Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020



[quote]Power is my mistress.

—Napoleon Bonaparte[/quote]

Last month, I wrote about a man who grabbed control of his country, conquered a continent, turned the great powers against him, and inadvertently redirected the West’s destiny. That man was Adolf Hitler (#17). Over a century earlier, however, someone else had also roared to leadership, established hegemony over Europe, forced coalitions to contain him, and ushered in a reorganization of Western geopolitics. That man was Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon, unsurprisingly, is often compared to Hitler. Hitler loved that. Napoleon, though, would have detested it. While there are obvious parallels between these two dictators’ careers, these similarities are mostly superficial. Whereas Hitler’s policies harkened back to the Dark Ages, Napoleon’s looked toward the future.

Napoleone Buonaparte was born on the newly French island of Corsica in 1769.{{1}} Raised in an affluent home of low nobility, he was afforded an education. At age 10, he entered a military academy in mainland France. His stay was not enjoyable. While he was technically French born, his accent said Italiano Corso, and classmates teased him. Moreover, most of his classmates were much wealthier, providing mockery another source. Napoleon quickly hardened and later recalled these moments as a cause of his strength.{{2}} After five years of intense study, he was accepted into Paris’s prestigious École Militaire. Although students ordinarily completed this academy in two years, financial straits pressed Napoleon to do it in one. Upon graduation in 1785, the 16-year-old Italiano Corso became a second lieutenant and artillery officer in a French regiment.

Four years later, revolution broke out in France. The Bourbon monarchy was overthrown, Louis XVI was beheaded, terror reigned, and France defended itself as nervous European monarchs, very much attached to their heads, declared war on the revolutionary fever that had spread across the Atlantic from newly minted America. It was in these wars where young Napoleon distinguished himself. As late as 1793 he was a rather unknown junior officer, making it all the more extraordinary that six years later he would rule over France and, decade after that, most of Europe.

His military successes fueled a meteoric rise through the ranks. In the Siege of Toulon, where the republican French army battled a royal rebellion in late 1793, a 24-year old Captain Napoleon was put in charge of the artillery and showed remarkable skill.{{3}} With his success, he was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the youngest general in French military history. In 1795, another critical effort at the “13 Vendemiaire” skirmish with royalist forces protected the revolution. He received another promotion, this time to division general. Meanwhile, the new French government, the “National Convention,” failed; in 1795, France switched to the five-man Directory (1795-1799), the most prominent member of which both respected and feared Napoleon’s ambitions.{{4}} Napoleon’s success at 13 Vendemiaire had made him a hero to the troops under his command and republican France. Fearing his ambition and popularity during its early days of leadership, the Directory needed to relocate Napoleon while also not angering him.{{5}} They promoted Napoleon again, this time to army general, and gave him command of a campaigning army over the Alps in Italy. For the moment, the threat was distracted.

In Italy, Napoleon again thrived. Though sometimes outnumbered, he won battle after battle, almost always killing and capturing many more soldiers than he lost. Soldiers who had been embroiled in three-year conflicts found themselves, after Napoleon’s arrival, winning in a matter of weeks. They quickly learned to adore their savior.

After securing victory in Italy despite facing a coalition of European countries, the tactician in Napoleon deduced that the greatest threat to French dominance was the British Empire. Despite a hiccup with its former American colonies, Britain was still the top military power in Europe and had the world’s prevailing navy. He considered an invasion of Great Britain, but France’s navy was too weak by comparison. Instead, he determined the best way to weaken England was by cutting off its trade with its Indian colony. That meant securing land around the Isthmus of Suez near Egypt and the Middle East. While on campaign, he excelled on the Egyptian battlefield, but his navy was decimated by Britain’s.{{6}} The Egyptian campaign was a disaster. Napoleon left his troops under a lesser general’s command and raced back to Paris, where another coalition of European nations threatened France.

Napoleon, however, was still a hero in France, and in his absence the Directory had taken a major hit in popularity. All the while, European forces threatened to wipe away the revolution. Napoleon seized the moment and engineered a coup d’état. In the Directory’s place, Napoleon and two others formed the “Consulate,” with Napoleon acting as “First Consul.” The transition was sustained by an overwhelmingly supportive plebiscite of French citizens{{7}}, who were attracted to stable, competent leadership after a decade of revolutions and coups that saw a handful of constitutions ripped up and pieced back together in different forms. Napoleon seemed to offer that stability. The Consulate (1799-1804), while republican in theory, quickly evolved into a military dictatorship. The other two consuls were weak and, as their name implied, merely consultative. Napoleon, only 30 years old, controlled France with unchecked power.

