Mark Braude is the author of The Invisible Emperor: Napoleon on Elba from Exile to Escape.
Two predictions: One, on any given day over the next four years, a huge number of people will find the stories told about Donald Trump in South Florida far more interesting than the ones told about Joe Biden in the White House – and it won’t matter if they’re true or false, pro-Trump or against. Two, as the stories circulate, they’ll grow stranger and more improbable – and the stranger and more improbable they grow, the more serious the threat they’ll pose to rational thinkers everywhere.
As a historian, I’m not usually comfortable making predictions. But in this case, I’m guided by a frightening example from the past – one in which a defeated, chastised ruler somehow managed to return to power even while it should have been clear his return would only bring more violence. He did so by trading on the many stories, true and false, that people told about him in the aftermath of his public disgrace.
In 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army fell to a coalition headed by the Russians, Austrians and British, ending a quarter-century of nearly constant warfare. His enemies had been so focused on beating him, however, that they gave little thought to what would follow his fall.
In the chaotic days after their victory, they brokered what seemed a pragmatic and logical solution: Napoleon would abdicate and be exiled to Elba, just off the Italian coast. He was granted sovereignty over the island and even got to hold a title, as Emperor of Elba. The former ruler of 80 million would control the lives of 12,000 islanders (which was news to the Elbans).
Putting one of history’s most fearsome generals a day’s sail from Europe’s mainland struck many people at the time as madness. Even some of Napoleon’s closest former supporters thought the punishment too light. But those were dangerous, unsteady days – the immediate goal was to shuffle him offstage quickly so the focus would be on restoring order to Europe. The victorious monarchs had no appetite for execution, not keen to suggest the guillotine as a solution to political problems with the French Revolution still fresh in living memory.
Despite a pleasant setup on Elba, Napoleon escaped after only 10 months of exile, landing on a beach in southern France alongside a few hundred supporters. They marched to Paris, where Napoleon reclaimed the throne. The result was tens of thousands killed, on both sides, at Waterloo.
Historians have argued for two centuries trying to make sense of this unlikely and unnecessary return, one of the most baffling and disastrous feats of all time. We can start to better understand the event by acknowledging Napoleon’s greatest talent: his ability to spin the most beguiling tale out of whatever raw material life and history dealt him, while always making sure to place himself as the central protagonist of that tale – even if it meant showing himself in a negative light.
“The more noise you make,” Napoleon once said, “the farther it will go. Laws, institutions, monuments, nations, all this passes – but the noise it makes continues to vibrate through other generations.”
While his enemies tried to silence him by banishment, the Napoleonic noise only grew louder as he withdrew from the spotlight – perhaps, in fact, because of that withdrawal.
More people saw Napoleon up close on Elba than at any other point in his career, as he became a kind of tourist attraction. Travellers to his island could come and go relatively freely, and many of the people bold enough to seek an audience with the Emperor of Elba found their requests granted.
This wasn’t because he was lonely. He was always sure to say or do something wild enough to leave his visitor with a new story worth telling the people back home. He might, for instance, let slip that he actually respected the British more than he did the French, and wouldn’t be against living out his days as a country squire in some quiet village under their protection.
A few travellers wrote books on the strength of single conversations with Napoleon in his humble cliffside villa, published while he was still in exile. Stories went around the continent about this “Robinson Crusoe of Elba.”
In some versions, he was miserable – pining for his wife and child, pacing his villa like a caged animal, and so destitute that the few soldiers under his command were wasting away on meals of rotten bread. Others portrayed him as the same dynamic Napoleon of old, gifted with the ability to connect with anyone he met, happily working in the mud alongside his gardeners to make a massive N-shaped topiary in his backyard. Still others pictured him as a buffoon, singing to himself out-of-tune during endless bouts of insomnia, cheating at cards against his bored courtiers, desperately trying to turn a Mediterranean backwater into an ersatz version of Paris.
And those were just the stories based loosely on actual observations. The rumours – spread by people who had come nowhere near Elba – were far more weird, often focusing on misguided beliefs that Napoleon and his coterie were enjoying an orgiastic bacchanal in their Tuscan paradise.
