A matter of perspective: Encountering different views of Napoleon in the classroom

The Napoleonic Wars are often considered as the first “total war” – a definition that implies a heavy civilian involvement in a war. Source: Battle of Leipzig from “Histoire du Consulat et de l’Empire”, 1865-1867, The British Library via Europeana

This article is the ninth of an ongoing series from EUROCLIO and Europeana providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series on labs.historiana.eu.

Today, Napoleon continues to be a divisive figure remembered in vastly contrasting ways. An article from the Guardian in 2017, for example, asked the question: “Cruel despot or wise reformer?” and indeed such questions remain the subject of debate for historians of our time. In his own time, too, Napoleon polarised the points of view of his contemporaries. Some respected his ambition and determination, while others described him as ruthless and calculating. The significant variance and contrast in the feelings of Napoleon’s contemporaries towards him and his leadership provides an excellent starting point for student engagement with historical perspectives. Historiana’s source collection, Contemporaries’ view of Napoleon, aims to support students to do just this.

Historical Perspective Taking in the Classroom

A core component of historical thinking and reasoning is historical perspective taking: being able to make sense of the perspectives of individuals in the past and understand how and why they may have formed such perspectives. Huijgen et al argue that in order for students to become successful at historical perspective taking, they must be able to contextualise historical perspectives, exhibit historical empathy, and avoid presentism (the assumption that people from the past felt and thought in exactly the same ways we do today).[1]

Therefore, when we ask students to investigate contrasting perspectives on Napoleon during his times, it is essential that our classwork asks them to deeply consider the contexts – temporal, geographical, political, social, etc. – in which his contemporaries were living and writing. Only then might students be able to place themselves in the shoes of these various individuals and attempt to make sense of how they may have arrived at such different perspectives on the same man. The advantages of taking the time to refine student skills in historical perspective taking are plentiful and include not only a development of their historical thinking skills but also a greater ability to understand and empathise with the different perspectives in the world around us today.

Historian and writer, Madame de Staël, said of Napoleon: “He regards a human being as an action or a thing, not as a fellow-creature.” Image source: Madame de Staël: From the Original Picture by F. Gérard, in the Possession of M. de Broglie, at Paris, Francois Gerard, 1853, The University of Edinburgh via Europeana. Source quote: From the book “Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution” (LF ed.) (Germaine de Staël), Published after Germaine de Staël death, in 1818

An Activity to Explore the Perspectives of Napoleon’s Contemporaries

Historiana provides one strategy for introducing students to the differing views of Napoleon’s contemporaries with the eLearning Activity, What did people think of Napoleon during his time? This activity builds on the source collection, inviting students to drag and drop images in order to sort historical figures into those that viewed Napoleon positively, those that viewed him negatively and those with changing or ambiguous perspectives.

Students are then required to consider a number of contextual factors that can impact on our perspectives:

  • The time in which we live
  • The place in which we live
  • Our position and role in society
  • Our political beliefs
  • Our religious beliefs
  • Our culture and background
  • Our personal experience

With these in mind, students are asked to look for any patterns they notice in terms of characteristics shared by individuals that hold similar perspectives. For instance, several figures in the collection with negative views on Napoleon came from countries he invaded, tried to invade or wanted to invade and this may have led them to feel he was an aggressor, power-hungry and a threat. The activity therefore supports their development of historical contextualisation and perspective taking skills. Like all eLearning Activities, this task can be easily adjusted to suit your classroom context.


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyondand the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.

[1] Huijgen, Tim, Carla Van Boxtel, Wim Van De Grift, and Paul Holthuis. ‘Testing Elementary and Secondary School Students’ Ability to Perform Historical Perspective Taking: The Constructing of Valid and Reliable Measure Instruments.’ European Journal of Psychology of Education: A Journal of Education and Development 29, no. 4 (2014): 653-72.


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