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July 17, 2015 5:05 pm

Napoleon: Good or Bad? It’s Not So Simple

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Napoleon at the Battle of the Pyramids. Antoine-Jean Gros 1771-1835

Napoleon at the Battle of the Pyramids by Antoine-Jean Gros 1771-1835.

A few weeks ago was the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, the one that finally ended Napoleon’s career. My history teacher made us read Pieter Geyl’s “Napoleon For and Against,” which illustrated the two opposing opinions as to whether Napoleon was good or bad – and I learnt you do not always have to decide one way or the other. The issue remains controversial to this day.

Beethoven had dedicated his Eroica symphony to him, but when Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven tore off the sheet he had inscribed “To Buonaparte,” saying, “He is no more than a common mortal. Now he too will trample underfoot the rights of man, indulge only his ambition.”

We Jews were divided, too. The Eastern European rabbinate feared Napoleon would bring freedom and that freedom would lead to assimilation. So, like those World War II rabbis who told their flocks it would be better to stay in Eastern Europe than try to escape to Palestine or the U.S. for fear of losing their religion, they put doctrine over life. The founder of Chabad Chassidism instructed his followers to pray for Napoleons’s downfall, because he thought that suffering anti-Semitism under the Czar was a preferable fate to freedom under Napoleon – just as the Satmar Rebbe told his followers to stay in Hungary rather than try escape the Nazis (which he did when Kastner gave him the opportunity).

More enlightened Jews applauded Napoleon because he insisted wherever he went that Jews be given equal rights. They condemned all those countries that allied to defeat him when they rescinded Jewish rights after his downfall. Britain couldn’t rescind them because she had not even given them. And Wellington, the victor, was a guttersnipe of an anti-Semite.

Napoleon convened the Sanhedrin of Jewish notables to promise them everything as citizens, but nothing as a people. He did indeed hope for Jewish assimilation, as he hoped to get rid of Nationalism and dismantle the petty rivalries, hatreds, and pathologies of the European states. Had he succeeded in blocking nationalism, the Dreyfus Affair and the Holocaust (and some argue even Zionism) might not have happened.

It is for his dream of a united Europe that the EU still has a soft spot for him. Sylvie Bermann, the French ambassador to the U.K., recently claimed that were he alive today Napoleon would have fought for the preservation of the EU, since he was driven by the dream of a “united Europe.” I think he’d have been appalled by the incompetence of the EU. So too does Simon Schama in a recent article in the Financial Times:

. . .if your idea of a united Europe is the wholly owned subsidiary of a militarist dynasty, with its brothers and sundry marshals on its thrones; a vast autocratic empire run by bureaucrats and from barracks, all financed by “indemnities” laid on the conquered as the bill for their own “liberation”; your masterpieces — Rubens, Veronese, Titian — hauled off to the Louvre in Paris, the only city fit to be the culture capital of the world; your manpower marched off to some godforsaken calamity…

When he came to power his police and spies were everywhere, deadening cultural life in Paris. Theatres were shut the minute they dared to perform anything that could be construed as critical of the regime. Napoleonic Paris was a showplace for grandiose architecture but the cemetery of independently conceived art and ideas…

In 1802 Napoleon reinstated slavery; two years later he liquidated divorce by mutual consent. The Civil Code made wives more the prisoners of their husbands than in the old regime. They no longer had any right to their property in marriage and had to ask their husbands’ permission to take the stand in legal proceedings. He re-established the Catholic Church and fawned on any of the old aristocracy willing to “rally” to its autocracy.

Leaving out the preposterous idea that Napoleon would have approved of the bureaucratic sclerosis and incompetence of the EU, the question of course is not whether he was anywhere near perfect, or whether he was a nepotistic oligarch or not. Of course he was. But Simon Schama ignores his own famous book “Citizens,” in which he describes how catastrophic the Revolution was for France before Napoleon. And post Napoleonic France was pretty disastrous too.

Power corrupts, and all dictators end up destroying themselves or their countries. Most politicians in so-called democracies are corrupt and self-serving whenever they can get away with it. The alternatives after his fall were even more evil. Every one of those societies he had tried to reform was riddled with the disease of anti-Semitism, which in the end always consumed those it infected, and they were unable to cure themselves.

But he had a grand vision, and I admired him for that, even if he overreached. Europe too has a grand vision, but had it focused just on its more modest aims it would not be in the mess it is in today politically and financially, or at the mercy of human traffickers. It has allowed a typically grand French design that is manifestly unworkable to overreach, as Napoleon did, and all but bring it crashing down. You can’t paper over fundamental differences with incompetence and grand slogans and hope to deal with the details later. Just as you can’t ignore major problems like immigration and hope it will take care of itself harmlessly.

