One of the biggest strengths of Warhammer is that everything is in question. While often pushed that bit too far or discarded at entirely the wrong moment, something which was once core to the canon was how everything was never entirely true. Books were often openly biased accounts, novels were the same and the Rashōmon style of telling the same story in three completely different ways was not uncommon. While united by certain facts, details and events, all other depictions were always to be taken with a pinch of salt.
This degree of mutability within the setting has always been strongest around its characters, none more so than those who witnessed the Heresy. None more so than the God-Emperor of Mankind himself. A figure wreathed in mystery and with few key details known about him, everything seems to be in question surrounding his actions. Some depict him as a crusading hero, others a tyrant, more of them suggest he was a god while others depict the exact opposite. Some argue that he united humanity, while others that he destroyed it entirely. So, since we have some free time, here's a short series of thoughts about the character. Though, before we start, it might be best to establish one detail:
Whether the Emperor was a god or not ultimately does not matter in the long run of things.
While many have argued this way or another in relation to his ultimate divinity, the aspect which matters far more is his actions, motivations and what he was ultimately required to do. While the Emperor himself could be called a tyrant for his actions, it would be far truer to call him a necessary evil. Something which even he seemed to realise for himself.
Many of the oldest Warhammer 40,000 texts from when the Horus Heresy was truly established record one detail above all - His actions were brought about by his hand being forced. He had existed for millennia after all, both in the original Shaman documents and what exists now, and it was repeatedly stated that he had been attempting to direct humanity along certain paths and encourage its enlightenment for countless generations. Having first been born sometime into 8,000,000 B.C. when the shamans had merged their power, or some other early time going by the idea he might have simply been immortal, he had witnessed humanity's growth.
The Emperor, while expanding and training his abilities, had seen the influences of Chaos and growing affect on humanity, surviving as a parasite which preyed upon strife and suffering, and sought to protect them. This was always his goal from the very start, even during times of peace and prosperity, without resorting to the later actions he is more famous for. The Empire which had existed prior to Old Night was something he had lived through, along with the conflicts all throughout history leading up to that point, every war or moment of strife. In some respects he might have been viewed to have been successful, but that ultimately came tumbling down thanks to the Warp and the growing mutation within humanity. It's been noted many times how dangerous the instabilities in humanity's geonome truly are to the Imperium, from the influence of Chaos itself or producing full blown psykers. Some are accepted but need to be trained, controlled and taught how to focus their powers, whereas others are all too easy converts and conduits to the Immaterium's denizens.
Through accepting such differences on a philosophical and genetic level, a utopia had been lost. The entire prior society was lost, destroyed outright and scattered to the winds, separated by Warp storms and degenerating into madness. Many died out entirely, denied resources they desperately needed. Others were lost to some nightmare technology or another, others were conquered by xenos forces and subjugated entirely, while the worst among them were twisted into weapons of Chaos, cults assisting in their power. A vast number of those mentioned so far have been seen many times over both in the Horus Heresy novels and additional books, with Nove Shendak, the Black Judges, the Ak'Hareth, and countless others showing humanity to be destitute, nearly destroyed or preyed upon by others.
Those who survived with an degree of stability were exceptionally few, with even the Knight Worlds falling countless times over, and fewer still were the xenos races who treated humanity with any degree of apathy let alone respect. The likes of the Interex or Diasporex were exceedingly rare exceptions rather than the rule, so much so that Horus was shocked at such a society working upon finding them. Even many areas of Terra itself were a dystopian nightmare which would make the worst of the Imperium look good by comparison, such as the Tempest Galleries. It was only after seeing such destruction, at the end of the Age of Strife, seeing humanity on the brink of extermination from isolation, infighting, mutation and xenos races that he acted openly, launching his crusade.
However, even as the Emperor did so, it was noted specifically that he knew he would need to take actions which were immoral. He was under no illusions that he was being forced to commit wrongful actions for a greater good, he knew that innocents were likely to die in the wake of his behavior, but what was the alternative? Let humanity waste away, all knowledge lost and eventually allow for their annihilation? That was, after all, what this era was leading to. Despite how much their servants would later insist they needed humanity, that they respected them and that some mutual symbiosis was needed, remember that Chaos never once stepped into to actually halt such massed suffering and destruction. It did very little to actually save any remotely significant chunk of humanity, and was quite happy to let such annihilation continue. They benefited from it, lost nothing and, after all, there were thousands of other sentient species they could afford to prey upon equally as vulnerable to their influences once humanity was gone. It's certainly not hard to see how the Chaos gods might have benefited from the septillions of Orks roaming about the galaxy - arguments or debates surrounding their possible resistance to Chaos aside - and it had been their presence and actions which had almost entirely destroyed humanity initially in the first place. To stop them, to unite his species and attempt to stop the xenos and malignant gods attempting to render humanity extinct, he could no longer afford to act from the shadows.
