Napoleon the Great?

A debate with Andrew Roberts, Adam Zamoyski and Jeremy Paxman

‘There is no immortality but the memory that is left in the minds of men.’ – Napoleon Bonaparte 

How should we remember Napoleon, the man of obscure Corsican birth who rose to become emperor of the French and briefly master of Europe? As the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo approached in 2015, Intelligence Squared brought together two of Britain’s finest historians to debate how we should assess Napoleon’s life and legacy. Was he a military genius and father of the French state, or a blundering nonentity who created his own enduring myth? Was his goal of uniting the European continent under a common political system the forerunner of the modern ‘European dream’? Or was he an incompetent despot, a warning from history of the dangers of overarching grand plans?

Championing Napoleon was be Andrew Roberts who will argue that if any ruler deserves the epithet ‘the Great’ it should be Napoleon. Not only did he revolutionise warfare, but he transformed Europe by retaining the best parts of the French Revolution – equality before the law, religious toleration, and the end of feudalism. He founded the first modern code of law (the Code Napoleon), instituted the excellent Lycée-based education system, and created a new aristocracy based on talent.

By contrast, all mention of Napoleon as ‘great’, ‘hero’, ‘villain’ or ‘monster’ has Adam Zamoyski running for the hills, bemused why – in his opinion – this rather ordinary man excites such passion in otherwise level-head intelligent people. Zamoyski argued that Napoleon is credited with creating civil institutions which were in fact the work of others. He perpetrated some of the greatest military blunders in history, including the disastrous invasion of Russia. He brought about his own downfall through a mixture of incompetence and megalomania. It’s understandable why the French cling to their poetic myth of Napoleon’s ‘greatness’ but to Zamoyski no self-respecting Brit, let alone an historian, should fall for the flim-flam of this shameless self-publicist. 

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