Who Was Napoleon Bonaparte?
Top 10 Facts About Napoleon Bonaparte
These broad strokes of Napoleon’s life can be gleaned from any biography, but what of the small details, the personality quirks, the misunderstandings, and legends forged and fabricated over time? From a fervent hatred of France to strange parallels with Hitler, here are the top ten things you need to know about Napoleon.
10. Napoleon Used To Really Hate France
Although he would eventually become the highest-ranking official of the country, Napoleon began his life as the Corsican Napoleone di Buonaparte. He was born on August 15, 1769 in Ajaccio, the capital of the island Corsica. The year before, Corsica had just been won by the French over the Republic of Genoa. As Napoleon grew, his nation withered and suffered, oppressed by bloody French hands. Although his father adopted French customs easily, Napoleon maintained strong ties to his roots. Even though he studied in the French language, he spoke with a proud Corsican accent and spelled French words poorly. Even by the time of his death, he had a considerably weak grasp of French. Among French aristocratic children and British expats, Napoleon was the only unsophisticated Corsican boy at his school. As a young man, he described the fall of Corsica as follows:
Thirty thousand Frenchmen were vomited on our shores, drowning the throne of liberty in waves of blood. Such was the odious sight which was the first to strike me.
As a passionate Corsican nationalist, Napoleon fought against the French with the Corsican militia. Despite being a lieutenant in the French army, Napoleon took sick leaves just to work in the Corsican independence movement. Unfortunately, disagreements with Corsica’s governor Pasquale Paoli resulted in Napoleon’s banishment from his own home, his family deemed traitorous and condemned to never return. It wasn’t until his twenties that Napoleon adopted the French name of Napoléon Bonaparte.
9. France Isn’t So Sure How To Feel About Him, Either
Napoleon conquered much of Europe as the Emperor of the French, dominating and diminishing rival nations. French history books devote at least a week to study of Napoleon in all levels of instruction.
The first sentence is true, the second not so much. In fact, French views of Napoleon range from the heroic to the villainous, to dark legends of the “Corsican Ogre” to fantastical stories of an epic leader. To this day, the French are like the rest of the world: unsure of whether to compare Napoleon to great leaders of our time or horrific despots on the level of Stalin and Hitler, both of whom he has been compared to fairly or unfairly.
The French do not celebrate any Napoleonic anniversaries. In Paris, there are a grand total of two statues of the conqueror. There are no large squares named after him, only one measly and narrow street, Rue Bonaparte.
Why such disdain, or at the very least, ambivalence? For one, Napoleon is not a politically correct figure. Although he brought France to glory, he is also credited with its eventual occupation, domination, and detestability in the eyes of other nations. Sure, he won a lot of battles, but he lost too many. He may have become Emperor due to legitimate votes with a staggering 99.9% majority, but with that win he created an aristocracy which ultimately rejected democracy. Despite a legacy for liberal reforms, he failed to implement many of his promises, allowing the rich to avoid enlistment in the army and reintroducing slavery.
Although he was charming, fascinating, and in many ways successful, not all of the French are convinced his greatness is worth celebrating.
8. Contrary To What You May Think, He Wasn’t That Short
Thanks to British propaganda, many came to believe that Napoleon was a short man with a fiery temper to make up for it. Rumored to be as short as 5 ft 2 in, Napoleon was in fact as tall as 5 ft 6 in, akin to the average height at that time. His apparent shortness was a result of being surrounded by the tallest of soldiers, the Imperial Guard. Still, the height issue was so strong in the eyes of the public that a derogatory psychological condition came to be named after him: the Napoleon complex.
Also known as the short man syndrome, the Napoleon complex describes the condition of short-statured men and women who act overly domineering or aggressive in order to compensate for the lack of an imposing height. People with the Napoleon complex can burst into argument, show off like male peacocks fanning their feathers, and exert excessive control over significant others and employees. The Napoleon complex can result in jealous personalities and insecurity that leads to imbalanced acts of showy narcissism.
Whereas those who are tall have more attractive partners, higher rankings at work, and more children, short people are forever attempting to make up for perceived shortcomings. Although it is generally believed that Napoleon suffered from such issues, driving him to invade and conquer, most likely height had nothing to do with it.
7. Napoleon Didn’t Like His Wife’s Name. So He Changed It
Napoleon may have not had a Napoleon complex, but he did have a habit of simply changing things he didn’t like. His wife’s name, for example. Before she met Napoleon, Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie went by the name of Rose. Because Napoleon disliked the name Rose and preferred Joséphine, she adopted the new name for the rest of her life. Well, a rose by any other name. But when Joséphine failed to bear an heir, Napoleon divorced her and remarried a woman named Maria-Louisa. That name, though, would not do. Napoleon renamed Maria as well, and she became Marie Louise. Although Marie succeeded in giving birth to a boy, their son only had the chance to rule France for two weeks.
