The Little Corporal

The Man Who Invented The Napoleon Complex

The greatest Frenchman ever, proclaim French opinion polls. We take a look at Napoleon Bonaparte, the man and his shortcomings.

Politics rest on principles, and principles are founded on personality. The towering personality of modern French history is Napoleon. 

He towers literally over Paris. In 1806, as the new Emperor of France, he decreed the construction of the column which still dominates the capital’s central square, the Place Vendôme. Standing 44-metres-high and encased in 180 tons of bronze melted from 1200 cannon captured from the Russians and the Austrians, the column is engraved with the words Monument élevé à la gloire de la Grande Armée (Monument Erected to the Glory of the Grand Army). 

Napoleon had no problems choosing the most perfect crown for this tribute to the men who fought and died at the battle of Austerlitz (1805); a statue of himself, three and a half metres tall, dressed as a Roman emperor. 

Ce qui est grand est toujours beau” (‘Big is always good’), said Napoleon of architecture in general and probably of monuments to him specifically. 

The French are still impressed. In Paris alone, there are over two hundred streets, squares, monuments and institutions commemorating the Napoleonic era in France, a period that lasted only fifteen years. Such symbols are important to any country as the outward expression of internal values. 

There are 600,000 volumes relating to Napoleon in France’s national library, La Bibliothèque nationale, equivalent to ten miles of shelf space. In 2001, despite heavy duties as President Chirac’s then foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin added to them with his own six-hundred-page book on Napoleon, called Les Cent-Jours, ou l'esprit de sacrifice (The Hundred Days, or the Spirit of Sacrifice), one chapter called “Waterloo, or the Crucifixion”. 

Napoleon was hardly Jesus. Personally, he was a sadistic fruitcake, so bizarre that he had his own mental disease named after him. Politically, he was the military dictator of a totalitarian state, both the first of their kind but neither the last. 

If anyone suffered from a Napoleon Complex, it would seem to be Napoleon. His temper was uncontrollable. No one was safe, high or low. "At Posen, already, I saw him mount his horse in such a fury as to land on the other side” remembered his foreign minister Talleyrand “and then give his groom a cut of the whip.” He kicked the senator Volney, a trusted friend from his Corsican childhood, in the stomach, knocking him to the ground, for making an approving remark about the previous royal family. On parade, he struck a Captain Fournois with his cane and when the officer’s company set up a general murmur, Napoleon in a rage had them all disarmed and ordered every tenth man be shot (‘...but Bonaparte pardoned them on condition of penal servitude for life in the colonies’). 

There are many such stories recorded by impartial witnesses. He cheated at cards with children, he smashed furniture, he shot the swans in the lake of his house at Malmaison to spite Josephine, and afterwards he could sob for a quarter of an hour and suffer from stomach cramps or fits of vomiting. Madame de Rémusat, who once loved him, eventually had to write: “Bonaparte has an innate evil nature, an innate taste for evil not only in small things but in great.” 

After the first success of his career, at the siege of Toulon, Captain Buonaparte (he did not lose the ‘u’ until 1798) had a large number of surrendered Royalists and liberated convicts herded into the town’s square and used artillery to mow them down. He then announced that the vengeance of the French Republic was satisfied and they should now rise and go to their homes. As the bleeding and cowed survivors stood up, he fired again.

Napoleon invented the idea of military and police terror as a political weapon and turned it into a system. Having taken Hamburg after a hard siege, he ordered the city’s population evicted on pain of flogging (though “…French gallantry substituted with respect to females the birch for the cane” noted one observer) and then pilfered 4,000,000 francs from their banks for his personal use. 

His armies' atrocities against Portuguese and Spanish civilians between 1807 and 1814 earned him the nickname "the Ogre”. One of his own officers later wrote that "if we had carried out to the letter our orders concerning the Spanish insurgents, we would have had to put almost the entire population of the country to death”.

He cared as little about his own men. At the battle of Eylau (1807), Napoleon entered the field with any army of 50,000. Though he forced the Russians from the battle, 22,000 of his own army were dead or wounded. He rode amongst the bodies muttering: “Small change, small change, A night in Paris will set this right.” 

This was no shell-shocked reaction. “A man like me doesn’t give a shit about the lives of a million men”, he screamed at an Austrian diplomat in 1813, before attacking him with his hat.

As usual, this was a half-truth. Of the 675,000 men he used to invade Russia in 1812, only half a million died. This figure was published in Paris in the notorious Twenty Ninth Bulletin which ended reassuringly “but the Emperor’s health has never been better”. And so it should, since he had long dumped his retreating army and returned home by fast sleighs and heated carriages.

Towards the end, as the allies closed in on Paris, he boasted; “I shall bury the world beneath my ruin.”

Military terror abroad, police control at home. Napoleon’s legal, financial and administrative reforms have provided the foundation of all France’s political regimes since, including another empire and four republics. 

Their purpose was to create a centralised command structure with himself at the top in total control and administered by a set of prefects. tax-collectors and police officials totally loyal to him, “an intermediate caste... interposed between myself and France’s vast democracy.”

It included personalities like Joseph Fouché, his minister of police who had political opponents executed in batches with cannon-fire; Réné Savary, head of Gendarmerie d’Elite, who forged banknotes for the state and invented the clockwork time bomb; and Charles de Talleyrand, his foreign minister, who was so corrupt that his demand that the fledgling US democracy pay him $250,000 before he would begin treaty negotiations almost led to a shooting war.

Together, Napoleon and his administrators sent opponents to concentration camps on the Ile d’Olêron or exiled them to the jungles of Guiana. The press was suppressed. Slavery was restored. Those who managed to survive the midnight arrests and military trials were “disappeared” or “suicided”.

