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History on Horseback: Napoleon Bonaparte

The French emperor and military commander played a pivotal role in an epochal transformation.

· 16 min read
History on Horseback: Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon, starring Joaquin Phoenix. Alamy

A review of Ridley Scott’s Napoleon (2023).   

 “I saw the emperor—this world-soul—riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it … this extraordinary man, whom it is impossible not to admire.” 

 These are the words a young Georg Hegel wrote to his friend Friedrich Niethammer on 14 October 1806, after witnessing Napoleon Bonaparte riding through Jena to give battle to the Prussian army. The French forces were beginning their occupation of Germany just as Hegel was putting the finishing touches to the manuscript of his magnum opus, The Phenomenology of Spirit.   

What did Hegel mean by referring to Napoleon as the “world-soul”? And what was the nature of the “wonderful sensation” he felt on seeing such an “extraordinary man” ‘reach out and master’ the world? The answers lie in Hegel’s particular philosophy of history. Hegel’s language is confusingly oblique, and his categories are frustratingly abstract. But once his work has been decoded, one discovers that among Hegel’s historical archetypes is “the hero,” who is the unconscious personification of the “spirit” (the Geist) of historical progress in any particular epoch. In essence, the hero has been anointed by the invisible hand of History to execute the task necessary to usher in a new age of human civilisation.  

The new age Napoleon was helping to usher in was the “Age of Liberty,” in which all men would be free—as opposed to the previous “Age of Aristocracy,” when some men were free, but the rest were not, and the freedom of the few was dependent on the enslavement of the rest. For the first time in human history, universal freedom and the transcendence of slavery and other forms of bondage seemed like actual possibilities, rather than merely dreams relegated to religious visions of the afterlife. A month before the Battle of Jena, Hegel had written to his students that the time in which they were living in was,  

an important epoch, a time of unrest when Geist is shedding its old shape (form) and is taking on a new one. All previous ideas, concepts, the bonds of the world, are falling apart like a dream in the morning. A new Geist is preparing itself.  

In the wake of the French Revolution, Hegel felt that a new reality was being manifested before his very eyes. He saw himself as part of the most exciting upheaval in Western philosophy since antiquity, as he witnessed the falling away of “all previous ideas, concepts and bonds of the world” in the concrete form of the soldiers and cannons of the formidable grande armée storming Germany. It must have been exhilarating. Whether Napoleon realised it or not—and whatever his own intentions were—he was the unconscious tool of History.  

Prominent Hegelian philosopher and Hegel biographer Terry Pinkard has noted that Hegel’s description of Napoleon as the “world-spirit on horseback” is all the more noteworthy since “at that point he had already composed the crucial section of the Phenomenology in which he remarked that the Revolution had now officially passed to another land (Germany) that would complete ‘in thought’ what the Revolution had only partially accomplished in practice.” On that October day in Jena, the ancien régime received three mortal blows: Napoleon destroyed it politically and militarily; Hegel destroyed it philosophically. 

 Ridley Scott’s new $200-million epic biopic, Napoleon, in which Joaquin Phoenix takes on the eponymous role of Bonaparte, provides a fresh opportunity to reassess Napoleon’s world-historical legacy. It might have considerable influence on how the French emperor is regarded in popular culture, especially among younger audiences. I was curious to see the film, but I had some reservations. Would it, I wondered, simply trot out the worn-out cliché of Napoleon as the despotic imp from Corsica, drunk on delusions of grandeur—an image that has consumed the imaginations of Anglophone historians for decades? Or would it offer a more complex portrait of that contradictory historical figure? This film could have upended the cartoonish view of Napoleon as the great villain of history and universal archetype of evil before Adolf Hitler.  

Lamentably, this potential was squandered. While his fascination with Napoleon the conqueror is tinged with ambivalence, Scott has mostly simply recycled the commonplace of Napoleon as nothing more than the hubris-mad tyrant and precursor to Hitler. This is backed up by an interview Scott gave to Empire Magazine, in which he said:  

I compare [Napoleon] with Alexander the Great, Hitler, Stalin. Listen, he’s got a lot of bad shit under his belt. At the same time, he was remarkable with his courage, and his can-do and his dominance. 