However, even when he did resort to such actions, his ultimate goal was never fully lost. His plan was to allow humanity to forge its own path, to allow itself to control its own destiny without any influence from Chaos or alien threats, and to bring it back to glory. What he was doing was more for their sake than it ever was his, and many of his actions reflect this. Much has often been made of his subjugation of other human societies and forces throughout the galaxy and the lengths he went to, yet in each case there was ever the opportunity to allow them to join peacefully. He was certainly not above mercy and even then his offers were not a simple "join or die" affair.
He ultimately required them to join the Imperium yes, but he was not above negotiating all throughout the Great Crusade. Many who did join were permitted to do so on their terms, and we have seen several examples of this over time. The founding territories of the Dusk Raiders for one, Old Albia, were fought against initially, but upon seeing their skill and resolve the Emperor halted his attacks and went to speak with them in person. He convinced, talked and negotiated with them so they would side with him, and bare in mind this was during a time when he was at his most desperate, trying to unite Terra as fast a possible. Later interactions would help to prove this, with the Dominion of Storms (also known as the Lords of Gardinaal) being brought to the negotiating table and spoken with for months at a time, only being broken off when the Lords attempted to secretly use psykers to turn the tables dramatically in their favour.
Both of the aforementioned examples were primarily done thanks to their martial skill and considering their deaths a waste, but it did show the Emperor was willing to give considerable leniency. Better examples can actually be seen in many of the worlds themselves. Despite all the claims of complete cultural takeover and forced re-education a-la Fascist mindwipes and the like, there remains a considerable degree of diversity among the Imperium's worlds. In modern M41, Tanith, Pavonis, Armageddon, Gudrum, Hubris, Thracian Primaris, Boros Prime and countless others are hardly clones of one another. Each was allowed to retain its own traditions, its own beliefs, its own views, and nothing was truly done to curb these even by the Administratum itself. Even in M31, think of all the worlds we've seen so far. Mars and its semi-religious technocracy was allowed to retain its traditions beliefs, and ideals upon the Emperor's arrival.
The countless Knight Worlds from Molech to Raisa, Alaric Prime, Chrysis and many others were not suddenly stripped of their powers or traditions under the excuse of enlightenment. The Knight Houses kept their positions of power, retained their own codes of honour and the like. The only difference was that some became more closely allied to the Mechanicus upon finding them and were sending their forces off-world to assist in defending the Imperium as a whole. Think of Terra itself then, at the very start and all we know of them so far. Many groups were divided up into different empires, different kingdoms and notabilities, yet even those subjugated by force of arms were still permitted to retain their own traditions and cultures. The Emperor, upon Old Albia siding with him, did not immediately demand drastic changes upon them, Europa retained its nobility and leadership despite the wars which they had fought, and Sek-Amrak was still noted to have its various tribes, clans and enclaves. For all that was different among them, the Emperor did nothing to suddenly try and cause some year zero nonsense or force that they only recognise him as their single overall authority.
Beyond even this, beyond all else, think also of the primarchs and their worlds. Chigoris, Fenris, the entirety of Ultramar, Chemos and Medusa were left unchanged despite the Imperium's arrival. Some accepted help certainly, with the resource starved Chemos in particular accepting off-world trade, but nothing was done to wipe out their shamanistic traditions or force them to become anything more like Terra in any way. Medusa still had its clans, Ultramar still had its cities, and any changes were usually offered and went through the primarchs rather than being forced upon the population. Even those which could have been viewed as potentially dangerous such as Nostramo, or even directly opposed the Emperor's objectives such as Colchis were not suddenly forced to start over or their populations wiped out. Diversity was never discouraged, and the only elements torn down were those directly seen as harming human populations or strengthening Chaos. If a world had just been freed from some xenos empire, its human population treated a second class citizen, there was something to help fill the void there in the form of Rememberancers and even educational facilities as needed. If a world supported a devout religion praying to a single deity, seen to influence and assist Chaos, that was systematically removed out of necessity rather than spite. The Imperial Truth was then brought in to fill that void, with the intention of taking over from any subconscious requirement for belief in a greater power, to have faith in something else. Like so many of his actions, this last point was only made as a requirement to help combat omni-demensional sadistic vampire gods who fed off of pain, suffering, anarchy and strife.
