Written by Daniel Sharp
In 2014, the historian Andrew Roberts published Napoleon the Great, a biography of the Emperor of the French which argued forcefully that he deserves the appellation Roberts gives him in the book’s title. This is, of course, a controversial position – Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most divisive figures in history. Some see him as a bloodthirsty tyrant and usurper, others as an authoritarian but essentially benign dictator who carried on, consolidated and spread many of the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. In fact, Roberts’s admiration for Napoleon is an unusual position for a staunch British conservative to take.
To discuss the question of how Napoleon should be remembered by history, the debating organisation Intelligence Squared hosted Roberts and the eminent freelance historian Adam Zamoyski to square off against one another in 2014. The debate was moderated by Jeremy Paxman and is available through the Intelligence Squared website or YouTube channel. For anyone who loves a good historical punch up – and I may be preaching to the converted here – the debate is a thoroughly good watch: two fine historical minds with almost completely opposite viewpoints on the life, career and achievements of Napoleon Bonaparte going up against one another.
Even if the debate were devoid of intellectual significance it would be a pleasure to watch two such entertaining men, with Paxman in the middle, debating. During the debate witty repartee abounded – the two opponents may well have disagreed vehemently, but they could laugh at the expense of themselves and each other. One humorous highlight came when Roberts tried to dispense with the myth of Napoleon’s shortness, only to come undone when he revealed that he was the exact height of Napoleon (and, while filming a BBC series based on his book, had secretly lain on Napoleon’s deathbed on St Helena which confirmed this fact).
Thus, this debate is well worth a watch for the entertainment value alone. More significantly, however, the debate was full of lively disputation and intellectual fizzle. Both Roberts and Zamoyski gave an opening presentation, followed by an exchange between the two, after which the audience could ask questions. Finally, both men gave a closing presentation and the audience’s vote was revealed.
The vote, calculated in an oddly convoluted way based on pre-debate opinions and how much swing towards a motion was achieved by the debaters, showed a -6 percent swing towards Zamoyski’s side – victory, then, considering the pre-debate results showing that a large slice of the audience was undecided, but nevertheless most of the audience was for Roberts’s motion.
As someone with an ardent interest and a certain admiration for Napoleon, I was of course biased towards Roberts from the beginning. Nonetheless Zamoyski made some good points, including the personal failings of Napoleon and his (to me, only occasional) bungling of affairs. However, I think his arguments remained outweighed by Robert’s view – that Napoleon was a military genius who won 46 out of 60 battles; that he consolidated the best parts of the French Revolutionary ideals; and that his spread of Enlightenment thought and rationalism greatly benefited Europe. This is not to say that Napoleon was perfect – far from it – but imperfection and failings, political or moral (some of which were awful), do not erase his significant achievements. Watch for yourself – and revel in the debate.
So, had I been in the audience to vote, I would have voted for the motion, not just from pre-existing bias but on the strength – in my opinion – of Roberts’s case. Napoleon the Great? Absolutely.