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Napoleon and Alexander the Greats?

September 1, 2020

Reading “War and Peace” and watching Epic History TV’s documentaries about Napoleon and Alexander the Great (see below), I’m struck by some parallels between the two men. 

Alexander’s conquests spread Hellenistic culture and some Greek ideas about democracy.  Napoleon’s conquests are said to have exported some of the ideas of the French Revolution and some of its advances in law. 

Both men died relatively young, Alexander never having been defeated in battle, Napoleon almost-never.  (Alexander’s empire was lost by his successors; Napoleon’s was taken from him at the very end).  Their campaigns of conquest both lasted about 10 years.

Tolstoy makes the comparison himself.  He likens Napoleon, as he’s crossing the Russian border and looking out in the direction of faraway Moscow, to Alexander the Great invading “the Scythian empire” (Vol. III, Part I, Ch. 2).

Grand Armee entering Russia
June 24, 1812

Vasili Dmitrich Denisov says in Tolstoy’s novel, “Yes, we’re fighting like the Scythians,” when speaking with Prince Andrey about all the Russian retreats (Vol. III, Part II, Ch. 15).

In fact Tolstoy says that the Russians historically have been credited with borrowing from the Scythians a scorched-earthed policy of retreat (Vol. II, Part II, Ch. 1).

I recall in an Epic History video about Alexander that when he entered Asia Minor, one of the plans to resist him called for a scorched-earth retreat.

It’s been forever since I studied anything about Napoleon; and I’ve never studied Alexander to any extent.  But it’s impossible to read “War and Peace” and not to think about Napoleon and about many like him.

(My ten-year-old son loves both these documentaries and begs to see them.)

Roughly speaking Napoleon and Alexander have both been denounced as tyrants, sometimes by their own people.  But I think Napoleon fares worse in the comparison.  I know there’s debate about Napoleon, and I saw some of a fun, somewhat cheeky debate on YouTube (see below) about whether he should be called Napoleon the Great.

In that debate, one of Napoleon’s biographers, Andrew Roberts, argued the case that he should be called Great, due to his achievements in military science, civil law, engineering, etc.  Roberts says that these things were spread to much of Europe by Napoleon. 

But Napoleon, unlike Alexander, had the high ideals of the French Revolution behind him.  So Napoleon’s tyranny, his power grab and subsequent conquest of Europe — even if it did begin defensively against the early coalitions who were bent merely on destroying the Revolution and preserving monarchies everywhere — has a longer moral distance to fall.  There seems to be a greater gap between idea and action in Napoleon’s case than in Alexander’s.

Alexander, as far as I know, didn’t march his armies with claims of bringing equality to all peoples.  Napoleon did so, yet he rolled back women’s rights that had been won in the Revolution.  He re-installed slavery in certain colonies. 

Napoleon said that he wanted only peace, and on St. Helena he wrote the most delusional justifications of his acts. Tolstoy quotes some of that at length in “War and Peace” (Vol. III, Part II, Ch. 38).

The Russian war should have been the most popular war of modern times: it was a war of good sense, for real interests, for the tranquillity and security of all; it was purely pacific and conservative.

It was a war for a great cause, the end of uncertainties and the beginning of security. A new horizon and new labors were opening out, full of well-being and prosperity for all. The European system was already founded; all that remained was to organize it.

Satisfied on these great points and with tranquility everywhere, I too should have had my Congress and my Holy Alliance. Those ideas were stolen from me. In that reunion of great sovereigns we should have discussed our interests like one family, and have rendered account to the peoples as clerk to master.

Europe would in this way soon have been, in fact, but one people, and anyone who traveled anywhere would have found himself always in the common fatherland. I should have demanded the freedom of all navigable rivers for everybody, that the seas should be common to all, and that the great standing armies should be reduced henceforth to mere guards for the sovereigns.

On returning to France, to the bosom of the great, strong, magnificent, peaceful, and glorious fatherland, I should have proclaimed her frontiers immutable; all future wars purely defensive, all aggrandizement antinational. I should have associated my son in the Empire; my dictatorship would have been finished, and his constitutional reign would have begun.

Paris would have been the capital of the world, and the French the envy of the nations!

