Thursday, 2 June 2016

Boris and Boney the bogeyman

The most interesting thing about Boris Johnson's inevitable Godwin moment last month wasn't the predictable reductio ad Hitlerum, but his desperate attempt to pad out his tissue-thin argument with a vague reference to the alleged, misguided, attempts by Napoleon and "various others" to  subject Europe to a new Pax Romana:
The former mayor of London, who is a keen classical scholar, argues that the past 2,000 years of European history have been characterised by repeated attempts to unify Europe under a single government in order to recover the continent’s lost “golden age” under the Romans.

“Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically,” he says.
It's more interesting than the headline-grabbing Hitler comparison because Boris is probably wrong about Napoleon on an even more fundamental level. There are at least two questionable assumptions implicit in Johnson citing Napoleon as a warning from history about megalomaniacal attempts to unify Europe under one government.

  1. Was Napoleon really trying to conquer the whole of Europe in order to recreate a Roman-style empire ?
  2. Was Napoleonic rule really so bad?

There are plenty of historians (including Andrew Roberts, who presented the BBC's history series about Napoleon last year) who'd say no. Granted, Roberts is a bit of a Napoleon fanboy and too uncritical of the "great man" version of history for my taste, but he still provided a useful counterbalance to a British view of Napoleon as seen through the distorting lens of his victorious enemies' propaganda.

This propaganda was so effective that it spawned one of history's most successful memes, long before the term was invented, the stereotypical  maniac who thought, in his madness, that he was Napoleon.

According to the monarchies of Europe, Napoleon was a power-crazed tyrant, who had to be stopped before he subjugated the whole of Europe by force. But, as Roberts pointed out, a lot of the time when Napoleon was waging war, he wasn't engaged in some grandiose project to conquer Europe, just trying to defend France from the enemies who were attacking her. And Roberts isn't the only one to make this argument:
Popular and scholarly history presents a one-dimensional image of Napoleon as an inveterate instigator of war who repeatedly sought large-scale military conquests. General Franceschi and Ben Weider dismantle this false conclusion in The Wars Against Napoleon, a brilliantly written and researched study that turns our understanding of the French emperor on its head... Franceschi and Weider argue persuasively that the caricature of the megalomaniac conqueror who bled Europe white to satisfy his delirious ambitions and insatiable love for war is groundless... This rigorous intellectual presentation is based upon three principal themes. The first explains how an unavoidable belligerent situation existed after the French Revolution of 1789. The new France inherited by Napoleon was faced with the implacable hatred of reactionary European monarchies determined to restore the ancient regime. All-out war was therefore inevitable unless France renounced the modern world to which it had just painfully given birth. The second theme emphasizes Napoleon s determined efforts ... to avoid this inevitable conflict. The political strategy of the Consulate and the Empire was based on the intangible principle of preventing or avoiding these wars, not on conquering territory. Finally, the authors examine, conflict by conflict, the evidence that Napoleon never declared war. As he later explained at Saint Helena, it was he who was always attacked not the other way around... After each of his memorable victories Napoleon offered concessions, often extravagant ones, to the defeated enemy for the sole purpose of avoiding another war.

Other brands of opinion are available, but it is at least possible to argue, in a way that it isn't about Hitler, that Napoleon was no worse than his enemies. You say he was autocratic? Maybe, but more so than the Czar who ruled over a country which didn't even get round to abolishing serfdom until 1861? I don't think so.

A power-crazed empire builder? Well, yes, according to the British, who fought him while they were busy with their own megalomaniacal scheme for a global empire on which, they would later boast, the sun would never set. But history is written by the winners, so it's only the losers' grand designs which get to be labelled as insane hubris with impunity.

But never mind the things Napoleon didn't achieve - even the stuff he did complete compares pretty favourably with the legacies of the rougues' alliance of monarchies that eventually overwhelmed him:
Yet he said he would be remembered not for his military victories, but for his domestic reforms, especially the Code Napoleon, that brilliant distillation of 42 competing and often contradictory legal codes into a single, easily comprehensible body of French law. In fact, Napoleon’s years as first consul, from 1799 to 1804, were extraordinarily peaceful and productive. He also created the educational system based on lycées and grandes écoles and the Sorbonne, which put France at the forefront of European educational achievement. He consolidated the administrative system based on departments and prefects. He initiated the Council of State, which still vets the laws of France, and the Court of Audit, which oversees its public accounts. He organized the Banque de France and the Légion d’Honneur, which thrive today. He also built or renovated much of the Parisian architecture that we still enjoy, both the useful—the quays along the Seine and four bridges over it, the sewers and reservoirs—and the beautiful, such as the Arc de Triomphe, the Rue de Rivoli and the Vendôme column.
Insane, reckless ambition, Boris? Two words come to mind.

Psychological projection.