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A Soft Spot for Napoleon


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

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 empire, with his siblings and extended family as pop-up kings and queens. In the circumstances of the time it was perhaps almost inevitable that he should do so. Beethoven, in his disappointment, tore up the dedication of the Eroica symphony, but of course a composer deals with musical notes, a less intractable material than human nature. Napoleon was riding on a wave of history or collective hysteria, so much so, indeed, that some commentators have maintained that he was more the creation of circumstances than their creator. But to adopt such a view wholeheartedly would be to absolve him of all responsibility and to diminish his personality, around which such a complex myth has developed.

That the myth is still alive, even in the English-speaking world, is demonstrated by the simultaneous appearance of these four new books, to be added to the hundreds of others that have already dealt with Napoleon’s campaigns, the drama of his crowded life, and the mystery of his psychological makeup. Nearly two centuries after his death, he still commands such attention that Michael V. Leggiere, an American professor of history, has devoted seven years to the study of a single aspect of a single year in Napoleon’s career—the so-called Prussian War of Liberation of 1813.

To defeat the sixth coalition, consisting of Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Britain, and Russia, Napoleon needed to retake Berlin, where his authority had once been supreme, but he failed. The spell had been broken by the catastrophe of the Russian campaign of 1812, and Prussian opposition had stiffened. By now the too-confident conqueror had bitten off more than he could chew; he was not free to lead the campaign himself, and his local commanders lacked his ability to improvise on the spur of the moment, partly perhaps because he had always been inclined to keep them on a rather short lead.

Napoleon and Berlin is obviously intended for readers with a special interest in the minutiae of military history, but it also gives a vivid picture of the confusions of warfare, with misunderstandings and quarrels between commanders, and much switching of loyalties on the part of nations and states.

Leggiere passes no overall moral judgment on Napoleon. Paul Johnson, on the contrary, mounts a short, pithy attack in his life of Napoleon. While recognizing the Corsican’s exceptional abilities, he presents him as the embodiment of pure, unprincipled ambition:

…The horrific course of the Revolution led, as was almost inevitable, to absolutism, of which Bonaparte was the beneficiary. And once installed in power he relentlessly sought further power by extending his rule to encompass most of Europe…. Force was the only language he understood, and in the end it pronounced a hostile judgment on him.

Napoleon was an unhesitating liar and self-propagandist, ready to express liberal sentiments for tactical reasons, but privately convinced that the mass of humanity is no more than a mob, unless controlled by strong characters, he himself being, naturally, the strongest character in Europe. Johnson quotes Wellington’s verdict, which tempers praise with severe blame:

I can hardly conceive of anything greater than Napoleon at the head of an army—especially a French army. Then he had one enormous advantage—he had no responsibility—he could do what he pleased; and no man ever lost more armies than he did.

Johnson is particularly scathing about the “monstrous progeny” of the Napoleonic legend, those subsequent dictators, powerful or petty, who have been encouraged by his example. The book ends with a peroration:

The great evils of Bonapartism—the deification of force and war, the all-powerful centralized state, the use of cultural propaganda to apotheosize the autocrat, the marshaling of entire peoples in pursuit of personal and ideological power—came to hateful maturity only in the twentieth century…. We have to learn again the central lesson of history: that all forms of greatness, military and administrative, nation and empire building, are as nothing—indeed are perilous in the extreme—without a humble and a contrite heart.

Here Johnson seems to be sounding a religious note. But how many leaders of men, even among the religious ones, are humble? Jesus Christ, from all accounts a much nicer man than Napoleon, can hardly be called humble, since he claimed to be the Son of God. This claim, raised to mythic level in the long aftermath of his death, has been the cause of many wars, even between his own followers.

