Napoleon: A Classic Dictator?

Laurent Joffrin looks at the paradoxes surrounding a man who has fascinated the French for two hundred years.

The more closely you look at the myth, the more the paradoxes mount. Napoleon was heir to the Age of the Enlightenment yet held his people in an iron grip; he was the guardian of the Revolution yet founded a dynasty. He was a despot who remains a hero to republican France.

Napoleon regarded the whole world as a theatre in which he was simultaneously playwright, actor, director – even financial backer. To him, Europe was a building site in which he was demolition expert, architect and stonemason. He saw other people as instruments of his visions – and the higher he rose, the greater those visions became.

He was also the epitome of a modern dictator the world over. He showed this in the way he imposed his will on any situation, in his charisma, in his reason, in his conviction, in his brutality, in his firm resolve to tame and to conquer, in his equally fierce determination to build, to transform, to create, in his innate sense of action, in his outrageously grand schemes and in his attention to the tiniest details. Put together, these traits made for tumult on a continental scale, and they resulted both in the fulfilment of some of the grandest ambitions ever seen, and in the most widespread destruction Europe was to experience before the twentieth century.

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