Written by Vladimir Moss



     Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the French revolution appeared to have lost its way, consumed by poverty, corruption and mutual blood-letting. It was saved, as Edmund Burke had predicted, by a “popular general” - Napoleon Bonaparte. He was as sincerely faithful to the spirit of the French revolution as Cromwell had been to the English. Madame de Stael called him Robespierre on horseback. After all, he came from Corsica, which in 1755 had successfully rebelled from Genoa, and for which Rousseau had written one of his most seminal works, Project de constitution pour la Corse, in 1765. But, like Cromwell (and Caesar), Napoleon found that in order to “save” the republic he had to take control of it and rule it like the most despotic of kings.

     He first showed his revolutionary mettle on October 5 1795 (13 Vendémiaire), when he mowed down hundreds of moderate anti-Jacobins who were trying to take over the city centre. In reward for this ruthless act, the revolution gave him command of the Army of Italy, where he first showed his military genius by comprehensively defeating the Austrians. For a time he rested on his laurels, while studying and cultivating the cultural leaders of Paris. Then, on 19 Brumaire (November 10), 1799, his chance came. He overthrew the Directory, describing parliamentarism as “hot air”, and frightened the two elective assemblies into submission. On December 13 a new constitution was proclaimed with Bonaparte as the first of three Consuls with full executive powers. And on December 15 the three Consuls declared: “Citizens, the Revolution is established upon its original principles: it is consummated…”[1]

     Paul Johnson writes: “The new First Consul was far more powerful than Louis XIV, since he dominated the armed forces directly in a country that was now organized as a military state. All the ancient restraints on divine-right kingship – the Church, the aristocracy and its resources, the courts, the cities and their charters, the universities and their privileges, the guilds and their immunities – all had been swept away by the Revolution, leaving France a legal blank on which Bonaparte could stamp the irresistible force of his personality.”[2]

     In 1804, he even declared himself emperor, after which Beethoven tore out the title-page of his Eroicasymphony, which had been dedicated to him, and said: “So he too is nothing but a man. Now he also will trample all human rights underfoot, and only pander to his own ambition; he will place himself above everyone else and become a tyrant…”[3] As de Tocqueville wrote: “Absolute government found huge scope for its rebirth [in] that man who was to be both the consummator and the nemesis of the Revolution.” [4]

     But, again like Caesar and Cromwell, he could never confess to being a king in the traditional sense. Under him, in Davies’ phrase, “a pseudo-monarchy headed pseudo-democratic institutions.”[5] The falseness and contradictoriness of it was illustrated by French coinage of the time that bore the phrase: République Française – Napoléon empéreur.[6]

     So, as J.M. Roberts writes, while Napoleon reinstituted monarchy, “it was in no sense a restoration. Indeed, he took care so to affront the exiled Bourbon family that any reconciliation with it was inconceivable. He sought popular approval for the empire in a plebiscite and got it. [7]

     “This was a monarchy Frenchmen had voted for; it rested on popular sovereignty, that is, the Revolution. It assumed the consolidation of the Revolution which the Consulate had already begun. All the great institutional reforms of the 1790s were confirmed or at least left intact; there was no disturbance of the land sales which had followed the confiscation of Church property, no resurrection of the old corporations, no questioning of the principle of equality before the law. Some measures were even taken further, notably when each department was given an administrative head, the prefect, who was in his powers something like one of the emergency emissaries of the Terror…”[8]

     Cromwell had eschewed the trappings of monarchy, but Napoleon embraced them avidly. The trend towards monarchy and hierarchy developed; and “earlier than is generally thought,” writes Philip Mansel, “the First Consul Bonaparte aligned himself with this monarchical trend, acquiring in succession a guard (1799), a palace (1800), court receptions and costumes (1800-02), a household (1802-04), a dynasty (1804), finally a nobility (1808)… The proclamation of the empire in May 1804, the establishment of the households of the Emperor, the Empress and the Imperial Family in July, the coronation by the pope in December of that year, were confirmations of an existing monarchical reality.”[9]

     Moreover, Napoleon spread his kind of monarchy everywhere, replacing the Holy Roman Empire, which dissolved itself in 1806, as the “super-monarchy” of Europe. Thus the kingdoms and Grand Duchies of Italy, Venice, Rome, Naples, Lucca, Dubrovnik, Holland, Mainz, Bavaria, Württemburg, Saxony, Baden, Hesse-Darmstadt, Westphalia and Spain were all established or re-established - and all ruled by Napoleon’s relations by blood or marriage. As Simon Winder writes, “many bishops, knights, dukes, abbesses and petty oligarchs lost out, but others cleverly adapted. There is a funny painting of the young Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian IV Joseph, all dolled up in his wig and jewels, the acme of rococo flummery, which can be contrasted with the surprisingly different painting of him as the brand new (from 1806) King of Bavaria. Maximilian I, thanks to Napoleon, sporting his own hair, cut short and severe, and dressed in a dark blue, almost undecorated uniform, faking the stern mien of the simple soldier. This sort of graceless rebranding was going on everywhere.”[10]