My leisure then, and my old age, would have been devoted, in company with the Empress and during the royal apprenticeship of my son, to leisurely visiting, with our own horses and like a true country couple, every corner of the Empire, receiving complaints, redressing wrongs, and scattering public buildings and benefactions on all sides and everywhere.

“Purely pacific and conservationist”.  Napoleon sounds exactly like Anakin Skywalker: “I have brought peace, freedom, justice and security to my new empire.” 

George Lucas is justly faulted for writing poor dialogue in “Star Wars,” but I will never be able to look at that scene the same way again.

Tolstoy, after quoting Bonaparte, responds:

Napoleon, predestined by Providence for the gloomy role of executioner of the peoples, assured himself that the aim of his actions had been the peoples’ welfare and that he could control the fate of millions and by the employment of power confer benefactions.

“Of four hundred thousand who crossed the Vistula,” he wrote further of the Russian war, “half were Austrians, Prussians, Saxons, Poles, Bavarians, Württembergers, Mecklenburgers, Spaniards, Italians, and Neapolitans. The Imperial army, strictly speaking, was one third composed of Dutch, Belgians, men from the borders of the Rhine, Piedmontese, Swiss, Genevese, Tuscans, Romans, inhabitants of the Thirty-second Military Division, of Bremen, of Hamburg, and so on: it included scarcely a hundred and forty thousand who spoke French. The Russian expedition actually cost France less than fifty thousand men; the Russian army in its retreat from Vílna to Moscow lost in the various battles four times more men than the French army; the burning of Moscow cost the lives of a hundred thousand Russians who died of cold and want in the woods; finally, in its march from Moscow to the Oder the Russian army also suffered from the severity of the season; so that by the time it reached Vílna it numbered only fifty thousand, and at Kálisch less than eighteen thousand.”

He imagined that the war with Russia came about by his will, and the horrors that occurred did not stagger his soul. He boldly took the whole responsibility for what happened, and his darkened mind found justification in the belief that among the hundreds of thousands who perished there were fewer Frenchmen than Hessians and Bavarians.

In the Briggs translation:  “The horror of what was done left no impression on his soul.”

He was defective in soul.  That’s what enabled him to lie with sophistication, making himself Emperor of France, and trying to make himself Emperor of all Europe, all the while and ever after claiming that he was the great champion of peace, equality and fraternity.

All conquerors, Alexander included, think of themselves as liberators.  Virtually all of them fail to understand the minds and cultures of the conquered, and eventually make bitter enemies (though it’s interesting that Alexander personally was attracted to Persian customs, his sacking of Persepolis notwithstanding).  Napoleon thought wrongly that he would be welcome in Spain and Russia.  He thought he would be bringing civilization to backwards peoples, and he did bring some modern things with him; but I think those who argue that he deserves to be called Great because he ushered in some modernity are buying into his cynical use of the Revolution.  The credit for any modern advances in central Europe should go to the French Revolution and the energy that it released among many French men and women who then brought new things into being.

Yes, Napoleon “exported” these things but that does not make him great:  to bring right by might. There were many peaceful ways to export the ideals of the Revolution, or would have been, if that option had been taken.

Tolstoy says near the beginning of the Epilogue of “War and Peace”: 

If the object had been the dissemination of ideas, the printing of books would have attained that object much more efficiently than soldiers

This was not true in Alexander’s time but of course it was true in Napoleon’s.

Where was communism exported more effectively?  In those places where Marxist ideas took root naturally (Cuba, China) or where Stalin imposed the Russian Revolution by force of his army (Eastern Europe)?

I think in studying history we should judge historical actors primarily according to the standards of their time.  But in that case, though Napoleon and Alexander did similar things, Napoleon had greater ideals behind him than Alexander did; and he was thought in his own time to reverse or to betray the ideals he claimed to be exporting.

Putting Napoleon on trial like this makes you think twice about someone like Churchill, who was racist and imperialist, and brutally put down colonial populations.  Churchill’s opposition to Hitler was great, but merely fighting Hitler, in itself, can’t redeem him any more than Stalin can be redeemed by the Great Patriotic War against Germany (note however that Stalin actively aided Hitler before 1941).  But Churchill did submit himself to democratic rule, unlike Napoleon.  I can’t get away from that one fact:  his self-coronation as an emperor. 

