When you think of dictators, Napoleon Bonaparte usually isn’t the first person to come to mind. He never subjected any people to mass starvation, he never devised a large and elaborate system of prison camps, and he never had pictures of himself painted and distributed throughout the land. Napoleon also didn’t wear military medals that he didn’t earn.

But make no mistake – Napoleon was a true dictator in every sense of the word.

Napoleon was a successful military general who came to power during the chaos of the French Revolution (1789-1799). As the smoke cleared, the French people wanted a strong leader, so who better to guide them than modern France’s most successful military hero.

Although popular, Napoleon rigged the election to become consul (ruler) of France and he toppled one European monarch after another on his way to build the largest continental empire in modern history. Napoleon’s dictatorial tendencies started to come out. He massacred resisters in various parts of Europe, especially Italy, and he began to see himself as something greater than he was.

Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor of France on December 2, 1804, in grand fashion, complete with a crown, specter, and throne. But as Napoleon became more and more powerful, the power went to his head. On June 24, 1812, Napoleon led his “Grand Army” of nearly 700,000 men east into Russia. Napoleon didn’t intend to conquer Russia necessarily, but wanted to keep them from cooperating with the British, who were the primary enemy of the French.

Once again, it was the case where a dictator’s hubris led him to make a crazy decision. Napoleon had every right to think that he would easily beat the Russians: his army was larger and better equipped, and most importantly, he was the best strategist in the world.

But Napoleon apparently wasn’t much of a historian because if he were, he would have known about Charles XII of Sweden’s attempted invasion of Russia in 1708-1709. It was crazy when Charles attempted it and Napoleon would find out that it was still crazy in 1812.

And it proved to be his undoing.

The Corsican Artillery Officer

When you think of France, you think of the Eiffel Tower, crepes, wine, and Napoleon, right? Well, the truth is that Napoleon was an ethnic Corsican and wasn’t even born with French citizenship.

Napoleon was born on August 15, 1769, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, which was ruled by the Italian city-state of Genoa at the time. Corsica was always more Italian than French, but in 1768 it was conquered by France.

So Napoleon had to become French.

Becoming French wasn’t always easy for the Corsican mamma’s boy, but he learned French and entered French military school when he was a teenager.

And a true star was born!

Napoleon was sharp and charismatic and by the time he graduated in 1785, he was an artillery lieutenant. In normal times he may have progressed slowly through the ranks—or not any further at all, considering that he wasn’t part of the nobility—but destiny, fate, or luck, whichever one you believe, smiled on Napoleon when the French Revolution began.

As astute as the “little general” was with military tactics, he was equally capable in the political arena. When the revolution broke out, he saw that the momentum was with the revolutionaries and he also knew that if they came to power he would have a better chance of advancing.

So he chose to fight for the revolutionaries.

After winning the day for the revolutionaries at the Battle of Toulon in 1793 and getting wounded in the process, Napoleon was promoted to General at the tender age of 24. Not since Alexander the Great had such a young man taken the world by storm. And he was far from done.

After toppling most of the major monarchies of Western Europe, Napoleon defeated Russia and Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805, which ended the Holy Roman Empire and made him the sole ruler of continental Europe…pretty much.

Yes, Britain was over there on its island and Russia was off in the east somewhere.

Let’s Go East Boys

So we come back to another one of our common themes with dictators—they begin believing their own hype; and since they’re surrounded by sycophants, they do some pretty crazy sh*t that costs a lot of lives or collapses their governments.

In Napoleon’s case, the sycophants were military men like him so they wanted to keep fighting, although by 1812, the French were facing setbacks in Spain. When the Russians declared their support for Britain and that they didn’t want to be part of Napoleon’s “continental system,” the Corsican general decided it was a time to teach the Slavs a lesson.

It’s not entirely fair to say that Napoleon didn’t read history because he actually did study Charles XII’s failed campaign, which is why he decided to invade in the summer. But it became immediately clear that he had failed to grasp just how vast Russia is, the swampy nature of its terrain, or the tenacity of the Russian people.

The Grand Army marched deeper and deeper into Russia, yet the Russians rarely engaged them with any significant numbers. It was almost as if they were drawing Napoleon in farther. Napoleon should have recognized that they were, but his pride got the better of him.

Finally, on September 7, the Grand Army arrived outside Moscow, but the Russians were waiting with a large force. The fighting was intense, but Napoleon won the day and the city. However, after moving the Grand Army into Moscow a week later, Napoleon soon realized he hadn’t really won anything.

The city was largely abandoned, and worse, the Grand Army’s supply lines were far overextended. They had survived by foraging, hunting, and looting, but as winter approached, there was far less to take.

So they began the long march back to friendly territory in Poland.

The Russian forces undertook numerous ambush attacks on the Grand Army as it retreated, which reduced its number and morale. Then, winter came early, and with no other choice, the soldiers had to eat all the horses.

The Russians wisely made deals with the Germans in the Grand Army to allow them safe passage, which reduced the army even more. Finally, the French found themselves eating their coats, boots, and whatever else they could find. The pains of hunger drove many of them to die of exposure.

More than half of the Grand Army died in the crazy expedition, more than 100,000 were captured, and nearly another 100,000 deserted.

As for Napoleon, his decision to invade Russia proved to be his true Waterloo.

His empire disintegrated and the French people turned on him, deposing him and then exiling him to the Mediterranean island of Elba. He later escaped Elba and had a brief return to rule, but he was quickly defeated and exiled for good to the Atlantic island of Saint Helena.

All because Napoleon made the crazy decision to invade Russia.

Did You Know?

  • When one “meets his Waterloo,” it means that that person has met his demise or failed in some way. It comes from Napoleon’s final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, although his true Waterloo was the failed invasion of Russia.
  • Charles XII faced similar odds when he invaded Russia 100 years earlier, although the armies were much smaller. Charles actually began his invasion in the winter, which may have helped him when he got farther inland. The Russians, though, deployed the familiar tactic of hit-and-run attacks and retreating into the interior. Again, apparently Napoleon didn’t study Charles XII enough.
  • Napoleon was married twice and had one legitimate child with his second wife, Marie Louise the Duchess of Parma. Their son, Napoleon II, died of pneumonia at the age of 21 in 1832.
  • Alexander I (reigned 1801-1825) was the Tsar of Russia at the time of Napoleon’s invasion.
  • Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, on the isolated British territory of Saint Helena at the age of 51. The cause of his death remains a mystery, with some believing he died of cancer while more conspiratorially-minded people think he was poisoned.
    Note: In 2007, American, Swiss and Canadian researchers applied modern pathological and tumor-staging methods to historical accounts and found that Napoleon died of a very advanced case of gastric cancer that stemmed from an ulcer-causing bacterial infection in his stomach, rather than a heretofore belief of a hereditary disposition to the cancer. The analysis, which also refutes rumors of arsenic poisoning, points to gastrointestinal bleeding as the likely immediate cause of death.