Napoleon Bonaparte (illustration by Michael Daley)
A few years ago, Napoleon’s star did not burn as brightly as it does today. The great dictators of the 20th century were still fresh in most people’s memories, and Bonapartism too obviously prefigured their megalomania. But this month’s Waterloo bicentenary falls in a period of revisionism, when the Corsican condottiere’s sanguinary exploits have been repackaged for a 21st-century that fears theocracy and anarchy more than enlightened despotism, especially when the latter appears robed in republican virtue. A new generation has put seductive flesh on the bones of Boney.
What is most striking about the Napoleonic revisionists is that they hail from both ends of the political spectrum. On the Right, Andrew Roberts (of this parish) has recently made a plausible case for seeing the subject of his magnificent biography Napoleon the Great (Penguin, £12.99) as a Renaissance man, a force of nature who transformed Europe into the engine of modernity while preserving what was best of the ancien régime.
On the Left, Patrice Gueniffey, an eminent Parisian academic, makes a similar case in Bonaparte, the first volume of an even more monumental work which has just appeared in English (Harvard, £29.95). For Gueniffey, Bonaparte’s real work—the consolidation of the Revolution—was accomplished in the brief, frenetic years before he had himself declared Consul for Life in 1802, the prelude to his even more grandiose self-coronation two years later as “Napoleon, Emperor of the French by the grace of God and the constitutions of the Republic”. The contradictions implied by styling himself thus did not disturb him at all. He knew that his power depended on military genius, political charisma and not much else. The British agreed: unlike their allies, they never recognised his imperial pretensions. To them, he was just “General Bonaparte”.
For many artists and intellectuals who, like Beethoven, had thrilled to his early triumphs over the absolute monarchies, religious hierarchies and feudal aristocracies of a moth-eaten age that deserved to be swept away, Napoleon’s unmasking as emperor, as just another hereditary tyrant was a bitter disappointment. Yet though Beethoven could revoke the dedication of his “Sinfonia Grande” to Napoleon, titling it Eroica instead, the symphony revolutionised music no less surely than its original dedicatee revolutionised Europe. It was the Eroica that condensed the notion of glory, la gloire, on which the whole Napoleonic myth has rested ever since. The memory of that glory survived even Waterloo, as the restoration of the Bonaparte clan a generation later demonstrated. Indeed, a Napoleon complex afflicts France and the French to this day.