made about Bonaparte having created an enlightened liberal empire are more than a little tall. His Europe-wide project was less a liberal empire than a multinational family firm, in which he appointed his siblings to rule as monarchs in the countries that he had “liberated”, while at the same time reserving the right to step in with the French army if they were not ruling the way he wanted – as was the case with Spain in 1808.

Finally, perhaps most revealingly, few people in France – the country he ruled for sixteen years and had such an impact upon – feel like commemorating Bonaparte or any anniversary connected with him – although the Revolution and le quatorze juillet continue to be marked annually.

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.

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