Napoleon Killed Loads of Innocent People and this Surprises Some

by Scott Manning on October 22, 2012

The French are shocked, SHOCKED, that Napoleon could be responsible for killing so many innocent people in such a Hitler-esque fashion. French historian Claude Ribbe believes Napoleon was racist, instituted slavery, and was the first man in history that “asked himself rationally the question how to eliminate, in as short a time as possible, and with a minimum of cost and personnel, a maximum of people described as scientifically inferior.”

The latter is true if you exclude every other conqueror in history. Anyone who has read a book on Napoleon’s conquests, or the conquests of any great conqueror, has found numerous tales of bloodletting outside of battle.

Scott and Napoleon

R. J. Rummel twisted an old phrase, “Power kills; absolute power kills absolutely.”1 To prove his point, he wrote volumes of works, documenting the reigns of dictators from the twentieth-century, focusing on how many people died because of their policies. If we can believe Rummel’s maxim and his data, then it should not be news to us that Napoleon’s rule was responsible for massacres and even genocide-like atrocities outside of the battlefield.

For example, massacres solidified an insurgency in Spain that drained his forces for much of his reign. Every Napoleonic historian knows this. Yet, what seems to have the French suddenly turning away from one of the greatest commanders in history is use of gas to kill Haitians. The Daily Mail reports, “Top politicians backed out of official ceremonies to mark what was possibly Napoleon’s greatest victory, the battle of Austerlitz, when Napoleon’s Grande Armee defeated the combined armies of Austria and Russia in just six hours, killing 19,000 of their adversaries.” Austerlitz was Napoleon’s greatest victory among a slew of others that war colleges still study and dissect. The sudden re-discovery of killings outside the battlefield does not take away from the greatness of that battle.

We should also remind ourselves that any conquering ruler in history has atrocities to his name. Hitler is the obvious comparison, but Stalin and Mao killed far more than Hitler did. Historians typically list Napoleon alongside conquerors like Genghis Khan, Caesar, and Alexander the Great. Genghis and his sons were responsible for killing millions throughout China and modern-day Iran. Read about the Mongol sacking of any city and see if you can justify that Napoleon was the first to ponder the question on how to kill many people in a short amount of time, as Ribbe claims. Caesar and Alexander have at least one million dead each to their names. Keep in mind that these men were killing without our modern-day capabilities.

None of this is meant to justify Napoleon’s atrocities, but it should demonstrate that it is not uncommon for a conqueror with immense power to kill loads of people.

It is tantalizing to the imagination to look at maps with wonder as we trace the paths of conquest of these men, but we should never forget that regardless of their ethnicity, period, or technology, conquering men with absolute power kill absolutely. Do not let it surprise you.

Footnotes

  1. R. J. Rummel, Death by Government (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2000), 1. []

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jason October 23, 2012 at 1:53 PM

it should be obvious that we should stop idolizing great people from the past. what made them great back then likely overshadowed their lesser qualities. Napoleon is overrated anyway. he lost. Wellington won.

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2 Dev99 October 23, 2012 at 1:55 PM

Is there any real evidence that Hitler even knew of Napoleon’s gas attacks? Or is that connection just the historian’s conjecture? I love unqualified and unidentified conjecture!

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3 JL July 9, 2013 at 8:46 AM

I’m French, and even Corsican… and I can assure you that I’m not shocked !
I’d recommend everyone to read André Malraux’ book, ‘Mémoires de Napoléon’, which is not of course memories from Napoleon himself, but a smart selection within the huge amount of letters that he wrote.

It shows well the drift from some sort of rational and high-level, albeit theoritical, vision from the early Directoire days, to the madness of the ending. After Waterloo, with 100,000s English and Russian troops running behind him, he still writes dozens of letters by night to his surviving generals to try and gather some hundreds of retired veterans and kids, to defend Paris and win. This may remind the exact same attitude, in similar circumstances, of a more recent dictator in Germany.

Thanks for the interesting blog !

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4 Scott Manning July 9, 2013 at 9:55 AM

JL, thank you for the interesting perspective on Napoleon, especially after Waterloo. I’ve been fortunate to travel out there several times and adding the concept that he was still trying to win after the defeat adds more to the man.

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5 JL July 9, 2013 at 5:26 PM

If I dare add another comment, Napoleon, here in France, is sometimes famed as a genious of strategy. Although he was a true genious in tactics, logistics and morale management, he never grasped the simple fact that he was in a strategic dead-end from the first day. He was in the typical situation where one has to win all the battles, whereas the opponents only have to win one (or a very small number of successive battles) to win the whole conflict.

He never grasped this very simple strategic fact, probably due to his quite early obsession to unite Europe around his country, and the conviction that European peoples would embrace this idea instead of preferring their independance – even under the rule of old-fashioned kings and princes.

Another short and humble comment : the difference between his reputation as a strategist and the reality th

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6 JL July 9, 2013 at 5:30 PM

… (sorry, continued) the reality that he was more a tactician / logistician is comparable to that of the German army in WWII :
- need to win all the battles
- unability to grasp the higher-level reality of an industrial war

Wheras the Soviet army, as clueless as it was in logistics and tactics, had a much superior strategic and operational doctrine that probably had a huge role in their final victory.

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