 Vanessa Kirby, who plays Napoleon’s wife Josephine, has concurred, declaring that Napoleon:  

was a dictator, a war criminal, really. It couldn’t be rousing because that man killed hundreds and hundreds of thousands of men, in my opinion needlessly. And for what? To get an empire, for what? In the end it all disintegrated anyway.  

Historians—even respected ones—have contributed to these Napoleon-Hitler comparisons. In his 2003 biography, Paul Johnson avers that the “totalitarian state of the twentieth century was the ultimate progeny of the Napoleonic reality and myth.” In his 2005 book Le Crime de Napoleon (translated as Napoleon’s Crimes: A Blueprint for Hitler), Claude Ribbe condemns him as genocidal, and includes the unverified claim that Napoleon pioneered gas chambers as a method of mass murder. Paul Schroder writes in The Transformation of European Politics 1763–1848: “The only one to whom he can be compared is Adolph Hitler … Hitler did it for the sake of an unbelievably horrible idea; Napoleon for no underlying purpose at all.”  

This specious comparison rests on some superficially convincing similarities. Neither man was born in the nation he went on to lead (Napoleon was born in Corsica, Hitler in Austria); both had youthful ambition and a lifelong hunger for power; both seized power undemocratically; both wanted to conquer Europe in order to impose a new order; both attempted to subdue Britain via a continental blockade; both failed to conquer Russia—a failure that marked the beginning of their undoing; and both were ultimately definitively defeated by a coalition of allied countries.  

But this analogy glosses over some fundamental differences between the two. For a start, their political agendas could not have been more different. They were both imperialists, but Napoleon was an enlightened despot, who was more socially progressive than his adversaries; Hitler was an illiberal racist, whose new order was premised on the annihilation and enslavement of whole peoples and nations for the sake of German Lebensraum. Napoleon was guilty of plenty of iniquitous acts, but never committed genocide in Europe. Moreover, Napoleon left a durable legacy of institutions, legal codes, and administrative structures that have been embraced, lauded, and expanded upon. Hitler left nothing but an abyss of moral trauma in his wake. Napoleon’s liberal policies towards Jews contrast with Hitler’s racist exterminationism. Nazi ideology was predicated on extinguishing the Jewish emancipation movements that Napoleon had ignited across Europe. During the Holocaust, the Nazis revived some of the Jewish ghettos that Napoleon had liberated and destroyed a century earlier. If Napoleon was the French Revolution on horseback, then the Nazis were the counter-revolution on Panzern. As Joseph Goebbels declared after the Nazis seized power: “1789 is now abolished.”  

 Ridley Scott’s Napoleon has some fine aspects. Although the cinematography is too tonally grey and dreary, it is nonetheless grand. The period costumes, interior decorations, and classical soundtrack masterfully evoke Napoleon’s world. And the battle scenes—in vintage Ridley Scott fashion—are both entertaining and very well executed. But overall, Scott has produced a limp, colossally underwhelming piece of work. 

 For one thing, Scott’s Napoleon is an insecure, apolitical, one-dimensional brute: a pervert who got lucky, and who is wrapped around Josephine’s finger. (She gets him to repeat the mantra that he is nothing but a brute without her.) The political and historical stakes that made Napoleon who he was  are not represented at all. The audience aren’t given any sense of why Napoleon was ever popular or admired by the French people. And while Joaquin Phoenix, who is one of the finest actors of his generation, adequately portrays some of Napoleon’s worst traits—his ruthlessness, war lust, pride, and hubris—he isn’t given the opportunity to express his dynamism, intelligence, charisma, and tact. Phoenix isn’t allowed to truly inhabit the intricate character of Bonaparte and thus, his talents are grossly underutilised. Moreover, the film is disjointed. The haphazard cuts back and forth from the deeply intimate aspects of Napoleon’s relationship with Josephine to the more grandiose scenes of his rise to Emperor and subsequent reign leave the viewer uncertain what kind of story the movie wants to tell. In trying to tell two stories at once, it leaves both meagre and incomplete.  

