Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise and fall are one of the most spectacular in recorded history. The French general and statesman turned self-appointed emperor revolutionized the nation’s military, legal and educational institutions. But after some of his most audacious expansionist campaigns failed, he was forced to abdicate and was ultimately exiled in disgrace.
What propelled Napoleon upward—transcendent genius, vaulting ambition, destiny? What brought him down—power craze, hubris, fate? Or is the answer more prosaic?
A close look behind the heroic portraits and beneath the gorgeous uniforms reveals some surprising things about the great little man. (He was small.) Perhaps most striking? The number of complexes he suffered from, including class inferiority, money insecurity, intellectual envy, sexual anxiety, social awkwardness and, not surprisingly, a persistent hypersensitivity to criticism. Taken in whole, these traits drove his stark ambition, undermined his grandiose endeavors—and ultimately crippled his historic legacy.
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‘Determined to climb’
Napoleon Bonaparte was born into a family that counted itself among the elite of the port city of Ajaccio in France’s island territory of Corsica. But they were far from rich and lived frugally, crammed into a few rooms in a decrepit house. His father, a crashing snob, managed to obtain noble status and had far-reaching ambitions for his sons. But Napoleon could not help being ashamed of him, later admitting he found him ‘a little too fond of the ridiculous gentility of the times.’
Still, he too was determined to climb.
He became brutally aware of social barriers when, at the age of nine, he left home and entered the military academy at Brienne in northern France. His foreign origins, atrocious French (he had grown up speaking a Corsican Italian patois) and dubious noble status laid him open to the taunts of his schoolmates.
Although he did make a few friends—and could be remarkably open with children or simple soldiers and servants—Napoleon continued throughout his life to distance himself from those around him with a prickly defensive arrogance.
The sense of being on his own against the world spurred him to show that he could outsmart others. While working hard to excel in his career as an artillery officer, he read voraciously and even tried his hand (not very successfully) at writing philosophical and political essays—and even novels. When, in 1797, he was elected to the French Institute, he liked to impress its members with learned discourse on every subject from music to science. Later, at Erfurt in 1808, he would take time off negotiations with the Czar of Russia to dazzle Goethe with his knowledge.
Chasing dirty lucre
He welcomed the outbreak of the French Revolution in July 1789, when he was a month short of his 20th birthday—not just because he was a republican, but also because by removing class barriers it opened up new prospects politically and personally. But when he found himself in revolutionary Paris five years later, 26-year-old general Napoleon faced an alarming world governed by two things he had never had much experience of: money and sex.
He was horrified by the free-for-all that followed the end of the so-called Reign of Terror, when speculators chased fortunes in a fevered economic climate. Napoleon reviled their behavior, yet couldn’t resist joining in. When his father died in 1785, he had left only debts, leaving Napoleon to support his mother and seven siblings, principally on his officer’s pay.
The lure of making money briefly eclipsed his military ambitions as he speculated on buying and selling the properties of émigré or guillotined nobles, and importing often-smuggled luxuries such as coffee, sugar and silk stockings. Although his dislike of what he called “men of business” never left him, neither did his determination never to be short of ready cash. When he came to power he always had with him a cassette of gold coins. He also saw money as the key to achieving the goals he set himself, creating new institutions and building public works.
During his first campaign in 1796-7, in which he and his army stripped Italy of everything, down to its art treasures, he discovered war could be profitable. Thereafter he made sure that every campaign made a profit. It was the two that did not—his Spanish venture and the invasion of Russia in 1812—that were to prove his undoing.
A distrust of sex
The other thing that unnerved him in revolutionary Paris was the sexual license that accompanied the relief following the end of the Terror. His own sexual experience was desolate, and his attitude defensively puritan. At military school he had complained the authorities did not do enough to protect them from “depravity,” and attacked a friend who was homosexual. He first had sex at 18, with a prostitute, and the next morning he wrote up the experience as though it had been a scientific experiment. He would later write “A dialogue on the nature of love,” arguing that it was “a mere sensation” that was actually “harmful to society.”
It was only when he had been set up with Josephine, an accomplished courtesan six years his senior, that he discovered the joys of sex and thought he had gone to heaven. He married her, but she cheated on him outrageously, which only confirmed his original attitude. He would enshrine his view of women and sex as potentially disruptive in his greatest work, the Code Napoléon, setting strict limits on their freedom of action. The conviction that women needed to be controlled would also only have confirmed him in his urge to micromanage and control all human activity.
Fear of being perceived as weak
His sexual insecurity and distrust of women only deepened his unwillingness or inability to engage with others, hampering his diplomatic relations, which he saw as showdowns in which he had to be seen to win. He could never see that a judicious concession might win him greater advantages; had he prolonged the peace of Amiens by allowing Britain to keep Malta in 1803, for example, he could have used the respite to reinforce his position, rebuild France’s economy and his navy.
