Napoleon’s genius lay in the creation of his own myth
“Napoleon dominated the imagination of the 19th century to an even greater extent than Hitler dominated that of the 20th”1. Historians such as Goethe have gone as far to claim “his life was the stride of the demigod”2. The central debate must be then are these perceptions of ‘greatness’ justified due to Napoleons military achievements or are they a product of Napoleonic propaganda and his ability to create a sustainable myth that would surround him throughout his career and infiltrate into the centuries to come. I will argue that Napoleon saw image and perception essential to his process of centralising power and gaining complete control of France and eventually Europe, so therefore his genius inevitability lay in his ability to master the art of propaganda.
While image and the manipulation of media sources are a common feature of twentieth century society, this was not the case when Napoleon was actively seeking to gain political supremacy in France. “Napoleon Bonoparte was the first non-monarch to realise the limitless possibilities of propaganda”3. Napoleons rise to power in France was unparalleled and “from as early as 1796, Bonaparte actively fostered the creation of his public image, transforming an unknown Corsican general into a political force
Napoleon had created a propaganda structure during the Italian campaign of 1796 and then built upon this “through conscious manipulation of dispatches, correspondence, medallions and especially of the press, Napoleon created for himself the image of revolutionary hero5”. It was his ability to exaggerate his successes and taking advantage of every opportunity to keep his name associated with victorious and heroic action. Napoleon owned two influential newspapers at this time the l’armie d’Italie and La France Vue De L’Armee and “without these news sheets, Napoleon might not have returned from Italy so overwhelmingly famous”6. These papers largely reached the different classes of French society and relayed the events of the Italian campaign back to them, but from the perspective of Napoleonic dominance.
Napoleons style was often unique and focusing on his 14 April 1796 dispatch “one discovers that Bonoparte’s talent for dramatic and descriptive writing lay in emphasising the decisive nature of his victories”7. His style was simple, it was forceful, dramatic and achieved its purpose of gaining the attention of the French public.
It was not just the use of the popular press that enabled Napoleon to return from Italy so overwhelmingly popular amongst the French public. “Napoleon supplemented his efforts by carefully timing the arrival of his captured art or “trophies of conquest”8. This essentially acted to amplify his successes and prolong public attention to his military triumph.
“Napoleons combined propagandist efforts produced for the French public not only the image of a seemingly invincible general and a peacemaker, but also that of a man of cultural refinement and intellect. Essentially a universal man to whom nothing was impossible”9. To a great extent it was the fostering of this image that made possible the coup d’etat of 18-19 Brumaire. “No one would deny the significance of Napoleons military victories in making possible the overthrow of the Directory; but his skill in presenting these victories in the most variable manner, and particularly in creating the impression of his own personal responsibility for them, was essential for success as the victories themselves”10.
Once Napoleon achieved political dominance in France what becomes evident is his need or desire to take total control of the direction and content of his propaganda activies, and essentially be in complete control of his own myth. “Napoleon planned, wrote, produced and organised. Hence every action of his had a vigorous indelible stamp”11. Francois Furet has argued that Napoleon left no one else the task of publicising him. His dispatches his proclamations and all correspondence with the directory all reveal a great talent for getting himself noticed by himself and no one else.
The centralisation of political authority and military leadership in the hands of one man gave him unusual tactical advantage in the distribution of pro Napoleon material. “But where the immense skill of Napoleon is evident was his meticulous supervision of every phase of the composition and distribution of war news”12. Napoleon himself wrote, or at least edited all the main bulletins of the Grand Army, and there is little evidence of polishing or other alterations in the accounts by anyone else.
Napoleon refused to delegate tasks relating to the publication of items that would influence the French public and their perceptions of him. “In part this arose from his infinite capacity to command the wide canvas of his empire in terms of policy and of detailed administration, in part it was due to his refusal to acknowledge the need for help or to brook a possible rival”13. The main benefit Napoleon enjoyed as a result of his personal style over all wartime literature was the great inspiration it brought to his soldiers who served in his great armies. Large numbers felt motivated by this and it is no wonder that the old guard stayed faithful to the end. However the disregard for help or a delegation of tasks led to Napoleons administration having a weak ministry and a distinct lack of central staff that was to hinder him in the future as his span of control widened over Europe.
As well as controlling the content and volume of materials during wartime periods, Napoleon ensured the precise timing of the materials and the manner in which they were to be published. Strict instructions were sent to officials as “the proper timing of news for the best possible effect was a point to which Napoleon gave careful attention”14. If it were impossible to shut out other accounts of battles he would ensure his version of a particular battle arrived first. This meticulous planning and management of publications was to prove never more important to Napoleon in the final bulletin of the Russian campaign. “The emperor was extremely anxious to have the bulletin arrive in Paris just long enough before his own return to permit excitement over his defeat to die down but not long enough to encourage anti-imperial intrigue”15. This essentially is where the very core of Napoleons genius lay, as even in defeat he was able to manipulate an event into his favour.
While unfavourable news or even counter propaganda was often masterfully blocked by Napoleon, it has to be said that the amount of anti-Napoleonic material was limited due to the failings of opposition within France and Europe. The British made the biggest attempt to release counter propaganda, which was designed to minimise the popularity of Napoleon. However they were handicapped on several fronts as “not only was the control of most of the European press in the hands of Napoleon for the greater part of a decade and a half, but the British had relatively little in the way of victorious news to export”16. The majority of victories were Napoleon’s and this left the British playing a constant game of catch up, as they were reduced to the tiresome and unpalatable task of endlessly minimising the extent of the emperor’s victories.
The main opposition to Napoleon were also faced with the complex problem of how to infiltrate their views into any of the classes in French society. Whereas many other absolute leaders or dictators have neglected or subjected particular pockets of society to ill treatment, this was not the case in Napoleonic France. Indeed “Bonoparte’s cabinet brought itself into daily contact with all the classes of society”17. This played a detrimental role in creating the Napoleonic myth as no pocket of society was neglected or left open for opposition gains.