Thus, the French got the decisive leader they wanted. Under the Consulate, Napoleon instituted a series of long-lasting reforms—first for France, later for much of Europe and beyond. Among his initiatives was the divestment of North American holdings. The Haitian Revolution had cost France lives and treasure as France fought to maintain the slave colony. Slave revolts and yellow fever ultimately made Haiti too costly to maintain. With Europe, led by Britain, again ready to go to war with France, Napoleon decided to leave the colonial game altogether. He sold the massive Louisiana territory to President Jefferson (#24) and the Americans for just 15 million dollars (or 3 cents per acre) and focused on Europe.

Though First Consul Napoleon returned France into a centralized state with power in one man’s hands, he still championed himself as a progressive leader. In his view, a well-managed state, even an autocratic one, could lead to prosperity and equality for all social classes. Ultimately, under his leadership, there was stability and fortune in France through his nationalization of banks and education, modernization of the government’s judicial and financial systems, creation of a national university, promotion of science, and a new civil legal system which bore his name—the Napoleonic Code.

With these reforms, Napoleon eradicated the remnants of feudalism and defended the legal equality of men. He outlawed privileges based on birth, ensured religious freedom, and reorganized government and military positions to ensure that promotions occurred based on merit, not familial connections. Most reforms survived him and continue to this day. It was a code for the future, and Napoleon took it wherever he conquered.

And conquer he did. The brilliant tactics and sense of timing that so impressed his teachers at the academy and commanders on the battlefield followed him throughout his career. He sped up war’s pace with faster marches. He had a knack for positioning artillery, cavalry, and reserves to capitalize on superior numbers or to make up for lacking them. His daring flanking maneuvers ripped apart defenses. He had retrained the dogs of war.{{8}}

Toward the Consulate’s end, the War of the Third Coalition erupted. As Napoleon battled Britain, Austria, and Russia, he sealed his dictatorship back home by dragooning Pope Pius VII to crown him “Emperor of France” in 1804.{{9}} This ascension marked the first time France had an emperor since the coronation of Charlemagne (#21) just over a thousand years earlier in A.D. 800.{{10}} France went on to defeat his opponents’ combined might, including a hallmark achievement against a Russo-Austrian force led by Tsar Alexander I at the Battle of Austerlitz (where, despite French forces being outnumbered by 20 percent, there were 12 Russians and Austrians killed for every French soldier). But he still couldn’t handle Admiral Nelson and the British navy, which handed him a devastating loss at Trafalgar. With this latest failure to subdue the United Kingdom (to which Great Britain had transitioned in 1801), Napoleon enacted the “continental system” over Europe, hoping to economically weaken the U.K. by forbidding any European country from trading with it.

By war’s end in 1806, Napoleon had pushed into central Europe and dissolved the Holy Roman Empire.{{11}} Prussia took note as France encroached into their sphere of influence, and soon another war began as Prussia aligned with Britain, Russia, and Sweden in the War of the Fourth Coalition. France won in about a year. Napoleon’s grasp stretched further east.

In 1809, yet another coalition—the Fifth, which included Britain, Austria, and Bavaria—fell to Napoleon’s Grande Armée. For the next few years, the Napoleonic Empire remained at its height. Though directly controlled French land was only about twice its normal size, Napoleon’s satellite states (including Spain, the Holy Roman Empire’s remnants, southern Italy, and what we now call Poland) and forced alliances (Denmark, Prussia, and Austria) extended his power over almost all of Europe. Monarchs he didn’t trust he replaced with family members. Only Portugal to the west and Russia to the east remained out of his reach (as did, much to Napoleon’s chagrin, the U.K.). Moreover, Napoleon and Tsar Alexander had entered into a friendship agreement in 1806’s Treaty of Tilsit. Napoleon, the teased Corsican son of a low noble, was not yet 40 years old and controlled more of Europe than anyone in the continent’s storied history.

