France: Napoleon

Randy Black says: Napoleon was nothing more than a warmongering, dictatorial, proto-Hitler who left hundreds of thousands of corpses scattered across Europe's battlefields. The divergences of French views about him are reflected in an opinion poll published by Le Figaro magazine to coincide with the bicentenary. Almost half of the 1,000 French respondents agreed with the proposition that Napoleon was above all a great political figure in advance of his times; 39 per cent said he was a dictator who had used all means to satisfy his thirst for power.  This ambiguous legacy helps explain why the French state has been so wary of embracing the latest frenzy of Napleonmania. While the French government went to extraordinary lengths in 1989 to promote the bicentenary of the French Revolution, it has steered well clear of endorsing any celebrations of Napoleon's coronation.

Some French historians suggest that much of the fuss about Napoleon is the fault - albeit inadvertent - of the British. During Napoleon's years in exile on St Helena, his British jailers allowed him to dictate his memoirs, enabling him to justify his actions and create his own legend. The "illustrious villain" was transformed into a "practical genius" and the militaristic aggressor was turned into a national hero forced into fighting defensive wars. Napoleon skillfully used his time on St Helena to reinvent himself as a liberal emperor and one of history's victims, says Mr. Lentz: "Napoleon himself used to say that Christ would not have been God had he not been crucified." In this sense, Napoleon's enduring power as a national symbol lies as much in his humiliation as in his glory - he triumphed even in defeat.

Adriana Pena says: I do not know why insisting on the shortcomings of the Russian soldiers would make the French feel better about the fact that in the end they lost the war, that Paris was overrun by foreign armies, and that many able-bodied men who could have been doing constructive work towards building a better France ended up buried in unmarked graves in foreign soil. Similarly, Hitler's idea about the Russian soldiers shows hubris at work. He thought so little of them that he never saw the Red Army marching into Berlin. I will agree, the Russians are poor soldiers. Since they beat the Germans, then the Germans must be even worse....

Christopher Jones replies to Cameron Sawyer: I have recommended a perusal of The Campaigns of Napoleon by David Chandler as the best way to understand this argument.  Cameron seems to stubbornly insist that the French were defeated by the Russian soldier.  This statement like others (The Jewish moguls of Hollywood never, of dear never acted as a monopolitic mafia) flies in the face of (uncomfortable) facts.  As I said before, Napoleon defeated Napoleon.  The Russian soldier did not defeat the Grande Armée de la Russie, it was the Russian climate that defeated the French, and the Germans too by the way.  Borodino is classified by the chief historian of Sandhurst (a very Anglo-Saxon institution) as a French victory.  If anybody says otherwise is simply wrong or trying to distort facts: were the Russians happy about abandoning and torching their capital?  The dead at Borodino were as follows: 44,000 Russians  and about 30,000 French.  Kutusov withdrew. Earlier at Smolensk, Napoleon defeated the Russian forces.  The only other major engagement between French and Russians was the crossing of the Beresina River, where the withdrawing French were bombarded by Russian artillery.  Chandler has some very chilling comments about the Russian soldier then which is echoed in the state of the Russian army today: press-ganged, ill-fed, badly uniformed, and never paid. Sadly, almost the same through the history of the Russian armed forces, and that is why Russians always need allies, most prominently, General Winter.    Pressed ganged according to Chandler, the Russian soldier had no motivation -- why should they be motivated? an interesting anecdote is the so called prowess of the irregular Cossacks who met up with the Imperial Guard and Napoleon in its center, "It was like a 100 gun warship passing through a fleet of fishing boats."  Although the Grande Armée was decimated, Napoleon returned to France to raise another army in order to hold on to to Germany.  As his allies left him, one by one, in the first stages of the movement that would lead to German unification, he was defeated by the COMBINED forces of Russians, Prussians, etc at Leipzig in 1813. He was offered to keep the French throne if he would abandon the empire.  He refused because he refused to abandon the Poles, whose independence was an emotional goal for the Emperor.  This was the mistake that cost him the throne.  Ask the Poles please who they would have preferred.  France of serfdom under the Russians. Nor was Napoleon a totalitarian dictator.  By 1815, he was constitutional monarch and his refusal to continue the fight after Waterloo (he could have easily continued the war) was based on his refusal to stage a coup and dismiss the assembly.  Anyone who simply dismisses Napoleon's place as history as "miserable" is very foolish indeed.  Napoleon unified Europe, brought French laws and institutions to the peoples of the continent.  

RH: The French have been celebrating the bicentennial of Napoleon's crowning himself Emperor,  Presumably they would agree with Christopher about the end of his rule.  He could have easily continued the war??  The Allies defeated Napoleon twice, once after Leipzig and once at Waterloo.  He was compelled  by his Marshals at Fontainebleau to abdicate unconditionally. He did not unify Europe.  He tried to unify Europe, with himself  and his family as its bosses.  You might just as well say that Hitler unified Europe. Could Ed Jajko tell us what the Poles thought about Napoleon?  The Napoleonic legend lives on.

Cameron Sawyer says: If Borodino was by some interpretation a victory for Napoleon, it was a Pyrrhic one, so I don't quite understand Chris Jones' point.  Napoleon did not, indeed recover from it.  He marched into Russia with the largest army ever assembled in Europe to date, failed to defeat the Russians (the most charitable possible interpretation) at Borodino with his larger force, and whoever's victory it was, that was the end of the Grand Armee and the end of Napoleon.   Out of 600,000 French and allied soldiers, only 20,000 crossed the Niemen River out of Russia on their retreat to Paris -- 96.6% percent attrition, in other words, utter annihilation, as complete as the world history of warfare offers.
The total destruction of the French by the much smaller Russian army left even a linguistic legacy in both countries.  In Russia, there is a word "sheramizovat'", which means to beg.  Few Russian know that this comes from the French "cher ami!", the way starving French soldiers addressed Russian peasant when asking for food.  The word exists to this day.
And the victorious Russians, occupying Paris, were dissatisfied with the speed of service in Parisian restaurants.  Their frequent admonition to hurry up -- "bystro!" ("quickly!" in Russian), became a type of restaurant with service more suitable to demanding Russians -- and the word "bistro" is still in the French language to this day.
The French and Russians have been allies ever since, and it was precisely this alliance which got the Russians into World War I, which proved their destruction, but that is another story.
WAISers may judge for themselves whether or not Christopher has made his point about the alleged inferiority of the Russian soldier.

RH:  The story of Napoleon shows the hollowness of the concept of la gloire.

Regarding the Battle of Biridin0, Christopher Jones says: Historical facts are the following: Napoleon invaded Russia and defeated the Russian army inconclusively at Borodino, not the other way around.  In another historical source I have cited the chief historian of the Royal College at Sandhurst the late David Chandler.  Borodino was bloody but it was a French victory. Cameron's words were: Napoleon never recovered from the Battle of Borodino in which the Grand Armee was routed by a much smaller Russian force.  Testimonies of the French about the tenacity and courage of the Russian soldiers sound much the same as those left by the Germans after WWII.  In other words wrong.  As for Napoleon's legacy, it is simply the fact that the Anglo Saxons are jealous. They made wars for money, Napoleon to free Europe from the absolutist monarchies.  

RH: That Gaullist expression; the Anglo Saxons. I leave it to  WAISers do decide if  this dichotomy gives a balanced view of history.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: February 27, 2005