Written by the winners, history has been harsh to the French emperor
In the first chapter of his new biography of Antonio Rosmini, Persecuted Prophet, John Michael Hill IC remarks about Napoleon (who died when Rosmini was 26 so that his deeds and his memory were still fresh in men’s minds) that in many respects “he had been kind to the Catholic Church. When he became First Consul and then Emperor, he set about a comprehensive re-ordering of France, giving it laws and structures which survived for a hundred years. The Catholic Church had been ravaged by the Revolution. Napoleon himself was not a religious man [but] he believed that religion, when not corrupt, was a strong bolster to a just society. So he re-opened the French churches closed by the revolutionaries. Sunday was re-established as the Lord’s Day. He set about healing the schism between the so-called revolutionary ‘constitutional’ church and the church of tradition…And he negotiated a new Concordat with the newly elected Pius VII, a Concordat which lasted until the end of the nineteenth century.”
It’s true that he later quarrelled with Pius VII and effectively made him his prisoner for a time – though in very comfortable circumstances in the chateau of Fontainbleau – but, as Hill relates, the Pope always “retained an affection for Napoleon, saying of him, “The son is somewhat mutinous, but he remains a son.” And on his deathbed on St Helena, the famous exile, whose formidable mother used to attend daily Mass, asked for a priest and received the Last Sacraments.
I mention these details partly because some Catholics regard Napoleon as always having been implacably hostile to the Church, and partly because today is the two hundredth anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, which in British history is thought of in somewhat black and white terms: as a great victory over a warmongering tyrant. Certainly it was a victory, though Wellington himself described it as “The nearest run thing you saw in your life”.
But national propaganda against the French Emperor has been unfair to his character and to his many achievements. Indeed, as Andrew Roberts argues in a recent biography of Napoleon, we have latterly tended to see him in the same unfavourable light as Hitler. Didn’t they both overrun, then dominate Europe and fail in their invasion of Russia, after all?
In declaring to the House of Commons during the last war that “I always hate to compare Hitler with Napoleon”, Churchill showed he understood the difference between the two. But Wellington, though he acknowledged that Napoleon was the greater general, reflected the British hostility, dismissing him in other respects as a thug and a bully. Yet the philosopher Hegel, if he had glimpsed Wellington riding through the streets of Jena on October 13 1806, would never have described him as he described Napoleon: “A world-soul riding on horseback”. And it is also hard to imagine the polymath Goethe, who met Napoleon in a celebrated encounter at Erfurt on October 2 1808 and who later described their conversation about literature and poetry as one of the most gratifying experiences of his life, being so enthusiastic if he had ever had a conversation with the phlegmatic Duke.
In his article about Wellington in the Telegraph on Monday, Charles Moore rightly draws attention to the Duke’s abhorrence of war, his “scorn for display”, his aversion to heroics, his aristocratic disdain for the masses and his “huge charm”. He refers to his “repressed passion, plainness, humour, incorruptibility, coolness, practicality and public spirit” as being archetypical of the British character. This is all true – but it gives the impression that such characteristics are in contrast to Napoleon’s personality.
It must be remembered that although Napoleon was energised by his battles, which brought out all his formidable qualities of concentration and strategic forethought, they were largely forced on him by coalitions of his enemies, bolstered by British money. He did enjoy heroics and display, it is true; but then he saw himself, not incorrectly, in the heroic mould of his classical heroes. Who would now remember Wellington if it were not for Waterloo and his well-known boots? Napoleon also had great natural charm, as was testified even by his enemies such as Metternich. He was calm in battle (helped by a strong sense of destiny), intensely practical and extremely public-spirited: after all, he entered politics in the first place to clear up the chaos and corruption of the post-revolutionary Directory and, as incorruptible as Wellington, made an excellent job of it.
Unlike the conservative, patrician Wellington Napoleon was a meritocrat. He appointed his generals for their ability, not their birth. And he did not think of the common soldier, in Wellington’s famous remark, as “the scum of the earth”. Were they not Frenchmen, capable of being kindled by “la gloire”? How else could he have captivated the hearts of his undernourished, ill-equipped and ill-trained men and led them to victory after victory in the Italian campaign?
Having said all this I suspect that, unlike Wellington, Napoleon did lack a sense of humour.