A Soft Spot for Napoleon


by Paul Johnson
Lipper/Viking, 190 pp., $19.95

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte; drawing by David Levine

Given the depressing list of dictators who have plagued the world in recent times—Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and tutti quanti, up to Milosevic and Mugabe—it is possible to have a soft spot for Napoleon. He began his career as a very young man, when it was a question of defending France against foreign invaders. In most circumstances, he displayed great courage and daring, and he risked his life more than once. Warfare was not yet completely mechanized in his day, and he was present in person on many battlefields. He even made the long trek to Moscow and back, whereas, if I am not mistaken, neither Hitler nor Stalin ever put in an appearance on the Russian front during the Second World War.

He toppled ruling houses as if playing a game of skittles. He was so resilient and quick-witted that it took seven successive European coalitions to put an end to his mischief. He was a tireless administrator, who itched to reform almost every institution he came across, and although most of his efforts eventually came to naught, some tangible traces of his influence still remain, such as La Légion d’Honneur and the regulations of certain educational institutions; he is not altogether an empty name like Shelley’s Ozymandias.

Despite his great talents, he had one rather touching disability: his Corsican childhood had left an indelible linguistic imprint, and he never learned to pronounce French correctly. He would not have been able to do justice to that magnificent piece of rhetoric he inspired some years after his death: Victor Hugo’s lament for Waterloo. I first heard it read aloud at the age of thirteen or fourteen, and although I was not at all the sort of boy who is interested in battles and model soldiers, I remember the shock of the sudden switch from the minor to the major key at the enjambement: furent grands followed by the rapid crescendo leading up to the triumphant, lingering bugle call:

Tu désertais, Victoire, et le sort était las.
O Waterloo, je pleure et m’arrête, hélas,
Car ces derniers soldats de la dernière guerre
Furent grands; ils avaient vaincu toute la terre,
Chassé vingt rois, passé les Alpes et le Rhin,
Et leur âme chantait dans les clarions d’airain!

But let us not get carried away. If we ask the naive question, Was Napoleon “a good thing”? enthusiasm cools. He was first and foremost a military man, and a cynic with limited human feelings. He is on record as having said, while contemplating a battlefield littered with corpses: “Bah! Une nuit de Paris remplacera tout cela!” (“What of it?” or “Not to worry! One Parisian night will replace all that!”). He was a man of power, one of the most remarkable in European history, but, in the end, instead of remolding politics creatively, he pieced together a gimcrack…

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