Eventually, Napoleon’s control was so total that he was able to crown himself Emperor in Notre Dame Cathedral over a country that had only recently been a revolutionary and atheistic republic. Surveying the pomp, one republican officer General Delmas grumbled: “All that was missing was those hundred thousand Frenchman who died to be rid of all this.” Delmas was placed immediately on the retirement list.

Was it all about his height? George Washington (6’3”) or the Duke of Wellington (6’1”), tough soldiers and political leaders, never made themselves dictators. Once, in his library at Malmaison, his private residence, the Emperor was observed standing on tip-toe to reach a book on an upper shelf. Marshal Moncey offered to retrieve it for him. "I am taller than Your Majesty," he remarked. "No, Marshal”, Napoleon screamed, "you’re just longer!”

In fact, though Louis Marchand, the Emperor’s valet, would shove lifts into his master’s boots every morning and remove them every night, in case the Emperor died in his sleep and history discovered he was shortish, Napoleon stood 5’ 6” in his stockinged feet, more than average for the time. But perhaps some of the rage has a physical basis. French writer Madame de Stael once managed to force her way into Napoleon’s quarters when he was in the bath. She retired with a stifled laugh murmuring, “Genius has no sex”. Hortense, his step-daughter, once told him: “Women are not for you because you do not have the resources to please them”. The Emperor had many mistresses but, as he himself admitted: “Love is not for me; I am not as other men.” His autopsy noted “strikingly small, infantile and undersized genitals”. The organ in question was measured at 1’¼ inches.

Whatever the cause of his personal defects they were projected in giant scale in his political and military heritage which today still dominate France. In 2004, France's defence minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, told Le Figaro magazine that "if Napoleon remains a reference for the French, it's surely because he appears in our collective memory as the creator of the modern state.” 


Napoleon – A Short Life: Napoleone Buonaparte, b. 1769 second son of eight children into poor Corsican nobility. Military school at Brienne-le-Château 1779, joined royal French artillery in 1785. Thanks to his rabid Jacobinism and his defence of Toulon, made general in1793. Defended the revolutionary National Convention by turning artillery on demonstrating Parisian crowds in 1795. M. Joséphine de Beauharnais in 1796 then led a demoralised Army of Italy to victory over the Austrians. In 1798, invaded Egypt, destroying a Turkish army at the battle of the Pyramids. Returned to Paris, he overthrew the ruling Directory and sidelined rivals to become First – and only – Consul. Crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804 and King of Italy in 1805. Victories against Austria at Marengo (1800), Russia and Austria at Austerlitz (1805) and Prussia at Jena (1806) consolidated French dominance of Europe. At home, streamlined his dictatorship with centralising reforms including new civil laws, the Code Napoleon. Abroad, created the Continental System, a Europe-wide commercial boycott of Britain. Its enforcement prompted disastrous invasions of Spain (1807) and Russia (1812). Weakened, was defeated by a European coalition at Leipzig (1813) and abdicated in 1814. Banished to Elba in 1815, he returned to France and seized power only to be crushed by British and Prussians at Waterloo. Permanently exiled to the mid-Atlantic island of St Helena; d. 1821.

The Napoleon Complex Made Simple: In the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis, the Napoleon Complex is a colloquial term used to describe a type of inferiority complex more formally known as Small Man Complex and suffered by people who are physically small. Alfred Adler pioneered the psychological work on inferiority complexes and used Napoleon Bonaparte as an example of someone who he thought was driven to extremes by a psychological need to compensate for what he saw as a physical handicap.

The Living Plague: Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, called Napoleon a ‘living plague’, vividly accurate given his behaviour in 1799 when his forces stormed Jaffa. His men were given leave to run amok, raping and killing thousands of civilians. He himself ordered the slaughter of 3,000 surrendered Turkish soldiers. Napoleon then retreated, leaving behind fifty of his own men sick with plague. Before doing so, he ordered them poisoned. His motives were not merciful. The Ottoman Turks had a good record in their treatment of foreign prisoners while Sir Sydney Smith’s Royal Navy squadron off the coast would have given his wounded safe passage under the then rules of war. Napoleon simply did not want any evidence of his defeat to reach Europe. Hospital doctors bravely refused Napoleon’s order.

Napoleon’s Bill: “No accurate estimate exists of the casualties which resulted from the Emperor’s career... Between 1804 and 1815, at least 1,700,000 French soldiers died on active service; the true figure is probably nearer two million. Certainly well over two million of Napoleon’s allies and opponents were killed. Such figures are enormous when one remembers that there was no mechanised transport…” Desmond Seward, Napoleon And Hitler (1988)

Napoleon’s Shortcoming Exposed: In a memoir published in 1852 in the Revue des deux mondes, Napoleon’s manservant, Ali , claimed that he and the attending priest, Vignali, had removed parts of Napoleon's body while preparing the body for burial. In 1916 Vignali's descendants sold his collection of Napoleonic artefacts to a British rare book firm which in 1924 sold them on to A.S.W. Rosenbach, a Philadelphia bibliophile for $2,000.. Among the relics was "a mummified tendon taken from Napoleon's body during the post mortem”. The putative penis, couched in blue morocco and velvet, was displayed at the Museum of French Art in New York. According to a contemporary news report, "In a glass case [spectators] saw something looking like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or shrivelled eel!”. The organ was described as "one inch long and resembling a grape.". In 1977, it was put up for sale and purchased by John K. Lattimer, professor emeritus and former chairman of urology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, for $3,000. He acknowledged having it in 1987 and presumably still does.


This is a web preview of the "50 Reasons to Hate the French" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App