Guest Review by Adam Price: BBC’s Napoleon the Great, Episode One

napoleon the great review

It has become the mantra of modern historical documentaries that, above all else, style should trump substance. As long as the subject involves travelling to exotic or highly cultured locations where presenters in panama hats and rolled up sleeves marvel at great buildings or works of art, then what is actually being talked about is almost a secondary concern. History, it would appear, should be seen rather than heard. It was with some reluctance, therefore, that I began watching the latest BBC offering dealing with the life of Napoleon, written and presented by historian Andrew Roberts. What compelled me to do so was a combination of ignorance and fascination of a man who, more than any other figure before him, came to dominate Europe.

And yet, for a man who rose to power by overthrowing a government he had sworn to defend and establishing a dictatorship which succeeded in trampling on the sovereignty of European nations, Napoleon is a figure who has attracted admirers and enemies in equal measure. This was as true in his own time (one only has to think of Beethoven’s Eroica) as it is today. In the first episode of his series, Roberts charts a course through the events of Napoleon’s early career from provincial Corsican army officer to conquering hero turned dictator and lawgiver.  Indeed, many of the events covering this early period – his subjugation of the Italian city states of Lombardy, his early support for Revolutionary politics and Enlightenment philosophy, his betrayal of the Republic during the Eighteenth Brumaire, the establishment of the Bonapartist dictatorship and the inauguration of the Napoleonic legal code – have been used by defenders and critics alike in their analysis. In a way what makes Napoleon such a fascinating figure is the impact of his legacy on the modern world.

What is worrying about Andrew Roberts’ documentary, however, is that it signs up wholeheartedly to the philosophy of the ‘great man’ version of history. Indeed, Roberts at one point describes Napoleon, alongside Caesar and Alexander the Great, as one of the ‘seven great captains’ of history. Not that Napoleon would have minded this very much. As a child of the Enlightenment he drew his inspiration from the great figures of Roman history, who skilfully mastered the tides of fortune to make their mark on greatness and posterity. Yet, as Roberts concedes, this was nothing new in the education of young men of the time. Contemporary figures such as Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins, were as well versed in ancient history and yet none followed the same path as Napoleon. The question, therefore, is what made Napoleon different? The answer, for Roberts at least, is simple – that of ambition married with pure talent. In reaching such an historical conclusion, Roberts offers only the briefest analysis of Napoleon’s early life. Coming has he did from relatively humble stock, and from the newly acquired province of Corsica, surely a more interesting avenue to explore would be the extent to which such a background, combined with the context of late-eighteenth century revolutionary France, impacted upon a man who came to dominate half of Europe.

Moreover, for a programme that supposedly aims at profiling an historical figure, Roberts spends little time looking at other individuals or groups who either made an impact on the life of the formidable general or else were effected by his actions. In fact the only other figure who is dealt with in any detail is Napoleon’s wife, Josephine. The members of France’s doomed republican government are dismissed simply as being “corrupt”. Even the existence of a new meritocratic officer class, which Roberts himself admits was key to Napoleon’s success on the battlefield, receives only passing mention.

Ultimately, we cannot understand the historical man that is Napoleon – his military genius, his political astuteness, his ambition – without analysing the social-political culture in which he grew. A man, especially a great general, does not act in a vacuum. As Brecht once shrewdly observed, Caesar did not cross the Rubicon alone. “Men make their own history” acknowledged Marx, “but they do not make it just as they please in circumstances they choose for themselves; rather they make it in present circumstances, given and inherited.” Whilst Napoleon thought of himself as a man of destiny, historians (mesmerising though it may be to think in such terms) should not be drowned in the pool of Narcissus.

Nor are historians free from the weight of their own times. Aside from coinciding with the anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at the Waterloo, what is striking about Roberts’ depiction is how much it chimes with neo-liberalist ideas currently in vogue in mainstream British political culture. For Roberts, Napoleon represents a proto-Thatcher, a conservative figure from outside the traditional establishment who ended what he describes as the “egalitarian excesses” of republican revolutionary politics and consolidated the gains made during the revolution by France’s burgeoning middle-class. It is telling that Roberts identifies this new breed of up-and-comers as ‘strivers’, much the same way as neo-liberalism draws distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor (‘pulling yourself up by your boot straps’). In his treatment of the events of Eighteenth Brumaire, for example, Roberts draws very deliberate parallels between 1798 and 1979, in which a government made up of radicals and fire brands, in the midst of economic chaos, is brought to an end by a man who represented the self-made man. Such an interpretation fails to sufficiently deal with the brute fact that Napoleon’s seizure of power, without recourse to the French people, brought an end to any form of democracy in France. Moreover, it conveniently glosses over the counter-revolutionary aspects of Napoleon’s rule, including the re-introduction of slavery, which had previously been abolished by the Republican Convention in 1794.

