Napoleon, I. From 18 Brumaire to Tilsit 1799-1807
Napoleon, II. From Tilsit to Waterloo 1807-1815
Napoleon in Russia The 1812 Campaign
Napoleon Recaptures Paris
Napoleon after Waterloo
Napoleon's St. Helena
There are more books about Napoleon than about any other human being (a phrase carefully chosen in order to rule out Jesus Christ). More than 100,000 titles appeared by the end of the nineteenth century, and no one has made the count of those which have appeared since. Probably the total has by now reached a quarter of a million, and more are added every year. It is odd enough that readers should want to go on reading such books. It is even odder that writers should want to go on writing them. Can there really be anything fresh to be said on the subject, any new gold to be found in this well-dug field? It seems so. Napoleon not only remains a profitable market. He actually provides pleasure for those who write about him. It is very rare to pick up a book about Napoleon which has the air of being a hack job. Nearly every author seems to be in the game for the love of the thing.
This is puzzling. In earlier times—and perhaps in the United States still—people thought that there was something impressive about worldly success. Napoleon started as more or less nobody, an artillery captain at best. He became Emperor of Europe and looked as if he might become Emperor of the World. Thereafter all the other nobodies who jumped up a bit had a fellow feeling for him. We had Napoleons of finance, Napoleons of industry, Napoleons of the betting ring. Lord Northcliffe, English newspaper tycoon, was convinced that he was a reincarnation of Napoleon and demonstrated it by trying on Napoleon’s hat when he visited Malmaison.
Latterly Napoleonic prestige has run down, and we are reduced to hailing the Napoleons of crime. Events of fairly recent date have provided a disturbing parallel to the Napoleonic legend. Napoleon was a nobody who conquered Europe. That was marvelous in the nineteenth century. Now we have had another version of him. Hitler was also a nobody, another “little corporal” just like Napoleon and a more authentic one. Napoleon was in fact a captain of artillery before success came to him. Hitler was a genuine corporal. Hitler also conquered Europe. He, too, had a continental Empire. He slipped in only reaching the suburbs of Moscow, whereas Napoleon succeeded in taking up his residence in the Kremlin. Otherwise the likeness is pretty close.
We are agreed that Hitler was a very nasty man and his system of government utterly detestable, particularly when applied to others. This has washed back on to Napoleon, though most people are too tactful to say so. During the Second World War Churchill was forever wanting to describe how Great Britain had twice stood in the breach against the tyrant of Europe—first against Napoleon, then against Hitler. Every time he crossed out the passage in order not to offend General de Gaulle, who had found reasons enough…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.