Inevitably, a general like Napoleon who swings so hard sometimes misses with such a flourish that he nearly falls down. Those last two mainland European vestiges—Portugal and Russia—became Napoleon’s downfall. In his attempt to conquer Portugal and subdue Spanish opposition, Napoleon became stuck in the frustrating Peninsular War (1807-1814). This war for Iberian control drained French resources year after year as Portuguese and Spanish resistance fighters fought for independence.{{12}}

Napoleon’s other large failure—this in Russia—is the far more remembered debacle. In the summer of 1812, after Tsar Alexander began ignoring Napoleon’s continental system and resumed trading with Britain, he ripped up the Tilsit Treaty and invaded Russia. Never had his thirst for domination cost him more.{{13}}

For this invasion of the world’s biggest country, Napoleon amassed the largest army in European history. Estimates are that Napoleon led between 450,000 and 700,000 soldiers into Russian territory. Knowing that Russia’s fall would give him land that rivaled Genghis Khan’s Mongolia as the largest land empire ever created, he took no chances. In defense, the Russians only mustered a professional army of about 200,000. Napoleon, who had regularly won battles while outnumbered, had the advantage. He counted on Russia realizing that resistance was futile.

What he did not count on, however, was Russian ingenuity, her desperation, or her winter. Russia’s military commanders knew that pitched battles against Napoleon would be fruitless. They therefore largely avoided direct conflict with the invaders. Instead, it coupled minor skirmishes with a gradual retreat into the endless tracts of Russian land. As Napoleon and the French army pursued the Russian retreat, Russian leadership ordered towns and farms evacuated and burned. This strategy, called a “scorched-earth policy,” effectively reduced or eliminated the supplies that the massive French army needed to maintain itself. A large invading force usually lived off the land, but Russia denied this option to Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

Napoleon determined that the only way to secure Russian surrender must be an outright assault on Moscow. He would not only force the capitulation of Russia’s largest city{{14}}, but his famished and freezing army could use its resources for rest, food, and shelter. The army arrived in Moscow on September 14 as summer gave way to autumn. What soldiers found astonished them. Like the Russian countryside, Moscow was evacuated and burned to the ground. Napoleon, despite Russia’s destruction, did not have his victory.{{15}}

He lingered in Moscow, hoping Russians would realize that its largest city being in flames should compel them to surrender, but they did no such thing.{{16}} After a month of waiting, Napoleon moved southwest to engage a Russian army. Again, Russian commanders avoided a direct engagement. By the middle of October, Napoleon realized it was no use. He ordered retreat. This withdrawal, however, was more ruinous than the invasion. The no longer grand Armée returned along the same barren route on which it had traveled into Russia. With no grass for the dying horses, the army was relegated to foot. Carts and wagons could no longer be pulled, so more supplies were lost. December arrived before Napoleon’s army escaped Russian territory. Frostbite and disease ravaged the soldiers more than the Russians ever had, though they, too, harassed the French where possible.

The damage was catastrophic. Of the approximately 600,000 invading troops, only about one-third returned to France. Of those survivors, perhaps 30,000 were still able to fight. Napoleon, who, at the behest of political and military advisers, had earlier deserted them to escape back to France on a pulled sleigh, was devastated. The largest force in European history returned at one-twentieth its strength.

European countries quickly pounced on the declawed emperor. A Sixth Coalition of Austria, Russia, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Spain, Prussia and German states ganged up on the hollowed army. Sixteen months later, Europe finally vanquished its great antagonist. In April 1814, Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to the island of Elba, just off Tuscany’s coast. In a cruel jest, he was allowed to serve as the tiny rock’s governor. The Sixth Coalition restored the Bourbon Dynasty. Louis XVIII, brother of the beheaded king, took the French throne.

Incredibly, Napoleon’s story does not end there. Less than a year later, he escaped from Elba and returned to France.{{17}} With the army’s support, he resumed the emperorship for his “Hundred Days.” It took a Seventh Coalition of just about every European country (including Austria, Prussia, Britain, and Russia, each of which promised 150,000 soldiers to the effort) to again unseat him, with their efforts culminating in the Battle of Waterloo. He was again exiled, this time to the island of St. Helena in the middle of the south Atlantic Ocean.

There, he lived out his final six years. Napoleon Bonaparte’s final battle was with stomach cancer, which claimed his life in 1821.

But what a life! There are few more incredible biographies in our Top 30 list. Born an outsider, Napoleon showed peerless talent and charisma and eventually became the most powerful person in European history. His downfall was caused by the same thing that brought him power in the first place—supreme confidence.

As I’ve said before, however, this list isn’t about greatness. It’s about influence. So what was his? Estimates are that about five million people died from the Napoleonic Wars. Beyond the death toll, his wars destroyed the economies, farms, and infrastructure of mainland Europe.