Yes, it was a time of monarchies, including in England. But the French Revolution overthrew monarchy. Napoleon made himself the new king, and had no intention that he or his family would give up power.

There are many parallels between Napoleon and Hitler, but here of course Napoleon fares better.  Hitler brought nothing good to Europe in his short reign, and spread far more criminal destruction than any previous conqueror.

As is well known, both Napoleon and Hitler invaded Russia and were expelled from it.  Is this just a superficial parallel?  It’s not true that any man, no matter how good or bad, would have suffered the same fate if he’d invaded Russia.  Well, maybe it’s true, but it just begs the question: what kind of man would invade Russia?  Napoleon and Hitler both turned East after failing to subdue Britain.  Napoleon’s Continental System was not as vile a motive as lebensraum but both men were seeking to control an entire continent. 

That aim is surely not uncommon in world history, but more to the point, these two men invaded Russia with contempt for its peoples.  This was not some merely military error that any man could make.  I doubt that Napoleon ever misjudged a purely military situation.  What he misjudged were Russia’s people, its leader, the entire country. 

That’s why these two famous invasions of Russia were “blunders.”  They were strategic errors made possible by moral contempt.  Power, or the love of it, made entire peoples invisible, or unreadable, to these men.

And when it resulted in large-scale bloodshed, they showed no remorse.

It’s true, roughly speaking, that Hitler intended large-scale bloodshed from the start.  Genocide was his aim.  He intended to occupy the Soviet Union with millions of German soldiers and did so as far as the outskirts of Moscow.  Napoleon went as far as Moscow only because he was chasing the retreating Russians, who preferred retreat to surrender.  If I have it right, Napoleon’s original aim was not to drive on Moscow; he expected to destroy the Russian armies in battle near the border and force a surrender. 

But the fact is, Napoleon did follow the Russians, deep into their heartland.  He couldn’t see that they were never going to surrender.  Maybe he understood the retreat, and the scorched-earth policy, as the mere weakness of a beaten enemy who would soon surrender; I don’t know.  What we do know is that he expected surrender, and that this expectation led him to extend his campaign, with its consequent destruction.

It was not merely that he crossed the Russian border; that’s not what links him with Hitler.  It’s that he mounted such a deep invasion and pressed on with it despite its costs to both sides.

Hitler had 3 million men and Napoleon one-fifth that number; so the armies of the 19th century may not have been large enough to occupy entire countries.  Wars of that time seemed to be decided by pitched battles, followed by negotiations.  What Napoleon did in Russia, then, seems to be uncharacteristic of his time:  that long march – made so much easier by modern mechanized armies – into the largest of countries.  Intentional or unplanned, it nevertheless foreshadowed what the larger and more mobile German army attempted.

And it’s important not to focus too much on Russia here.  We look there maybe because it’s where Hitler and Napoleon both failed, and where they caused their greatest destruction.  But what Napoleon attempted to do in Russia was no different than what he had attempted with smaller nations; the only difference is that in Russia (and Spain), he failed, and went to extreme lengths to pursue the enemy, which resulted in a longer war and greater devastation.  Hitler likewise was genocidally aggressive everywhere; he spilled the most blood in Russia because he could not get that particular campaign over with quickly as he had elsewhere – and because of a special racial contempt for the peoples on his eastern flank.  But he would have devastated any country that put up a resistance, and Napoleon similarly mounted as many campaigns as he needed in order to subdue an enemy, for example Prussia.

Russia was where these two men “blundered,” but it was not the only place that they blundered morally.  What they did in Russia, because it was resisted, merely clarifies in each man’s case what he was doing, what he wanted, and how much destruction he was willing to incur and inflict in order to get it.

Tolstoy puts forward the interesting argument (Vol. II, Part II, Ch. 1) that Napoleon and even the Russians could not have foreseen how the French would be repelled and destroyed. The causes were the long march to Moscow, the deadly winter, and the long retreat.  (One should also add that disease during the summer advance killed more French soldiers than any other single event; the scorched-earth policy also had its impact).  But he obviously does not excuse Napoleon’s moral actions, nor do I think he’s getting at anything that would help to excuse him.  If I read Tolstoy correctly here, he’s saying that the particular way the French were defeated was not foreseen; and that during the events there was florid speculation about what might happen and no shortage of ideas about what Russia should do.  He says the Russians did everything they could to stop the French in their tracks, and who can doubt it?  To plan on bringing the enemy into the heart of your country, letting him take what he can, and destroying the rest yourselves – who would pick that as Plan A?

