Recently I have taken to learning more about Emperor Napoleon I. When I was in secondary school, I studied the French Revolution but didn’t study Napoleon as that was just after so there was a gap of knowledge missing.
I’m sure many of you know of the Battle of Waterloo, it’s one of those quintessential British historical memories right along with Dunkirk, D-Day and the 1966 World Cup! As a child these things are taken as a given – the honourable British defeated those sneaky foreigners! As you get older you take these kind of legends with a grain of salt.
Such legends are often perpetuated when you are younger. Which brings me to Obama. The 2008 election of Obama was an amazing moment. I still remember it, I was 19 at the time and seeing this ambitious, articulate, young and passionate black man speak and seemingly rebelling against how things had been previously done was so inspiring. My generation had not experienced the level of racism of generation’s that preceded us, however their was still a feeling that there were still some limits. Black people could be sports stars, but not sports owners for example. Or they could be politicians, but not President’s. Well that election seemingly destroyed those myths.
Napoleon also has a similar story. Before the French Revolution, the ability to move from one social class to another was extremely limited. Like literally you had a 5% chance max to ascend the ranks. If you were born a peasant, likely you would die a peasant. The Revolution of course shook the bourgeosie and the noble classes to it’s core. These peasants were now demanding rights! ‘All men are created equal’ – you could see the Parisian upper class spit there tea out there nose! They had no choice though. The revolution took them by storm. And with it a meritocratic society emerged. Napoleon became an emblem of this. A lower middle class child of Corsican parents, he would have never been too poor. However for him to become a general let alone rule the country would have been laughed out the room literally 10 years prior. It was a ridiculous notion. Yet he became Emperor of France in 1805
There are many similarities in both of their ascension to power. They both built momentum through victories in the battlefield. Napoleon through military and Obama on the political battlefield. Napoleon was not taken seriously when he took command of the French legion fighting the Austrian Empire in Italy. The soldiers derided his height. However when he drove the Austrians out of Italy, word quickly spread to the people of France. He became a hero and his foundation for power established.
Obama similarly, faced a foe with a strong historical legacy. Like the Austrian Empire, the Hilary Clinton was symbolic of an older entrenched style of politics. Bill Clinton was a well liked 2 term President (despite the Lewinsky scandal) and she herself was a well respected New York senator. Obama was a half term senator room Illnois, a state whose politicians were derided on the national level as ‘dirty'(not an unfounded statement). He went toe-to-toe with her though. Through debates, rallies, outreach and touring they were neck and neck. Somehow though, he came out on top. Such an unexpected victory made him a hero to Democrats and too young people a like.
Both of them also had luck on their side. Obama was lucky that the country and the world was ripe for change. After the abysmal Bush years of a disastrous economic crash and two incredibly debilitating wars, people who would have never considered an inexperienced black senator from Illnois found themselves saying ‘Why not? Can’t get any worse.’
Similarly as Napoleon started to grasp the reigns of power after the Consulate was established. The Revolution was in turmoil – the country had lost any semblance of stability. Mass murders and lawlessness roamed the land. People actually wanted a strong leader.
Now here we come to when the mask begins to slip. Obama came to power proclaiming ‘Change in our time’. But what did he actually change? No banks or bankers were prosecuted for the financial crisis. No new strong regulations were enforced. Nobody was prosecuted for the crimes committed during the Iraq and Afghanistan War, as well as the torture inflicted through the extraordinary rendition program. People have begun to realise that Obama is not that different from Bush. Yes he is a lot smarter. Yes he has a black face. But when you dig into the substance there is little difference.
Napoleon, similarly, began to resemble little difference from the royalty. He made himself an Emperor and gave himself a crown. He practised nepotism on perhaps an even greater level by installing many of his siblings into high ranking positions all over the Empire (his brother’s were rulers of Italy and Spain). His rule was not to be questioned. Parliament had literally no say in anything. He was essentially a king. Which is not to say he didn’t try and change things. The Civil Code he spread to conquered territories is till used as the basis of civil law in France and many countries in Europe. He also spread the metric system, which is the major units of measurement across Europe (that’s why we don’t use it in the UK, because he never defeated Britain!)
They also both proclaimed the Declaration Of Rights and Duties of Man that:
‘All men are born free and equal, in dignity and in rights, and, being endowed by nature with reason and conscience, they should conduct themselves as brothers one to another.’
However when push came to shove, this was questionable. Napoleon tried to reinforce slavery in Haiti after the Haitian Revolution and wasted many men’s lives trying to put other human beings back into chains. Now, Obama hasn’t enslaved anyone, but remember when he said he would close Guantanemo Bay as his ‘first priority’? 5 years on it’s still open (even expanding) and hundreds of men cleared for release are being falsely improsoned. Both proclaimed this abuse of the Rights of Man as ‘compromise’.
So overall one can see many similarities between the two leaders. Some may say it’s blasphemous to compare a great leader and general to a average President like Obama. Some may say it’s blasphemous to compare a murderous egotist like Napoleon to a inspirational, transformational President like Obama. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I think it’s more interesting to look at the legacy. Napoleon is famous for having crafted his legacy. Through propagandist paintings of victories when he was a leader, to writing his memoirs when he was exiled in St Helena. This crafted the image many hold of him today. Obama’s legacy is still uncertain. How will history remember him? Will the Obama poster’s still be hanging on the wall 50 years from now? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
We should always analyse current events from a historical angle. What happened now is extremely likely to have happened in one form or another in the past. To be aware and to acknowledge these things is to learn. Maybe if we had been taught the history of Napoleon instead of the French Revolution, we would have seen the Obama deception coming.
By Dubem Menakaya.