Napoleon; drawing by David Levine

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 already for taking offense. We all want to please the French and therefore stress the differences between Napoleon and Hitler rather than the parallels. Napoleon did not massacre helpless civilians, perhaps because the idea did not occur to him. His crimes against individuals did not amount to much more than the executions of the duc d’Enghien and Palm the German bookseller. Napoleon claimed to represent a superior civilization, not a superior race. Moreover it was Conservatives who hated Napoleon, and some, though not all, Radicals admired him. With Hitler it was the other way.

British historians, who were usually Conservatives themselves, always tended to regard Napoleon as an ogre. French historians have found much to admire even when they were good republicans. The admiration shows through even in the work of Georges Lefebvre, who was tempermentally more at home with the Jacobins. Lefebvre is generally ranked among the greatest historians of the last generation. He had vast learning, scholarly detachment, and a firm grasp of social affairs. He is often described as a historian’s historian, which means that his books, though enlightening, are rather dull. Not for him the epigrams of Sorel or the invective of Taine. He would have been offended to be hailed as a literary man, and it would have been mistaken to do so. His book on Napoleon was to some extent an aberration. Having written the most magisterial survey of the French revolution, Lefebvre felt that he must go on and survey the Napoleonic era also. His interest lay in events rather than in persons, and he arrived at Napoleon the man almost by accident.

For Lefebvre concluded that the force of events failed to provide an explanation. Other French historians had tried to reduce the Napoleonic wars to a system. In one version, the reactionary monarchs of Europe were determined to destroy the French revolution. In another they were determined not to tolerate the France of the natural frontiers. Alternatively Napoleon himself had a system: to unite Europe or to create a new Mediterranean empire. Lefebvre rejected such rationalizations. He quotes Napoleon’s answer, when asked for his final goal: “I always told them that I just didn’t know,” and again: “To be in God’s place? Ah! I would not want it; that would be a cul-de-sac!” Napoleon lived for action: “I generally look ahead three or four months in advance to what I must do, and then I count on the worst.” He repudiated the charge of ambition: “It is said that I am an ambitious man but that is not so; or at least my ambition is so closely bound to my being that they are both one and the same.” Lefebvre adds this gloss: “Napoleon was more than anything else a temperament.” This is about as far as a historian can go. For historians, though good at examining evidence, have no deep understanding of human nature. This is the domain of poets, and Hardy, whose Dynasts naturally does not appear in Lefebvre’s bibliography, perhaps did best when he presented Napoleon as being condemned by his nature to become the sport of the gods.


Napoleon was a type as well as an individual. He was the man who came after the revolution. His task was both to continue and to end it. His impulses were revolutionary. His calculations were reactionary. He created a new nobility and despised it. He turned his brothers into kings and then jeered at them. At heart he did not even believe in himself as Emperor, and his last act before leaving France forever was to volunteer as a plain general. Repudiating the ideals of the revolution, he fell back on the traditional religion. He said: “There can be no society without material inequality, and there can be no material inequality without religion…. No religion, no government.” But having no religious faith himself, he doubted its efficacy with others and fell back on glory: “My actions must be dramatic, and for this, war is indispensable.” He wanted excitement for himself and offered it to others. He became the slave of his temperament. When ailing and middle-aged, he went on as though he were still young, dragging himself across Europe into new adventures. In the end, everyone except himself wanted a quiet life, and perhaps he wanted it also. He left France with the character which she still has: a desire for glory without paying the price for it.

No individual man makes all events when he tries to do so. Life goes on. Human beings continue to labor. They need food and clothing. They produce children and raise families. Lefebvre is at his best when he turns from Napoleon to the material developments in European affairs. Napoleon’s empire was designed to bring practical advantages for France. The European markets were to be opened to French industry, while France itself was to remain closed against foreign competitors. This was the Continental System, which English historians, with a sort of national pride, have presented as directed against their own country. Lefebvre insists that it was the other way round. Napoleonic hostility to England grew out of the Continental System, which became a weapon of war by chance. Nor does it seem that Europe turned against Napoleon because of economic hardship. Napoleon tried to do too much with inadequate resources. He was beaten by the conscript armies of the old order, not by an uprising of the people, however much Lefebvre makes of the nationalistic movements. The wonder is not that he fell when he did. The wonder is that he lasted so long.

Napoleon’s Empire was a masterpiece of improvisation. At each stage he merely did what lay nearest to hand, and this provided some answer of itself. Sometimes he threw an idea away almost before he had begun to try it, as for instance when he brought the Pope to Paris for his coronation and then crowned himself. He created new states and then abolished them, elevated his relatives to thrones and then dethroned them. Napoleon’s army was the greatest of his improvisations. This, like much else, was a legacy of the French revolution, but in the case of the army Napoleon never attempted to impose system and order on the revolution’s work. The army remained a chaos, with new recruits often flung into battle untrained. In its march it resembled a barbarian horde rather than a disciplined force. The soldiers marched pell-mell to the field of battle and flung themselves on the enemy. There was no careful line of communications, and the commissariat merely brought some order into pillage. Napoleon’s army was designed for quick victories, and this suited his impatient temperament. The momentum gradually ran down, partly as the soldiers and their leaders grew older, partly because Napoleon extended his operations into wider areas. In the Russian campaign, he resembled a tennis player trying to demonstrate his skill on a football field.


