Saturday, October 4, 2008

Vive l'Empereur!

In praise of the Napoleon 101 podcast

I have enjoyed a wonderful podcast called Napoleon 101, covering the career of Napoleon and hosted by sidekick Cameron Reilly and historian J. David Markham. Who knew that Napoleon was such an interesting and passionate character? I didn't, and my ignorance is either a testament to the inadequacy of the public education system here in the US, to the residual anglophone hatred of Napoleon, or simply to the inability of any general history education crammed into the mere twelve years of normal schooling to do justice to the richness of human history. At well over 50 hours of desultory narrative and opinion, this series requires some fortitude to get through, and indeed I am not through it quite yet.

The series offers numerous quotes of Napoleon's writings and pronouncements which are alone worth the price of admission (which is nothing, incidentally). He was one of the most articulate, eloquent, and to-the-point writers in history, putting him in league with other generals such as Ceasar and Grant. These vignettes of his thought illustrate powerfully why he was such a commanding character that finally the sixth coalition of European powers declared war on Napoleon Bonaparte alone, not on France.

Was he a monster? The podcast presenters are hopelessly pro-Napoleon and stoutly maintain "no". Apparently there was no question that he had to launch a coup, no question that he had to crown himself emperor, no question that he had to divorce Josephine to engender an heir, no question that he had to invade Russia, and no question that his return from Elba was a positive development (though it appears to have robbed the world of his autobiographical memoirs (!)). I exaggerate slightly, but they do cheer for Napoleon at all junctures. This certainly lends the podcast its propulsive, positive energy. But I think it is somewhat overdone, in an attempt to counter the anglophone propaganda that is still a strong narrative of the Napoleonic era. It also leads the presenters to devote large swaths of time to Napoleon's family affairs, loves, and mistresses.

Primarily, there is the general question of why there were so many wars, culminating in the debacular Russian campaign (if I may coin a word) and its sequels. This river of blood really requires an explanation. The presenters pursue the idea that the royalist powers, and the British in particular, were principally at fault, irrationally opposed to Napoleon's France on both ideological grounds (trying to preserve the aristocratic system, not to mention combat godless atheism) and on strategic grounds (trying to contain the strongest actor on the continent). The French revolution was a new Cromwellianism, crazy in its excesses and striking fear into the heart of any monarch, indeed into conservatives of any stripe, including Dickens and Burke. Those who sat on uneasy thrones wanted to stamp out the contagion of liberalism in its French crib, and pursued wars against the revolution from its birth. But then Napoleon created the military colossus that defeated all comers, and additionally crowned himself emperor. This might have quieted the waters if the monarchists of Europe had taken him seriously. Of course they didn't, and the assumption of nobility by such an upstart made their hatred even more vitriolic.

But did Napoleon need to start an empire and put all the conquered nations into the yoke of his "continental system" in response to Britain's blockade? I don't think so. The lowest point of the series is the host's defense of Napoleon's invasion of Russia, as a natural consequence of Tzar Alexander's disobedience in the matter of the continental system. This putatively forced Napoleon to chasten Russia with an invasion, whose consequence was supposed to be a renewed friendship between the two monarchs. I have to say that this is faintly analogous to defending Hitler's moves before World War II as a search for peace. Hitler certainly didn't want war- he only wanted the fruits of intimidation. War was, then, brought by those who tired of this "system" of demands. I agree with the hosts that the successive coalitions were reactionary and irrational in their own way, but Napoleon's eagerness to meet them offensively marks him as an inflammatory element on the European landscape. Time and again, he turned to pre-emptive war and lost the moral high ground, defeating the royalists on their own territory, subsuming them into punitive "alliances", putting his relatives on various thrones, and never stabilizing the European system in a politically sustainable way.

These policies, epitomized by his assumption of nobility, show the hubris that eventually brought him down. He was not content to govern France and betrayed the entire point of the French Revolution, which was a yearning for liberal ideas and against imperial oppression. Indeed in a telling quote Napoleon said: "I will not play the role of Monck, nor will I let anyone else play it. Nor will I be a second Washington." George Monck was the British politician and general who reconciled the post-Cromwellian political system and restored Charles II. So there you have it in a nutshell. Napoleon, who was progressive in many important ways, instituting modern civil codes, governing efficiently, and reconciling the Catholic church back into French society after the convulsions of the revolution, was unwilling to play an ultimately constructive and progressive role in governance. When cornered in the (last) hundred days of his rule, he allowed a liberal constitution to be written and instituted, showing his recognition all along of what the right path should have been. But he played for power and glory, not for the peaceful, just, well-regulated, and prosperous nationalism represented by both Monck (a royalist) and Washington (a liberal anti-royalist).

It is tempting at this point to make a comparison to the present political moment, where we find another martial candidate for power in the US. John McCain comes from the military, cherishes the military, is temperamentally extremely combative (indeed a loose cannon, one might conclude from his recent campaign antics), and puts the military foremost in his policy and budgeting priorities (cf the first debate). He even proposed this summer to use a domestic "surge" to combat urban crime. One gets the sense that here again is a hammer who sees every problem as a nail- who sees putting the military first as equivalent to putting "country first".

Returning to Napoleon, the presenters are particularly sympathetic to Napoleon's predicament after his return from Elba (called the hundred days), where they take Napoleon at his word that he wanted nothing more than to rule France in peace and repair the damage he had wrought. In truly surreal fashion, they suggest that he could have been convinced to retire to a remote castle and let his wife rule as regent for their son. Should the Allies have trusted him? I doubt it, and they certainly did not. It is indeed probable that Napoleon wanted peace at that moment, in order to repair affairs and consolidate his refreshed rule (he was only 46 years old, after all). But his nature was martial and extremely controlling, and eventually the temptation to re-assert French dominance would have been irresistible. Beethoven had it right, in my humble estimation, both to admire Napoleon at first, and then later to revile him.

Anyhow, despite the criticism above, I doff my cap to Cameron Reilly and J. David Markham for their labor of love in producing a riveting podcast that shows the potential of the medium and serves the memory of the Napoleon Bonaparte.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Burk, thanks for the (mostly) positive review of our podcast! I could defend our position on each of the points where you challenge us but you probably already know what I'm going to say. :-)