Nearly 70 years after the shooting stopped in World War II, we (as the English-speaking world, at least) are still very interested in the war itself, as well as its now gold-standard bad guys, The Nazis feat. Adolf Hitler.
But when you think about it - World War II was rather a long time ago. Most of the participants have died or are extremely elderly and while there’s no doubting the WWII was one of the most significant events in modern human history, I have to confess I still find it interesting something which happened nearly three-quarters of a century ago is still at the forefrunt of so many people’s minds. There are TV channels full of documentaries on World War II, there are literally several sizeable libraries worth of books on the subject and there’s still dozens being published every year.
So I started wondering if there was a precedent for this, and figured the 19th Century’s go-to Bad Guy, Napoleon Bonaparte, might be a good place to start.
Did people (besides intellectuals and actual military strategists) in the late 19th century sit around discussing Napoleon, the implication of his actions, using it as shorthand for things and generally being as interested in him and the French Empire as people today are in WWII and the Nazis/Hitler?
And yes, I appreciate the French Empire under Napoleon and the Third Reich under the Nazis aren’t really comparable things (Napoleon did some shitty things but fortunately actual, effective genocide wasn’t among them), but it’s the closest I can come to as a 19th century equivalent that was a Big Deal with prolonged, lasting impacts that affected a lot of people in different countries.
Yes. I would say that up to the 1870s Napoleon was regarded as either the great monster villain as with his mere imitator Adolf, or the fatherly genius who cared for all vide Béranger ( which could have been Hitler’s fate had he won ); but with the explosion of interest around the 1890s — more intense than under the 2nd Empire since all the witnesses were conveniently dead, a more nuanced and detailed discussion began, in which French historians were able to assess him as the Greatest Man Who Ever Existed and others disagreed.
The go-to book is Pieter Geyl’s Napoleon, For And Against, which really, is a very important work in it’s own right, regardless of the subject.
And Bonaparte’s reign, which at best was merely a continuation of the Great Revolution, brought just as much death and misery as that of the nazis.
The comparison to the Nazis is silly. Napoleon was, at worst, a very watered-down Hitler. Yes, he even had a Secret Police…but a wimpy and not very effective one. It took 20th century technology for the Gestapo to be the dire monstrosity it was.
Also, Napoleonic battles didn’t devastate entire countries. This wasn’t anything like the religious wars of the 1600s that significantly reduced the population of large areas. The campaigns and battles tended to be swift and decisive, and usually didn’t involve large cities. (The Russian campaign is something of an exception. The Peninsular campaign was also nastier than usual for the time.)
(In contrast, the Waterloo campaign could easily have gone unnoticed by nearly anyone, save maybe the residents of Chateau Hougoumont!)
Napoleon was a stinker, but, seriously, compared to Hitler, he was a weak cup of tea.
He did. The Terror was well past by the time he’d reached the point where he could style himself Emperor outside of his bathroom and get away with it. And he wrote a code of fair, modern laws & judicial proceedings that’s still at the heart of many justice systems throughout Europe since he exported that shit.
Far as I know he also didn’t set up and carry out industrial-scale human exterminations, so there’s that. Silly hat, though.
It Still Makes Me Shudder
Academia.edu - downloadable as pdf
It begins with Jaffa:
*That same day the town fell and the troops gave themselves up to pillage, rape and murder for two, possibly four, whole days ( witnesses diverge on this point), indiscriminately killing anyone that fell in their way, regardless of gender or age, stopping only with ‘the besiegers weary of killing … tired to death, exhausted by the debauchery’.
Etienne-Louis Malus, a doctor who had accompanied the army, recalled what he saw many years later:The soldiers cut the throats of men and women, the old and the young, Christians and Turks … father and son one on top of the other(on the same pile of bodies), a daughter being raped on the cadaver of her mother, the smoke from the burnt clothes of the dead, the smell of blood, the groans of the wounded, the shouts of the victors who were quarrelling about the loot taken from a dying victim.
The killing did not stop there. Over a three-day period, from 8 to10 March, anywhere between 2400 and 3000 prisoners were marched to a beach a little over a kilometre south of the city and slaughtered.
On the second day the order was given to spare bullets, and to bayonet to death those who remained. Squares of French soldiers were formed, in the middle of which prisoners were placed. The troops then advanced and killed everyone in the square:
The soldiers had been carefully instructed not to waste ammunition, and they were cruel enough to stab them with their bayonets. Among the victims, we found many children who, in the act of death,had clung to their fathers. This example will teach our enemies that they cannot count on French good faith, and sooner or later, the blood of these 3000 victims will be upon us.*
And just to get the money to send Napoleon off to the East as his pet project, the Directory ordered the inoffensive Swiss city of Berne to be sacked !
And really this was nothing compared with Spain, where all parties, including the Spanish and the British did bad stuff, but the French really bad stuff.
Thus estimates of total dead, both military and civilian, can reasonably range from 3,250,000 to 6,500,000.
*Gneisenau also writes of Hamburgh: “An official and moderate estimate states the total amount of the losses caused to this city and its environs by d’Avoust [whom Gneisenau calls one of Napoleon’s Satraps] at thirteen millions sterling.