     According to Stendhal, Napoleon’s court “totally corrupted” him “and exalted his amour propre to the state of a disease… He was on the point of making Europe one vast monarchy.”[11] “’The French empire shall become the metropolitan of all other sovereignties,’ Napoleon once said to a friend. ‘I want to force every king in Europe to build a large palace for his use in Paris. When an Emperor of the French is crowned, these kings shall come to Paris, and they shall adorn that imposing ceremony with their presence and salute it with their homage.’”[12]

     “As one of his secretaries Baron Meneval wrote, he saw himself as ‘the pillar of royalty in Europe’. On January 18th, 1813, he wrote to his brother Jerome that his enemies, by appealing to popular feeling, represented ‘upheavals and revolutions… pernicious doctrines.’ In Napoleon’s opinion his fellow monarchs were traitors to ‘their own cause’ when in 1813 they began to desert the French Empire, or in 1814 refused to accept his territorial terms for peace…”[13]

     Thus Napoleon represents in his own person the clearest demonstration of the inner relationship between democracy and despotism. He came to power as a sincere supporter of the revolution. But if the revolution means power to and from the people, it can just as well mean power to one man representing the people. The deification of the people naturally leads to the deification of one man from the people. What it cannot mean is power coming from God or the Church. This was symbolized above all by his coronation in 1804. Unlike Charlemagne one thousand years earlier, who allowed himself to be crowned by the Pope, Napoleon took the crown out of the Pope’s hands and crowned himself. In other words, he did not know his power or legitimacy to anyone or anything except himself…

     Jocelyn Hunt writes: “Kings before 1791 were said to be absolute but were limited by all kinds of constraints and controls. The Church had an almost autonomous status. Bonaparte ensured that the Church was merely a branch of the civil service. Kings were anointed by the Church, and thus owed their authority to God: Bonaparte took power through his own strength, camouflaged as ‘the General Will’ which, as Correlli Barnett acidly remarks, ‘became synonymous with General Bonaparte’…[14]

     “The First Consul’s choice of ministers was a far more personal one than had been possible for the kings of France. Bonaparte established a system of meeting his ministers individually, in order to give his instructions. In the same way, Bonaparte chose which ‘ordinary’ citizens he would consult; kings of France had mechanisms for consulting ‘the people’ but these had fallen into disuse and thus, when the Estates General met in 1789, the effect was revolutionary. Bonaparte’s legislative body was, until 1814, submissive and compliant.…

     “Police control and limitations on personal freedom had been a focus of condemnation by the Philosophes before the Revolution, but had not been entirely efficient: a whole industry of importing and distributing banned texts had flourished in the 1770s and 1780s. Bonaparte’s police were more thorough, and so swingeing were the penalties that self-censorship rapidly became the safest path for a newspaper to take. Bonaparte closed down sixty of the seventy-three newspapers in Paris in January, 1800, and had a weekly summary prepared of all printed material, but he was soon able to tell his Chief of Police, Fouché, ‘They only print what I want them to.’[15] In the same way, the hated lettres de cachet appear limited and inefficient when compared to Bonaparte’s and Fouché’s record of police spies, trials without jury and imprisonment without trial. Bonaparte’s brief experience as a Jacobin leader in Ajaccio had taught him how to recognise, and deal with, potential opponents.[16]

     “The judiciary had stood apart from the kings of the ancien régime: while the King was nominally the supreme Judge, the training of lawyers and judges had been a matter for the Parlements, with their inherent privileges and mechanisms. The Parlements decided whether the King’s laws were acceptable within the fundamental laws of France. Under the Consulate, there were no such constraints on the legislator. The judges were his appointees, and held office entirely at his pleasure; the courts disposed of those who opposed or questioned the government, far more rapidly that had been possible in the reign of Louis XVI. Imprisonment and deportation became regularly used instruments of control under Bonaparte.

