Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte; drawing by David Levine

Who buys them, the endless books about Nalopeon, Josephine, and his monstrous brood of brothers and sisters, or the battle books that pour from the press, describing in detail his tactics but rarely the slaughter of men? Is there anything new to say about Napoleon, or is the story so compelling that readers want it told over and over again? Does the Napoleonic legend touch a deep unconscious cord in the heart of the aggressive male? I am sure that it does. In a world of aggressive individualism it could not fail to do so. And, of course, there is always something new to say, if the writer is really creative, about so inexhaustible a subject as Napoleon’s Europe, for the story is as rich in levels as the Olduvai Gorge. In the books under review David Stacton and Anthony Brett James are content with the surface; but they make an excellent contrast of the use and abuse of history. Stacton’s book is presumably aimed at middle-aged women. It possesses color, pace, and all the erotic details—but no historical judgment. Its basic triviality can be seen from its treatment of Waterloo.

The battle of Waterloo began Sunday of June 18 [Are there Mondays and Tuesdays of June 18?]. Napoleon had been suffering from haemorrhoids since the previous Friday and was thus paralyzed from divided attention and an inability to make a clear headed decision about much of anything. Sometimes he contradicted himself.

After that there is a long paragraph on the capture of Napoleon’s traveling carriage, jewels, and the plate. So Napoleon’s Hundred Days are reduced to triviality. Actually the Waterloo campaign was brilliantly conceived. It possessed all the élan of Napoleon’s previously victorious strategy and in many ways Wellington and Blucher, both caught initially on the wrong foot, were lucky to win. They were probably saved by two Dutch officers who acted against their orders and stayed at Quatre Bas, and by mistakes made by Ney, not by their own abilities. Of course, Napoleon changed his orders in the course of battle—he always did, and made mistakes of detail (which general did not?); true he was unwell, suffering from acromegaly (the piles were irrevelant); but quite possibly his major trouble was over-anxiety which made him miss the vital moment in which to use the Old Guard. But it was a brilliantly conceived campaign, fought largely with raw and inexperienced lads and came within a hair’s breadth of victory, as Wellington well realized. Nor was all lost at Waterloo.

The same historical ineptitude is found in page after page of Mr. Stacton’s book. His treatment of Joseph Bonaparte in Spain is ludicrous. No one could gather from these pages that Joseph had the support of a considerable section of Spanish society; many of them liberals who had enjoyed office under Carlos III, men of the Enlightenment who hated the Church and the dead hand of Spanish aristocratic and peasant conservatism. Still Mr. Stacton has not much time for historical analysis; in 368 pages he has to cover all the Bonapartes, including the American descendants of Louis Napoleon, so pace is essential. And the pace is there. No one could deny that this was a readable and lively book, full of characters, credible and incredible, but it has not much to do with history. Indeed, this is history abused.

MR. BRETT JAMES is altogether more serious, indeed his book is useful. He has compiled an annotated anthology of the 1812 campaign. He possesses a sharp eye for vivid detail, for the confused surface of history and he, together with the new translation of Ségur’s classic, is an excellent antidote to the more profound and scholarly book by David Chandler. For in Chandler’s excellent discussion of all of Napoleon’s major campaigns and battles the analysis is strenuous, clear, and intellectual; but although words like death, wound, sickness, loot, rape, burning are used frequently enough, the vile horrors of war that even disturbed Napoleon on occasion, are never brought home to us. Analysis must dehumanize the suffering and domesticate the horror. So it is well to remember the appalling destruction of men and women, French as well as allied, that Napoleon’s battles brought. And naturally the civilian population did no better. The brutalities of the time were less scientific than ours, certainly less profoundly evil, but these were horrifying enough. Death-haunted and full of blood lust, each army would butcher men, women, and children out of uncontrollable animal need. We forget too often that we are animals. Mr. Brett James and Ségur remind us vividly enough. Men ate each other to live and, even in that scarifying retreat from Moscow, copulation and birth still went on. Although Mr. Brett James stays near the surface, the surface is true, not false, and possesses deep relevance. By such books as his (and Ségur’s) the imagination is kindled so fiercely that it illuminates our own natures, our own bestialities, which we still practice on the weak and pacific. Although all that these books contain has been published before, republication is admirable, for it draws attention strongly to the rawness of life and the tragedies of history that are so easily glossed over. Men are still screaming in their death agonies as they did at Borodino, and death by napalm is no easier than death by bayonet. May both of these books sell in their tens of thousands.


