Napoleon Bonaparte, Great Man?

Here we deal with yet another conqueror, prefiguring Woodrow Wilson by a century and the Wilsonian neocons by 200 years. Napoleon was actually doing Europe a favor by conquering it, taking out one ancien regime after another and replacing them with modern states. One gets tired of the accolades for this man who was, like Alexander, yet another conquering tyrant.
First he betrayed the ideals of newly birthed Republic by installing himself as dictator. The he crowned himself King, er, Emperor, blessed by none other than the Pope himself.
This was not the first time a sovereign had crowned himself. Napoleon’s excuse was that he did not want any arguments among the court elite about who would presume to hand him the crown in the name of the people … Of course, the self-crowning was a matter of Napoleon asserting his political independence, underlining how much he owed his elevation not to the pope but to himself and himself alone. In the age-old conflict between the spiritual and the temporal, Napoleon was vigorously asserting the supremacy of the temporal. This sent not only a political but a personal message.
Soon after, he trampled Europe, making the world safe for demogogueracy, the beginning of a cycle:
Destroy Europe -> Defeat -> Exile -> Try again -> Defeated again -> Exiled yet again.
Not exactly a winning formula!
In 1812, he made the error, always fateful to any conqueror including Hitler 130 years later, of trying to conquer Mother Russia. He ran into the same problem that all would-be Russia conquerors run up against: that nasty beast called the Russian winter.
His army was nearly destroyed in the process:
When one takes into account the Russian military losses – according to one estimate, as many as 300,000 dead – one an reasonably assert that up to one million people died between the end of July 1812, when the expedition into Russia was launched, and February 1813, with the remnants of the army continuing to die from wounds, disease, malnutrition and exhaustion. Of the 27,000 Italian troops only 1,000 made it back. Of the 25,500 Saxon soldiers that went into Russia, 6,000 came back alive. Looking at figures for individual regiments sometimes tells an even bleaker story. Raymond de Montesquiou-Fezensac had 3,000 men under his command. Of those 200 came back with him and another 100 were eventually returned from prison – that is, nine-tenths of his effectives were dead or missing.
Italians: 97% losses (!)
Montesquiou-Fezensac’s regiment: 90% losses
Saxons: 75% losses.
It would be hard to imagine a worse defeat.
Of course, Russia herself was devastated with 300,000 dead. Russia is always willing to sacrifice for the Motherland – see the 27 million lost in WW2.
In the entire campaign, 1 million men died for, frankly, nothing at all.
Hmmm, I just did imagine a worse defeat than the Russian campaign. It was called Waterloo.
The astonishing thing about Waterloo is not so much that Napoleon lost the battle as his reaction to it. In all, 55,000-60,000 men were killed and wounded during that day in the space of a few square kilometres, along with 10,000 horses. But Napoleon still retained control over about 117,000 men in the north, yet he did not attempt to rally his troops, nor continue the fight and bring the battle to the enemy at another point.
Are you kidding? Napoleon suffered 57,000 casualties and lost 10,000 horses in a single day in an area whose perimeter could probably be strolled by a man in an hour. That’s one Hell of a horrific defeat. Followed by Napoleon’s curious frozen inaction with his remaining troops sequestered to the north.
Waterloo along with the Russia campaign turns received knowledge about Napoleon on its head. The great militarist was also a terrible general at least some of the time.
The usual exile followed this, across the seas this time. Europe, torn to a hundred anarchic bits, tried to patch itself together from the devastation and entropy resulting from by one man’s egomania.
Napoleon Bonaparte, great man? Why?
All quotes from Philip Dwyer, Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power (2013)

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0 thoughts on “Napoleon Bonaparte, Great Man?”

    1. Dear Jason
      Only ignorant Americans can think that the French are a nation of cowards. Anybody with even a passing acquaintance with European history knows that the French for centuries have been too militaristic, too expansionist and certainly not cowardly on the battlefield.

  1. The Pope blessed Napoleon? I understand there are a lot of good Catholics out there, but it’s almost impossible to deny the past (and present) corruption of the church.

  2. “In 1812, he made the error, always fateful to any conqueror including Hitler 130 years later, of trying to conquer Mother Russia.”
    That’s right, you don’t fuck with Russia. Russians are like the strong and silent type in a prison full of “daddies”, punk gangstas and wimpy inmates.
    I recently saw a movie which celebrated the Battle of Stalingrad, “ENEMY AT THE GATES”. The Ruskis had some highly trained snipers. The Wehrmacht were fighting a losing battle.
    Still, the Soviet Union suffered 27 million dead in the second world war which I would consider a horrible defeat despite them overrunning Berlin and forestalling Nazi advance at Stalingrad.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMvTR012Dmg
    Stalingrad is an accurate depiction of human courage and resilience under tryin circumstances.

