Napoleon – On the Defensive?

I’m looking forward to seeing the National Gallery of Victoria’s Napoleon exhibition in Melbourne in a couple of weeks. I studied Napoleon earlier this year and while I had the chance to re-assess his actions and legacy, I’m not sure I really changed my mind about him. But I did realise just how much I had been brought up with the ‘English’ version of Napoleon.

I scoffed audibly during a lecture when I read Napoleon’s words “Is there any point on which I could be attacked and which a historian could not take up my defence? My intentions perhaps? He has evidence enough to clear me. My despotism? He can prove that dictatorship was absolutely necessary. Will it be said that I restricted freedom? He will be able to prove that licence, anarchy, and general disorder were still on our doorstep. Shall I be accused of having loved war too much? He will show that I was always on the defensive.” (From The Mind of Napoleon: A Selection from his Written and Spoken Words, edited and translated by J.Christopher Herold (Columbia University Press, 1995)).

Always on the defensive?? But to put Napoleon’s early years in context, he was ‘installed’ at the point at which the Revolution was in danger of falling apart. France was surrounded by monarchies and Empires desperate to defeat the upstart revolutionary, ‘new’ nation. Napoleon fought the war to save the Revolution on many fronts. He succeeded in salvaging the Revolution. So initially he can perhaps justifiably claim to have been on the defensive. Unfortunately he went on to instal himself as Emperor and to sacrifice the lives of countless young men in his pointless push into Russia – it is for this military debacle that he is perhaps best known in England.

Napoleon was and remains a polarising figure. I look forward to seeing what the NGV makes of him.


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