Politically, the Congress of Vienna, where countries across Europe sent representatives to discuss what to do next, guided European affairs in the post-Napoleonic years. It was the largest show of European cooperation in its long and bickering history. It became a precursor to bodies such as the League of Nations, United Nations, and European Union. While its reactionary policies worked to undo much of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s “damage,” many progressive ideas were too entrenched after a decade of Napoleonic rule.

Napoleon also instilled nationalism in European countries. The Holy Roman Empire had hundreds of states for much of its thousand years in central Europe. In its place Napoleon had created the less complicated Confederation of the Rhine, which the Congress of Vienna didn’t mind too much and turned into the similar German Confederation. Each was a step toward fewer German states and more unity. By 1871, the German Empire was born. The Italian states were also consolidated under Napoleon and began their march toward unification, achieving it the same year as Germany. These two new nations soon allied with each other and became primary players in the twentieth century’s world wars.

Socially, the Napoleonic Code diffused throughout Europe. Liberal Enlightenment ideas promoted by the likes of Voltaire (#22) were spread by Napoleon through his reforms to European legal systems. Napoleon may have been a feared and hated occupant, but European citizens did not want to undo his more favorable changes and hoped to maintain them.{{18}} Nobility was dealt one of its final blows as liberalism continued its march, this time alongside general Napoleon.{{19}}

European colonies consequently began the transition to Napoleonic civility, but he had even more profound effects on them. Spanish colonies were able to use his occupation of Spain as a means to escape the empire’s thumb, which had been pressing down on them since 1492. During the early nineteenth century, colonies from North America to Tierra del Fuego began declaring their independence from Spain, which was too distracted and weakened by Napoleon to stop them. We know these colonies as the countries of Central and South America.{{20}}

Another former European colony, the United States of America, also benefited from Napoleon’s reign, as shown with the Louisiana Purchase. Almost overnight, the U.S. had doubled its size and took a leap towards its destiny as a “sea to shining sea” global power.

Its former mother country across the Atlantic, Britain, benefitted from Napoleon’s rule as well. While mainland Europe was torn apart by two decades of war, the U.K. remained relatively stable. True, it constantly fought with Napoleon, but Great Britain itself, thanks to Admiral Nelson and the British navy, was safe. As a result, the Industrial Revolution steamed ahead in Britain while mainland Europe did not have the requisite strength in land, labor, and capital to keep up. The British consequently pulled far away from the rest of the world in industrialization, and only late in the nineteenth century would others rival it.

It’s worth noting at this point that many of Napoleon’s effects were inadvertent, which brings us back to this column’s hook—Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler have some remarkable similarities. Like Hitler, Napoleon was born into obscurity and became the master of Europe. As with Hitler, Napoleon’s downfall was overextending his empire; incredibly, both did so by invading Russia and being defeated as much by its winter as its army. Finally, like Hitler, Napoleon was so strong that he forced the West to gather its collective strength to contain and then eliminate him. This last similarity allowed the victorious allies to do all they could to then reduce their ex-rival’s impacts.

However, we mustn’t forget some important distinctions between these two men. Whereas Napoleon was motivated by ambition and a desire to socially (if not politically) modernize a continent, Hitler’s motivation was a repugnant worldview that more resembled medievalism than any progress advocated by Napoleon. For the most prominent example, consider that Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jewish population, but Napoleon welcomed them and even lifted anti-Semitic laws.{{21}} Nothing Napoleon did remotely compares to Hitler’s concentration and extermination camps. Napoleon conquered because he was an ambitious general. Hitler conquered because he felt compelled to kill those who were different.

These differences explain why Napoleon outranks Hitler on this list. Just like Hitler spread Nazism beyond German borders, Napoleon spread the French Revolution’s liberal ideas beyond France. But which ideology remains today? Without question, it’s liberalism. Whereas Hitler would recognize his failure if he saw modern European culture, Napoleon would probably congratulate himself for it. Therefore, Napoleon Bonaparte is the 16th most influential figure in Western history.