  3. Dear Robert
    Few French rulers caused more harm to the French people than Napoleon did. His insatiable lust for power sent a very large number of French men to an early grave. When the pursuit of power is the primary purpose of a ruler, then his people will inevitably pay a high price. In 1810, France was more powerful than at any time in its history. All of Europe between Russian and Britain was annexed by France or allied with France, but what benefit did ordinary Frenchmen derive from this expansion in French power? None, really. Talleyrand was quite right when he said that the interests of France didn’t go beyond the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Rhine.
    In 1820, the French people were much better off than in 1810. In 1820 they had sovereignty and security within the borders of 1789. They were masters in their own house and enjoyed peace. Young French males no longer were being used as cannon fodder for the benefit of Napoleon’s lust of power. All states are entitled to sovereignty and security, but none is entitled to expansion. Switzerland, not France is an example to mankind.
    Regards. James

  4. The French just want to pursue an independent course. I got no problem with that. Some Americans resent the French, because they want everyone to kiss their ass, but a lot of people refuse to do so..

  5. Napoleon should be judged on a par with Adolf Hitler for having tried as hard as the latter to work out a final solution through holocaust onto the uprisen people of new-born Haiti. Napoleon planned to have all the negroes there killed to make room for fresh ones from Africa. The reason he gave, which is quite cogent, is that once they had caught a whiff of liberty as they had fought for France under Toussaint Louverture, it was impossible to make them slaves again. A resounding example had to be made to cower all Blacks and all would-be liberated slaves throughout the world for centuries, as Rome had done against Spartacus. He used quite the same means as the nazis, that is to say most often planned starvation, and also quite often gas chambers : worn-out vessels, the pontons, were equipped with sulphur fumigation systems so as to charge and kill the cargo by hundreds before dumping them in the Bermuda sea. The countryside was methodically devastated and the forests cut down and transformed into deserts by fire in order for survival to be impossible for fugitives. Jefferson supported Napoleon and engaged the whole industrial apparatus of fledgling America into that enterprise, in exchange for all former French possessions in Northern America. The rebels, though decimated in the literal sense, finally won out as by miracle at Vertières (some say voodoo entities were summoned to paralyze the French army and exterminate it trough various sicknesses, even though it may be that those voodoo practitioners knew much about poisoning and germ warfare, as is still the case nowadays among HaItians) and all the former ruling Whites were massacred, except for an army corps of Poles who had sided with the slaves against France. The shameful thing is that France and her American allies never repented for such a Final Solution attempt as the Germans were to be forced to do after WWII. When I was a student in France, even at university level, we were never taught any word of that episode in our courses of history of Revolution and Empire. We had to keep content with two lines as to the French Revolution having declared the Negroes free throughout the Empire, and Toussaint Louverture having succeeded in making the into an independent republic. Haïti, apart from the the exterminated Amerindians nations, has the most tragic history of the western hemisphere, and the tragedy still goes on, thanks among others to Napoleon and his two main generals in charge of the operations, Rochambeau and Leclerc. I cannot suffer only one Holocaust to be celebrated, and one dictator to be cursed as the symbol of evil for the centuries to come, and not the one that happen in Haiti, not the one that made France into his own fascist dictatorship to devastate the whole of Europe. France is now being told to repent for having played a dubious role during the nazi Holocaust, even though most people chose to be for the resistance rather than for the collaboration (though even far more remained apathetic, as in any like situation in any other country) : that is preposterous, for there was a minority of opportunistic collaborationists as big in percentage among European Jews as among Frenchmen proper, and the nazis had always be hated by the general population thanks to pre-war anti-germanic conditioning, whereas Napoleon is still a figure revered by most people in France, though for wrong reasons of national consciousness building, and ignorance of the rascality of the figurehead.

    1. Good point. America loves to point it’s finger at Germany, while refusing to admit it’s own sins. As far as Jefferson goes, I lost all respect for him after reading your story.
      Some in my own family loved “Inglorious Basterds”. Nonetheless, no peep out of them regarding “Django Unchained” (We live in the south.) Both similar movies, except the 2nd one condemns our own nation, rather than scapegoating Germany.

  6. I ought to say that the Westerners, as usual but unfortunately, have a bad habit of simplifying Napoleon’s Russian campaign (justly called “the Patriotic War” for a lot of reasons) and as usual overestimating the Russian Winter and very underestimating the Russians themselves like they were a bunch of nothing who were doing nothing just sitting and waiting when Napoleon was marching and pilaging their country. And as usual praises were made to “great” Waterloo but nothing was said about Borodino, really the greatest and most massive battle of the era of powder and muskets. Not to mention the smaller battles and the Russian guerrilla. Yes, all was done by “General Frost”, as Russians can’t war at all, can they? Especially for their own country? No-no, this can be done only by brave Englishmen who haven’t fought on their ground since the Great William but have been “saving” the world all the time.

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