There’s a sarcastic, somewhat-tongue-in-cheek commentary in the Guardian this week, called, “Why not have a Napoleon theme park?” In it, Agnès C. Poirier editorializes on a recent proposal by a French MP to build a theme park in France dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. She writes,
Abroad, observers could be forgiven for almost choking on hearing this news: why not a Stalin or a Kim Jong-il theme park too?
That made me choke, almost pushing my half-swallowed tea through my nose. Imaginations must run very high among her set if anyone can associate Napoleon Bonaparte with two of the Twentieth Century’s most ruthless, genocidal dictators. Napoleon was no Gandhi, but he was certainly not genocidal. And by the way, North Korea just revealed a new, 70-foot statue of the dictator Kim Jong-Il, so can a theme park be far behind?
Agnes offers a backhanded compliment:
In fact, in France, many distinguish between Bonaparte and Napoleon, that is to say the man before and after he became emperor in 1804, when the child of the revolution turned insatiable tyrant. During his 10 years of folie des grandeurs, which cost the lives of more than a million men, he still achieved great things, such as emancipating Europe’s Jews.
Insatiable tyrant? No one who had read in any detail the history of Napoleon’s life and career would label him thus.
Calling Napoleon a tyrant was first done by the British press as a propaganda attack during the Napoleonic Wars. A nursery rhyme warned children that Bonaparte ravenously ate naughty people. Cartoons pictures him as shorter than his actual height (he was 5′ 7″, average for the time). In 1908, psychologist Alfred Adler named an inferiority complex in which short people adopt an over-aggressive behaviour to compensate for lack of height; this inspired the term Napoleon complex, and that has coloured popular impressions of Napoleon ever since.
Napoleon was a complex character, and became increasingly dictatorial as he aged. But I find it hyperbolic to compare him with modern-day tyrants. The term tyrant orginally meant “one who illegally seized and controlled a governmental power in a polis.” It later added “connotations of a harsh and cruel ruler who places his or her own interests or the interests of an oligarchy over the best interests of the general population, which the tyrant governs or controls.” History, as Napoleon famously said, is written by the victors. Thus he has come down to us as a tyrant, rather than a hero.
Napoleon certainly placed family interests over state interests at various times, but also placed state interests over personal ones at times, when he tried to solidify his Europe-wide union of states through marriage and appointment. His reign was not that simply defined as the label suggests. Poirier realizes this, but it seems a grudging acceptance:
Napoleon is a fascinating subject, the study of which requires nuance and subtlety. The man was a tyrant, a genius, a liberator and a conqueror. What you’d call a bundle of contradictions. More than 80,000 books have been written about him and a theme park, rather than just an awkward idea, fits the current fashion in France for “war tourism”.
She then refers readers to a novel by Anthony Burgess, The Napoleon Symphony, rather than any of the thousands of non-fiction works of history, military history or biography. Myself, I’d refer people to Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon for a better appreciation of the man’s military genius. However, Chandler does not cover his social, cultural and political activities (and does not cover the bloody campaign in Spain, because it was conducted by Napoleon’s marshals rather than by Bonaparte personally).
Napoleon’s life is fascinating and complex, and no one can deny he reshaped Europe (not just France) irrevocably. Some of his changes brought Europe into the modern world – he planted the seeds of a united Germany, united Italy, created a continental trade system that resembles today’s European Union, he changed the way armies fought (and how they treated civilians), he emancipated Jews from their ghettos, he challenged social beliefs in the divine right of monarchs, he rewrote laws, promoted science and learning, restored the church that had been almost destroyed in the French Revolution and established religious tolerance, founded institutes and schools, set up networks of communications, improved roads and sewers. He replaced feudal laws with the Napoleonic Code, based on equality and justice.
But why Napoleonland, a theme park based on Napoleon? Probably because it’s about the rise of nationalism in an increasingly complex and difficult European Union (beset as it is with financial woes), it’s about reaction to the popularity of Disneyland in Paris (which attracts 15 million visitors a year and is Europe’s most popular theme park), and it’s about a changing, modern perspective on French history.
Perhaps Napoleonland will be garish and kitschy, as opponents suggest. But perhaps it will instead help the world remember and celebrate a complex, challenging but ultimately great individual whose life and work still resounds throughout Europe today.