“Mugabe must go, and Mbeki must consider the blood on his hands that tarnishes his legacy.” points out Roger Cohen (Passages, NYT/IHT, July 2, 2008). Mugabe is the dictator of Zimbabwe, and Mbeki the president of South Africa. South Africa could get rid of Mugabe in 24 hours if it wanted (and the UN would approve). Ladislav Nemec (from California) then cogently commented that: “The French did not mind the catastrophe of Napoleonic wars and [Napoleon’s] tomb in Paris is very elaborate, indeed. Glorious days, many of them still believe. And it all happened some 200 years ago and, no doubt, the French consider themselves VERY smart.” (Passages).

This is an excellent and crucial observation about protesting against fascist dictatorships: as long as some fascist dictatorships are admired, why to discriminate against others? What’s good for France would be bad for Zimbabwe? Why?

Was Mugabe as bad for Zimbabwe as Napoleon was for Europe? Certainly not. Certainly Mugabe did not come out of his country and destroy most of Africa, as Napoleon did with most of Europe (from Portugal to Moscow).

Recently millions of French people, expressing a revelation that came belatedly, loudly voiced their view of Napoleon as the enslaver, murderer and dictator that he really was. In particular, French people of mixed African descent have taken note of Napoleon horribly racist slave policies. Napoleon was opposed in his times, and he thought smart to murder, or imprison to death, several of his opponents, in ignominious ways. In modern times, the European Court of Justice would have Napoleon arrested and tried as a criminal. Napoleon’s guilt was clearer than the one of the ex Serbian president.

It’s philosophically intolerable that Napoleon is revered as much as he is (and not just by the French!). From the modern point of view, it’s hard to find anything good about him. He was a good general, true, but he had superlative troops, by far the best in the world at the time (and they made a huge difference, for example at the battle of Austerlitz, where the dogged defense, house to house of forced-marched-through-the-night, rushed-in soldiers held the center miraculously. Austerlitz is viewed as Napoleon’s greatest victory, but clearly, without superlatively experienced and motivated soldiers, he would not have won). After nominating himself “emperor”, he had become a casus belli all by himself.

Napoleon killed two million Frenchmen in useless wars, and few millions more other Europeans besides. Perhaps his most unique achievement was to have Cossacks parading in Paris after his fall.

So why the great Napoleonic cult? At first sight, because Napoleon destroyed the Revolution. That is what the French upper bourgeoisie and the exiled aristocrats wanted. Napoleon was their mindless little tool, as he idiotically went around seeking glory in all the wrong places and the most criminal ways.

In the aftermath of his ill fated reign, the plutocratic French upper class was able to reestablish a lot of the old order, even the monarchy (under a constitutional form). The Napoleonic cult has been a highly successful form of class propaganda. The lower classes were made to revere the one who had precisely reestablished their oppression and culled their numbers, besides mauling the ideals of the French revolution. This class analysis is far from the whole motivation for the cult, though, as we will explain.

Nowadays, if French intellectuals wanted to do something particularly useful, they could reconsider French history in a more critical way. It would make it easier for all of us to understand the mechanisms of the adulation despots bring forth in their subjects.

Another atrocious French dictator, astoundingly admired to this day, was Louis XIV. Louis destroyed lots of Germany, and organized horrible persecutions against non Catholics inside France (after violating the Edict of Nantes of his own grandfather, Henri IV, who had put an end to the religious wars). France lost hundreds of thousands of her best citizens (Some fled to Germany and their descendants would roll back in at general’s rank with the Nazi tanks in 1940! Some French Protestants fled all the way to South Africa, and planted grapes there). Millions more Frenchmen suffered twenty years of “Dragonades” (occupation of parts of France by the King’s “Dragons”, who lived on the land, oppressing, raping, stealing, terrorizing non Catholics, in the hope they would flee the country too). At the end of his life, after a seventy-two year reign, agonizing with gangrene over three weeks, Louis XIV confided that what hurt him the most was how much his subjects suffered (from poverty, famine, etc.). He accused bad advisers, we have to accuse the lack of democracy.

Why the admiration for Louis XIV? Differently from Napoleon, he accomplished some positive things. But, overall, it’s the grip of the fascist instinct that mostly fuels the admiration little men have for great, bad, mean, sun like leaders doing great, bad, mean, glorious horrors. Louis XIV played it like a violin, and some listen to his melody to this day.

Fundamentally men are glorified monkeys, and monkeys are conditioned to follow great, bad, mean, glorious leaders who allow them access to their daily water by the terror they inspire in all beasts alike, and the predators waiting in the shadows. People talk about “glory” to evoke that timeless feeling of being part of an all triumphant mob. It’s the essence of the fascist instinct. Napoleon has been loved throughout the world and history for that extremely wrong reason, and a few others, even worse. Time has come to expose those reasons, to get rid of them. Those same reasons help provide Mugabe’s goons with a lot of intimate pleasure. 

As long as a people as self admiring for their own smartness as the French cannot finalize a verdict of culpability about Louis XIV and Napoleon quite a bit in the way they did about Hitler, there is not enough enlightenment. All the more since there was a genealogy of ideas from Louis XIV, Napoleon, the Kaiser Wilhelm, and finally Hitler. The French admirers of Napoleon were, and are, Nazis at heart in the most important respect of the adulation for brute, overwhelming, lethal force. Amusingly, when Napoleon attacked Russia, a lot of his army was German (and included 20,000 Prussians sent by the Prussian state). The Nazis, self consciously, viewed themselves as the heirs of Napoleon, and tried to do better than him. 

Besides a deeper psychoanalysis, what is also lacking is some moral coherence in the analysis of history. Absent moral coherence, our civilization looks hypocritical and racist. Simply because, as proven by the facts behind this sort of incoherence, it is.

Patrice Ayme.

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