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From Napoleon to Armageddon

On my way to the 19th Pugwash Conference at Sochi on the Black Sea, I stopped in Paris and Leningrad. I wanted to see the exhibitions commemorating the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s birth, and I wanted to see Leningrad, which I had not seen before. The impression these detours left in my memory amply compensated for their inconvenience.


Paris put its tribute to Napoleon in three different places: in the Grand Palais, which surveyed Napoleon’s public life and work, in the Bibliothèque Nationale dedicated to the Napoleonic legend, and in the National Archives, which show Napoleon “tel qu’en luimême,” “the development of an exceptional being in the multiple facets of its personality…” Of these three exhibitions, the one in the Bibliothèque Nationale provided one unintended revelation which was abundantly confirmed by the other two.

The exhibition had clearly a debunking intent. It intended to show, and did, how from the very beginning, the victory of Arcoli in 1796, Napoleon was a deliberate artisan of his own legend. He was the first modern leader of a great nation to make use, in a concerted effort, of all the media of communication at his disposal to serve his political ends. “I don’t see in religion,” he wrote, “the mystery of incarnation but the mystery of social order.” Newspapers, books, and plays were not only strictly censored, but Napoleon created both in France and in the conquered countries an official press sustaining French and allied morale, disparaging the enemy, and, as we would say today, “projecting the image” of the great leader. To that same end he assembled a team of historians and painters, the latter receiving instructions as to the number of centimeters to be reserved to each person represented in a particular painting. From 1800 to 1812, eighty different portraits of Napoleon were exhibited in the Salon. He had himself painted touching the plague-ridden of Jaffa as testimony to his compassion and supernatural protection, and he had himself painted crossing the St. Bernard in a snow storm on a fiery horse. “It was not enough,” commented Chateaubriand, “to lie to the ears, he had to lie to the eyes as well.”

Yet while this exhibition reveals the dissembler, the manipulator in Napoleon, it also brings out, almost malgré elle, what the other exhibitions are meant to make visible: his incomparable greatness. Take away the play-acting, the circuses, the military humbug, and what is left of Mussolini? A buffoon and a bluffer who did not survive the first call of his bluff. Take away the parades, the pseudo-religious fanaticism, the totalitarian re-integration of a disintegrating society, and what is left of Hitler? A destructive maniac who for a while prospered on the incompetence of his enemies. Take away the artifices of the Napoleonic legend, and what is left is the greatest man of action the western world has seen.

Napoleon did for the vita activa what Goethe, his contemporary, did for the vita contemplativa. He pushed the human potential for action to the limits of its possibilities and in the process became a tragic hero burning his wings, like Icarus, in the attempt to transcend the confines of humankind. Nobody else has perhaps stated more clearly the strange greatness of that man than Mme. de Staël:

I had met men worthy of respect and had likewise met men of ferocious character but nothing in the impression which Bonaparte produced on me reminded me of either. I soon found, in the various opportunities I had of meeting him during his stay in Paris, that his character was not to be described in terms commonly employed; he was neither mild nor violent, nor gentle nor cruel, like certain personages one happens to know. A being like him, wholly unlike anybody else, could neither feel nor excite sympathy; he was both more and less than a man; his figure, intellect, and language bore the impress of a foreign nationality…every time I heard him talk I was struck with his superiority: it bore no resemblance to that of men informed and cultivated through study and social intercourse, such as we find in France and England; his conversation indicated the fact of circumstances, like that of the hunter in pursuit of his prey. His spirit seemed a cold, keen sword-blade, which freezes while it wounds. I felt a profound irony in his mind, which nothing great or beautiful could escape, not even his own fame, for he despised the nations whose suffrages he sought.—With him, everything was means to ends; the involuntary, whether for good or for evil, was entirely absent…

Napoleon confirmed that judgment, saying of himself: “I am not like other men and the ordinary laws of morality and propriety cannot have been made for me.”