Now, think of the primarchs themselves for a second and how much many of them were shown a fair degree of leniency. Each was allowed to go their own way, to follow whatever path or tactic they desired most and the Emperor only seemed to step in when things went that bit too far. Think of Lorgar for a moment, just for starters. It took years of him disobeying the Emperor’s wishes, ignoring his requests and his legion’s slow progress to act in the way he did. There was no simple trigger mechanism which made the Emperor forcibly act against him, and the only reason he seemed to go so far as he did was thanks to Lorgar ignoring his words. Even then, when needed to make a complete example of them, to go further than he ever would have wanted, to supposedly ensure that they would stay on track, he went after a secondary target. It would have hit home that much harder to target Colchis over his actual one, Monarchia, yet he opted not to. It would have also hit far harder for him to have wiped the world out, to have left it nothing but a husk of skeletons and ruined buildings, yet even then he limited his damage. The Ultramarines were ordered to limit their damage to certain key cities, to allow the civilian population time to flee, and minimise causalities. It may have been an act of brutality yes, but like so many things here it was done only after there was seemingly no other option available to him. You can argue this was the act of a tyrant, but it was ultimately being done to try and prevent a far worse evil from spreading. Plus, unlike the forces he was trying to stop, the Emperor limited his impact to only as much as was needed, whereas Chaos’ reaction to disloyalty (or if they’re just in a particularly off mood that day) tends to involve complete annihilation, Chaos spawn and being devoured by daemons.
Consider also of the others who disobeyed the Emperor. Angron and Curze were known for their brutality, their massacres and use of terror or carnage as a weapon over others. Like so much else both the Eighth Legion and War Hounds were made to be necessary evils. They were to carry out the battles, acts and sins so no one else would have to, and to ensure something better would come of it. Even when they began to diverge from this, when they started to turn down a far worse path thanks to the criminals making up the Night Lords’ ranks or the Butcher’s Nails were implemented, they were not instantly censured. It took several acts for either legion to be turned upon, brought to heel in any way, and even then the Emperor seemed to show an odd reluctance to do so. Opposed to what was done with the Word Bearers, the incident with the Space Wolves ended in a stalemate, yet things went no further. There was little additional push to take them down or even bring them back to Terra.
Personally, I think this was possibly due to the Emperor being weary of what he was forced to do. Prior to that, he had lost two legions and two sons, both supposedly brought low by the Wolves for some reason, and was forced to betray an entire army of loyal followers. The Thunder Warriors, loyal as they were, were famously known as monsters and another necessary evil he was forced to perform to quickly unite Terra. Savage, powerful and psychotic beyond imagination, it’s no surprise they were cut down in favour of the more human astartes. We don’t know how many times he was ultimately forced to commit these acts, but as time went by he was showing far more leniency as and when it was needed.
Think also of Magnus and what was done with him. The events of Nikea came about thanks to a long string of incidents, from accusations of others, delving far deeper into the Warp than was deemed safe, to the apparent return of the afflicted flesh change. Like so much here, while the Emperor’s actions were often regarded as being drastic, but this was only done after so much had preceded it. Investigations were done in one way or another, it took multiple primarchs arguing against the libraries for it to take place, and Magnus showing no signs of heeding any warnings made to him about caution. It was only after Magnus showed no signs of halting his progress, arguing that he needed to discover all knowledge in his arrogance, that the Emperor tried to bring him to heel. It would have been easier to kill him and his entire legion there and then, removing a very possible future threat if Magnus disobeyed him, but he never went that far. It took a second, far greater betrayal, irreparably damaging a keystone in the Emperor’s plan to eventually send the Wolves after him.
It’s also not as if the legions were left completely unprepared or unaware of what awaited them in their foes.
You have to remember, the primarchs and space marines were hardly completely blind to the effects of Chaos or any of its abilities. Despite it being the very start of the whole series, a moment so often overlooked is the conversation between Loken and Horus following the Whisperheads. In that, it was made clear that they were aware of the threat daemons faced, but were informed they were more akin to other xenos races, and how psykers could be possessed by them. Horus and a few of the other primarchs were given a little more warning of the Warp, specifically relating to the entities there and to a degree where the Warp could break through. He specifically mentions locations where the barrier with the Immaterium was weak and how dangerous they were and it seems they were made just aware enough to help directly combat them. The flaw in this came from the lack of fully understanding Chaos’ effects or how it could alter or poison the mind. Fulgrim for example did not understand the effect his blade was having upon him following the conquest of Laeran, allowing it to corrupt him. The same goes for Horus following his visions, and his inability to fully react to Chaos’ influence. While they were both likely aware of how to fight their servants, its influence was another thing entirely.
