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The German edition of Wikiquote contains the following alleged words of Napoleon (in translation):

I know men and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between Him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creation of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.

It cites Conversations avec General Bertrand à St. Helena as its source. A couple of things look odd about this:

  • While Napoleon sometimes referred to Jesus Christ as an emperor perhaps would, I understand his religious outlook was sceptic-to-agnostic. (After all, he grew up during the French revolution.) Napoleon may of course have reconsidered his believes close to the end of his life, but then he may not have done so. If he didn't the quote's language would seem a bit over-the-top.

  • The claimed source does not seem to appear e.g. in the online catalog of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. When I Google its title, this leads mainly to Christian sites in German (despite the French title). And other editions of Wikisource and Wikipedia do not seem to mention it.

So I am wondering: Is this perhaps part of a larger conspiracy to engross a prominent historical figure to a Christian cause, probably launched in a German-speaking country post-mortem. (Alternatively it could e.g. be an innocent mistake in Wikipedia, with distribution across sites by the usual copy-paste efforts.)

At the root of this inquiry lies the question: Did Henri Gatien Bertrand (who indeed accompanied Napoleon to St. Helena -- that much seems certain) or some other witness write Conversations avec General Bertrand à St. Helena and if so, where (online) can this source be confirmed and consulted.

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This is a very interesting question. However, it seems like it might be a better candidate for skeptics.se, no? – T.E.D. Feb 5 '13 at 14:04
As an aside, discussing Christ as a historical figure (as this quote appears to do) is not out of character for a "sceptic-to-agnostic" (addresses your first bullet, but of course not the more interesting document centered second one) – DVK Feb 5 '13 at 14:38
Btw, the title is not very successful, I think. Perhaps something like "Are these remarks by Napoleon on Jesus genuine?" would be better. – Felix Goldberg Feb 5 '13 at 15:09
@FelixGoldberg thx for your concrete proposal: will do. – Drux Feb 5 '13 at 15:20
@Ryathal I have no issue with that, for my question primarily was "Does historical document Y exist (and what's written in it)?" :) – Drux Feb 5 '13 at 16:15
up vote 3 down vote accepted

A very interesting question. Not much I can say at the moment, but according to this apparently serious website which gives an annotated list of Napoleonic memoirs, Bertrand did write a book.

Bertrand, General Henri-Gratien, comte (1773-1844): Haythornthwaite calls him the most loyal of Napoleon's followers. He served in many of the campaigns, and was named Grand Marshal of the Palace in 1813. He accompanied Bonaparte to Elba and St. Helena. His notebooks, published in 1949 as Napoleon at St. Helena: Memoirs of General Bertrand, record the last seven years of Napoleon's life in great detail. Cronin seemed to think highly of them. Durant indicated that Bertrand had refused to publish them himself. [C,D,H]

Possibly, just possibly, the Christian angle can be traced back to this book. A quick googling didn't help me to find out who was Thomas Robson.

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+1 I've just confirmed that Cronin indeed mentions Bertrand's Cahiers de Sainte-Hélène, 3 volumes (1951-59). There is also a corresponding entry in the BnF catalog. – Drux Feb 5 '13 at 15:33

Following-up on @FelixGoldberg's answer I found this in Sources and Notes of Vincent Cronin's Napoleon:

The remark attributed to N[apoleon], "I know men, and I tell you that Jesus Christ was not a man" is apocryphal. [Robert-Antoine de] Beauterne, who coined it never met N[apoleon].

This is good enough evidence for me; it suggests the following: Bertrand's book indeed exists, but it is not the correct source for the first quote, nor is the quote's attribution to Napoleon correct. Beauterne wrote a book titled Sentiment de Napolon Ier Sur Le Christianisme, which at the time may or may not have supported a Christian agenda.

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This book is online, btw: archive.org/details/sentimentdenapol00beau – Felix Goldberg Feb 5 '13 at 18:37
The quote's first sentence indeed appears verbatim on p. 87: "Enfin, je me connais en hommes, et je te dis que Jésus-Christ n'était pas un homme!" – Drux Feb 5 '13 at 19:17

This quote appears in several mid-1800s texts, including the above-referenced "Sur Le Christianisme" text. Henry Parry Liddon wrote a footnote regarding the quote suggesting its authenticity. He references another Bertrand source, "Sentiment de Napoleon sur la Divinite de Jesus Christ." He cites a response to the author of the preface to Campagnes d'Egypte et de Syrie, who suggests that some of the conversations recorded by General Bertrand may have never happened.

"M. de Montholon, who with General Bertrand was present at the conversations which are recorded by the Chevalier de Beauterne, writes from Ham on May 30, 1841, to that author [of the preface to Campagnes d'Egypte et de Syrie]: 'J'ai lu avec un vif interet votre brochure: Sentiment de Napoleon sur la Divinite de Jesus Christ, et je ne pense pas qu'il soit possible de mieux exprimer les croyances religieuses de l'empereur.'" (Google's translation: I read with keen interest in your brochure: Feeling of Napoleon on the Divinity of Jesus Christ, and I do not think it is possible to better express religious beliefs of the emperor.)

Source: The Divinity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; Eight Lectures Preached Before the University of Oxford in the Year 1866. Fourth Edition. Rivingtons. London, Oxford and Cambridge, 1869.

Hope that helps.

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