11

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.

  • 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
  • 1
    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
  • 1
    @FelixGoldberg thx for your concrete proposal: will do. – Drux Feb 5 '13 at 15:20
  • 1
    @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
3

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.

  • +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
8

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.

6

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.

4

My hesitant conclusion, made firmer by reading the answers above, is that they are in essence genuine remarks. Though what you quote is an amalgam of three sayings from the same passage assembled together as one quote!

As @Drux noted the sourced of the quote is clearly Sentiment de Napolon Ier Sur Le Christianisme by M. le Chevalier de Beauterne.

For the fullest English translation of the quotes concerned (that I have found to date) see John Abbot's History of Napoleon Bonaparte (1855), chapter 38 - beginning at the line, "He then saw the two Abbés...".

While Cronin claims the quote is apocryphal, in stating that Beauterne never met Napoleon, he shows that he is not aware of the context of the quote, and appears to have dismissed it out of hand without due diligence. Beauterne's source was never claimed to be either Napoleon or Bertrand, but Montholon (see the book as per link provided by @FelixGoldberg, or the sub-title given by Abbot to his citation from Sentiment de Napoleon sur le Chriatianisme: Conversatiens religieuses, recueillies à Sainte Helene par M. le General Comte de Montholon). Thus Cronin's normally weighty opinion seems here not pertinent to authenticity considerations. The quote supplied by @Varrin Swearingen is a further excellent attestation to their authenticity–Montholon clearly stood by them, and Cronin's accusation of fabricating Napoleon quotes ought to have been aimed at him.

I had always wondered how Montholon managed to remember and recall Napoleon's sayings, but I think this expresses the reason for the clear and substantial recall well:

General Montholon, after his return to Europe, said to M. de Beauterne: “...I have seen it, yes, I have seen it; and I, a man of camps, who had forgotten my religion—I confess it—who did not practice it, I at first was astonished; but then I received thoughts and impressions which still continue with me the subjects of profound reflection. I have seen the Emperor religious, and I have said to myself, ‘He died a Christian, in the fear of God.’ I can not forget that old age is upon me, that I must soon die, and I wish to die like the Emperor. I do not doubt even that General Bertrand often recalls, as I do, the religious conversations and the death of the Emperor. The General, perhaps, may finish his career like his master and his friend.”

[Reading the John Abbot chapter in full you will note Montholon also kept a journal of his time there, which would further account for the clarity of his recall.]

The sentiments on Christianity, extensive and thorough as they are, demonstrate a learned mind of the very first rank applied with considerable profundity to Christ and his religion, showing him to be thoroughly and deeply convinced, then trying deeply and thoroughly to convince a dear friend, in this case General Bertrand. That such an intense discussion created a lasting impression on Montholon (who was present) can hardly be surprising, Napoleon was after all, a magnetic personality of enormous charisma.

Since Bertrand is portrayed as the key contender against Napoleon in the great discussion that occurred, one would imagine he both could and would have publicly contested such a record if it were not in essence true - as an avowed atheist he certainly had the incentive to do so (he did not die till 1844).

To supplement my answer still further, having just read the French Wikipedia entry for Robert-Augustin Antoine de Beauterne (translated helpfully by Google!), I find these 'sentiments on Christianity' were first published (in essence) in 1837 and according to this French entry:

There was no dispute in the 1830s and 1840s... when many witnesses and protagonists of those years of exile were still alive.

If it is a forgery it is very close to the time, of excellent pedigree, and composed by a superior mind – so I think one might be forgiven for being taken in (as @Varrin Swearingen sources demonstrate, the University of Oxford in 1866 is good company)! His reasoning is generally profound and pretty robust, standing the test of time and placing him as one of the greatest Christian apologists, albeit so briefly and in such a secluded environment.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.