200 years on, how should we remember Napoleon?

200 years on, how should we remember Napoleon?

by Alan Sked
article from Tuesday 6, April, 2021

MAY 5 THIS YEAR will see the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. He is easily the best known Frenchman despite having begun his career as a Corsican nationalist opposed to France. 

After the outbreak of the French Revolution, however, he fled to France and briefly became a Jacobin. Corsica for a while fell under British rule and was governed for George III by Count Andreas Pozzo di Borgo who had been Napoleon’s boyhood friend, a very close friend perhaps. Pozzo never married and Napoleon was clearly bisexual.

Neither man would later talk about the other although their careers continued to intertwine. Pozzo became a British and then a Russian agent, indeed Russian foreign secretary, and turned Napoleon’s Marshal Bernadotte, now Crown Prince of Sweden, into a coalition military ally during the Wars of Liberation. He  was also present beside Wellington at the battle of Waterloo, after which he became Russian ambassador to France and chairman of the allied ambassadorial council that ran the occupation of the country. He stayed on for some time after that shaping French domestic and foreign policy but ended his career in the 1830s as Russian ambassador to Britain, where he was a figure of great interest and indeed reverence. 

Today he is quite forgotten but one way Britain could remember the despot Napoleon this year would be to commemorate the memory of the very brave and distinguished Corsican who was the true victor in the Napoleonic Wars, Count Pozzo. 

Macron after some hesitation has decided that France should officially commemorate its first Napoleonic Emperor (Napoleon III is seen, rather unfairly, as a national embarrassment after losing the Franco-Prussian War, despite the fact that his uncle lost at Waterloo which doesn’t seem to be held against him).

Still, Napoleon was always a divisive figure in France. Both monarchists and republicans despised him, the first for creating a new dynasty and murdering the Bourbon Duc d’Enghien, the second for overthrowing the French Republic. Today he remains divisive still, since although he reformed France he did so in a now unfashionable way. His education reforms were authoritarian, his civil code discriminated against women and he reintroduced slavery and left the black hero Toussaint L’Ouverture to rot in jail after deceiving him. 

Then there is his military record. True, he demonstrated military genius in many campaigns but his utter belief in that genius, his faith that in the end he could defeat anyone in battle, meant that he would never compromise. His own foreign minister, the corrupt Prince Talleyrand, wanted a compromise peace and had reached despair. Fearing that Napoleon might be killed in battle or be assassinated, he sold the French battle plans to the Austrians and Russians for a huge sum of money before the outbreak of the war with Austria in 1809. Unfortunately the Austrians still lost. 

Metternich offered him a peace based on the natural frontiers of France in 1813 but he dismissed the offer. By 1815 therefore millions of Europeans including Frenchmen had been sacrificed to the Emperor’s overweening ambition. Another cause for this was that unlike his nephew Napoleon III, Napoleon I actually enjoyed the gore of a battlefield. 

Not only would he not compromise diplomatically but he reorganised the map of Europe into kingdoms for his closest relatives, kingdoms which he insisted on running himself from Paris. The rest of Europe could never accept this permanently. So peace could never be lasting and Napoleon knew this. Hence his constant, pre-emptive military strikes. 

Finally, he signed a Concordat with the Pope who was invited to Paris for his coronation as Emperor only to see Napoleon crown himself. The Pope was later imprisoned. Many Catholics, of course, have never forgiven Napoleon for this but Republicans never forgave him for the Concordat. Since 1906 state and church in France have been separated with a strict doctrine of secularism dominating public life. So in every sphere Napoleon’s legacy has been divisive. 

Still, Macron has decided to commemorate him. The two have some things in common. Like Napoleon, Macron is small and like Napoleon married an older woman who divorced her husband. He also needs to be in control and is a megalomaniac. Needless to say, of course, he lacks Napoleon’s intellectual, military and organisational talents — to put it mildly.

One thing the two men definitely share however is a hatred of Britain. Macron bitterly resents our exit from the United Europe which he hopes to perfect and lead. He has been humiliated by the shambles of the EU’s vaccine procurement scheme and by France’s own inability to produce one. Abetted by his health minister and the French EU Internal Market Commissioner, he has not only disparaged Britain’s AstraZeneca vaccine — accusing it of being shoddily produced, ineffective and dangerous — but has instigated raids on companies falsely suspected of exporting doses of it to England. The result is that many French people are now refusing to be vaccinated and hundreds of thousands of doses lie unused in fridges all over France. Yet Macron still insists that doses contracted to Britain will not be sent. 

In the meantime, having taken a ‘Jupeterian’ decision against scientific advice in January not to bring in a lockdown in France, a surging third wave of Covid infections has now forced him to do so after all. His arrogance has cost French lives and if Britain didn’t have her own resources of vaccines, he would be costing British lives too. In fact a real vaccine blockade would be tantamount to an act of war. Instead, Britain is experiencing dramatic falls in infections, hospitalisations and deaths on account of its efficient rollout of the very vaccine that Macron disparaged. 

It is all rather reminiscent of Napoleon’s Continental System which attempted to end British trade with the Continent but which backfired spectacularly, allowing Britain to extend her trade across the globe. Macron is acutely aware that Brexit Britain – Global Britain – is now aiming to do exactly the same again. And due to the third wave and the lockdown in France, Britain should recover economically more quickly than her and thus be able to do so. This must really rankle with the French President. 

Also relevant in this regard is Macron’s determination to block post-Brexit trade between Britain and the EU by all means possible and to create as much trouble as possible in Northern Ireland. Like Napoleon Macron seems to see Britain as his arch-enemy, so perhaps we should treat him as ours. 

One way to infuriate him during his commemoration ceremonies would be to erect a statue of the true Corsican hero of the time, Count Pozzo di Borgo. Another way to infuriate him, however, would cost nothing: why not change the name of St. Pancras Station, home of Eurostar in London to St. Helena? After all, we already have Waterloo. 

We could announce it on 5 May.  This would really take the smile off Macron’s face and give us all a good laugh. A simple government announcement might do the trick. So let’s do it. We could start a public subscription for a Pozzo statue as a contribution to a new entente cordiale. 

PS I do hope the body in Les Invalides is really Napoleon’s. And PPS, we didn’t murder him with arsenic wallpaper. 

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Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. @profsked   


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