Whether fact-based or wholly invented, as these stories got told, Napoleon in exile remained an entertaining enigma. And as journalists vied to create the most damning caricatures of the fallen emperor, he kept garnering prime space in the major European newspapers, even as he accomplished very little worthy of attention.
Meanwhile in Paris, Napoleon’s replacement failed to connect with the public. The most exciting story the stuffy Louis XVIII of the restored Bourbon dynasty had to tell concerned his connection to past grandeur, as a descendant of the family that had once ruled France. As the head of a battle-scarred country during an especially harsh period of rebuilding, Louis was naturally subject to all kinds of criticism.
Napoleon, out of sight, was meanwhile the subject only of speculation. He became a fictional character, an empty vessel into which people could pour whatever they wanted, from the grandest delusions to the pettiest resentments.
Napoleon knew that a gripping story should end with a twist. And so, even as his advisers predicted he would be killed on sight the second he touched French soil, he went forth anyway. That was the point – he had to return. Not just because he was restless and short of cash, but because it was what the great Napoleon ought to be seen to do. He saw it as his destiny. He risked his life, and those of everyone who sailed with him, because he was convinced it would please his audience.
When he landed back in France, the most dangerous weapon he had in his arsenal was the story of his return itself. Though immediately branded an outlaw for breaking the terms of his exile – which essentially gave anyone the right to kill him without fear of reprisal – he reached Paris without firing a shot.
Historians find little indication of a widespread French conspiracy to bring him back to power. He succeeded by trading on the propaganda value of this reckless act of defiance. People talked of his swashbuckling escape aboard a small ship, outwitting both the French and British navies. They spoke of how on a windswept field near Grenoble, he opened his greatcoat and presented his chest to be shot by the first royalist troop he encountered – and how instead of taking him up on the dare, they’d thrown down their weapons and cheered for their rightful emperor.
People were stunned into submission. It was audacious, dangerous, crazy – and highly entertaining. It was the fitting final chapter to the Napoleonic saga they’d been following for decades, as if it were their favourite serialized novel.
Napoleon promised common people that they could become great merely by having witnessed – and abetted – his own quixotic quest. He was betting that after reinstalling himself in Paris and showing his popularity in France, the other European powers might be cowed into letting him maintain his place. But the performance ended up being only for himself – one more diverting episode. Facing the threat of further disorder, yet another coalition united against him, making clear that their fight was not with the French people, but with the man who’d unlawfully toppled an established government. The Allies won at Waterloo, narrowly. And this time, they sent Napoleon to St. Helena, a rock in the middle of the Atlantic, where at “such a distance and in such a place, all intrigue would be impossible,” as the British prime minister, Lord Liverpool, put it, “and being so far from the European world, he would very soon be forgotten.”
Liverpool was only half right. Few events captured 19th-century imaginations as did Napoleon’s return from Elba – the so-called Hundred Days, which likely did more to shape his popular legend than any other aspect of his long career. Thirty-three years after Waterloo, the Bonaparte myth helped get Napoleon’s nephew Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte elected president of France, largely on the strength of his famous name. Three years later, Charles-Louis staged a coup and soon after installed himself as Napoleon III, destroying a short-lived republic and founding the Second French Empire that he would head for nearly two decades.
Regardless of the era, there are always examples of the force of law and logic being trumped by the appeal of a seductive story. We also know that the best stories can long outlast their original storytellers.
A month ago, I suggested to a colleague that for Mr. Trump to pull off something akin to Napoleon’s return from Elba – totally illegal, beyond the pale of any reason, clearly done with the foreknowledge that it would lead to bloodshed – he would have to gather a rogue army and march from Mar-a-Lago to the capital. It was a bizarre thing to say at the time. Now it feels slightly less far-fetched.
Our laws – including the punishments we derive for the people who wrong us – are really no more than a set of stories. For these abstractions to hold any concrete power, they must be collectively enforced by people thinking rationally and clearly – people who refuse to be charmed by any one story told by any one storyteller. This has proved very hard to do, for many societies in many eras. A slick and seasoned entertainer armed with an enticing story can sometimes be stronger than law – and logic – combined.
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