In fairness to Scott, Napoleon’s life was so eventful that it would be almost impossible to do justice to all of it in even a three-hour film. Perhaps the story would have more suited to a lavish television mini-series. For the cinema, the narrative had to be compressed. Some events had to be left out. Still, an unconscionable number of important events in Napoleon’s life are either superficially glossed over or completely omitted. The expedition to Egypt is incredibly brief and there is no reference to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. Likewise, the absence of the cause of Jewish emancipation—a movement in which Napoleon was highly influential—is a striking lacuna. It’s also ironic that—for all the emphasis on Bonaparte’s roguery—some of his most heinous acts are left out of the story. These included his restoration of slavery in the French colonies, his attempt to stamp out the Haitian revolution, and the execution of over 2,000 Ottoman prisoners of war during the siege of Jaffa.  

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 Napoleon’s life naturally raises the thorny question of the individual’s role in history. The current orthodoxy demands that we rubbish the “Great Men” theory of history for its elitism. But in doing so, we are in danger of falling into a deterministic view that erases the role of human agency altogether. We need to remain aware of the dialectical interplay between individual and collective agency on the one hand and historical and social forces on the other. Men and women make their own history, but they do not choose the circumstances under which they make it. The scope and results of their actions are bounded by the historical, political, and socioeconomic context, a context formed independently of their will. And yet, an individual can exert considerable influence on the historical process, even as they are themselves shaped by it—as we see with Abraham Lincoln’s role in the American Civil War and Lenin’s in the Russian Revolution.  

In the 19th century, Napoleon was seen as a romantic hero, a self-made man who rose from humble beginnings to the height of power. As Eric Hobsbawm puts it in his classic 1962 book The Age of Revolution, “every man who broke with tradition could identify himself with his dreams.” Napoleon captivated many 19th-century hommes de lettres. Goethe initially had great respect for him as a strong leader and was fascinated by him as an exemplar of “daimonic genius.” Balzac declared that “what Napoleon achieved by the sword, I shall achieve by the pen.” Lord Byron penned an “Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte” that compares him to Prometheus. For Heinrich Heine, Napoleon was the embodiment of the French Revolution and an almost Christ-like figure. He once described Napoleon as “not made of that wood of which kings are made: he was of that marble of which gods are formed.” In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov passionately embraces Napoleon as an inspiration and a mirror of his own longing for greatness. Even Nietzsche thought Napoleon “proved himself as one of the greatest continuators of the Renaissance.”  

What was it about Napoleon that led to this cult among many of the most learned people in Europe? To understand this, we must first understand the French Revolution, the context that formed Napoleon as an ambitious young man and provided him with the opportunity to rise. 

 The French Revolution wasn’t simply a historic event, but a long, complicated epopée that changed the course of world history forever. Along with the American Revolution, it represented the zenith of the wider bourgeois revolution, the revolt of the Third Estate against feudalism and the ascendancy of bourgeois society to political supremacy. It was the moment at which the people first began to see themselves as agents of history as opposed to being passive subjects of it. The history of the French Revolution is still hotly debated today, though it is generally agreed that there were two crucial phases in its development.  

The first stage took place in 1789, was catalysed by the storming of the Bastille, and involved the overthrow of the monarch’s monopoly over power, the abolition of noble and clerical privilege, and the end of feudalism. The important accomplishments of 1789 included the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the establishment of the equality of all citizens before the law, the separation of Church and state, the introduction of a parliamentary system based on a limited franchise, and the enunciation of the modern concept of the nation, with “the people” as its sovereign. These accomplishments were enshrined in a new constitution that was officially promulgated in 1791. What we understand today as liberal democracy owes a lot to the blueprint sketched out in that year.  

The sequel to 1789 took place in the year 1793. The monarchy had already been overthrown and the king executed and a république bourgeoise had been established. That year witnessed the rise of the Jacobins, especially Robespierre. The most fervent faction, the Montagnards, overthrew their Girondin predecessors. The revolutionaries drafted a new constitution that superseded the 1791 version. Egalitarianism was its prevailing spirit. It was more democratic since it abolished all property requirements for the male franchise. It also included new rights: the right to a public education, the right to free association, and the right to resist oppression. The Jacobins’ most notable achievement was the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. From the very beginning, Europe’s counter-revolutionary monarchies had been determined to snuff out the revolution, lest their own subjects got any ideas about enacting their own revolutions. Through their notorious policy known as “the Terror,” Robespierre and the Montagnards sought not only to protect the revolution from its enemies, but to radicalise it. However, the reign of terror got so out of control and the bloodshed was so gratuitous that even die-hard Jacobins like George Jacques Danton and Jacques Hébert became its victims. Not long afterwards, the National Convention expelled Robespierre.   