[[1]]The island had just lost its sovereignty after 14 years of independence. The Genoese Republic controlled it for much of the previous five centuries. Despite the island having an Italian feel, Napoleon was born a French citizen.[[1]]

[[2]]The memoirs of his first wife, Joséphine, mentions that he once told her, “I kept aloof from my schoolfellows. I had chosen a little corner in the school grounds, where I would sit and dream at my ease; for I have always liked reverie. When my companions tried to usurp possession of this corner, I defended it with all my might. I already knew by instinct that my will was to override that of others, and that what pleased me was to belong to me.”[[2]]

[[3]]The general in command at Toulon, Jacques François Dugommier, heeded Napoleon’s attack strategy over that of more senior officers and later noted of Napoleon: “I have no words to describe Bonaparte’s merit: much technical skill, an equal degree of intelligence, and too much gallantry.” Nailed it.[[3]]

[[4]]That man, the extensively named Paul François Jean Nicolas, vicomte de Barras, was once paired with Napoleon’s future wife, Josephine, so there was more than just political jealousy between the two.[[4]]

[[5]]Barras purportedly told his colleagues, “Advance this man or he will advance himself without you.”[[5]]

[[6]]In 1798’s Battle of the Nile, 13 French ships squared off against 15 from Britain led by the famous Admiral Horatio Nelson. The French lost all but two ships, while the English fleet came away whole. There were as many as 9,000 French casualties and prisoners, while British losses numbered less than 900.[[6]]

[[7]]The final shady tally was over three million for and 1,567 opposed.[[7]]

[[8]]If this were Risk, he’d be the guy rolling way too many sixes.[[8]]

[[9]]After learning of Napoleon’s crowning, Ludwig van Beethoven, who thus far had been a huge fan of Napoleon’s progressive management and was dedicating his Third Symphony to him, is said to have scratched off the dedication. (As an aside, no musicians made this list (explanation here), but if I had to pick one, it’d be Beethoven. The other Top 5 most influential musicians would be, in some order, Mozart, Bach, the Beatles, and Nathan Schiller.)[[9]]

[[10]]It should be noted, however, that while Charlemagne’s crowning at the hands of Pope Leo III solidified an era of papal dominance, Napoleon took the crown from Pius’s hands and crowned himself, showing that not even the Church was above the state or himself.[[10]]

[[11]]Napoleon removed Emperor Francis II from the throne and then dissolved the empire altogether. His reasoning: there can only be one emperor in Europe.[[11]]

[[12]]In his defense, the French army dominated the Peninsular War during the conflict’s middle portion, when Napoleon personally led the campaign. Before and after his presence, however, were steady losses dotted with Pyrrhic victories.[[12]]

[[13]]The following should be read while listening to Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” In 1880, the great Russian composer wrote the piece to commemorate this Russian resistance.[[13]]

[[14]]Note that Moscow was not the Russian capital ever since Peter the Great (#26) moved it to Saint Petersburg. Moscow became the capital again after 1917’s Bolshevik Revolution.[[14]]

[[15]]The extreme to which the Muscovites went is extraordinary. Before their evacuation, they disassembled fire engines, kept fuses lit, and packed the homes with anything flammable. In a wooden city, 80 percent of it was destroyed. All self-inflicted.[[15]]

[[16]]In fact, he was being fed disinformation by Russians who claimed there was dissent in the ranks and surrender was due any day.[[16]]

[[17]]Ever the leader and problem solver, his nine months on Elba were spent governing the island, including instituting social and economic reforms. Through newspapers, he was kept abreast of the situation in France. Louis XVIII grew unpopular as land from the French Empire was stripped and returned to European countries while reparations were assigned to the French people. France had gone from global power to a country being manhandled by foreigners and a complicit king who owed them his rule. The French people and military pined for the glory days of Napoleon, and his escape offered them that. When Louis sent soldiers to intercept Napoleon’s return, they lined up behind him and entered Paris together.[[17]]

[[18]]The Revolutions of 1848 are perhaps the greatest manifestations of this resistance to post-Napoleonic leaders’ reactionary policies.[[18]]

[[19]]Napoleon seemed to recognize the importance of the Napoleonic Code: “Waterloo will wipe out the memory of my forty victories; but that which nothing can wipe out is my Civil Code. That will live forever.”[[19]]

[[20]]Napoleon’s disruption of Iberia also precipitated the eventual independence of Portugal’s Brazilian colony.[[20]]

[[21]]Napoleon’s emancipation of the Jews removed laws that restricted them to ghettos. He allowed them property, freedom of worship, and entrance into careers of their choosing. He then withstood anti-Semitic reactions from foreign and local officials who wanted them deported. He vowed, “I will never accept any proposals that will obligate the Jewish people to leave France, because to me the Jews are the same as any other citizen in our country.” The incensed Russian Orthodox Church declared him as “Antichrist and the Enemy of God.”[[21]]