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July 17, 2015 5:05 pm

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

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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 They condemned all those countries that allied to defeat him when they rescinded Jewish rights after his downfall.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.

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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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