The truth is the issue then and now is a fundamental clash between the French centralized great idea and the pragmatic, realistic approach of that old Anglo-Scottish concept of utilitarianism. Which is why France is such a bloody mess today. Both methods are as inadequate or incomplete as all ideologies. But given a choice, I still prefer the Anglo-Scottish. I loved Napoleon’s grand idea. But it was Wellington’s successors who stood up to fascism and Marxism and kept democracy alive in Europe. Like religion, the ideas may be great, but you can bet that people will make a mess of it.

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  • Steven

    Frankly it amazes me that at this time of real crisis for Israel and the USA
    When Obama and Kerry are openly dealing with a modern day Hitler who openly vow
    To annihilate Israel all you can write about is Napoleon
    You should be writing about this madness which may end up in a Nuclear Holocoust unless Obama is stopped it can only happen by galvanizing public opinion and particularly applying all pressure on Democratic Senators to vote against this terrible deal. This deal is a capitulation of Obama to terrorism Obama is asking what would have been a better deal?
    The better deal is to tell Iran either you dismantle all your capability to nuclear weapons now and thereby we will deal with you or we the USA will bomb you to kingdom come We have the power but the president doesn’t have the guts. Had the world stopped Hitler in 1939 the world would have looked different.
    Stop talking about Napileon and talk about saving civilization.

  • Mark Jay Mirsky

    Dear Jeremy Rosen,

    Thank you for a provocative and balanced look at the EU, its grand design and its failings. Like you past piece about the “Throne” and evil, I expect that it will go on asking questions so that a quick response is inadequate. The embrace of authoritarian, even anti-Semitic regimes by rabbis in the era of the Czars and of Hitler, is that tragic and cowardly aspect of religion that is certainly not limited to the right wing of Orthodoxy. Still it can’t be stressed enough as just that. From my perspective, however inadequate the present EU is, its chief benefit despite the wobbling of individual countries has been to yoke France, Germany and to an extent Great Britain, in a political union that has preserved peace throughout that continent and locked some of the smaller weaker states into that peace as well. One look at the manipulation by the Saudis and the Iranians of neighboring states, is a grim reminder of what happens when you do not have some sort of political union to discourage this. Your critique of Schama’s list of Napoleon’s sins (which is certainly an important and valid list of particulars) is an important corrective. I think like you most Americans prefer the utilitarianism of the Anglo-Scotch approach when it comes to working out political solutions. I remember when my father was running for a new political office after giving up his seat in the Massachusetts Legislature and asked me to help him with his campaign brochure. The materials he had prepared focused on his past accomplishments. I asked him what plans he had if he was elected to a position. He looked at me puzzled, “How do I know until I get there?” he answered at last. What sounded short sighted to me as a very young man, now seems after serving myself in university electoral office, and watching the mistakes that grand designs have steered City University to, as the soundest design of all.


  • Joseph Feld

    A very interesting article. The British pragmatic evolution was more successful than the ideological French [or Russian] revolution. It’s interesting to compare the roles of the C of E in England to the R.C. in France. The role of younger sons of nobility is also in marked contrast, in England younger sons could engage in the normal range of occupations. Napoleon may have suffered from Louis XIV syndrome, not a problem for his English counterparts who were more constitutional. 200 years on we can look back more objectively.

  • Artie Van Derham

    There is a claim that Napolean wrote a letter of Zionism which he did a 3 line one. But there is a longer one accredited to him. That is a forgery. And I knew it the second I read it. You know how? And it shows how perfectly British people lie and control history.

    The forgery written in the early 20th Century says the word ‘Palestine’ over and over, that is how I knew the moment I read it that it was not written even remotely in 1799.

    I have read over 50 short and long books about the Middle East from the early 19th Century, rare ones, the ones that no one got to censoring yet. Not one mentions ‘Palestine’ the word ‘Palestine’ was in disuse since before the 14th Century Mongol invasion and subsequent slave rebellion which led to the Turkic rule.

    Mohamed Ali Pasha who ruled ‘Palestine’ in the first Arab semi-independence since that Mongol/Turkic slave invasion had never heard the word ;Palestine’ in his entire life. His fight with Constantinople’s bureaucrat Abdullah revolved around Acre, south-west Syria’s lawless ‘capital’ no one on earth at the time could care less about Jerusalem except the unknown unrecorded Jews. The Dome of the Rock (Most Distant Mosque) had giant holes in its roof of its black lead dome (brass was put in 1965), the first rode ever (horse and carriage) in south Syrie was built in the 1880s. (According to Christian missionary sources writing in 1907.)

  • Genghis Cohen

    Perhaps Napoleon and Alexander achieved more in their ultimate failures than did all the royal dynasties and (who can foretell) the great democracies? Napoleon and Alexander were not locked in anachronism as are the present regimes of the West and the Middle East which still imagine a celestial concord exists between the ancient mystic ideologies and the current mix of empirical politics and technology. Who predicted Soviet-style Putinism and Islamic Ayatollahs chortling happily as Obama conducts his requiem for America?