Government and Politics


Why is Napoleon still controversial?

Even history has not been able to sort out the widely disparate opinions of the diminutive French ruler. And both the detractors and the champions (or some would say, the apologists) continue to publish their arguments and supporting research. The most obvious point on which scholars differ centers on the fact that first and foremost Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) was a military man. Here opinion divides quite naturally. Not long after Napoleon assumed power (in the coup of 1799), he proceeded to keep France—and the rest of Europe—at war for more than 10 years. From the French perspective, Napoleon was a great man, a brilliant strategist who could not only muster his troops but could keep them motivated to fight one campaign after another. The targets of these campaigns—England, Russia, Austria, Germany, Spain, and Portugal among them—view Napoleon in quite a different light, as would be expected. Researchers from these countries have seen and rendered Napoleon’s dark side, calling him a megalomaniac and a psychopath, and even seeing him as a forerunner of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945).

To further complicate the matter of how history views Napoleon, before he declared himself emperor for life (in 1804) and launched his military conquests throughout the continent and beyond (1805), Napoleon enjoyed a brief period in which many Europeans—not just the French—believed him to be a hero. After all, he assumed leadership of France after the hideous period of Robespierre’s Terror and the ineffectual government of the Directory, and then he proceeded to make peace with the Americans, the Russians, and the British. Many believed Napoleon was just the man to bring order to the chaos France had known since the storming of the Bastille, and he extended an olive branch to France’s longtime enemies. It looked like he would restore order at home and abroad. Of course this honeymoon did not last: By 1805 the leader many had looked to to end the turmoil only became the cause of more turmoil. His “compulsive war-making,” as one writer put it, soon swept over the continent, ultimately uniting various countries in an effort to rid Europe of the scourge that was Napoleon and his Grand Army.

Thus, students and readers are left to sort through the diverging accounts of this controversial figure. Napoleon has been called the “Emperor of Kings,” credited for his vision, insight, courage, and even with the development of the modern liberal democracy; he has also been described as a compulsive tyrant who had an insatiable appetite for battle, a man whose own ambitions left millions dead. But on a few descriptions both sides can agree: He was a brave soldier, an inspired military leader, and, at least for a time, a charismatic ruler.


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