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 …