From the History Teachers at Music for History Lovers
Napoleon looms large in history, his charisma still captures us today. A talented and lucky general, his skill probally extended the wars of the French Revolution for almost 15 years. Wars that ended up being proportionally destructive more to Europe than either WWI or WWII. A number of reforms were made during his reign but they would have happened anyway if not as quickly. Today a symbol of the best of France but in fact a ruthless tyrant.
Hendrik van Loon catches the contrast nicely.
In short, when we study the character of the Emperor, we begin to understand those anxious British mothers who used to drive their children to bed with the threat that “Bonaparte, who ate little boys and girls for breakfast, would come and get them if they were not very good.” And yet, having said these many unpleasant things about this strange tyrant, who looked after every other department of his army with the utmost care, but neglected the medical service, and who ruined his uniforms with Eau de Cologne because he could not stand the smell of his poor sweating soldiers; having said all these unpleasant things and being fully prepared to add many more, I must confess to a certain lurking feeling of doubt.
Here I am sitting at a comfortable table loaded heavily with books, with one eye on my typewriter and the other on Licorice the cat, who has a great fondness for carbon paper, and I am telling you that the Emperor Napoleon was a most contemptible person. But should I happen to look out of the window, down upon Seventh Avenue, and should the endless procession of trucks and carts come to a sudden halt, and should I hear the sound of the heavy drums and see the little man on his white horse in his old and much-worn green uniform, then I don’t know, but I am afraid that I would leave my books and the kitten and my home and everything else to follow him wherever he cared to lead. My own grandfather did this and Heaven knows he was not born to be a hero. Millions of other people’s grandfathers did it. They received no reward, but they expected none. They cheerfully gave legs and arms and lives to serve this foreigner, who took them a thousand miles away from their homes and marched them into a barrage of Russian or English or Spanish or Italian or Austrian cannon and stared quietly into space while they were rolling in the agony of death.
. . . I can explain in a few words why he was so successful during the first part of his career and why he failed during the last ten years. From the year 1789 until the year 1804, Napoleon was the great leader of the French revolution. He was not merely fighting for the glory of his own name. He defeated Austria and Italy and England and Russia because he, himself, and his soldiers were the apostles of the new creed of “Liberty, Fraternity and Equality” and were the enemies of the courts while they were the friends of the people.
But in the year 1804, Napoleon made himself Hereditary Emperor of the French . . .
Once upon the throne, the old revolutionary chieftain became an unsuccessful imitation of a Habsburg monarch. He forgot his spiritual Mother, the Political Club of the Jacobins. He ceased to be the defender of the oppressed. He became the chief of all the oppressors and kept his shooting squads ready to execute those who dared to oppose his imperial will.
But if you want an explanation of this strange career, if you really wish to know how one man could possibly rule so many people for so many years by the sheer force of his will, do not read the books that have been written about him. Their authors either hated the Emperor or loved him. You will learn many facts, but it is more important to “feel history" than to know it. Don’t read, but wait until you have a chance to hear a good artist sing the song called “The Two Grenadiers." The words were written by Heine, the great German poet who lived through the Napoleonic era. The music was composed by Schumann, a German who saw the Emperor, the enemy of his country, whenever he came to visit his imperial father-in-law. The song therefore is the work of two men who had every reason to hate the tyrant.
Go and hear it. Then you will understand what a thousand volumes could not possibly tell you.
The Story of Mankind
Hendrik van Loon
Presented by Authorama Public Domain Books, Originally published 1921
HT: Jerry Pournelle
The Two Grenadiers.
Update 7/7/11 changed the title to go better with the videos.
8/23/22 added middle section to quote.