So, the French are planning to build a “Napoleonland” theme park in Montereau-Fault-Yonne, in the south of Paris (the site of Napoleon’s last military victory over the Austrians, in 1814), with daily re-enactments of some of the Napoleonic Wars battles to which visitors will be able to take part, with battlefields filled with bodies of soldiers and horses frozen in time and visitors skiing around, etc.
A controversial character, French MP Yves Jégo, current Mayor of Montereau-Fault-Yonne, backs the project and hopes the park will open to visitors in 2017. The former Minister of French President Sarkozy forecasts that “Napoleonland” could become a serious rival to Disneyland Paris and attract 1.5 million visitors in its first year. (Disneyland Paris attracted more than 10.5 million visitors in 2010 according to TEA. So, to be honest, “Napoleonland” would be anything but a rival for Mickey Mouse! [sic])
In France and in the rest of the world, the name Napoleon Bonaparte is rich in history. But in France, it is also synonym of the French splendour of France’s lost Empire. Something the French seem to keep with a je ne sais quoi of nostalgia.
There are for instance numerous streets, monuments, hotels and restaurants in France that pay tribute to the man that the French worship more than anything else, and consider as the greatest man in the History of France. Even the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris, reminds everyone of the importance of Napoleon. He actually commissioned it after his victorious battle of Austerlitz, in 1806 (a list of French victories is engraved under the arches).
But how can the French still idolise, esteem and worship a man who, today, would be accused and charged for theft, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes? Would the French react any differently if the Germans were to idolise Hitler in 50 years time and decide to build a “Hitlerland” somewhere in Germany, or the Libyans a “Gaddafiland” in Libya?
Napoleon is often regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of all time, a great strategist. And he certainly was.
Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld has once dared describing him in a book as “the most competent human being who ever lived” (1). Well, this statement came from a man who, in a 2002 interview in a Dutch magazine, said “We (Israel) possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions, perhaps even at Rome. Most European capitals are targets for our air force… We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under” (2). That certainly put van Creveld’s statement about Napoleon into context, doesn’t it [sic]?
However great military commander Napoleon Bonaparte was, let’s not forget that he was also the man who took advantage of a bankrupted newly-born Republic to stage a coup d’état in France, just four years after the French Revolution of 1789 that saw King Louis XVI, and his wife Marie-Antoinette, beheaded.
What is our first thought, nowadays, when we hear that a military coup has taken place in Venezuela, Thailand, Sudan, Bangladesh or Pakistan? Do we believe that it is in the people interest, or that the militaries will establish democracy and that people will be able to vote soon after? Let’s not fool ourselves, a successful military coup is rarely in the people interest, the militaries rarely establish any kind of democracy in their country and they rarely organise clear, fair and transparent elections immediately after the coup has happened. A coup d’état, be it nowadays or in the past, most of the time leads to some kind of military committees or a military leader ruling the country under martial law.
Napoleon Bonaparte followed this same pattern. After his coup, a cult of personality grew up around him and he eventually went on to crown himself Emperor, in 1804! What kind of person can possibly take the power of a country by force and crown themselves Emperor? Dictators do that. Crazy dictators do that. Euphemism!
Look. Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself “Empereur des Français” (“His Imperial Majesty Napoleon I, By the Grace of God and the Constitutions of the Republic, Emperor of the French” to be really accurate!). Adolf Hitler called himself “Führer” (“The Guide” in German). Mao Zedong styled himself “The Great Helmsman”. Muammar Gaddafi labelled himself “the Brother Leader” and “Guide of the Revolution” before convincing traditional African rulers to call him “King of Kings” (3), etc.
The list is endless.
Of course, one may argue that some of Napoleon’s deeds still exist today, such as the tax code, the French Central bank (Banque de France), the set of civil laws (Le Code Civil), the road and sewer systems, the metric system, etc.
Well, take a look at these examples of other dictators.
Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD) was the first Christian Roman emperor; in 313 AD, he wrote the Edict of Milan that stated that Christians should be allowed to follow the faith of their choosing and no longer prosecuted for their belief. Christianity still exists and is one of the three main religions in the world today.
Marshal Philippe Pétain and the French government of France that collaborated with the Nazis (1940-1944) among other things decided the creation of French administrative regions, the creation of a minimum salary, the creation of the universal child benefits, the creation of occupational medicine, the creation of the modern hospital and the creation of a unique company for the underground and buses. All of these still exist today.
In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler was behind the “Volkswagen” car project (the “people’s car” in German) to produce a cheap, light and basic vehicle affordable by all and capable of transporting two adults and three children at 100 km/h (4). The “Beetle” still exist today, so does Volkswagen.
Do these simple examples make Constantine, Pétain or Hitler less dangerous, less dictator or less criminal? Do these examples establish their dictatorships as legitimate? No, and no.
Let’s be honest with the facts.
Napoleon Bonaparte was a tyrant, a dictator, a thief and a butcher. Napoleon’s rule meant a cult of personality, a total censorship on the press, the arts and the books, the institutionalisation of the stealing of artefacts wherever the troops of the Emperor were victorious, the reinstitution of slavery in overseas colonies like Guadeloupe or Haiti, the death of perhaps more than six million people in Europe (though figures of casualties during the Napoleonic Wars are nearly impossible to accurately estimate).
We can only imagine (and fortunately, only imagine!) what that man – once again, yes, a military genius – would have been capable of if he had been born one or two centuries later, with the power and weapons of another age. Hitler wasn’t Napoleon, but we unfortunately know what happened under his rule.
In his book, “Napoleon”, British historical, cultural and biographical writer Vincent Cronin (5) defended the Emperor’s legacy and claimed that saying that Napoleon was responsible for the Napoleonic Wars is wrong. According to him, France was in fact, at the time, the victim of European coalitions aimed at destroying the ideals of the French Revolution of 1789.
To some extents, Cronin was right. The European monarchs beyond France’s borders had everything to fear from a contagion of the revolutionary ideas that had been fatal to their cousin, Louis XVI. However, the ideals of the French Revolution were to get rid of old ideas such as monarchy, absolute power, aristocracy, privileges, immunity, special rights and religious authority, and change them for the new principles of freedom, equality, citizenship, freedom of speech and religion. Not to change them for the absolutism of a self-declared Emperor, whose self-interests and thirst of glory and majesty eventually lead again the people of France to subjection, poverty and slavery, and put the country on its knees and totally bankrupted, after more than 10 years of endless wars in Europe.
Still feeling like Napoleon was a nice guy? Still feeling like a “Napoleonland” theme park is a great idea to spend your 2017 holidays with kids?
Sources: (1) Martin van Crevald, Command in War. (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987) (2) As quoted in The Observer Guardian (2003). Original interview in Dutch weekly magazine Elsevier. (2002) (3) As quoted on the BBC News website. (29 August 2008) (4) William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990) (5) Vincent Cronin, Napoleon (HarperCollins, 1994). Photo Credits: 1. The Emperor Napoleon in his study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812. 2. The Arc de Triomphe, Paris. Photo (c) Lisa Solonynko. 3. Coronation of Napoleon I and Empress Josephine by Jacques-Louis David, 1804. 4. Roman Emperor Constantine. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo (c) Katie Chao. 5. Napoleon, by Vincent Cronin.
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