Despite his domineering nature, Napoleon had many lovers in his life. He is the author of a romantic novella Clisson et Eugénie, available in all major bookstores, which lightly fictionalizes his romance with a woman he was once engaged to. He wrote in-depth love letters both romantic and lusty, this one an excerpt from a letter to his first wife:
You must come back with him, you understand? — hopeless sorrow, inconsolable misery, sadness without end, if I am so unhappy as to see him return alone. Adorable friend, he will see you, he will breathe in your temple; perhaps you will even grant him the unique and perfect favor of kissing your cheek, and I shall be alone and far, far away. But you are coming, aren’t you? You are going to be here beside me, in my arms, on my breast, on my mouth? Take wing and come, come!
A kiss on your heart, and one much lower down, much lower!
Although Napoleon had many lovers in his life, it seemed power was his closest and most loved mistress.
6. He Hardly Slept A Wink
How much sleep do you need? Supposedly Napoleon claimed, “Six for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool!” Like Benjamin Franklin, Martha Stewart, Bill Clinton and many other high-achievers, Napoleon got by on six hours or less regularly. He had a near superhuman ability to doze and wake at his own will, sometimes napping just before major battles as soundly as a baby in swaddling. According to many accounts, all he needed to be fully energized was a brief nap. Others say he often skipped nights’ worth of sleep with ease.
As Napoleon himself said, “Different subjects and different affairs are arranged in my head as in a cupboard. When I wish to interrupt one train of thought, I shut that drawer and open another. Do I wish to sleep, I simply close all the drawers and then I am—asleep.”
Then again, the lack of sleep could have had other origins. What may be deemed a particularly strong ability to skip out on sleep may also be phrased as major insomnia caused by stress and too much coffee.
5. He Had A Really Pretty Pair Of Hands
Famous portraits of Napoleon traditionally show him with his hand in his pocket. Rumors range as to why this may have been: did he have a skin disease, breast cancer or stomach ulcers, deformities to hide? In truth, this hand-in-waistcoat pose was popular in much of eighteenth-century portraiture.
On the other hand, Napoleon may have been protecting his beautiful, delicate, neatly-manicured hands. According to many accounts of the ruler, Napoleon had gorgeous, near-perfect hands.
Betsy Balcombe, a friend of Napoleon’s during his exile on St. Helena, described them as follows:
His hand was the fattest and prettiest in the world; his knuckles dimpled like those of a baby, his fingers taper and beautifully formed, and his nails perfect.
Betsy wasn’t his only admirer. His valet claimed he never wore gloves, and for good reason. His hands were absolutely perfect, in a very feminine way.
Apparently, Napoleon was well-aware of just how perfect his hands were, as he was often described as openly admiring them while speaking to others, marveling at their beauty unembarrassedly. It is rumored that Napoleon considered them to be his most beautiful feature.
4. Napoleon Had A Penchant For Pinching People
It turns out Napoleon had a special use for his pretty paws: he loved pinching people. Louis Constant Wairy, Napoleon’s valet of nearly fifteen years, wrote in-depth of Napoleon’s strange but playful habit:
[H]e squeezed very roughly…he pinched hardest when he was in the best humor. Sometimes, as I was entering his room to dress him, he would rush at me like a madman, and while saluting me with his favorite greeting: ‘Eh bien, monsieur le drôle?’ would pinch both ears at once in a way to make me cry out; it was not even rare for him to add to these soft caresses one or two slaps very well laid on; I was sure then of finding him in a charming humor all the rest of the day, and full of benevolence. Roustan, and even Marshal Berthier, Prince de Neufchâtel, received their own good share of these imperial marks of affection; I have frequently seen them with their cheeks all red and their eyes almost weeping.
These surprise pinches were not limited to the ears of his servants. Napoleon was also said to pinch lovers and even babies on the nose and chin.
3. He Was Superbly Superstitious
As Baron Meneval observed in his Memories of Napoleon I,
It is commonly believed that great men are superstitious. The masses are superstitious themselves, and assume that mighty deeds can be accomplished only by supernatural means; while others cannot forgive great men in their superiority, so love to ascribe to them belittling human weaknesses.
