Seventy years ago, interned by the Germans in Buchenwald concentration camp, the Dutch professor Peter Geyl tried out on the inmates his view that the place of Napoleon in history should be reconsidered in the light of Hitler’s tyranny. Although Napoleon was not the author of genocide and was wedded to equality and the rights of man, Geyl nevertheless thought that Napoleon was responsible for murder and massacre on a grand scale. These ideas were subsequently developed in Napoleon For and Against (1949), in which he demonstrated how French historians were divided over what the great man stood for. For some, he was the saviour of the Revolution against the forces of reaction and the architect of French greatness, while for others he was a Corsican arriviste who used France as a platform for his ambitions as usurper, tyrant and warmonger.Share
This division of opinion not only affected historians. During his life Napoleon’s French and foreign enemies called him ‘Buonaparte’, suggesting that he was not French, and spun a black legend about him as an ogre, worse than Genghis Khan. Against this was elaborated the Napoleonic legend. The ex-emperor’s own dictation of the Memorial of Saint-Helena, published in 1823, soon after his death, presented himself as a saviour of France, a friend of liberty and builder of a European Confederation. His imprisonment by the British contributed to a story of his martyrdom and rumours of a Second Coming. He inspired a political ideology and movement – Bonapartism – that promised a strong leader carried by the popular will, which was variously incarnated by Napoleon III and Charles de Gaulle. His charisma inspired Romantic heroes of fiction, such as Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, while his brooding presence overshadows Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862), Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) and Thomas Hardy’s Dynasts (1904-8).
Film directors have struggled to reduce the Napoleonic epic to the screen. Abel Gance’s brilliant silent movie of 1927 reached only the Italian campaign of 1796 and five further episodes were abandoned. Bondarchuk’s 1970 film, Waterloo, mobilised 16,000 Red Army extras and Orson Welles as Louis XVIII, but its financial challenges persuaded Kubrick to abandon his own projected Napoleon in favour of A Clockwork Orange. Less direct, more playful depictions have often proved more successful, as in Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975), Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981) and novellas such as Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion (1987). (Read more.)