By Nils Skudra
As a passionate fan of European history, I have a strong fascination with Napoleon Bonaparte, the brilliant and charismatic general who became dictator and then emperor of France in the period following the French Revolution.
One of the most enigmatic figures in world history, Napoleon left a profound imprint on the European political landscape, spreading the ideals of the French Revolution through his conquests, yet ruling as a despotic monarch whose wars brought great suffering to the European nations. The thought occurred to me that a case could be made for Napoleon possibly being on the autism spectrum, given that he had a variety of distinguishing personality traits that he brought to his regular routine as a military and political leader.
Napoleon Bonaparte was born to an affluent Corsican family on August 15, 1769. As a young adult, he took up the cause of the French Revolution, serving with distinction at the Siege of Toulon, where he played a decisive role in the French victory over the British.
Appointed to command French forces in Italy, Napoleon won a series of victories over the Austrian armies, earning the respect and devotion of his men who affectionately called him “The Little Corporal.” His successes won him national acclaim, making Napoleon a celebrated military hero for the French Republic. During this period, he fell in love with Josephine de Beauharnais, a member of an aristocratic family that had been persecuted by the revolutionary regime during the Reign of Terror. They subsequently married, although Napoleon would be frequently absent due to his military campaigns.
While he was a highly effective military leader, Napoleon also had an astute grasp of political affairs, and his observation of the French Directory’s corruption and ineffectual rule, together with his enormous ambition, led him to mount the Coup of 18-19 Brumaire (November 9-10, 1799), a military coup that toppled the republican government and replaced it with the French Consulate, with Napoleon ruling as First Consul.
In effect, Napoleon had established himself as a dictator, exercising power with an iron hand. During this period, Napoleon made a series of notable accomplishments, including the establishment of France’s first public education system, financing various public-works projects, and signing a Concordat with the Roman Catholic Church. One of his most sweeping achievements was the Civil Code of France, popularly known as the Napoleonic Code, which marked the first major codification of French law since the Roman era.
In accordance with the ideals of the French Revolution, the Code eliminated feudal and royal privileges in favor of all citizens’ equality before the law, and it established a precedent for courts to use reason and logic in interpreting how laws applied to certain cases. The Code has continued to have a powerful influence on French law and other countries’ legal systems to this day.
In December 1804, Napoleon held an elaborate ceremony for his coronation as Emperor of France. During the coronation, Napoleon famously took the crown from the pope and placed it on his own head, then crowned Josephine as Empress. Although Napoleon pledged to “maintain the integrity of the territory of the Republic” in his oath, he had effectively reintroduced a monarchy, which the French Revolution had sought to abolish. Furthermore, as he proceeded to conquer the whole of Europe, Napoleon placed his siblings on the thrones of the conquered nations, establishing a Napoleonic dynasty.
Throughout his military and political career, Napoleon displayed a series of distinctive traits that characterized his daily routine. These included a remarkable ability to dictate multiple letters at once to his secretaries, which is captured in a scene from the 1970 film Waterloo. During this scene, Napoleon (played by Rod Steiger) opens by dictating a letter of condolence to the mother of a fallen soldier, then quickly transitions to reciting a message for the Russian tsar Alexander I, followed by another letter to Marie Louise, Napoleon’s second wife. Throughout the scene, Napoleon displays astute powers of concentration in reciting each letter, coupled with the force of his personality. This is often a trait found among autistic individuals since they have a very singular mindset when applying themselves to a task, with the result that they can concentrate very effectively and complete the task with efficiency.
Another distinguishing characteristic of Napoleon’s personality was his tendency to elaborate upon multiple ideas as they came to his mind. These could include a range of topics, from military strategy to his plans for domestic policy. This trait is also found among autistic individuals since their minds function in a different neurological way, and consequently they often express their thoughts and ideas whenever they come to mind, free of inhibition. In some ways, this can be illustrative of the creative mindset that autistic individuals bring to their jobs, which can be a positive asset for them as employees, but in other ways it can sometimes have an alienating effect on social interactions since they might make statements that their peers find offensive.
One of Napoleon’s greatest assets was his ability to focus on a single objective, which proved to be a pivotal factor in many of his military successes. In the article “Learn Napoleon’s Secret to Success: Stop Multitasking,” the author affirms that during the Napoleonic Wars, “Napoleon consistently exploited the competing priorities and objectives of his larger enemies,” displaying a refusal to multitask while determining concrete solutions to achieve victory against numerically superior forces.
At the Battle of Austerlitz, for example, Napoleon acted upon his conviction that “[o]ne sharp blow” would bring an end to the war, launching an assault that split the Russian and Austrian forces, then concentrating on their left wing and destroying it. This resulted in a sweeping French victory, earning Austerlitz a place in history as Napoleon’s greatest victory. Napoleon explained the rationale for his focused strategic approach by writing, “[T]he secret of great battles consists in knowing how to deploy and concentrate at the right time.” Victory comes, he maintained, from “being always able, even with an inferior army, to have stronger forces than the enemy at the point of attack.”
Napoleon’s ability to focus on a single strategic objective is also illustrative of autism since autistic individuals tend to bring a very singular mindset to their worldview, both in personal and professional spaces. This can include focusing narrowly on a specialized area of interest, such as history or political science, and consequently autistic individuals tend to excel in such an area of interest.
In addition, their singular focus can be an important asset in the workplace since they bring a strong detail orientation and a determination to complete their designated tasks, which can make them very effective employees. However, this singular focus can also have an adverse effect on how they respond to unexpected developments, which can sometimes trigger strong anxiety and stress. In Napoleon’s case, it could be argued that this tendency, together with his overconfidence, contributed to his defeat at Waterloo since he had devised his battle plan to defeat Wellington’s army, with no expectation that the Prussians would arrive to reinforce the British and launch a flanking assault on the French line.
Napoleon’s legacy remains highly complex and controversial. While his introduction of the Napoleonic Code left a lasting impact on French law, the Napoleonic Wars, which lasted some twenty years, brought immense suffering to the peoples of Europe, and Napoleon’s brutal policies of repression helped trigger an effective guerilla resistance against French rule in Spain, which ultimately contributed to France’s defeat in the Peninsular War.
For European Jews, Napoleon’s conquests brought liberation from the ghettos and ushered in a new period of equality before the law, although his ulterior motive was to assimilate the Jews into European society so that they would ultimately shed their distinctive identity. Furthermore, while Napoleon ruled as an emperor, his conquests helped to spread the ideals of the French Revolution, which brought about a significant long-term transformation of the political map of Europe.
In summation, I believe that Napoleon’s idiosyncrasies can support a plausible case for his possibly being on the autism spectrum. Together with his tremendous charisma and his powers of concentration in dictating multiple letters and elaborating upon multiple ideas at once, his singular focus on achieving concrete objectives proved to be a remarkable asset to his military leadership, resulting in numerous victories in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.
However, his explosive temper proved alienating in his relations with his subordinates, and his overconfidence, together with his failure to prepare for the unexpected arrival of Prussian forces on his flank at Waterloo, ultimately contributed to his downfall. While Napoleon has left a highly complicated legacy, he provides a poignant example of how the force of a leader’s personality, together with key distinctive traits, can have a powerful impact in shaping the course of world history.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with autism, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.