On the front cover of Claude Ribbe’s Le Crime de Napoléon is a photograph of Hitler surrounded by a bevy of generals looking down at the tomb of Napoleon at the Invalides during his visit there after the fall of France in 1940. The message is clear: the author is thus directly associating Napoleon with Hitler and, as we shall see as Ribbe develops his argument, with the Holocaust. Napoleon, Ribbe claims, is guilty of a “triple crime” against humanity: the reintroduction of slavery in 1802; the deportation and killing of large numbers of Africans (or people of African origin); and the massacre of blacks that took on a “genocidal nature” and that prefigured the policy of racial extermination carried out by the Nazis during the Second World War (12 13). “Le crime est si impardonnable”, writes Ribbe, “qu’il a provoqué plus de deux siècles de mensonges. Car les faits sont bien connus des historiens, mais volontairement passés sous silence” (13).
Napoleon, Slavery, and the French History Wars
Pinker’s (Mis)Representation of the Enlightenment and Violence
In Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, there is a before and an after. Before the Enlightenment, the world was superstitious, cruel, and violent; after the Enlightenment, the world was rational and more peaceful. Pinker thus reduces violence to a fairly simplistic concept: all violence can be equated with irrationality, unreason, and ignorance. History is never as straightforward as Pinker would have his readers believe, and violence is a much more complex notion that is often driven not by superstition or unreason, but perfectly “rational” motives. This article argues that there is little causal connection between Enlightenment values and the decline in violence and that changes came about as a result of a complex series of reasons, some of them less than edifying. It raises the interesting question of whether ideas drive history, or whether they are simply the “ideological” bedrock on which change is grounded.