The three remaining books will sell in their hundreds, not because they are worse, but because they are different. They are by professionals, written to advance historical knowledge or to be used in the training of historians. David Chandler’s is, in a sense, the most ambitious, for his purpose is to analyze, from the point of view of military history, Napoleon’s campaigns and battles in order to render explicit not only the principles of Napoleon’s tactics and strategy, but also their origins—terrain traversed time and time again since Von Clausewitz, but Chandler can hold up his head with the best of them. His prose is as clear as his intellect—I assure you, no mean feat. And his scholarship is excellent. The weakness, as far as the book has one, is the lack of any analysis in depth of the social composition of Napoleon’s armies, both officers and men, from the first Italian campaign to Waterloo. It is not enough to speak of revolutionary élan, or the confidence and dedication that comes from a decade of victories. Armies, like nations, are social animals, with an economic and class basis, and no Frenchman in the 1790s can have been unaware of politics or of the structural changes that the Revolution had forced on French society. And it might be argued that the composition of the French armies was as important as Napoleon’s tactical intelligence. Mr. Chandler sticks to his last—narrative of campaigns and analysis of military principles. Without seeming churlish, I would have preferred more on the sociology of war. But this is a fine book for the historian, the student, and the intelligent general reader.

AN ABSENCE OF DEEP sociological insight is noticeable in both the remaining books, although both authors are aware of the close interconnection between social and military history. Professor Connelly, of course, does not have a great deal of space in Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms, for he deals with them all, as well as keeping an eye on the fate of France and Napoleon as well. His survey is well informed, accurate, and a pleasure to read. It is, of course, derivative history, based almost entirely on secondary sources, but none the worse for that, and it will be a valuable teaching aid. It lacks, however, intellectual glamor. Here was a golden opportunity for comparison and analysis. The two most successful satellite kingdoms were Holland and Italy; the worst Spain; Westphalia and Naples betwixt and between. Yet Professor Connelly only deals with why this should be so en passant. He does not effectively evaluate the anti-Napoleonic role of the peasantry or sentiment of the urban bourgeoisie for whom the Napoleonic world of legal equality and bureaucratic efficiency had great appeal. Nor do we get any clear indication of the attitude of the menu peuple who, in Paris, were still willing to rise on behalf of Napoleon after Waterloo, when the allies were at the gates of the city. Was it the menu peuple—the craftsmen and shopkeepers—of Turin, Milan, and other Italian cities who formed the mass basis of Eugène Beauharnais’ support, or merely the haute bourgeoisie and the liberal intellectuals?

Such questions as these figure in what is, perhaps, the most valuable of all the books under review, Gabriel H. Lovett’s Napoleon and the Birth of Modern Spain, but not prominently, and the answers are not clear; indeed all too frequently they are not offered. In Volume II Professor Lovett has two important chapters devoted to the afrancesados: Spaniards who were willing to collaborate with the French, and accept Joseph as King. He distinguishes naturally enough between active and passive collaborators. It is not enough, however, to say of the latter that they wanted peace, or were frightened, or lacked energy. Inertia, at such a time, when other Spaniards were courting death with ferocious intent, has to be explained as well as described. Why did they not seem threatened in the very structure of their lives when so many other Spaniards did? Were there regional or class differences? Here the position of the Church is fascinating: Active collaborators seemed to belong almost entirely to the higher clergy or to members of monastic orders who had been coerced by their families into a life of religion. The rural clergy, like the bulk of the peasantry, were bitterly anti-French, as one would expect. The intelligentsia pose a more difficult problem. They were divided. Why? Patriotism on one side, the absence of it on the other. That would seem to be Professor Lovett’s answer. Patriotism is a strong motive, one that has been far too much neglected in the development of radicalism in Western Europe and America, and Professor Lovett could point, although he does not, to the split in the liberal intelligentsia in England—Hazlitt pro Napoleon, Wordsworth and Coleridge anti, and so on. But it does not seem quite adequate. Nor does the further argument that the liberals infiltrated the Cadiz Junta in order to direct the national insurrection into radical ends, although I think there may be a clue here. Was there an age difference between the two groups of intellectuals? The collaborators seem to have been drawn largely from those Spanish intellectuals who had been influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and where hopes for Spain had been stirred by Carlos III, men who wished to see reform come from royal bureaucratic action, whereas the nationalist liberals were more imbued with the ideas of social change through revolution. Professor Lovett implies as much on page 845, but he does not explore the question in depth. I, for one, would have preferred a far closer analysis of the guerrillas and their social origins—were they landless and quasi-destitute hidalgos, peasants on the margin of subsistence, substantial peasants, or cultivators under the control of the larger or lesser nobility or monastic orders? Useful and sound as this book is, it leaves, as so many studies of Napoleonic Europe do, many vital questions unasked.