Although Napoleon believed you had to be a fool to sleep in, he had no problem believing in and acting on many superstitions. True to his Corsican roots, Napoleon took stories of ghosts, vampires, and other strange creatures very seriously. He believed deeply in omens, had a nurse chant protective incantations, and carried good luck charms.
Specifically, Napoleon believed his late uncle guarded over him, protecting his higher destiny. Whereas Napoleon held little awe for the Almighty, he believed firmly in the power of this guardian angel who watched him and guided him from Heaven’s clouds.
Others also provided Napoleon with the good luck that guided him to victory in battle and the political sphere. He carried a mini-portrait of his wife Joséphine as his talisman, careful to keep it undamaged and intact, as a damaged photograph would bring illness and failure. He also firmly believed in the wisdom of the stars, claiming that one star in particular was his and guided him towards good luck.
While the modern temptation is to consider strong superstition one of Napoleon’s weaknesses, his successes speak for themselves. Perhaps there is a reason many greats hold onto such out-there, magical beliefs.
2. He Wasn’t A Fan Of Jesus, But Religion Was Okay.
He may have believed in a lucky star, but he didn’t put much faith in Christianity. Napoleon was baptized and raised by religious adherents. He had a special place in his heart for Catholicism due to its beautiful rituals and moral order. He even considered organized religion in general to be a practical and powerful means for control of the masses. That was where his respect for religion ended: its ability to give those who used it power and control. Deep-down, Napoleon did not believe in a God that was entrenched in the everyday life of his followers. If he believed in any god, it was a distant and cold god. As he said himself,
It is by making myself Catholic that I brought peace to Brittany and Vendée. It is by making myself Italian that I won minds in Italy. It is by making myself a Moslem that I established myself in Egypt. If I governed a nation of Jews, I should reestablish the Temple of Solomon.
Interestingly, Napoleon seemed to have more praise for Mohammad than for Jesus, expressing remarkably modern views on the origin of man and the realities of religious myth. In a fashion similar to Richard Dawkins’, Napoleon claimed it was difficult to believe in the divinity of Christ if it meant that philosophers such as Socrates and Plato and other religious people such as Muslims and Anglicans would be condemned to hell for choosing the “wrong” philosophy or religion.
1. He And Hitler Had More Than Military And Political Prowess In Common.
Napoleon and Hitler have been compared in book-length manuscripts. Both gained power in a time of European upheavals, taking advantage of democratic republics in order to become eventual dictators. Both invaded large portions of Europe and North Africa only to fail in invading Russia due to difficult winter conditions. Both failures were turning points which led to their demise. Napoleon was an outsider, a Corsican in France, and Hitler was an Austrian in Germany. These similarities are interesting, but it is the similarities between Napoleon and Hitler’s timelines that would make any conspiracy theorist shiver with excitement:
Napoleon was born in 1760 and Hitler was born in 1889. This is a difference of 129 years. Napoleon came into power in 1804 when he became Emperor of the French. Hitler came into power in 1933 when he became the Reich Chancellor of Germany. Once again, this is a difference of 129 years. Both were forty-four years old. Later, at the age of fifty-two, they both attacked Russia in an overweening effort which would lead to their demise. Napoleon lost all power and was exiled in 1816. Hitler lost the war in 1945. Again, a difference of 129. Both were aged fifty-six.
History repeats itself, sometimes very clearly. Napoleon and Hitler had a remarkably high amount of historical and personal milestones occurring parallel to one another, each with a difference of 129 years.
The legacy of Napoleon is debated to this day, but his successes are inarguable: he won the majority of his battles and led France to dominate the European sphere for nearly twenty years. Although he began life with a different nationality, by the time of his death, Napoleon had become one of the most famous Frenchman in history. He moved from being a lowly Corsican lost and alone in France to the leader of a brilliant empire. During his career of warmongering and conquering, Bonaparte found time for numerous lovers and two wives. As the leader of the French Empire, Bonaparte took over Austria, formed numerous new alliances, fought Prussians and Russians, and organized an empire that swept across Europe. Although he fell into exile, Napoleon would go down in history: “Vive l’Empereur!”
While Napoleon’s power as a leader and political poise may be debated on end, his personality and charm continue to be celebrated regardless. Napoleon’s early hatred of France reflected his will and character, his fiery nationalism, and his loyalty to himself and his people. The only way Napoleon came to be known as a short man was due to the propaganda of those against him and his decision to surround himself by the largest and most powerful soldiers. Superstition, strict routines, and an ability to skip out necessities like regular sleep all led Napoleon to glory and esteem. Regardless of how many statues France choses to install of their former leader, Napoleon remains an interesting and unique personality for those of all nations to study and enjoy.