(Yet my edition of W&P, in “Appendix 2: The Three Battles,” has this:  “Barclay de Tolly’s policy of strategic withdrawal was unpopular in the capital, and he was replaced as commander-in-chief by the aged Kutuzov, who knew he must now stand his ground.”)

Tolstoy is right in his analysis, as far as it goes.  It’s a healthy counter to anyone who wishes to paint this passage of history too simply – as if “great men” foresaw the victory and achieved it, after overcoming, of course, those men who intended to achieve exactly opposite outcomes.

But what I’m saying here doesn’t come into this level of analysis at all.  It’s simpler.  Napoleon could have foreseen, anticipated, prepared for the possibility that the Russians would not surrender, and the simple likelihood that with such resources and territory at their disposal they had the means to hold out.  If he didn’t allow for this beforehand, he could have seen it more clearly as events unfolded.  But he seems not to have allowed for any of this.  As late as Moscow he expected a delegation to arrive and to kiss his feet.

Napoleon, like so many others, at some point bit off more than he could handle; made too many enemies; what have you.  Yet I don’t think of Napoleon as simply making the mistake of all conquerors who go too far or step on the wrong toes.  What strikes the imagination about his invasion of Russia is that it was the largest army that Europe had ever seen.  It vastly outnumbered Russia’s forces.  Why did he prepare such a large invasion force?  How was he planning to use it? 

We can assume he did not want a protracted struggle among great armies.  Presume, then, that he thought such a large force would be more likely to get a quick surrender.  But the ghastly possibility that surrender would not come and that this force would then be entailed in a conflict larger than anything in his previous experience – resulting in nearly half a million French deaths, and incalculable destruction of Russian lives and treasure – was set aside in the deadliest possible gamble of lives.  That’s a moral wrong and not a merely military blunder.

Napoleon’s lies as a statesman resemble his deceptions of the battlefield.  They were pure tricks:  e.g., singing a peace treaty with the young Russian Emperor Alexander and violating it; saying that he wanted only peace, while he built up his troops to invade; the useless pretexts he made for the invasion; etc.  Emperor Alexander rightly gets criticized for playing soldier disastrously at Austerlitz, ie, playing general when he should have remained a statesman.  But Napoleon, as a statesman, used the tactics of a general.

So which of the two men, Alexander or Napoleon, had more lasting influence?  Alexander’s conquests marked the beginning of the Hellenistic Age, and I don’t know this history very well but whenever I read even the most basic material about this time period, the Hellenistic Age and its beginning with Alexander is a famous marker.  The age, as I understand it, brought about significant and lasting influence throughout the ancient Near East, not just in politics but in science and every aspect of culture including art, literature and religion.

The French Revolution is a similar marker in modernity, but what was Napoleon’s relationship to it?  It seems to me that he was merely a part of that Revolution; he owed his rise to it; he tried both to export it and to extinguish it; above all he tried to use it.  But it was much larger than him, notwithstanding his famous declaration, “I am the Revolution!”

There was a long period of relative peace in Europe among the great powers between 1815 and 1914.  But if that was an achievement of sorts, it was the result of Napoleon’s defeat in 1815.  (The peace was briefly broken by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which overthrew Napoleon III, who was Bonaparte’s nephew and the last French Emperor). The countries that exiled him knew that peace was impossible with him.  Constant war would have strangled much and perhaps all progress.

In this post I’ve been stepping out a bit, talking about things I haven’t studied extensively, mostly in counter to Andrew Roberts’ argument that Napoleon should be called Great, and in light of what I’ve just read in Tolstoy. Comments are welcome from any who can shed light on questions I didn’t answer or raise, or mistakes I’ve made.

Two good critical reviews of Roberts’ book:

Boney’s bungles: Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts,” by Andrew Adonis

Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts review – a ‘marvellously readable’, if partial, biography,” by Mark Mazower

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