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What did Napoleon do for Europe? More than you'd want to accept

What mark did Napoleon leave on European society?
Napoleon: not so short Credit: getty

Today marks 250 years since the birth of France's greatest ruler. But what was Napoleon's legacy on France – and the rest of the world?

At first sight, Napoleon’s heritage has been but twofold: first, he popularised the wearing of one’s hat the wrong way on. His placing of the bicorn across his head rather than fore-and-aft was the direct forerunner of the wearing of baseball caps back-to-front, also adopted by unspeakably annoying people.

Second, he made it acceptable for the shorter man to become a national leader. Both Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi have the emperor to thank.

In truth, Napoleon wasn’t that small, not like Prince or Jimmy Clitheroe. He was some 5ft 6in, about average for a 19th-century Frenchman. (About average for a mid-20th-century one, too; when I first travelled through France, I increased the mean male height wherever I went by 35 per cent). If the emperor is thought of as particularly short, it is due to British propaganda. Our press created the illusion of a pipsqueak and, as we know, it’s the illusion which counts through the ages.

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