In about four months we’re going to hear a few news blips about the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s final defeat at Waterloo, which went down on June 18, 1815. It’s a good guess that the tone of these news blips will be apathetic and comical, that few attempts will be made at serious understanding or insight.
The lack of public interest in Napoleon represents a great fall in reputation for the French leader who was for his entire adult life the most famous and important person in the world. His reputation was once so gigantic that he remained the most famous and important person in the world long after his death in 1821. His cult of personality outlived him, and “Napoleonic” wars and revolutions would roil Europe and the Americas for at least another 100 years.
Opinions about Napoleon during this long era of emerging nationalism and revolution verged towards extremes: his memory was worshipped in rock-star fashion by progressives and Romantics, and he was vilified as a near-Satanic destroyer of civilization by conservatives and traditionalists. Napoleon was most beloved among aspiring citizens of emerging nations who yearned for liberation from ancient regimes. He was most despised in the countries that were his military enemies, particularly England and Russia. Perhaps it’s because his name provoked such an unbearable level of divisiveness that he was eventually passed into history not as an important figure at all, but as a buffoon, a cartoon, a subject of delusion, the punchline to a forgettable joke.
If I search back for my own early sense impressions of the name “Napoleon”, I picture a cross-eyed guy in an insane asylum with a three-cornered hat, his hand tucked inside his shirt or strait jacket. This is not Napoleon himself, but rather somebody pretending to be him. The idea of a “Napoleon Delusion” has become such a popular meme that it merits a page on TV Tropes. An article at Straight Dope traces the idea that crazy people thought they were Napoleon to early mentions by William James and William De Morgan. It’s worth asking: why would so many crazy people claim to be Napoleon Bonaparte? It seems to be a sign of his once-great renown, of the stunning power — for good or evil — his image once evoked.
To modern minds like mine, though, the image of a crazy person ranting as Napoleon has merged with the persona of the historical figure so completely that it becomes surprising to learn that Napoleon Bonaparte himself never went crazy at all — -not even in his final years of lonely exile. He probably did rant from time to time, but no more than any other grand dictator ever did.
So why has Napoleon’s name sunk so low that he is now only remembered as a joke? A world leader who was once widely hated and widely loved has been reduced to a silly cartoon, and today the silly cartoon is all we remember.
A “Napoleon” is also a dessert pastry, and “Waterloo” is a song by ABBA. This trivialization would certainly annoy the Emperor himself, and he would probably interpret the phenomenon as a sign that the anti-Napoleon propaganda of 19th Century England and Russia has dominated over the pro-Napoleon propaganda of France and its allies. Their propaganda was certainly immense in scale. For both England and Russia, Napoleon was the human incarnation of the bloody and anarchic French Revolution. The pitying and damning portrait of revolutionary Paris found in Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities shows the intensity of condemnation the mention of revolutionary France once evoked on the British isles.
Literature’s cruelest blow to Napoleonic glory was Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace, which captures the boastful Emperor at his peak of arrogance and folly. War and Peace was a great literary drubbing, but a sensitive reader should consider that the sublime mind of Leo Tolstoy did not choose easy targets. The fact that Tolstoy considered the grand image of Napoleon Bonaparte to be worth taking down in 1869, fifty years after Bonaparte’s death, proves again how important the French Emperor’s image remained, even in faraway Russia, throughout the turbulent century that followed his defeat.
The level of Napoleon’s rock-star celebrity can blind us to the fact that it was not actually the individual human being but rather the political impulses this human being personified that were the main topic of discussion in 19th Century Europe. The fact that Napoleon may have been prideful or yearned for imperial glory shows a human failing, but one person’s human flaws reveal far less about history than the phenomenon that so many millions of other people found this one person inspiring. To a stunning degree, they did.
As the incarnation of the French Revolution, as a personification of the ideals of Rousseau and Voltaire, the people of Europe sanctified Napoleon as the representative of modernism, progressivism, egalitarianism, universal suffrage, “people power”. He was appreciated as a breath of fresh air on a stale continent: an anti-cleric, a philo-semite, a breaker of racial and religious and ethnic and economic boundaries.
Whether this persona accurately represented the faulty human being or not, it was the persona itself that stood as a symbolic model of pure concentrated change and made him a hero to generations of intellectuals and artists and scientists. He was the fount of heroism in the modern age, the engine of political dynamism in a world stuck in the past. Charles Dickens could not appreciate Napoleon, but Lord Byron was certainly following a Napoleonic calling when he joined a military mission to liberate Greece from the Ottoman Empire and died at Missolonghi in 1824, as close to a battlefield as he could get. And it’s impossible to fully understand Nietzsche’s notion of the “ubermensch” without considering that Napoleon had once been Europe’s “ubermensch”.
Though he damaged his reputation for radicalism once he declared himself an emperor and established his various relatives as hereditary rulers all over Europe, the ideologies perceived as Napoleonic formed a point of origination for various radical movements, most notably Karl Marx’s Communism, which was understood in its own time to be built upon the structure of French revolutionary doctrine. Virtually every brand of nationalist or internationalist progressivism of the 19th century would evoke Napoleon’s name one way or another, and many powerful leaders would go on to consciously emulate his pursuit of moral greatness through military conquest: Napoleon III in France, Bismarck in Prussia, Simon Bolivar in South America, Andrew Jackson and then Teddy Roosevelt in the USA. We many not naturally think of these distinct historical figures as consciously emulating Napoleon when we remember them today. But if we wish to understand these leaders in the contexts of their own times, we must recognize the shadows they stood in.
The era of glorious Napoleonic warfare began its ugly end in August 1914. The Great War began with Napoleonic fervor on all sides, but quickly descended into depressing and murderous stalemate. A sick new brand of militarism would dominate the 20th Century, with a new cast of characters whose cults of personality had sharper edges. Times had changed — and yet even so, contemporary records indicate that when Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Winston Churchill, Charles DeGaulle, Douglas McArthur and George S. Patton looked in the mirror, they each saw Napoleon Bonaparte in the glass.
We often think of Communism and Fascism as opposites today, but Fascism emerged from the same Napoleonic fervor as Communism, now flavored with powerful appeals to racial separatism and ethnic hatred. It’s no coincidence that both Communism and Fascism thrived in the German, Italian, Slavic and Russian lands that had hosted all of Napoleon’s great battles.
It was only after the final tragedy of World War II ended that Europe’s last Napoleons began to fade away. This was clearly good riddance all around, but it’s a concerning fact that much of the intense intellectual ferment that the name of Napoleon once evoked has been lost to modern understanding, and replaced with cliches of broad comedy.
Our Napoleonic amnesia seems to represent some kind of short circuiting of our shared historical mind. We giggle with bored familiarity at the image of a person whose power of persuasion once shook the earth. It’s a lazy way of avoiding the fact that we still don’t understand how to process the legacy that impacted our world so much, and not so long ago.
Even in 2015, as ill-begotten notions of military nobility and glory continue to roil our world, the grand contradiction that ended at Waterloo 200 years ago seems still to hold us in its grip, though we still fail to understand it.