Yet, the fall of the Jacobins did not mean the end of terror. Jacobin revolutionary terror was simply replaced by Thermidorian counter-revolutionary terror. Robespierre himself ironically lost his head to the guillotine in 1794. The sans-culottes—the “striking force of the revolution,” as Hobsbawm calls them—were viciously suppressed in May 1795. As a result of this tumult, a more conservative new constitution was passed, and the National Convention was dissolved. 

 Thus arose the Directoire: an unstable, corrupt, and extremely authoritarian regime, struggling to contain royalist insurrections on one side and neo-Jacobins who wanted to re-radicalise the revolution on the other (it had, for example, to put down Gracchus Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals uprising.) The Republic was weak, economically decrepit, and war ravaged, both internally and externally. Its days seemed numbered. 

 It was amid this chaos and upheaval that Napoleon rose to prominence. Throughout the revolution, he had always been in a delicate position. Robespierre promoted him to brigadier-general for his 1793 exploits in Toulon against royalist forces supported by the British. This association with Robespierre made the Thermidor reactionaries suspicious and they placed him house arrest for several weeks in 1794. After his release, and after personally overseeing the suppression of the royalist insurrection of 13 Vendémiaire, Napoleon began to see himself as the person who could lead France out of the chaos, impose order, and stamp out corruption. He had enjoyed an extraordinary military career, having achieved notable successes in the Italian campaign in particular, and was a hero of the Revolution. He had enough bona fides to gain the respect of enough of his peers to allow him to rise to power. In 1799, following the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire, Napoleon became First Consul of France. 

 With Napoleon’s usurpation of power, the French Revolution proper came to an end. A military dictatorship had replaced the democratic republic that had come into being because of the revolution. And the revolution seemed doubly over when Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804. He signed a concordat with the Vatican, which gave his regime an air of respectability and restored some of the Church’s power and privilege. But at the same time, Napoleon preserved some of the revolution’s legacies: he remained opposed to the Bourbons and to the previous feudal ruling class. He had no intention of restoring the old monarchy. Instead, his rule demonstrated that a new ruling class now ran the show: the bourgeoisie. Like Oliver Cromwell in the English revolution, Napoleon consolidated the French revolution on a more conservative basis: mitigating its excesses yet pushing it outward across Europe.  

The wars Napoleon fought were wars of conquest to bolster his regime and the French ruling class. But they were also defensive wars against the coalition of powers hell bent on restoring the Bourbons and feudalism in France. It is seldom noted—and you wouldn’t know it from watching Ridley Scott’s film—but Napoleon did not start most of the wars he fought against the Coalition. For example, it was Britain that broke the Peace of Amiens in 1803 by declaring war on France and forming the Third Coalition.  

Through Napoleon’s conquests, the gains of the revolution were made portable and fit for export. Across Europe, wherever French troops were victorious, the ancien régime was dealt a deathblow. As he was victorious in one battle after another, Napoleon’s legend grew and grew. The best sequence in Ridley Scott’s film is the 1805 battle of Austerlitz, in which Napoleon was the virtuoso generalissimo. He showed up how foolish the Russian and Austrian armies were, by deceiving them into thinking that his outnumbered army was in no condition to fight and then first enticing them to attack his army at a time and place of his choosing, and then launching a devastating counterattack. It was a big gamble, but it resulted in a crushing victory that put Russia out of action for a while and ended both the Holy Roman Empire and the Third Coalition.   