     “Kings of France were fathers to their people and had a sense of duty and service. Bonaparte, too, believed that he was essential to the good and glory of France, but was able to make his own decisions about what constituted the good of France in a way which was not open to the king. Finally, while the monarchy of France was hereditary and permanent, and the position of First Consul was supposed to be held for ten years, Bonaparte’s strength was demonstrated when he changed his own constitution, first to give him the role for life and then to become a hereditary monarch. All in all, no monarch of the ancien régime had anything approaching the power which Bonaparte had been permitted to take for himself…

     “When a Royalist bomb plot was uncovered in December, 1800, Bonaparte seized the opportunity to blame it on the Jacobins, and many were guillotined, with over a hundred more being exiled or imprisoned. The regime of the Terror had operated in similar ways to remove large numbers of potential or actual opponents. Press censorship and the use of police spies ensured that anti-government opinions were not publicly aired. The Declaration of the Rights of Man had guaranteed freedom of expression; but this freedom had already been eroded before Bonaparte’s coup. The Terror had seen both moral and political censorship, and the Directory had on several occasions exercised its constitutional right to censor the press. Bonaparte appears merely to have been more efficient…

     “Bonaparte certainly held power without consulting the French people; he took away many of the freedoms they had been guaranteed in 1789; he taxed them more heavily than they had been taxed before. [In 1803 he wrote:] ‘I haven’t been able to understand yet what good there is in an opposition. Whatever it may say, its only result is to diminish the prestige of authority in the eyes of the people’.”[17]

     So Napoleon was undoubtedly a despot, but a despot who could claim many precedents for his despotism in the behaviour of the Jacobins and Directory. And if he was not faithful to the forms of the revolution in its early phase, replacing democracy (of a despotic kind) with monarchy (of a populist kind), he nevertheless remained faithful to its fundamental principles - the principle, on the one hand, that nobody and nothing should be independent of the State (the principle of totalitarianism), and on the other, the principle that the Nation was the supreme value, and serving and dying for the Nation - the supreme glory.

      The territorial states of the eighteenth century fought limited wars, and formed a balance of power to prevent the emergence of any hegemonic power. Since their primary motive was commerce, and since commerce is advanced by peace, they aimed to avoid wars by calculated concessions and adjustments. But Napoleon reverted to the absolutist tradition of Louis XIV, aiming at complete dominance of his neighbours.

     As Schroeder put it, the decade of Napoleonic hegemony in Europe was an exercise in European colonization…[18]

      However, writes Adam Zamoyski, “it was not so much a matter of France ‘über alles’. ‘European society needs a regeneration,’ Napoleon asserted in conversation in 1805. ‘There must be a superior power which dominates all the other powers, with enough authority to force them to live in harmony with one another – and France is the best placed for that purpose.’ He was, like many a tyrant, utopian in his ambitions. ‘We must have a European legal system, a European appeal court, a common currency, the same weights and measures the same laws,’ Napoleon once said to Joseph Fouché: ‘I must make of all the peoples of Europe one people, and of Paris the capital of the world.’”[19] And yet “at bottom,” as Johnson notes, “Bonaparte despised the French, or perhaps it would be more exact to say the Parisians, the heart of the ‘political nation’. He thought of them, on the basis of his experience during the various phases of the Revolution, as essentially frivolous.”[20]

      As Bernard Cornwell writes, Napoleon “was a superb administrator, but that was not how he wanted to be remembered. Above all, he was a warlord. His idol was Alexander the Great. In the middle of the nineteenth century, in the American Civil War. Robert E. Lee, the great Confederate General, watched his troops executing a brilliant and battle-winning maneuver and said, memorably, ‘It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.’ Napoleon had grown too fond of it, he loved war. Perhaps it was his first love, because it combined the excitement of supreme risk with the joy of victory. He had the incisive mind of a great strategist, yet when the marching was done and the enemy outflanked he still demanded enormous sacrifices of his men. After Austerlitz, when one of his generals lamented the French lying dead on that frozen battlefield, the Emperor retorted that ‘the women of Paris can replace those men in one night’.[21] When Metternich, the clever Austrian Foreign Minister, offered Napoleon honourable peace terms in 1813 and reminded the Emperor of the human cost of refusal, he received the scornful answer that Napoleon would happily sacrifice a million to gain his ambitions. Napoleon was careless about the lives of his troops, yet his soldiers adored him because he had the common touch. He knew how to speak to them, how to jest with them and how to inspire them. His soldiers might adore him, but his generals feared him. Marshal Augereau, a foul-mouthed disciplinarian, said, ‘This little bastard of a general scares me!’, and General Vandamme, a hard man, said he ‘trembled like a child’ when he approached Napoleon. Yet Napoleon led them all to glory. That was his drug, la Gloire! And in search of it he broke peace treaty after peace treaty, and his armies marched beneath their Eagle standards from Madrid to Moscow, from the Baltic to the Red Sea. He astonished Europe with victories like Austerlitz and Friedland, but he also led his Grande Armée to disaster in the Russian snow. Even his defeats were on a gargantuan scale…”[22]

      The truth is, therefore, that it was neither the State nor the Nation that Bonaparte exalted above all, – although he greatly increased the worship of both in later European history, – but himself. So the spirit that truly reigned in the Napoleonic era can most accurately be described as the spirit of the man-god, of the Antichrist, of whom Bonaparte himself, as the Russian Holy Synod quite rightly said in 1806, was a forerunner.

