PragerU had a little video up this morning from historian Andrew Roberts about Napoleon. It’s an interesting take on the not-so-short French emperor—an apologia, really (for those that prefer reading—as I often do—to watching videos, here is a PDF transcript).
Roberts argues that Napoleon was not the necessary precursor to Hitler, et. al.; rather, Napoloen was “sui generis“—a man unto himself. While I believe the ideas of the French Revolution did unleash the totalitarian forces of Hitlerism, Stalinism, Maoism, and all the rest—a murderous, bloody Pandora’s Box—I’ve never considered Napoleon among their ranks.
In my estimation, Napoleon was the consequence of ultra-egalitarian mob rule. Power abhors a vacuum, and the mob seeks a charismatic figure to lead them. I don’t necessarily believe in historical inevitability, but the odds were favorable that a dictator or emperor would emerge. But comparing Napoleon to Hitler or Stalin is absurd.
It’s uncomfortable for freedom-loving Americans to admit it, but not all dictators, monarchs, despots, etc., are created equal. Francisco Franco’s Spain—following the bloodshed of the Spanish Civil War—was not a bad place to live. I’d rather have been Spanish in 1950s fascist Spain than Russian in the Soviet Union of the 1950s. That’s not because I endorse fascism over communism—far from it!—but because Franco’s Spain at the time was objectively a better, safer, more prosperous place to live.
Liberty is a precious gift, one we often take for granted. Most people throughout history have not enjoyed the luxury of self-government. We say it’s a universal human right—and, hopefully, one day it will be—but the historical track record suggests otherwise. Strongman rule—or, at best, monarchism—seems to be the norm. At least under a traditional monarchy the king sees himself as possessing some divine and practical responsibility for his subjects.
A failure of democratic self-government is that, with everyone in charge, no one is responsible. It’s better than the alternatives, but it’s a core feature that we must take note of, and attempt to address in some kind of productive or mitigating way. One solution—the one I prefer—is greater localism. The solution of our elites for the past century has been greater centralization.
The results speak for themselves: the dissolution of communities, the disillusionment with our government and institutions, the disappearance of identities. How about we give localism and States’ rights a try, hmm?
Back to Napoleon: he was a military genius and a man of humble origins. He rose to power in a time and place when aristocratic breeding tended to matter more than actual achievement. Napoleon changed that, placing meritocracy above birthright. He also standardized France’s insane profundity of law codes into the Code Napoleon.
According to Roberts, Napoleon largely fought defensive wars against monarchist alliances that sought to thwart the French Revolution (a good impulse) and restore the Bourbons to the throne (eh, maybe not a bad idea). I was unaware of this fact. Napoleon took the offensive against his enemies, to be sure, but generally after they had declared war on him or his allies.
Had Napoleonic France been left alone, what might have happened? Napoleon’s ultimate defeat in 1815—a major victory for the Anglosphere—was a coin-toss, a Gettysburg-style win in that it was so close, and everything rode on the outcome of a razor-thin margin of victory. I suspect the British Empire could not abide an overly powerful France regardless, but the creation of larger German states following the war would ultimately lead to the unification of that Central European powerhouse—and we all know how that story goes.
Of course, no Napoleon, no nationalist backlash in Europe. Some of the great Romantic music of the nineteenth century might never have been written.
The French—like lost Latin-inspired nations—still love strongman rule. I once read in a comparative government textbook that (to paraphrase) “the French are great complainers, but they always bend the knee in the end.”
That sounds about right. Anglo-Americans don’t have that in them. We quietly put up with nuisances until we erupt in a defiant roar. Little wonder that England is a lion, and America is an eagle. What is France—a fleur-de-lis?
But Napoleon was no Hitler (and, quite frankly, I grow weary of the constant comparison of everything and everyone to Hitler—give it a rest), just as the taxation of King George III was light and reasonable compared to our current surveillance state (the issue, of course, was that Americans lacked representation—an ancient English liberty—and could not, therefore, give their consent to be taxed).
Some final notes: apparently, Napoleon was nearly assassinated on Christmas Day 1800. He also crowned himself Emperor of the French Empire—one of my favorite acts of Napoleonic melodrama and audacity—in December 1804. Napoleon crowned himself, after blessings and such from the Pope—a power move, to be sure, though not the spontaneous, audacious maneuver I always took it to be (it was planned in advance).
Of course, Napoleon—and every monarch and despot, big and small, benign or malicious—is a pale comparison to the True King, Christ Jesus. He was born of humble circumstances, too, but His Rule is eternal.