Napoleon told his soldiers during the Egyptian campaign that he would lead them to conquer Turkey and India, and “we shall change the face of the earth.” He did not conquer Turkey and India but he did indeed change the face of the western world. He destroyed feudalism in most of Europe, especially in Germany and Italy, and then laid through his positive achievements the groundwork for the bourgeois nation-state of the nineteenth century. When Napoleon appeared on the stage of world politics, the German empire was composed of about 250 sovereign states; when he left it, the number had been reduced to about thirty-six. He revolutionized warfare and military organization, law and administration; he made Europe ready for the modern age. The Code Napoléon, used in many parts of the world as a model of modern civil legislation, the administrative and financial organization of France, the French educational system, both civil and military, are enduring monuments to his creative genius. What he could not prepare for, he anticipated. So he said of India that “sooner or later the national spirit will liberate these lands from the European yoke,” and he predicted, with nothing but the American experience to go on, that “the colonial system that we have known is finished for all.”

But Napoleon was not only the destroyer of what had become obsolete and the creator of what was historically pregnant. Others have destroyed and created as the unaware and unfeeling instruments of history; he had two other qualities that are rare in men of action and enhanced his greatness as a destroyer and creator: a luminous self-awareness and a capacity for great and pure passion. Both are visible in his handwriting, a composite of enormous drive and spacious clarity which is aesthetically pleasing. In the Grand Palais and the Bibliothèque Nationale I was fascinated by this handwriting and I was therefore pleasantly instructed by the exhibition of the National Archives which starts with a comparative analysis of Napoleon’s handwriting in different periods.

Napoleon was a man of action who was aware of the secret of his success. “I meditate a great deal. If I seem always equal to the occasion, ready to face what comes, it is because I have thought the matter over a long time before undertaking it. I have anticipated whatever might happen. It is no genius which suddenly reveals to me what I ought to do or say in any unlooked-for circumstances, but my own reflection, my own meditation.” But Napoleon was also aware of the pitfalls of action. “When I plan a battle no man is more pusillanimous than I am. I magnify to myself all the dangers and all the evils that are possible under the circumstances. I am in a state of agitation that is really painful. But this does not prevent me from appearing quite composed to people around me; I am like a woman giving birth to a child.”

More moving, because it is unexpected, is the revelation of Napoleon’s capacity to love not only passionately but with compassion. It is unexpected because Napoleon was in the habit, as political leaders are bound to be, of using human beings as means to his ends. When it came to serving his ends, he was without any scruples and devoid even of elementary human considerations. He bled France white in the course of his incessant wars, and in his private life he used women as mere instruments for the satisfaction of his sexual desires. We have eyewitness accounts of the number of minutes elapsed between a woman entering his quarters and leaving them.

But Napoleon was in need of loving someone not as a means to his ends, but for his or her own sake, and it was irrelevant whether that person was worthy of such love. Three persons were so loved: Josephine, Marie-Louise, and his son. Josephine and Marie-Louise were in different degrees unworthy of such love; of the Duke of Reichstadt he knew hardly anything except that he was his son. There is, then, an element of blindness and even foolishness in the passion and compassion heaped upon unworthy or unknown objects by a man whose relations with all other men, his blood relations included, were determined by political calculations.

But there is also something very moving in the outpouring of those pure emotions. To Josephine he writes on July 18, 1796, during the Italian campaign, on the stationery of the commanding general of the Army of Italy: “All night, I have been in the village of Virgil, on the shores of the lake silvery from the moon, and not one hour without thinking of my Josephine…I have seen you asleep, one of your hands was around my neck, the other on my groin. I pressed you against my heart and I felt the beat of yours.” (I cannot convey in English the tenderness of “je sentais palpiter le tien.”) On November 13, 1797, he writes: “I don’t love you any more, I detest you…. Josephine, be careful, one beautiful night the door will be broken down and I will be in your bed,” and then tells her what he is going to do.

After separating from Josephine—we see her honest and moving letter of renunciation, “…having no hope of having children who could satisfy the needs of his politic and the interests of France…”—Napoleon looks around for a successor who is capable of bearing children. His ambassador to Vienna gives a devastating description of the Archduchess Marie-Louise. “…She has however more nobility than grace. One can hardly say anything good or bad about her spirit. One knows only that her education…was bad.” But she has one advantage which proves to be decisive, “…she comes from a family where fertility is almost certain.”

What reveals both the greatness of Napoleon’s nature and the irrationality of his emotions is the compassionate and uncalculating love which he transferred from Josephine to that woman, even less worthy of him than Josephine, whom he had selected for the purpose of breeding. Nobody can read the hundreds of letters he wrote hastily, on scraps of paper, to Marie-Louise during the Russian campaign without being moved by the strength and humaneness of his sentiments.

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