WHEN NAPOLEON SAILED into Portsmouth harbor in the Bellerophon, naturally the crowds gathered and the little boats swarmed like gnats about the ship. When Napoleon showed himself on deck, there was applause and loud huzzas, not hisses and obscenities as one might have expected. Boney may have been a bogey to some but to many he was a hero, a force of light, a symbol of progress in a world still steeped in privilege and reaction. And that went for Britain as well as Italy. It is too easy to twist the Napoleonic story into a similitude to Hitler’s, to underline his opportunism, his addiction to the savage Blitzkrieg, his occasional murderous suppression of revolt, the moments of personal cruelty and obscenity, and the wanton remarks, such as, “what are the lives of a million men to me.” This is what Sir Arthur Bryant did explicitly during World War II and sold tens of thousands of books on this distortion of history, but Sir Arthur was merely a symptom of what most of Western Europe then wanted to believe. In war, it helps nations to feel that their role is traditional and moral, and in accordance with fate (after all, Russia, after 1941, resuscitated Peter the Great), especially if the past has been successful. So the horror side of Napoleon has been blown up. But misunderstanding goes deeper than that. He is marvelous bait for the unconscious moralist, for there is no better demonstration in modern European history, apart from Hitler, of overweening ambition leading to a spectacular fall. Men delight to think that sooner or later the most efficient military machine must break its teeth on the courage of the unprepared patriot. Ambition so deluded Napoleon that he cut his own throat by invading Spain and Russia, countries that were impossible, from a military point of view, to conquer. Hence morality triumphs. Unbridled egoism gets its proper reward.

THE TRUTH LIES DEEPER. The boundaries for the export of Napoleonic France were social, not military. Of course there were military problems—particularly in Russia (due largely to some of Napoleon’s own rare misjudgments rather than to climate or distance from base), and to a lesser extent in Spain, where the failure to throw Wellington into the sea was a denial of Napoleon’s fundamental strategy. Had he used the full force of the Imperial army in the early days of the Peninsula War, the Spanish problem might have been less critical for his regime, although, I suppose, the social difficulties in Spain would have remained intractable. However, the defeat of Napoleon in Spain and Russia was due not so much to military events as to the absence of a strong middle class and the presence of a vast, reactionary peasantry to whom the French could be made to appear as the ogres of a loathsome, anti-religious revolution. The French army would not only conquer but destroy the fabric of life, the religions and traditions of a people. Or so they were told. Priests, essentially anti-revolutionary, played a bigger part in Spain and Russia in opposition to Napoleon than anywhere else. Had Napoleon confined himself to the central core of Western Europe—the Netherlands, Western Germany, Italy, where the commercial middle classes were not only well-established but also socially expansionist, his success might easily have been permanent. But Napoleon, like subsequent leaders of nations, thought that military victory was equivalent to political success. If the social conditions are inimical, an army can win battle after battle but ultimately lose the war. Napoleon’s ultimate defeat was Europe’s loss. The powerful aristocratic and conservative forces in Europe, particularly in Germany, Austria, Russia, and Spain, were given a new lease of life. They could denigrate all liberal movements as Jacobinism, as anti-patriotic, in the way that powerful left-wing movements in modern times have been dubbed Communist and anti-patriotic, too. The fact that radicals are usually concerned with the welfare of the mass of the nation to which they belong never, quaintly enough, makes them patriots: the only true patriots are the possessors. Of that, they are certain.

The problems of Napoleon are very similar to our own: great military force that can expand, temporarily, over vast areas, only to fail because the ideology which it carries with it is useless to the societies it tries to dominate. A few of these books in the White House library would not be amiss; or, better still, required reading in the Pentagon.

This Issue

November 3, 1966