The combination of this fear of being seen as weak in negotiations with his desire to extract as much money from the defeated party meant that every treaty he ever made left the other side hungry for revenge. He drove such a hard and humiliating bargain with Austria in 1805 after Austerlitz that the Austrians were bound to try and retrieve some of their lost provinces, and they made war again in 1809. Although he defeated them again and imposed an even harsher peace on them, the episode had prevented him from pacifying Spain, with fatal consequences—and it meant Austria would participate in his downfall.
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Scrambling to keep up with nobles
As appalled as he was by Josephine’s promiscuity, Napoleon was entranced by her supposedly aristocratic background. He would be even more excited by that of his second wife, the Austrian archduchess Marie-Louise. As she was a great-niece of the late Marie-Antoinette, he would refer to his ‘uncle’ king Louis XVI and reveled in the fact that his father-in-law was the Emperor of Austria.
By then Napoleon was master of Europe, having crowned himself Emperor and placed several of his siblings on thrones. But while he derived satisfaction from associating with older royals and forcing them to marry members of his family, he remained pathetically aware that they secretly despised him as a commoner.
This profoundly affected his behavior and his policy, and goes a long way to explaining its disastrous course. “Don’t you see,” he explained to his family, “that I was not born on the throne, that I have to maintain myself on it in the same way I ascended it, with glory, that an individual who becomes a sovereign like me cannot stop, that he has to keep climbing, and that he is lost if he stands still.”
Thin-skinned and prone to self-promotion
His ascent had begun in the spring of 1796, when he had been given command of the Army of Italy—a piteous, badly armed and underfed rabble. He knocked them into shape with a combination of victories and flattery, and sent false bulletins back to Paris inflating the importance of every skirmish, praising their bravery and suggesting his own brilliance. He needed to make the government believe he was indispensable, but he also felt a need to enhance his own prestige. Within months he managed to persuade his troops, the government and public opinion that he was an exceptional being.
He continued to build on this image so successfully that he could turn a less-than-glorious episode in Egypt into the stuff of legend and persuade many in France that he was the predestined savior of the nation. This enabled him to seize power and begin rebuilding France from the ruins of the Revolution.
But his innate insecurities made him acutely sensitive to any criticism. While Napoleon now wielded unprecedented power, he kept striving to build up his image, by censoring the press and eliminating those who spoke up in the legislative assemblies. He particularly raged at the British press, which published scurrilous articles dwelling on the lowly origins and bad behavior of his family, and at cartoonists such as Rowlandson who represented him as a buffoon, a slight which, with his limited sense of humor, struck deep.
The British government also supported plots that threatened not only Napoleon’s life, but the stability of the state he had constructed. It was this more than anything that led to his assumption of the imperial crown, although a desire to join the club of monarchs did play a part. Yet the higher he rose, the more he felt the need to bolster his image, by laying on the imperial splendor, which impressed nobody. With time, even his military triumphs had begun to bore his subjects.
While he was destroying the might of Austria, Russia and Prussia by his spectacular victories at Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland, he received reports from Paris that people were longing for an end to the fighting so they could get on with their lives. By then, his extraordinary luck, leading from triumph to triumph, had begun to make him believe his own propaganda, that he was the darling of destiny. Yet the aura of glory could not mask an underlying frailty.
WATCH: The Death of Napoleon
The need to show strength, at all costs
When Czar Alexander began to defy him, Napoleon felt so threatened that he gathered the greatest army the world had ever seen in an attempt to make him stand down. It did not, and the consequence was the ill-fated invasion of Russia. His ministers and marshals begged him to make peace on the best terms available, but he felt he could not.
While he was on the retreat from Moscow, a group of generals tried to seize power by announcing he had been killed in battle. The plot failed, but it revealed to Napoleon that his whole edifice of imperial glory had feet of clay. On hearing of his death, nobody reacted as they would have had he been a real monarch—by saying ‘the Emperor is dead, long live the Emperor’ and proclaiming his son’s accession to the throne.
This undermined his credibility in his own eyes. During the campaigns of 1813 and 1814, when he was fighting on three fronts against the whole of Europe, he repeatedly rejected the opportunity to make peace and save his throne, feeling he could not make the necessary concessions. “Your sovereigns, born on the throne, can afford to let themselves be beaten 20 times and still return to their capitals; I cannot, because I am a parvenu soldier,” he said to the Austrian chancellor Prince Metternich.
He went on fighting a battle that was long lost, desperate for a resounding victory he believed might redeem what, for all the bluster, was his irredeemably low self-esteem. Ironically, it was only after he had lost his throne and was even denied the courtesy of being addressed as a monarch by his British jailers on the island of Saint Helena, that he managed to recover this and project an image of grandeur in defeat that still fascinates people today.
Author and historian Adam Zamoyski has written more than a dozen books on European history, including the best-selling 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow and his recent acclaimed biography Napoleon: A Life.
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