The arguments in favor of honoring Napoleon are twofold. The first argument focuses on things about Napoleon that, at first sight, appear worth celebrating. In Roger Cohen’s words, he was a ‘modernizing reformer ’, and a general who ‘represents a quintessence of French audacity and genius’. The second argument does not aim to paint Napoleon in a positive light but, in Gabriel Attal’s words, stresses that ‘To commemorate is to have your eyes wide open on our history and look it in the face.’ Both are familiar arguments used by Confederate sympathizers in favor of honoring figures such as Robert E Lee.
Here is the problem with both arguments: they equally apply to Hitler and his generals. If these arguments were sound, then Hitler and his goons should also be commemorated by Germans — an absurd conclusion in my view. Thinking about Hitler brings us at least two insights. Firstly, we should not commemorate people for their excellence in battle or governance, with no regard to the morality of the aims that they pursue. Had Hitler been the most brilliant general and Chancellor who had ever lived, he should still not be commemorated. Secondly, commemoration is not a neutral act that simply reminds us of our history. It is seen as an act of approval, or at the very least, an act of non-disapproval. Because we do not commemorate people who we unequivocally condemn. To commemorate someone implies that the person is not unequivocally condemnable — it implies that they are at worst morally gray. This is not a suitable message to send about a ‘colonizer, warmonger and enslaver’, in Roger Cohen’s words.