A power hungry, ruthless killer and the saviour of France all in one? The rumoured short ruler with a long legacy, Napoleon Bonaparte, is arguably one of the most uniquely influential historical figures in European history. From his savvy army tactics to his ability to control a country with just words, there is no doubt that Napoleon was a multipotential jack of all trades. Moreover, Napoleon’s actions have both benefited France and caused conflict. Historians have argued for years whether Napoleon was a Hero or Tyrant, but rightfully so, he should fit in both categories. Although he was able to stabilize France’s Economy, Government, Social and Religious aspects, he also ruled like a dictator and halted France’s development as a free republic. Was Napoleon really the saviour of France, or a tyrant in disguise-or, a mixture of both?
The French Revolution left France utter chaos. The economy and country were both spiraling downwards out of control, and the Directory was doing little to get the country in check. When Napoleon took power, he was able to rebuild France in around a year while also saving his country from being crushed by European monarchies. For example, Napoleon stabilized and modernized the French way of living by setting tariffs on imports and stabilizing currency, all the while creating more jobs for the French people and lowering food costs. A new banking system was introduced to stabilize the economy, and France was slowly returning to peace. All French children were offered schooling, providing them with tools to help the future of themselves and their country, seemingly actions of a dutiful hero. Although Napoleon saved the French economy from crashing, he did this as a dictator, halting France’s development as a free republic. Harsh censorship rules were placed and all ideas against Napoleon were silenced. His strict, controlling dictator ruling style and disastrous campaigns rubbished key values of the French Revolution, and the nation who boldly overthrew the monarchy had to watch Napoleon crown himself. As the Emperor of France, did Napoleon’s actions reflect his love for his country or his power-hungry self?
Rule and Religion are some of the most important parts of history. Napoleon introduced one of the most important series of civil laws in his rule, and French history, the Napoleonic code, in 1804. Through this, citizenship, family and property were all standardized; Hereditary privilege was completely abolished, and all men were equalized under the law, but Napoleon completely eradicated women’s rights, not even sparing the already established rights women had during the French Revolution. Half the population was stripped of their freedom, something that was the key driving factor of the Revolution. As mentioned previously, Napoleon ruled as a dictator with absolute power, silencing free speech and publication. Furthermore, Napoleon jailed any dissidents and any voting taken place was always manipulated for the desired result, and his dictator control was strengthened through the private police, of which along with rigged elections, kept Napoleon in power. Contrastingly, Napoleon was also the one who gave freedom to the people through overthrowing the directory and mending catholic church relations, allowing the people of France to choose their own religion. Freedom, such an important aspect of life, was being bent and shaped in Napoleon’s hands, giving out and taking back just enough to ensure him power.
Considered a master of propaganda, Napoleon manipulated information to exalt himself while holding others accountable for his failures. Liberal ideas were spread throughout Europe by imperial wars and slavery was reinstated to French Colonies. Havoc overtook Europe as all countries feared they would end up like France, with an overthrown monarchy and oppressive ruler. Through his use of Propaganda and Nationalism, Napoleon assembled large armies, invading any country who disagreed with his ideas. Famously worshipped by his troops, Napoleon’s loyalty to them was not returned. During the Egyptian campaign, plague-stricken soldiers were poisoned, and in the Russian campaign, some 30,000 soldiers were abandoned while Napoleon returned a hero. Furthermore, Napoleon had no second thought about killing French citizens in order to remain in power, for instance, in 1795, he did not hesitate to down the Parisian mob with cannons. Even though he spread conflict, Napoleon’s wars spread new ideas and institutions throughout Europe, reforming European tradition and spreading democratic and liberal ideas throughout, directly influencing the development of Europe which can still be seen in current day. He looked beyond partition and ideological attributes and recognized exceptional skills and talents that could support his vision of France. As Napoleon once said, “I care only for people who are useful to me, and only so long as they are useful.” These words portray his selfishness and control, but he remained a shining knight in armor to the people of Paris.
What is a Tyrant? A Tyrant is someone who is a cruel and oppressive ruler, ruling with absolute power. What is a Hero? A hero is someone who is idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. As a hero to the people of France and a tyrant to absolutist monarchists and neighboring countries, Napoleon rightly fits into both categories of the spectrum, as he honoured some principles of the Revolution and betrayed others, gave the people of France some freedom, but ruled with an iron fist. As a hero, Napoleon created the Napoleonic code and rebuilt France. As a tyrant, Napoleon abolished women’s rights and ruled as an absolutist dictator. As both, he became one of the most influential figures in European history, living on as a Heroic Tyrant.
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