This inability to fully relay such information or trust others with it was ultimately the Emperor’s downfall. If there was ever a flaw, it was that, along with believing that Chaos required prayer more than emotion, it was that he only gave out as much information as was needed. There are many ways to view this given the current lack of information. He could be seen to distrust his sons, he might have planned for them to perhaps learn the truth at a later date or even had just hoped they would never know of the threat itself. The last one is something which does make the most sense given his overall objective, supressing all knowledge of Chaos and waging a secret war against it. They were a target for Chaos after all and despite his treatment he did care for them. Even at his worst, with the full powers of the four gods behind him and in the process of killing him, Horus only accomplished what he did thanks to the Emperor holding back out of a desire to hopefully turn him back.
Unfortunately, whatever the reason, it was his undoing. Unable to trust many others with his information, there was nothing to stop his own failings. When he failed to judge the full influences of Chaos and how omnipresent they truly were, that left them open to manipulate his sons. It might have taken much of their effort to blind him, but without that same information the Heresy itself was permitted to come about. Whether out of hatred or even a misplaced sense of loyalty, bit by bit others turned against him. Such a lack of trust, perhaps even borderline paranoia, could be seen to be the trait of a tyrant. At the time of his death he seemed to have no plans for what would happen if he were killed prior to his work’s completion. There was nothing in place to truly guide the Imperium, or even fully replace him if needed, and it took Guilliman taking the reins to hold everything together.
Personally though, I think this was more that the Emperor’s plans were incomplete more than anything else. He had always been noted to work for the betterment of his species as a whole, and it was with a reluctance that he had taken the role of such a direct ruler. He had near perpetually put himself in harm’s way for their sake, from conning the Chaos gods twice over into giving him their power to fighting on the frontlines, and even killed off forces he thought were too much of a risk for the new government I.E. the Thunder Warriors. It was humanity’s Imperium after all, not his, not the astartes’, and we see proof of this at a key point in the heresy. During the events of The Outcast Dead, upon learning of his required death to ensure the Imperium’s survival, the Emperor does not hesitate to accept that. Rather than fleeing or trying to worm his way out of it, rather than trying to preserve and sacrifice others to preserve personal power, he was perfectly willing to die.
The final question then is, really, if his sacrifice was truly worth it. The Imperium gradually descended into a dystopia held together by faith, paranoia and gene-forged warriors yet guided by psychopaths. It was hardly the victory over Chaos some had envisioned, and some have gone so far as to argue that this was the Ruinous Powers’ ultimate victory. That with the Emperor supposedly dead, with new followers at their command, they had a system now in place to harvest strife from. A possible theory but ultimately and extremely flawed and very narrow minded one. Why? Because the setting already had their perfect environment take place. That was Old Night, with far more worlds trapped in a perpetual cycle of misery, despair and death, with no real knowledge of them or defence against their influences.
For better or worse, the Imperium as it stands now is united against Chaos itself. They emerged from the Heresy with knowledge of how to limit Chaos’ effects, measurements and put in place to prevent such an opportunity ever happening again. Institutions were created as a key part of the hierarchy to help protect against Chaos, the Librarians were re-instituted and many concepts such as pentagramic and hexagramic wards became known to psykers. To top all of this, while it might have been against his wishes, a new church was formed which served as the perfect bulwark against Chaos, the Ecclesiarchy. Widespread throughout the galaxy, from teeming Hive Worlds to primitive lost colonies, almost all of humanity worships the Emperor over the dark gods. While they might benefit from emotion, the prayer they needed is instead being diverted into their arch foe. So much so that miracles have taken place with beings appearing with more benign aspects of power; the living saints, potentially the legion of the damned, even angelic beings that alter the flow of battle in the Imperium’s favour.
Even if the Emperor himself is completely dead, something which is disputed to this day, his effect was more than enough to turn things against Chaos. What the Ruinous Powers ultimately wanted was a galaxy wide Eye of Terror, completely under their dominion and brimming with torment unimaginable to mortals. Founding a government which held that off for almost ten thousand years? That certainly seems like a win.
Tyrant? Saviour? At the end of the day he had shades of both, but I personally think that at his core he was the latter.