My son recently told me that Napoleon — you know, France’s short Emperor — was “poggers.”
Now, definitions may be in order for those who, unlike my son, are not avid video gamers.
Originating from an emote on the streaming platform Twitch, poggers or pog is an Internet slang term used to express enthusiasm, mostly among online gamers.
Urban Dictionary defines it as an “epic word” for anything exciting.
So, Napoleon Bonaparte was poggers.
Now, some context.
Two years ago I was reading a lot about Napoleon in Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” and my son and I enjoyed watching several YouTube programs about Bony and his battles. We found out in no uncertain terms that, whatever you might make of Napoleon politically and morally, the man was definitely poggers, especially as a leader of armies.
This summer I’ve been reading a lot about Napoleon in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.” (You can see already that this epic man tends to occupy space in epic, skyscraper-length novels.) But Hugo’s estimation of the man is completely different from Tolstoy’s, and far more positive.
Of course, you may say, Hugo was French, and Tolstoy Russian, so what else can you expect.
But it goes much deeper than that. Hugo and Tolstoy had radically different opinions of Napoleon Bonaparte because they had diametrically opposite views of how history itself works.
Hugo depicts in detail the Battle of Waterloo, the final defeat of Napoleon. He argues that Napoleon’s downfall was not the doing of other men but was rather decreed by Fate. He states that Napoleon would have won Waterloo if not for accidental-seeming events, like the heavy rain that made mud of the fields at Waterloo and bogged down the French cannons.
Hugo is not exactly an apologist for Napoleon, because the narrator of “Les Misérables” acknowledges that Napoleon was an emperor and that his Empire was “despotic.” But he depicts the French soldiers of Waterloo as fighting the last armed offensive on behalf of the French Revolution of 1789; he describes the Battle of Waterloo as the final and successful attempt to restore the monarchy — a last armed victory by counter-revolutionaries over the liberty promised in the French Revolution. Napoleon of course fought in the name of the Revolution, eventually identifying himself as its essential keeper (“I am the Revolution!”), and Hugo seems sympathetic to Napoleon’s claim.
Though Hugo labels Waterloo a victory for counter-revolution, he insists that this win was not achieved by men, but rather by fate, God, destiny.
Was it possible Napoleon might have won that battle? We say no. Why? Because of [British general] Wellington? Because of [Prussian general] Blücher? No. Because of God.
The inordinate weight of this man was disturbing the balance of human destiny. This individual alone counted for more than the rest of the world put together.
Nothing could be more contrary to Tolstoy’s view. Tolstoy regarded men like Napoleon as vainly imagining that they had more influence over history than they really did. Tolstoy likened history to a pyramid, in which the innumerable individuals at the base accounted for far more of what happens in history than does a puny individual like Napoleon perched at the top. For Tolstoy, the only possible explanation of historical events must be sought in examinations of the sum total of all human actions, to the extent that such a thing can be calculated.
Hugo speaks often of Napoleon as an admirable and thrilling figure, albeit despotic. He argues that Waterloo, despite being fought by counter-revolutionary men, was ultimately a beneficial decree by destiny/God because it ended the Napoleonic Wars and thus paved the way for the ideals of the Revolution to move forward peacefully:
The demise of the great man was essential to the advent of the great century.
Tolstoy attempted the demise of this man in his own way, not merely by diminishing Napoleon but by rejecting the “great man” school of history — rejecting the very idea that there were single individuals who directed the course of great historical events.
Tolstoy’s theory of history has come in for much criticism, though it famously received a sympathetic treatment in Isaiah Berlin’s “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” In my own reading of “War and Peace,” I couldn’t agree entirely with Tolstoy view but it was a powerful vision that I had to engage and respect.
What to make of Hugo’s view?
Firstly, I’m a bit surprised that Hugo was not more skeptical of Napoleon and his self-identification as the embodiment of the Revolution. Perhaps this is understandable in the sense that the counter-revolutionary regime of the monarchy was certainly not liberal. The Revolution may have turned despotic and imperial, but it was not to be found in the old monarchy.
At least Hugo acknowledges that the passing of Napoleon Bonaparte from the stage was ultimately a good thing, as it paved the way for peaceful Revolution.
But Hugo’s theory of how Napoleon was overthrown is questionable. He writes of Waterloo:
If it had not rained during the night of the seventeenth to the eighteenth of June 1815, the future of Europe would have been very different.
But as a far more recent historian observes:
On the eve of Waterloo a Russian army of 150,000 men had just reached the Rhine and Karl von Toll had just arrived in Belgium to coordinate operations with Wellington and Blücher.Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814
At Waterloo and in the weeks that followed, Napoleon had to do more than defeat Wellington and the other armies that were on their way. He would have had to unravel an entire peace already set in place by the Allies a year earlier, as Lieven notes:
…by the time Napoleon re-established himself in Paris in 1815 the allies had achieved agreement on the peace settlement and were united in their determination not to let him unravel it. That made his defeat nearly certain. In June 1815 Napoleon had to risk everything by trying to destroy Wellington’s and Blücher’s armies before the main allied armies could intervene. He knew that even if he succeeded in doing this, he still faced probable defeat at the hands of the massive Russian, Austrian and Prussian forces already approaching France’s borders.
“Les Misérables” is completely transporting as a novel, but Hugo as a historian is less persuasive.
It was an important question then, and it always is: how are despots and would-be tyrants stopped? How and why do they fall?
Hugo writes that on the eve of Waterloo —
Napoleon had been denounced in the realms of the infinite and his downfall had been decided. He was an inconvenience to God.
Maybe Napoleon was denounced in the infinite, but it was because he was denounced and resisted in the realms of the finite, too, that he fell.
My son and I rewatched this program about Waterloo:
That short documentary did not make clear exactly how Napoleon lost the battle, so I opened up the question with my son and we had a brief discussion about it, knocking about a few ideas. Drawing on what I read in Lieven’s book, I told him that traditionally the British had always given Wellington most of the credit for beating Napoleon but that only recently have they fully acknowledged the crucial role played that day by the Prussian army under Blücher. I said to my son that Napoleon was really defeated by two armies, not one: a fight that in some online video games is known as 2-V-1. That’s when my son replied, “Yeah, because he was poggers.”
I think Victor Hugo would have been happy to hear that.