These self-made men, the “backbone of the revolution” are identified by Roberts as businessmen and employers. Napoleon’s ‘benign dictatorship’, then, did not act in the interests of the majority of the dispossessed, un-enfranchised population. The self-made men, these ‘strivers’, were, of course, the kind of social and economic groups that Thatcherism sought to promote. Indeed, Roberts, a self-declared supporter of Thatcher, is himself the son of business executive Simon Roberts and spent a career in the financial sector as an investment banker. One even gets a sense of the championing of the yuppie culture in Roberts defence of the decadence of the ‘imperial style’ of art and architecture which bloomed under Napoleon’s rule. “Our modern age despises opulence, equating it with crudity,” remarks Roberts, surrounded by the gaudy interior of a Parisian period hotel, “But why should the power of a great new empire and the achievements of the individual not merit splendour?” So what if money can’t buy you taste, at least it you can use it show off!

Finally, and perhaps most worryingly of all, is the championing of Napoleon as the enlightened dictator, the man who, more than any other until Hitler and Stalin, sought to interfere with the internal affairs of other nations, through conquest and the establishment up puppet regimes. For Roberts, of course, Napoleon’s campaign in Lombardy brought the ideals of the enlightenment to the newly ‘liberated’ peoples of the northern Italian city states. These regimes set up by Napoleon in the name of freedom were models to be envied and emulated by people throughout Europe. They were, however, French in origin and outlook, without recourse to the Italian people themselves.

In promoting Napoleon as the man who brought Europeans the Enlightenment on the edge of a sword, what Roberts, a supporter of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is offering to a modern audience is a positive historical role model to justify the foreign policies of modern Western democratic governments. The great general is held up as a man who sought regime change in other countries in order to promote the ideals of the enlightenment and to safeguard the achievements of the French Revolution. In doing so Roberts, who has actively advocated an interventionist stance for the UK in affairs on the world stage, is arguing for the need for such a “moral policeman” in global politics, through the example of Napoleon. The danger in drawing such analogies is that it assumes that there are universal laws of human behaviour to be drawn from history, that what works for one time and people will automatically work for another. The example of Napoleon is specific to, and its success dependent upon, the context of the time. This is particularly the case when one is dealing with the involvement of Western powers in Middle Eastern politics post-2001.

In the final analysis, however, I must confess to being drawn to Andrew Robert’s exploration of what one must admit is a thoroughly fascinating and challenging individual. I cannot agree with Robert’s historiographical approach, his belief in the existence of individual genius which does not sufficiently consider the historical context. Nor can I stomach his politics – the attempt to marry Bonapartism with the neo-liberal ideals of Thatcherism. Moreover, his championing of Napoleon as a poster boy for modern politicians who seek to affect regime change in the Middle East is, in the current political context, inappropriate and, quite frankly, dangerous!

And yet, in the last instance, I cannot help but applaud Andrew Roberts for making a documentary which so thoroughly nails its colour to the mast that one cannot help but engage with the subject at a critical level. In recent years the BBC has churned out historical documentaries which provide lavish settings and sumptuous photography at the expense of effective historical analysis. The result has been the stagnation of TV history, taking the form of entertainment or sentiment. It has become a tonic to sooth the aches and pains of modern living. Instead of a real brain-teaser, recent historical documentaries have become the equivalent of a Sudoku in a Sunday morning newspaper. All this has been to the detriment of the viewing public. Wittingly or not Roberts’ approach goes straight for the jugular and, catching us off balance, forces us either to defend ourselves or else to go with him. If the metaphor sounds rather violent, perhaps it is only appropriate, for what is history after all if not the great clashing of rival interpretations and ideas struggling, ultimately, for dominance?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.