On June 16, 1815, the dreams of one Frenchman came to an end on the bloodstained battlefield of Waterloo. Napoleon Bonaparte, once Europe’s most feared ruler, was defeated and would eventually surrender, to a life in exile on the island of St Helena.
But was this the ignominious loss of a power-hungry conqueror or the tragic ending of a national hero?
Malaysians generally get their information on world history from British or American media, which explains why most people regard Napoleon as a military dictator.
He tends to be associated with short people, despite the fact he was of average height at the time. The term “little Napoleon” is often used to describe self-important officials whose egos outstrip their status.
Like most things, the legacies of historical figures are complicated. History, they say, is written by the victors, so how they are judged can depend on which side is writing it.
Napoleon’s rise to power would not have been possible without the French Revolution of 1789. The execution of King Louis XVI outraged monarchs all over Europe and they attacked the new republic.
Napoleon was an ardent supporter of the Revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood, but quickly grew disillusioned with the republic’s incompetent rulers.
The government was unstable and France needed strong leadership.
It is likely that Napoleon saw himself as the only person able to give France a fighting chance so, in 1799, he overthrew the government and declared himself Consul of France.
There is a certain irony to a king being overthrown only to be replaced by a man who would later declare himself emperor, in 1804.
To legitimise his rule, Napoleon’s powers were derived from a constitution, which he himself dictated. But by this point, the French people were tired of the chaos and death of the Revolution, so they were more than happy to have a more stable government under Napoleon.
The citizens approved his elevation by an overwhelming majority in a constitutional referendum.
While he is better known as a military leader, Napoleon was also a capable administrator, introducing a legal system still in use in France today, called the Napoleonic code.
He protected religious freedom and promoted meritocracy and equality for men in the eyes of the law.
However, he reversed the rights that were given to women during the Revolution and reversed the abolition of slavery in French colonies. In his eyes, equality applied only to some people, not all.
History has it that Napoleon was an expansionist military conqueror who invaded other countries because he wanted to extend his control but this is not entirely accurate.
Many of his wars were defensive, with a coalition of European powers attempting to bring down the “upstart” Napoleon.
He was an experienced general and he knew that the best defence was a good offence; a strategy that brought him victory after victory.
To this day, Napoleon’s tactics and strategies are studied in military colleges, a testament to his military genius.
However, no matter how glorious he and his enemies tried to paint their battles, the human cost cannot be denied.
Some five million lives were lost during the conflicts known as the Napoleonic Wars, with many parts of Europe left devastated.
But Napoleon’s influence had some positive effects as well as liberal and democratic ideals spread throughout the continent.
Germany and Italy, previously existing in the form of dozens of small states, were united under Napoleon’s banner for the first time. And even after his defeat, the Germans and Italians came to realise that unification was worth working towards.
The French Revolution’s ideals spread throughout Europe, with people demanding more civil rights and in some places, such as Greece and Romania, independence from the Ottoman Empire.
Napoleon’s life was one of contradictions, He defended a revolution that overthrew a king and became an emperor while the ideals of freedom and justice were spread by the death and destruction of his wars.
Whatever one may think of Napoleon, hero or monster, there is no denying that he has left his mark.