There's something a little odd about a progressive veneration for Napoleon - the man who dispersed protesters in Paris by firing artillery into them
, who engineered a military coup
to take over the dying Republic, who re-instated slavery
in the French Empire, and who crowned himself as Emperor of France
while at the same time invading most of Europe, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. You end up with the impression that to some it doesn't matter how blood-stained the figure is, so long as he opposed England.
Martin Kettle, who is usually more sensible than this, provides a classic of its type here
, arguing that the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo represented "a huge setback for the cause of democracy and equality." As a quick aside here, the extremely imperfect democracy in Britain in 1815, was considerably freer and more democratic than either Revolutionary or Imperial France. At the most basic level, compare and contrast the two principal newspapers of each state, The Times
and Le Moniteur
. The Times
was independent and free to write more or less what it liked. Le Moniteur
was directly controlled by the French state and consisted of little more than propaganda.
The idea that Napoleon represented anything other than French supremacism rests on very thin ground. Take Kettle's report of Napoleon, post defeat in St Helena, musing on what he would have done to England:
“I would have hastened over my flotilla with two hundred thousand men, landed as near Chatham as possible and proceeded direct to London, where I calculated to arrive in four days from the time of my landing. I would have proclaimed a republic and the abolition of the nobility and the House of Peers, the distribution of the property of such of the latter as opposed me amongst my partisans, liberty, equality and the sovereignty of the people.”
Stirring stuff, if the thought of tumbrils in Parliament Square doesn't put you off a bit. Kettle qualifies his support for this by saying "If that was the real Napoleonic deal for Britain – and of course no one can say for sure whether it would have been – then what’s not to like.
" But Napoleon's commitment to Republican ideals is not really up for debate. He has a historical record which we can test.
Let's start at the beginning: France. Napoleon found an imperfect Republic, and transformed it into an Empire
, with himself as its Imperial Majesty. He found Italy a patchwork of City state Republics, some more democratic and some less, and turned it into the Kingdom of Italy
(ruled by his step-son
) and the Kingdom of Naples
(ruled by first his brother Joseph
, and later his sister Caroline
). The Netherlands were a genuine Republic, with directly elected leaders, when Napoleon invaded and occupied them. He turned them into the Kingdom of Holland
(ruled by his brother Louis
) and later just annexed them to France. After war with Prussia, Napoleon was ceded a hotch-potch of principalities, electorates and turned it into the Kingdom of Westphalia
(ruled by his brother Jerome
). Perhaps a closer parallel to England would be Spain, where Napoleon invaded a monarchy and overthrew it to create... the Kingdom of Spain
(ruled by his brother Joseph
, called over from Naples).
The quicker among you may be noticing a pattern here, and it's not one of democracy, liberty and progress.
Napoleon is good early evidence of the tendency on the left to grab any stick with which to beat their own country, regardless of how shitty it is.