‘The Coronation of Napoleon’; detail of a painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1806–1807

Musée du Louvre, Paris/Erich Lessing/Art Resource

‘The Coronation of Napoleon’; detail of a painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1806–1807

Andrew Roberts recounts yet another tale about Napoleon. A month after Waterloo, the British prime minister, Lord Liverpool, wrote to his foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, in Vienna, to suggest that St. Helena was suitably distant and isolated as a place of exile for “General Bonaparte,” such that “all intrigue would be impossible; and, being so far from the European world, he would soon be forgotten.” Yes, nobody will notice him—well, except maybe Goethe, who thought this life “the stride of a demigod.”

Lately, the monstre sacré can be seen and heard all over. Since he died there have been thousands of books about him, but for reasons mainly pertaining to the déclassement of the genre of biography in the academy, years passed with no serious biographies of the first French emperor appearing. Then, suddenly, in the last decade, we have half a dozen or more. Still, as Patrice Gueniffey notes in the introduction to his book, this attention should not astonish us, rather “we should be astonished by this astonishment.”

The books under review (and their number could easily be doubled or trebled after the Waterloo bicentennial year) range from good to very good to excellent, although their approaches—all legitimate and established—are quite different. They do not give definitive answers to the intricacies of psychological and historical causality. What they contribute is original thinking about Napoleon and the clearing away of many myths about him. They represent real advances in biographies of this man. Each is the product of strong and informed authorial reasoning and emotion, and the effect of reading them is to renew our sense of awe at the inexhaustible fount of meaning that pours out of this particular life story, so uniquely coincident with, and formative of, world history. The cumulative effect, which their authors perhaps did not anticipate or desire, is to increase significantly a reader’s ability and wish to consider quite neutrally the endlessly controversial, fascinating figure whom Chateaubriand called “the mightiest breath of life that ever animated human clay.”

Still, if Bonaparte the general, the emperor, and the politician have been portrayed more deeply and accurately, Napoleon the man remains the enigma he has always been. And so what these books do best is to reveal to the reader something about their authors. That’s far from nothing when you have interesting ones, as we do.

Andrew Roberts, a respected writer on military history, has produced a highly enthusiastic and engaging telling of the Napoleonic story in one volume. The book has many fresh anecdotes and the occasional finely turned phrase, and is one of the most readable single-volume biographies, and certainly the most up-to-date. It amounts to a tableau vivant of great episodes in the life of the great man, especially the battles, and is perfect for the reader who wants a good look at the whole man without having to get lost in the complexities of explaining his infinity of moving parts.

Roberts’s book, an exuberant account by a self-described Tory, titled Napoleon the Great in the UK, must have surprised, not to say shocked, many British readers for its no-holds-barred enthusiasm for its subject. It is to Roberts’s credit that he is quite outspoken about his change of heart.

For his book is a full embrace of Napoleon, let there be no doubt.1 He has visited fifty-three of Napoleon’s sixty battlefields, lists some seven hundred books from which he’s quoted, and come away a counsel for the defense. He takes the First Consul’s side in his famous dressing down in 1803 of the British ambassador, Lord Whitworth, accusing the British of arming against him; he makes it clear that Bonaparte was no warmonger in the breakdown of the Treaty of Amiens with England in 1802 and the return of war. When the First Consul assumes the imperial crown, this is considered as innocent an act as Queen Victoria’s becoming empress of India in 1876.2 He reminds us that in the year that Napoleon invaded Spain, Tsar Alexander I seized Finland from Sweden in no less illegitimate an act, just as he points out that Wellington, too, used scorched-earth policies, but only Napoleon gets castigated for it.

About Napoleon’s execution of the Duc d’Enghien—said at the time to have been “worse than a crime; it was a blunder”—Roberts adds caustically, “everyone could see that, except the First Consul,” i.e., Napoleon himself. But this, he writes, does not prove that Napoleon was “a vengeful ruler”; the murder was “an utterly ruthless, if misjudged, act of self-defence.” When we keep in mind that serious books still come out comparing Napoleon to Hitler, Roberts shows that it is possible to have a very different reaction.3


He admonishes us that “an historian who doesn’t visit battlefields is akin to a detective who doesn’t bother to visit the scene of the crime”—the implication being that the modern sleuth can pore over the familiar vistas of the vast killings of two centuries ago, and find new clues of interest. In the case of Napoleon’s most famous defeat, however, this does not turn out to be the case. Roberts gives us a lively account of Waterloo, but to come up with a new source or a new interpretation for it is a matter of considerably more difficulty than visiting the terrain.

