Antony Beevor’s latest article in The Telegraph discusses Ridley Scott’s upcoming film about Napoleon’s life and laments the fact that heroic figures like Napoleon give weight to the Great Man Theory. Beevor sees the idea that a few significant figures have outsized effects as “unfashionable and offensive.”
It is a shame that someone like Beevor, an excellent writer who has produced many magisterial history books about World War II, wrote such a historically misguided article.
What about Great Women?
One of Beevor’s points is that the Great Man Theory “carries the insulting implication that women cannot be great leaders.” But appreciating Napoleon or Caesar does not exclude recognition of the achievements of female rulers. Maria Theresa of Austria is considered by some to be “the most important ruler of the age of Enlightened Absolutism.” Queen Victoria’s rule defined one of Great Britain’s most vibrant eras. Catherine the Great played a key role in turning the Russian Empire into a great power.
Beevor’s assertion that female rulers are somehow “much less susceptible to the narcissistic narratives so favoured by male dictators” appears silly to anyone who’s read a biography of Cleopatra or Catherine de Medici.
To his credit, Beevor recognizes that individuals can have an outsized effect on history. He goes on to say, however, that “individuals alone have not created history. Threats to food or energy supplies have played their part in leading to revolution and war. So have differences over religion and its 20th-century successor, political ideology.”
Great Men Need Great Opportunities
But he is attacking a strawman. Yes, of course, great rulers have never appeared in a vacuum. The French Revolution was key to clearing Napoleon’s path to the throne, as Beevor points out. If Japan had not been mired in the turmoil of the Warring States Period, Tokugawa Ieyasu would not have had the opening to unify Japan and proclaim himself Shogun. Without the centuries of social and economic forces and army reforms of Marius that shaped the Roman Republic’s army into the finest the world had ever seen, even a talented commander like Caesar would not have been able to cover himself in glory.
Recognizing that events can provide opportunities for the great men of history does not detract from their agency and talent. They still had the foresight and strength of character to bend those events according to their vision. Napoleon’s ambition, decisiveness, and drive made him excellently suited to make the most out of the tumult of the revolution.
Yes, Alexander may never have started his conquests were it not for Macedonian society’s strong military ethos, his father’s military reforms, and the Greek world’s abundance of the cornel wood that was necessary for producing the Macedonians’ deadly 16-foot-long sarissa pikes. But it took Alexander’s courage and genius for war to make the fullest use of those factors. He used the opportunities to achieve a legendary, unbroken string of victories that military academies still study today.
Social and economic factors, the people a prince rules, and natural and political disasters all shape history. But great individuals impose order on the chaos and make the best use of the opportunities and resources granted to them. Dough without a baker will never turn to bread on its own.
Denying the agency of great individuals is like belittling the artwork of Mozart or Michelangelo because, without years of training by their teachers, financing by wealthy patrons, and a society around them that appreciated their masterpieces, they would have been nothing. Of course, all those factors contributed to their artistic success. That doesn’t detract one particle from the beauty of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” or Michelangelo’s “David.”
Great Men and Reckless Politics
It’s true that, as Beevor says, many politicians love melodramatic comparisons to World War II. They cast themselves as reincarnations of Winston Churchill and foreign dictators as Adolf Hitler. The lazy analogy erases nuance in foreign relations and leads to dangerous decisions. Politicians are naturally given to such grandiloquent statements and thoughtless foreign policy choices. But Beevor fails to show why the Great Man Theory leads to this sad state of affairs.
The most absurd claim in Beevor’s article is his last one. He is upset because he thinks the Great Man Theory “is no longer limited to military conquest. It also extends to those leaders who can, through the force of personality, toxify politics by encouraging and exploiting hatred: the Trumps, the Orbans, the Miloševićs.”
How can Beevor shake his head at politicians who keep seeing a new Hitler behind every foreign tyrant’s military uniform and then seriously go on to compare Trump and Orban to Slobodan Milošević?
It’s also inconsistent to blame populist leaders like Trump and Orban for “fomenting hate.” Leftist leaders have turned hatred and division into an industrial complex. Kamala Harris egged on violent rioters burning down our cities. Joe Biden tarred half of the country as fascists. A Marxist professor threatened a conservative reporter with a machete. Myriad other leftist politicians, professors, actors, woke corporations, and media personalities daily try to turn our country into a giant Tower of Babel by dividing us according to race, sexual orientation, and “gender identity.”
Why Are Great Men So Controversial?
Perhaps the best argument against Beevor and all other detractors of the Great Man Theory is the fact that great men like Napoleon still generate so much controversy. As Beevor wrote, Tolstoy believed that powerful rulers are “history’s [slaves].” Yet Tolstoy still cast Napoleon as the principal monstrous villain of his greatest work, War and Peace. That choice makes no sense if the French emperor was just another cog helplessly moved by historical forces beyond his control.
Napoleon, as some have claimed, “has had more books written about him than any other individual, with the sole exception of Jesus Christ.” Although he lived more than two centuries before our time, the ideals he formulated and enacted through his Napoleonic Code reverberate to this day.
It’s worth noting that not all powerful rulers are good men. Individuals like Hitler, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong have also had a great effect on history for the worse, murdering tens of millions of innocents.
And Napoleon is just one triumphant example of how true the Great Man Theory is. One could spend hours discussing great men and their contributions to history. Churchill played a key role in stopping Nazi aggression. America might not exist without George Washington’s inspired leadership. The emperor Constantine’s legalization of Christianity helped speed the new religion onto the global stage.
In the end, detractors can say what they want about the Napoleons and Alexanders of our history books. The achievements of these heroes speak for themselves.