Why is Napoleon seen as a villain historically?

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis

by Steve Wilds

article-2155213-00829C1800000258-490_306x437He conquered most of Europe and was finally defeated. His legacy, in popular history at least, was written largely by the British and so we remember him as a despot, a megalomaniac and a egotist. He became Europe's Hitler figure until Hitler came along.
But, as always, the real history is much more complex than the popular history. Sure, he fought a lot of wars and conquered a lot of countries, but it's a mistake to think that he woke up one morning in a peaceful Europe and decided to plunge it into war to satisfy his own ambitions. It's also a mistake to view Napoleon as somehow separate to the French Revolution. That latter point is especially important, as popular history has an irksome habit of tying events up into self-contained episodes, stripped of all context.
This is going to be a pretty big history dump, so please bear with me. It is very important though - without understanding the background to the Napoleonic era, there's no understanding Napoleon himself.

The truth of it is that the Napoleonic Wars were a continuation of the French Revolutionary Wars, which themselves were a direct consequence of the Revolution and the threat they posed to the European establishments. As the French Revolution gathered pace, European monarchs became increasingly concerned about its ideals spreading, and in 1791, Emperor Leopold II of Austria and King Frederick-William II of Prussia issued a joint declaration to protect the French king Louis XVI and his family. The French National Assembly (the revolutionary government of the time), responded first with an ultimatum and then with a disastrous invasion of the Austrian Netherlands. This marked the beginning of the War of the First Coalition.

With the Revolutionary Army in disarray, Austria and Prussia invaded France with the stated aims of restoring the monarchy to its full power and executing anyone who opposed it. All this achieved was the arrest of Louis XVI and his family, and the formal declaration of France as a Republic.

It also bolstered the determination of the Revolutionary Army. By the end of 1792, the Revolutionary Army had repelled Coalition forces from France and had captured territories beyond its borders. In response, Britain stated that it would be forced into war unless France gave these territories up.

Day's after Louis XVI's execution in 1793, Spain and Portugal joined the Austro-Prussian coalition and Britain expelled France's ambassador. In response the French National Assembly declared war on Britain and the Dutch Republic.

Over the next 5 years, and against the combined efforts of most of Europe, the Revolutionary Army won victory after victory, forcing the Coalition to sue for peace one by one. It also established the Batavian Republic in the Netherlands, the Helvetian Republic in Switzerland, it had deposed the Pope and established a republic in Rome.

By 1798, and with Napoleon as just one of many general in the Revolutionary Army working under orders, the French Republic had successfully executed a defensive war and pushed back its invaders, gaining many territories along the way. In the same year, with Britain the only remaining country in the First Coalition, Napoleon devised and launched a major campaign against Egypt as a means of challenging British power in India. However he lost all his ships and was stranded there for a year.

In the same year, the Second Coalition formed between Britain, Russia, Austria, Portugal and the Ottoman Empire, again with the intention of containing the Revolution.
In 1799, France had suffered a number of defeats to the armies of the Second Coalition, and the current Parisian government (the Directory) was in crisis. Although he was still campaigning in Egypt and Syria, Napoleon returned to Paris once he heard of the situation back home. Once there, he overthrew the Directory and installed himself as the First Consul of France, taking control of both government and the military. Within three years the Second Coalition was defeated and the Revolutionary Wars ended with the 1802 Treaty of Amiens.

So that's the background to the Napoleonic era. A decade of defensive war against two coalitions of the most powerful nations in Europe, all fought with the intention of crushing and containing the ideals of the Enlightenment that threatened the monarchies and aristocracies on the continent.

As well as the wars themselves, the Revolution itself had lurched from crisis to crisis and had come dangerously close to slipping into anarchy during the Reign of Terror.
This was the context that informed everything that Napoleon was to do and achieve over the rest of his active life. So now we've established the context, let's look at what happened next and how Napoleon came to be painted as one of histories great arch-villains.

In 1803, Britain broke the Treaty of Amiens and declared war once again on France. In response, Napoleon formed the Armée d'Angleterre in northern France which was intended to invade Britain. Napoleon had learnt much during the Revolutionary Wars, especially that defensive wars were best fought aggressively. However, he knew that he wouldn't be able to invade while the British Royal Navy was patrolling the channel, so he used the French Navy to lure it away by attacking British interests in the Caribbean.
This didn't work, however and the war between Britain and France entered a kind of "phony war" period with most of the combat happening at sea. Meanwhile, Britain, seeing a direct invasion of France as impossible while the Armée d'Angleterre was waiting to welcome it, formed the Third Coalition with Sweden, Austria and Russia in the hope that land invasions would draw troops away from the northern coast.
Facing enemies abroad, and continuing plots against him at home (from both royalist and Jacobin factions), Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France in order to consolidate his position and to hold the principles that guided the Revolution intact. It sounds strange to us now that the Revolution overthrew a monarchy only to create an emperor, but as an administrative move it was vital in order to preserve everything that the Revolution had won.

History is nothing if not ironic.

And so we enter the Napoleonic period proper. Old enemies once again trying to undo and contain some of the most important gains of the Enlightenment, and France fighting back by taking and holding their territories. The main difference between the Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars is that Napoleon consolidated his gains directly instead of through client republics, and he was not going to stop.
In every country he defeated, he installed his own Marshals and trusted allies as governors to ensure that they wouldn't later turn against France yet again. He also imposed the Napoleonic Code (or Code Napoléon, or Code Civil des Français) on his conquests, which acted as a kind of unifying civil constitution, establishing the principles of the French Revolution across Europe, as well as diplomatic, civil and commercial standards.

Had Napoleon not been finally defeated at Waterloo, history would no doubt see him in a different light. For all his wars and conquests, his achievements brought much good to Europe and spread the ideals of the Enlightenment in the only way they could be spread against the backdrop of entrenched monarchies and powerful, pan-continental aristocratic houses. Unlike the US, Europe had no blank canvas to build a more Enlightened world for itself. It could only ever be won through conflict, blood and tragedy.
And then there's the role that his enemies played in creating the Napoleon of popular history. Had Britain not broken the Treaty of Amiens, would he have gone to war or would have simply consolidated France under the guiding principles of the Revolution, creating a true republic under Enlightened ideals? Had the Third (and Fourth!) Coalitions against France not been formed, would he have had to conquer Europe to secure peace for the republic he'd fought so hard for? Would he have ever made himself emperor?
Who can really say? But we can say with absolute certainty that Napoleon was a far cry from the simplistic bogeyman that his enemies made him into. History, as the old cliché goes, is written by victor, and there are fewer more salient proofs of it than the history of Napoleon and the French Revolution.

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