Magazine article The Spectator

A World for Napoleon

Magazine article The Spectator

A World for Napoleon

Article excerpt

IN LESS than 20 years we shall be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the victory which gave the world a century of Pax Britannica. Or may we find that 2015, thanks to the efforts of the faceless Eurocrats of Brussels, brings us in effect a fruition of much of Napoleon's designs for Europe? This is the secret fear that gnaws at the bowels of your average Eurosceptic, and we historians who have dared to write on Napoleon recently are often asked how his achievements look today, how we see him and what the world might have been like if he had won that `nearest run thing' in June 1815.

Historians tend to skirt nervously round the dangerous territory of what if, but at least Napoleon left us some clear markers of his blueprint for Europe. To his brother, Louis, who he made King of Holland, he wrote in November 1807: `The Romans gave their laws to their allies. Why should not France insist on the adoption of her own?'

But just as interesting is how he would see us. As warlord and administrator, Napoleon has suffered the inevitable comparisons with Hitler. Both attacked Russia on almost the same day in June, by which time it was too late in the campaigning season to win a knock-out blow. Both were defeated by those vast spaces (`Don't march on Moscow' was always one of Montgomery's cardinal points of war for would-be conquerors) - and summer possibly more than winter was what defeated both, the heat killing off like flies the horses on which both armies depended.

Both found the demands of war controlling them rather than the reverse; one conquest inevitably had to lead to another until the final debacles when both were worn down by the sheer weight of numbers that their early cheap triumphs had brought down upon them.

That is about as far as the parallel goes. Napoleon was never a merchant of genocide. In the savage guerrilla war of the Peninsula, French treatment - as propagandised by Goya - of irregulars was brutal, but probably not much worse than British behaviour during the Indian Mutinies. At the Siege of Acre in 1799, Napoleon caused a revulsion of opinion by his massacre of Turkish captives, but that may have been perpetrated in a moment of jealous rage, following receipt of information of Josephine's infidelity with Hippolyte Charles. It was certainly not an instrument of policy, nor representative of any specific antipathy towards Muslims.

His treatment of some of the European conquered peoples (particularly the Germans) was harsh, but bore no comparison to Hitler's brief rule of terror. In 1806, the French shot a nationalist German journalist called Palm; it caused Prussia to boil over and goaded her finally into a suicidal war against Napoleon. Though the Prussians were roundly defeated at Jena, French arrogance combined with the rapacious depredations of passing Napoleonic armies eventually provided a national resurgence under men like Yorck and Blucher, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which would eventually defeat Napoleon in 1814 and 1815 - as well as plaguing later generations of Frenchmen in 1870, 1914 and 1940.

Although, as he advanced through Russian Poland in 1812, Napoleon immediately tried to organise the occupied territories into departements, unlike Hitler he never stayed in Russia long enough to organise a thorough-going administration. How he might have treated the Russians had he defeated them in 1812 is suggested by his counterproductive mishandling of the Prussians; yet one can be sure that it would never have approximated to Hitler's thoroughly counterproductive policy of genocide - which put the clock back to Tamburlaine.

Even though, like Hitler's, Napoleon's empire was based on military conquest, he did have one transcending advantage which militated against the necessity for repression. In his baggage he brought with him the glorious principles of the French Revolution. These were hailed by many a romantic German from Goethe downwards, and even found sympathy among British Whigs who regarded Napoleon as the `man of the future'. …

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