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.
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.