What Johnson summarizes trenchantly, Frank McLynn deals with at a much more leisurely pace in his biography, and his verdict on Napoleon is only marginally more favorable. The story divides roughly into three phases: first, the meteoric rise of the young Bonaparte to his preliminary achievement of supremacy as First Consul; then his fragile reign as the Emperor Napoleon, which, although filled with ambitious schemes, was really a long decline, ending with the disaster of Waterloo; and the exile on St. Helena. McLynn emphasizes the duality of Napoleon’s temperament—an exceptionally powerful rational brain at the service of a wildly romantic imagination. Had he really been a man of peace, he might have consolidated his position in mid-career, but instead he was a power-hungry individual whose appetite grew by what it fed on. McLynn writes:

The Code Napoléon has been much admired, but it is difficult to see it as anything other than a cynical rationalization of Napoleon’s personal aims, in some cases cunningly projected into the future.

It is also difficult, after reading McLynn’s book, to see the Napoleonic imperial elite, generally speaking, as anything other than a grasping, licentious crowd of hangers-on, plotting against each other, and even at times against the central figure on whom they all depended. As for money-grabbing and sexual morality, Napoleon himself set the worst possible example, and his most audacious act of hypocrisy as a skeptic was to have the catechism rewritten so as to include a prayer to be recited for his own personal safety and prosperity. The Bonaparte family was a nest of vipers, on whom he showered wealth and position, and whom he treated with inexplicable lenience. Even the famous marshals, who have often been thought of as a gallant band of heroes, were, with one or two exceptions, contentious and treacherous. Napoleon’s closest civilian advisers were Talleyrand and Fouché, two clever rascals and consummate time-servers. The more one reads about the Napoleonic Empire, the more tawdry and ramshackle it seems. How has it become the stuff of legend, unless humanity in general has an instinctive reverence for the naked exercise of power?

The explanation may lie partly in the last act of the drama—St. Helena. There is reason to believe that, after the defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon tried to kill himself, but, if so, the poison he swallowed failed to work. Had he disappeared suddenly and ignominiously from the scene, as Hitler was to do later, his enormous prestige might have collapsed, along with his flimsy empire. But exile gave him the opportunity to appear as a victim and, being a great performer, he made the most of it. It was as if he achieved his second apogee as Prometheus chained to a rock, with the vulture, Sir Hudson Lowe, the base minion of base politicians, pecking at his liver. According to the death certificate, Napoleon died of cancer, but it seems that some of his admirers would still like to believe that the malady was really hepatitis, so as to complete the Promethean analogy.

It is significant of the ambiguity still surrounding him that the two Franks, Frank McLynn and Frank Giles, the author of Napoleon Bonaparte: England’s Prisoner, take opposite views of this last episode. McLynn describes Lowe, the governor of St. Helena, as a petty-fogging martinet, “a creature” of Lord Bathhurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, from whom he received his orders. Giles completely exonerates him as a decent man doing his best in a very difficult situation. His instructions were to address the prisoner as “General Bonaparte,” but Napoleon still thought of himself as “the Emperor,” and his French entourage maintained the fiction through the strict observance of the Imperial protocol. Lowe and Napoleon met on only six occasions, and on five of them Lowe was exposed to the full blast of pseudo-imperial fury, which he apparently listened to in polite silence.

Eventually Napoleon died either of cancer perhaps brought on partly by frustration, of hepatitis, of slow arsenic poisoning administered by a scheming member of his French household, or of the long-term effects of a bug picked up during the Egyptian campaign—one can take one’s choice. Lowe’s life was blighted by his association with St. Helena because he was demonized by Napoleon’s admirers, but the Napoleon myth continued to swell as the century progressed, until it climaxed in le retour des cendres and the erection of the vast tomb in Les Invalides. It burst, temporarily at least, with the defeat and abdication in 1871 of Napoleon III, officially the nephew of Napoleon I, but probably, because of a sequence of adulteries, not a blood relation at all. It reformed immediately in the revenchard atmosphere encouraged by patriotic writers such as Maurice Barrès and Edouard Rostand. Later, in the mid-twentieth century, it no doubt had a good effect for once in stiffening the resolve of a more respectable man of destiny, Charles de Gaulle.

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