What Napoleon Can Teach Us About Preventing Violent Extremism

April 6, 2020  – 

„When Napoleon escaped from exile in Elba and landed in Southern France, the former emperor had just a handful of supporters. Royalist soldiers, loyal to the reinstated Bourbon King, had orders to arrest him. But those men had not always fought for the king. Many had spent years in Napoleon’s service and had marched with him to Moscow and back.

Instead of giving in to fear, Napoleon took charge of the situation. The king saw him as a fugitive and political exile. Napoleon saw himself as an emperor. He walked up to the men and stared them down, despite the barrels of the muskets facing him.

And when he was close enough, he spoke. “If you would fire on your emperor, do it.”

The incident, whether or not it has been embellished by historians, journalists and biographers, highlights exactly what we are trying to talk about here. How does one man, facing many men with weapons, persuade them to abandon their allegiance and join him? Why do people fight for some causes and not others?

What happened at that moment was a shift in frame. Political ideologies are all stories we tell each other to make sense of our social reality. In one frame, Napoleon was a disgraced former leader who had escaped from prison and needed to be brought to justice. In another he was the rightful emperor of France.

He came onto the field that day with one reality and left with another. The transition took place in the minds of the men who followed him.

Preventing and countering violent extremism is about finding out why and how those shifts in framing take place. When do people stop believing in the legitimacy of the state and human rights and take on dangerous ideas that may lead them to kill? And how can we help ensure they make positive life-affirming choices, instead of dangerous ones?


In the war of ideas, a story is often times the most powerful weapon we have. Stories can bring transformative understanding and change. They are one of the single most effective ways to communicate, destroy or birth an idea.

Our campaigns against extremism must first and foremost plant an alternative seed, offering a more powerful narrative than the ones being peddled by extremists.“ (…)

What Napoleon Can Teach Us About Preventing Violent Extremism

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