Waterloo is clearly sacred ground for Andrew Roberts. I can think of no other serious writer who would deem that the strange and dramatic episode of the Hundred Days—when the French nation challenged both the world’s and posterity’s credulity by reembracing the returned Napoleon and his suicidal mission—could be adequately summarized under the rubric of “Waterloo.” Yet this is what Roberts has chosen to do, so we turn eagerly to these pages.

There exists, as yet, no definitive account of this, the shortest campaign in Napoleonic military annals; we have, rather, mainly “British” or “French” recountings of it. Roberts’s is a fairly standard version of the former, better written than most, but surprisingly unoriginal and diminished by a fair number of errors or half-truths.4 For example, he sets the number of Allied infantry squares facing the French cavalry onslaught at thirteen, when in fact they were nearly twice that number. (He probably overlooked the equal number of squares behind the front line.) In his book, the “almost not,” or close-call, quality of this battle does not get the emphasis it should have; nor does the absolutely decisive part the Prussian army played in the late-hour victory.5

Though Roberts’s book runs to nine hundred–plus pages, it is far from being the definitive biography of its subject (as if there could be such a thing), even if it were not marred with mistakes. (Strasbourg is not Salzburg; Arcola is not named at the base of Napoleon’s tomb; in 1812 the province of Illyria was not independent, as Roberts’s map shows, but French, etc.6) This book offers no brilliant interpretations or a convincing new “feel” of the man, but it does wonderfully show how profound was Napoleon’s effect on an unlikely admirer.

Michael Broers is an Oxford don who has written many books and articles on the First French Empire; they arguably make him the best—certainly the most original—scholar in this field writing in English. His command of the sources in the various countries of the empire is unrivaled, as is his willingness to take provocative stands.7 Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny is the first of two volumes; it takes the story from Napoleon’s birth in 1769 to the eve of his greatest victory, at Austerlitz in 1805 when he defeated a larger army of Austrian and Russian troops.

So far Broers succeeds admirably, and he does so in part by trawling reflectively through the twelve volumes of the new Correspondance Générale of Napoleon published by the Fondation Napoléon in Paris over the past decade (a stunning scholarly achievement).8 He is pointedly acute in finding the amoral pragmatist behind the thousands of pages of mainly “business” letters.

Germaine de Staël once wrote as true and appalling a statement as has ever been written of Napoleon: “His intelligence made him do what conscience would have dictated to others.” Broers understands the implications of that observation. He is impressed by the Corsican’s meteoric rise and his accomplishments on assuming power, but he strongly disapproves of the general’s previous actions in Italy (1796–1797) and Egypt (1798–1799). Broers grasps well the almost unique ambivalence of the man, both at the time and in posterity.

‘St. Helena, the Last Stage’; portrait of Napoleon by James Sant, 1901

Glasgow Museums

‘St. Helena, the Last Stage’; portrait of Napoleon by James Sant, 1901

He analyzes the First Consul’s political success with a brace of French terms: ralliement—rallying naysayers (whether they are Jacobins or counterrevolutionaries) to his side—and amalgame—blending the old order with some of the institutions of the French Revolution. And he fully understands that at times, as in Italy in 1797, the collapse of amalgame (e.g., the unworkability of foisting the Jacobin constitution on the Cisalpine Republic) did not necessarily doom any hope of ralliement, and Napoleon’s cynical sense in these circumstances was to separate the two. Broers sums up the situation as it stood around 1800: the First Consul “had survived admirably as Octavian. Now he could begin, carefully, to be Augustus.”