      As Tsaritsa Elizabeth wrote to her mother when her husband, Tsar Alexander I, was still under Napoleon’s spell: “You know, Mamma, this man seems to me like an irresistible seducer who by temptation or force succeeds in stealing the hearts of his victims. Russia, the most virtuous of them, has defended herself for a long time; but she has ended up no better than the others. And, in the person of her Emperor, she has yielded as much to charm as to force. He [Alexander] feels a secret attraction to his enticer which is apparent in all he does. I should indeed like to know what magic it is that he [Napoleon] employs to change people’s opinions so suddenly and so completely…”[23]

      This antichristian, seductive, serpent-like quality comes out also in Madame De Staël’s characterization: “I had the disturbing feeling that no emotion of the heart could ever reach him. He regards a human being like a fact or a thing, never as an equal person like himself. He neither hates nor loves… The force of his will resides in the imperturbable calculations of his egotism. He is a chess-master whose opponents happen to be the rest of humanity… Neither pity nor attraction, nor religion nor attachment would ever divert him from his ends… I felt in his soul cold steel, I felt in his mind a deep irony against which nothing great or good, even his own destiny, was proof; for he despised the nation which he intended to govern, and no spark of enthusiasm was mingled with his desire to astound the human race…”[24]

      Hegel also saw this antichristian, man-god quality. Just before the Battle of Jena in 1806, he saw Napoleon riding out to reconnoiter the battlefield, and wrote: “I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.”

      This is the nub of it: a “world-soul”, such as Napoleon or Hitler, Stalin or Putin, has to conquer the whole world. The mastery of one nation, even the greatest, will not satisfy him. In order to affirm and justify his quasi-divine essence, he has to compel the assent and/or worship of all men. In fact, he has to become not only a man-god, but the Antichrist, the ruler of the world. And since, as Dostoyevsky pointed out, universal worship is the innermost desire of all men, then those who do not worship the one true God, the God-man, will inevitably worship the man-god.


January 14/27, 2018.


[1]M.J. Cohen and John Major, History in Quotations, London: Cassell, 2004, p. 530.

[2] Johnson, Napoleon, London: Phoenix, 2002, p. 46.

[3] Cohen and Major, op. cit., p. 531.

[4] De Tocqueville, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (The Old Regime and the Revolution), 1856, book 3, chapter 8 ; in Cohen and Major, op. cit., p. 527.

[5]Norman Davies, Europe: A History, London: Pimlico, 1997, p. 701.

[6] Bernard Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, London: Allen Lane, 2013, p. 161.

[7] The result of the plebiscite was 3,571,329 ‘yes’ votes to 2,570 ‘noes’. As Johnson points out, “Bonaparte was the first dictator to produce faction figures.” (op. cit., pp. 49-50). (V.M.)

[8] Roberts, History of the World, Oxford: Helicon, 1996, pp. 589-590.

[9] Mansel, “Napoleon the Kingmaker”, History Today, vol. 48 (3), March, 1998, pp. 40, 41.

[10] Winder, Danubia, London: Picador, 2013, p. 300.

[11] Stendhal, in Mansel, op. cit., p. 43.

[12] Adam Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow, London: Harper, 2004, p. 9.

[13] Mansel, op. cit., p. 43.

[14] Johnson writes: “He liked the vague and abstract notion of Rousseau’s concept, the General Will, offering a ruling elite that knew its business the opportunity to harness the people to a national effort without any of the risks of democracy. In practice an elite always formed itself into a pyramid, with one man at its summit. His will expressed the General Will… and gave it decisiveness, the basis for action. Constitutions were important in the sense that window-dressing was important in a shop. But the will was the product to be sold to the nation and, once sold, imposed” (op. cit, p. 17). (V.M.)

[15] As he said to Metternich: “You see me master of France; well, I would not undertake to govern her for three months with liberty of the press” (Cohen and Major, op. cit., p. 530). (V.M.)

[16] Johnson writes: “Fouché, who operated the world’s first secret police force, and who was the prototype of Himmler or Beria, was an important element in Bonaparte’s legacy of evil, for some of his methods were widely imitated in Austria and Prussia, where they became permanent, and even in harmless Sweden, where they were carried out by Bonaparte’s marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte” (op. cit., p. 105). (V.M.)

[17] Hunt, The French Revolution, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 104, 105-106, 107, 108, 112.

[18] Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles, London: Penguin, 2002, p. 176.

[19]Zamoyski, 1812, p. 9.

[20]Johnson, op. cit., p. 119.

[21] In this he was very different from Wellington, who hated war and wept over the deaths of his soldiers. (V.M.)

[22] Cornwell, Waterloo, London: William Collins, 2014, p. 23.

[23] Quoted in Alan Palmer, Alexander I, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974, p. 148.

[24]De Staël, in Johnson, op. cit., p. 119.

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