“The population was reduced from 120,000 to 40,000 souls; more than 1500 houses were either burnt or demolished; and by d’Avoust’s unnatural, stubborn, and vindictive cruelty, more than 1600 families were stripped of their bedding, furniture, and cattle, turned out to live under the canopy of heaven, in the midst of a severe winter, and, in short, became beggars on the high roads.”
I can also tell you that during this period the independent wealth and hard-earned prosperity of Hamburg was leveled to an unending prospect of lack, poverty and wretched unemployment: At the beginning of the Napoleonic wars Hamburg had over 400 sugar factories. By 1812, only 3 were left, the rest victims of the pernicious Continental System which prevented the importation of raw materials from outside Europe into any port under French control.
But, besides me and probably a handful of German historians, who knows of the wretched history of this wealthy vibrant city, the loss of their liberty and their lives, by acts such as this?*
Now certainly Napoleon was only partially responsible for all the suffering, any more than Stalin acted alone, as Solzhenitsyn pointed out, or than Hitler ran the death camps: but he was a brutal conqueror; he chose war over peace when his enemies wanted peace — had he accepted the expanded revolutionary frontiers he could have presided over a prosperous France, but the whole Napoleonic system was predicated on endless conquest to pay for the future ( much as was the thieving nazi regime ); and he could never understand that not everyone had a duty to obey him: it was beyond his comprehension.
Chateaubriand, as an enemy to admired the creep despite himself for his undoubted greatness analyses his monomaniacal nature very well in his memoirs.
And whilst he was fulfilling the revolution, remember he had got his start as a Jacobin, yet he sent his old comrades off to die in Cayenne on trumped-up charges as easily as AH destroyed his old comrades in the SA.
To avoid accusations of bias, I should say I detest the then British regime as much as I despise him.
Napoleon’s armies tended to live off the land (that is, by looting the locals) - which brought rebellion, guerilla warfare (the term was coined then), true mass suffering, and 20th-century style total warfare to places like Spain, in the Penninsular War.
One major difference between Hitler and Nappy is that many, many people believed - and still believe - in the genius and good works/ good intentions of the latter, while outside of truly fringe groups, nobody thinks the former was a genius or had good works or intentions.
By the late Nineteenth Century, not so much. The creation of the German Empire–which not coincidentally involved crushing Napoleon’s nephew–redrew the map and balance of power of Europe so profoundly than Napoleon became a little bit irrelevant after 1871.
But during the early and mid-Nineteenth Century, hell yeah. If anything people talked more about Napoleon, because while everyone agrees Hitler was a baddie, lots of people thought Napoleon was boffo. His nephew was elected President of France in 1848–by a huge majority–with virtually nothing going for him but his name. There were oceans of ink spilled about Napoleon in the mid-Nineteenth Century.
The wars associated with German unification weren’t as long, or as bloody, or as all-encompassing as the Napoleonic Wars, but they were big enough to give people something new to talk about. We haven’t had that since WWII. No war since has had anywhere near the number of participants or casualties, or has significantly redrawn the world map.
Given nuclear weapons, WWII might remain the Last Big Show for a long time. Combine that with Hitler, and it’s endless chat room fodder. I don’t see it ending any time soon.
Well, this is localized to only one country, but I have the impression that the American Civil War preoccupied people in the US for many, many decades after the event (as, of course, it still seems to do…). I read a biography of Douglas Macarthur once and was struck to read that for Macarthur and many of his contemporaries WWI was a disappointment because in their mind the Civil War was THE war to judge all others by, the classic war that people obsessed over in the way people obsess over WWII today.
It’s interesting to me how discussion and debate about Vietnam has faded so sharply in the past decade or so. As late as the turn of the century when I was in college I can recall dorm room debates about that war; in the '90s it still seemed very much a part of the cultural consciousness, perhaps because of Clinton’s election and the debates about his supposed draft-dodging. Now I can barely remember the last time I heard a conversation about Vietnam.
I think a lot of is because America lost Vietnam. It’s fairly well established one of the reasons WWII is so popular is because it was the last “Good” war - one everyone agreed was just, the Bad Guys were obviously bad and clearly identifiable, the Good Guys won, and there were lots of clearly identifiable battles, clear objectives, etc etc.
Vietnam, on the other hand isn’t as clear-cut. Besides losing to an enemy popularly seen as rice farmers in black pyjamas with AK-47s, the US didn’t seem to have any clear identifiable goals beyond “Don’t let the Vietcong win” - they didn’t capture and hold cities with a view to keeping them, didn’t send huge platoons of tanks rolling over the countryside* to engage in epic tank battles with the bad guys, and so on.
Also - and I think this gets overlooked - even though everyone was told it would be a catastrophe if North Vietnam won, ultimately it hasn’t made much difference vis-a-vis the rest of the world that they did. The rest of South-East Asia didn’t fall to the domino effect, the US isn’t living under the spectre of an imminent nuclear strike by a still antagonistic North Vietnam or anything like that.
It’s a gross and likely inadequate simplification, but World War II changed the course of history and led to all sorts of technological advances and effects which we are still feeling the repercussions of today, whilst Vietnam gave us lots of movies about how awful war is and a reminder that Field Marshal “Monty” Montgomery was right - never get involved in land wars in Asia.
*I know Vietnamese geography and topology doesn’t lend itself well to armoured warfare on a grand scale.