Napoleon’s victories allowed him to spread his most important legacy: the civil code, which aimed to make the law accessible and comprehensible to all. It recognised civic equality (though not for women), consecrated property rights, promoted meritocracy, confirmed the end of ancient caste privileges, made education secular, and granted freedom of religion. And it created the foundation of a rational, centralised bureaucracy that has endured across the world right up to the present day. It was thoroughly bourgeois in terms of being based on freedom of contract. In the French context, this code was conservative compared to the radical proposals of 1793—and even of 1789—but in the European nations that received it, who were still suffering under the yoke of feudal absolutism, it was revolutionary.  

 Napoleon’s other great achievement was Jewish emancipation. Everywhere in Europe that Napoleon’s armies were victorious, the ghettos in which Jews had been enclosed by law were shut down. Jews gained civic rights and legal equality. They exchanged the humiliating yellow badges they had to wear for the tricolour. In the Rome ghetto, a liberty tree was planted in front of the synagogue to commemorate their liberation. Primo Levi once noted that in the generation after Napoleon’s fall, Italian Jews would name their children after Napoleon in acknowledgement of their historic emancipator. Jewish emancipation was radical at that time. Almost all the Coalition powers were opposed to it. 

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 Napoleon is a paradoxical figure. Within France, he subverted the revolution towards his own goals of imperial authoritarianism. But to the rest of Europe, where absolute monarchies and aristocracies reigned, he was undoubtedly progressive. But soon the Europeans began to see Napoleon as less as a liberator, and more of a conqueror and robber. Nationalist sentiments ignited across Europe in response to the behaviour of Napoleon’s armies, which maintained themselves through the theft of local supplies and the heavy taxation of occupied peoples. The German Romantics, in particular, came to rebel against the universalist ideals of the French Revolution, which they saw as little more than a fig leaf concealing the real aim: the subjugation of the German nation and culture. Moreover, Napoleon’s centralised bureaucracy increased state power and control over the population. In effect, it made them less like citizens and more like subjects—though not of the king, but of the state. The repressive Bonapartist state ruled over civil society rather than through it. As Agnès Poirier puts it in her own review of Scott’s film, it is as if there were two versions of Napoleon duelling over which of them gets to truly represent the man and his legacy: “there is Bonaparte, a hero of the French Revolution who gave France and Europe institutions of the Enlightenment era that still exist today … and there is Napoleon, the hero turned weary authoritarian ruler.”  

Napoleon’s grave blunders and miscalculations, including his “Spanish ulcer” campaign of 1808 and his Russian campaign of 1812—wars of aggression that Napoleon started—would eventually culminate in his downfall. In 1814, following his defeat in Leipzig, he was forced to abdicate and was exiled to the island of Elba. After his escape, attempted comeback, and final, conclusive defeat at Waterloo in 1815, he was banished to St. Helena. Following Napoleon’s final exile, the Bourbons were restored to power in France and all the conquered territory was returned to the European monarchs, who quickly tried to restore the ante bellum status quo. The Jews emancipated by Napoleon were sent back to the ghettos and their new civil rights were revoked. A period of conservative order engulfed Europe, following the Congress of Vienna, which sought to crush the liberal, republican, and revolutionary movements that had been stimulated by the French Revolution. 

 It would be easy to look at that frenzied period of history—which began in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille and ended in 1815 at Waterloo—and conclude that it was all for nothing. For many people, to echo George Orwell, “the French Revolution means no more than a pyramid of severed heads.” But this view is mistaken. It looks at society purely from a top-down perspective, focusing on the game of musical chairs that determines who is in power and ignoring the profound underlying historical processes at work.

The “historical task” of the French Revolution, as Hegel might have put it, was the abolition of feudalism and royal absolutism. The revolution ended the old landed relationships, broke up the big feudal estates, redistributed land to the peasantry and sketched out the blueprint of the modern democratic republic. The bourgeois social relations that spread across Europe as a result irrevocably transformed the societies they touched. And the revolution’s great slogan—liberté, égalité, fraternité—inspired masses of people in Europe and beyond to fight for their own liberation from oppression for a century to come. Neither the restoration of the Bourbons nor the institution of Metternich’s Vienna System could undo this. To the extent that Napoleon Bonaparte played a pivotal—albeit contradictory—role in this epochal transformation, he should be remembered as a Hegelian hero, not as a proto-Hitlerian villain.  

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