Halfway through high school, it dawned on me that history is not a science like the others. Mathematics textbooks in Canada, England, France, Germany and the USA all agree that two plus two equals four. Textbooks from all those countries agree on the laws of geometry and that a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal will produce an explosion. But when it comes to history, the textbooks will likely agree on dates, places and the people involved, but from there on the story will take strange turns.
The theorems of propaganda allow a lot more wiggle room than the theorems of Archimedes. There are bewildering differences in the accounts of why things happened, how they happened and what were the long term results. Likewise for the character of the leading figures. Were they ruthless megalomaniacs, feckless traitors, or dauntless heroes?
Take Napoleon, for example. When I went to school the curriculum for English-speaking Canadians hewed very closely to the Orange Order point of view. Napoleon was depicted as somewhat of a madman who set out to conquer all of Europe, almost succeeded, but was finally defeated by the glorious English at the Battle of Waterloo. Well the got his name right, also the name of his final battle. Everything else was carefully crafted to avoid any facts that might detract from the desired propaganda effect and to avoid mention of any good that he may have achieved.
Let’s look at some of the basic, undisputed facts. France had done away with royalty, something that was considered a damnable heresy by the crowned heads of Europe. So they formed coalition after coalition to attack France and set things to right. Napoleon’s wars were defensive wars. The fact that he won almost all of them does not mean that he was the one who instigated them.
What were the results of those wars? The Holy Roman Empire, dominated by the Hapsburgs of Vienna, came to an end. This brought an end to the Inquisition, as the Pope no longer had the Emperor to back him up. Poland became an independent republic for the first time in its history. The partitioning of the Italian peninsula between the Pope, the Hapsburgs and France came to an end, which eventually led to the uniting of the whole peninsula into one country. The end of the Holy Roman Empire also eventually led to the unification of the dozens of Germanic kingdoms, principalities and duchies into one country.
There were also profound changes within France. The country was stabilized after the tumultuous years of the Revolution. Jews were no longer restricted to certain areas, but could live and worship wherever they chose. Freedom of worship was granted to all religious minorities. Napoleon directed four prominent jurist to draw up a code of laws, which took effect in 1804. This code made the state independent of the Roman Catholic church, made every citizen equal before the law and entitled to a fair trial, no longer subject to the whims of clergy or royalty. This code is what Napoleon regarded as his greatest achievement. It has been the model of the legal systems of many other countries.
Napoleon regarded himself as a liberator, not a conqueror. He was not a flawless person, but the enduring effects of his time as Emperor of France do bear witness of his liberating influence.
This is perhaps a side issue, having nothing to do with Napoleon at all, but those who went to school when I did may still believe that the legal system of France does not recognize the presumption of innocence. This is true of the legal systems of China, North Korea, Burma and Japan, but is not true of France and has not been at least since 1789. The Declaration of the Rights of Man of that year begins with the statement that a man is presumed to be innocent until he is proven guilty. This declaration still has force as constitutional law.