With the Russian campaign, the story was really over. Napoleon had destroyed his own army and could not create a new one of the same sort. He could survive only by dividing the Allies, but diplomacy had never been numbered among his accomplishments. He thought that diplomacy and lying were synonymous, as to some extent they are. But he lacked even the touch of good faith necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. Even so the Allies took a long time to resolve that they would have nothing to do with him. They, too, were forced on by circumstances. It was as certain as anything could be that there would be constant risk of trouble while Napoleon was around. His dethronement made sense, just as unconditional surrender did in the Second World War. Restoration of the Bourbons was a bonus, though to the monarchs of Europe a welcome one. To some the end of the Napoleonic era meant the restoration of peace and quiet. To others, it marked the end of grandeur and romance—a view which even Lefebvre shares to some extent. At least he concludes that Napoleon will always retain his fascination. Perhaps this remark was added only because Lefebvre had to end his book somehow. Certainly there is little romance in its prosaic pages.

When we leave Lefebvre, we move into a less refined sphere. Alan Palmer’s account of the Russian campaign deserves to be taken seriously. It is a solid book, firmly grounded on the latest information. The hero has changed from Napoleon to the Russian people. What happened on the Russian side has undoubtedly the greater interest. Napoleon’s behavior and that of his army was predictable—exactly what was expected of them. The Russians, from Tsar Alexander to the humblest serfs, might have given up as readily as others had done in central Europe. Instead there were no collaborators—a better record even than when they were fighting against Hitler. And one can see the same troubles. The Russians were fighting to be left alone, exactly as they did in the Second World War. Yet they were drawn on to liberate others, and then were abused for doing it in their own wild way. Alexander I was accused of wanting to succeed Napoleon as the master of Europe, just as Stalin—a less attractive man—was accused of wanting to succeed Hitler. Alexander I had some notions of general idealism, which sometimes made him a nuisance. Stalin had none, and the most gigantic efforts of Western diplomacy were needed in order to find grounds for quarreling with him. These are not lessons drawn by Mr. Palmer, who is too good a historian to go around seeking for parallels.

And now we approach the Emperor industry at its most straightforward: books written because they present a good story, not because they offer historical enlightenment. The two sensational ones are by French authors, though English writers have been attracted often enough by the same themes. The choice of period is significant. All three books are about “afterwards”—the epilogue to the Napoleonic romance when there was excitement and little else. When dealing with the Hundred Days, there is no need to speculate about Napoleon’s character or to discuss the realities of power and politics. One can succumb unashamedly to emotion and forget what Napoleon had done in the days of his greatness. Undoubtedly it is an exciting story. Napoleon left Elba with nothing except his name. It was assumed that he had become the forgotten man. Instead he reconquered France simply by marching across it. He triumphed because of lack of resistance. The forces of order had been created by him and succumbed effortlessly to his appeal. As Napoleon progressed through France, there were signs of a radical rising in his favor, and ingenious historians have argued that Napoleon lost the Hundred Days by refusing to appeal to the Jacobin Left which he had betrayed at the outset of his rise to power. Maybe Napoleon genuinely disliked the idea of an appeal to the masses. But it is hard to believe that he had any chance of success, whether he appealed to the Left or the Right. His problem was to defeat the Allies, not to overthrow Louis XVIII, the Bourbon king. The creation of a revolutionary army had needed some time even at the height of the revolutionary regime. It could hardly have been repeated in a few days, if at all.

Romantic emotion carried Napoleon to the Tuilleries. The impact of reality turned him out again. Once more he abdicated, this time with more anxiety for his own safety. Mr. Thornton has found a novel subject, which is a rare achievement in Napoleonic affairs. He describes what happened between Napoleon’s abdication and his final dispatch to St. Helena. It was a brief period of fantasy. Napoleon projected an escape to the United States. If not, he would present himself as a political refugee in England and settle down as a country gentleman, cultivating his garden. “Farmer George”—the name by which George III, now mad, had once been known—would be matched by Farmer Bonaparte. After a few years, he would be naturalized as other political refugees had been. This was not a very likely idea, but it was the best Napoleon could do in the circumstances.

He set to work on it with his old skill. He charmed Captain Maitland of the Bellerophon. He became popular with the crew. Once arrived at Torbay, he threatened to become a sensational attraction. Boats, laden with sightseers, rowed round the ship. It was all in vain. The British government did not intend to give him refuge. They were concerned only to put him out of harm’s way for ever. Even so, his treatment was generous by twentieth-century standards. He was not brought before an international tribunal and charged with the very offenses which his judges had also committed. He was interned, not punished. There was one stroke of unnecessary meanness. The British government refused to accord him the title of Emperor, though even they could not dispute that he had been Emperor of Elba. Now he was to be recognized only as “an officer of general rank,” and henceforth he became again simple General Bonaparte. Perhaps he was lucky not to have been officially designated as “the ogre.”

There is apparently something new to be said even about Napoleon’s time at St. Helena, and M. Martineau, who is now French consul there, says it admirably. For the historian there is not much to learn. The attempts at rescue came to nothing. Napoleon engaged in a last battle of wits with Sir Hudson Lowe and, according to M. Martineau, died of boredom. It was a strange end for a man who had lived for excitement and who provided the most exciting epoch of modern history. His grandeur increased with the years. One writer declared that Napoleon had carried human achievement to its highest point. Even de Tocqueville grudgingly admitted that he was as great as a man could be without morality. It all seems dead stuff now. Napoleon provides material for romantic books and even more romantic films. There are many other historical figures with a stronger claim to greatness and whom it is easier to admire.

This Issue

December 18, 1969