One of the more original analyses in a highly personal book is Broers’s take on the return of war in 1803, so soon after the peace of Amiens in 1802. It is common among English-language historians to ascribe most of the blame to Napoleon. As Broers neatly puts it, “for most historians he was [the war’s] cause, and some go further to claim that he caused it, which is not quite the same thing.” But he sees the gathering Third Coalition, led by Austria, as being more aggressive than France. France, no doubt, had a “ruthless determination to hold on to what he had gained…up to that point,” but Austrian ambitions to take over Bavaria—an independent land allied with the French—were genuinely expansionist. Broers sees no imperialist ideology galvanizing the French, only “the realpolitik of survival.” “Napoleon,” he notes, “was not yet the insatiable conqueror he may later have become.” In any case, Austria struck the first blow, Napoleon the last.


Despite such points, Napoleon in this portrait comes off as a punitive Diocletian as much as a statesmanly Augustus. Notwithstanding his appreciation of Bonaparte’s will, Broers finally sees him as a gifted but narcissistic child of circumstance, his rise due to the magnitude of the crisis at hand more than to his qualities. Bonaparte, he writes, had absorbed elitist reformism from an early age, but was lacking in human sensitivity. Broers calls him a “‘Figaro,’ not just bent on overthrowing the old gods, but upstaging them,” but the analogy works poorly, for in Broers’s own portrait, Napoleon is no rebellious valet but an implacable servant of the cold rationality and stringent self-discipline of the highly civilized French elites.

The remorselessness with which the First Consul carried out his social engineering on the lives of peasants, priests, and workers, particularly in Mediterranean or Caribbean climes, arouses Broers’s anger. He describes French domination of much of Europe as if it were simply subjugation, without noting that if you were a Jew, a Protestant, a freethinker, or an entrepreneur, there was a good chance you were glad to see the French arrive.9

This author’s championship of peasants and priests leads him to the most eccentric interpretation of his book. The Concordat with the Vatican of 1801 permitted Catholicism to return to French public life after the Revolution had banished it. The measure was strongly opposed by many of the enlightened elites whom Bonaparte represented but who wanted no return to popery. The First Consul, however, firmly believed there could be no social peace without such a measure. His courageous act of conciliation has been widely approved by historians, French and non-French alike.

Not by Broers. The Concordat, he believes, was a misbegotten attempt to divest the masses of Catholic peasants throughout French-governed Europe of their traditional beliefs, in favor of an ascetic, progressive, state-driven version of Catholicism that had only contemptuous intolerance for popular piety. The initiative, in his view, proved to be a disaster from start to finish. Broers argues angrily that Napoleon’s defense of secular society from what he wrongly regarded as “creeping theocracy” was virtually as ferocious as that of his defense of French territory from any foreign enemy.

This seems overstated. The Concordat may have placed the church in “a bright gilded cage,” but Broers should consider the long-term consequence of permitting the pope to dismiss the entire episcopate of the French ancien régime, as he did with Napoleon’s encouragement. Such power was precisely what the nineteenth-century Vatican would use to create a Rome-centered Catholicism. Then, too, Broers overlooks the coup de maître by which the Concordat, in getting Rome to ratify the Revolution’s expropriation of church land when it was auctioned off to the highest bidder, won Napoleon the devotion of large parts of the population who profited one way or another from acquiring church lands. In short, while it is certainly true that Napoleon insisted upon Erastian—state-dominated—religion, Catholicism still had an important and valued place in his France.

By the end of his book, Broers has portrayed practically all the actors on the public stage as deeply immoral; Napoleon, he cheerfully concedes, was simply better at it than the rest. What makes Broers’s book—as so much of his other work—original, even breathtaking, is precisely the qualities that open it to strong attack: the chances it takes on behalf of the author’s passionate judgments.10

If the book by Roberts may be characterized as an effervescent récit de voyage and the one by Broers as a righteous bill of indictment, then the study by the French academic Patrice Gueniffey could be compared to the work of a very high-end jeweler—Peter Carl Fabergé, perhaps. Where Broers has the First Consul’s path to becoming emperor (in 1804) “not so much opaque, as oblique,” a test in broken-field running, Gueniffey depicts it in neat, careful, and virtually inevitable steps. The Anglo-Irishman Broers is indignant at the treatment accorded Italian peasants (among others), but the Frenchman has little interest in such consequences and much admiration for Napoleon’s aims, notably: Stop the Revolution!

Gueniffey’s young Napoleon resembles the one portrayed by Jacques Bainville, the reactionary Action française writer of the 1920s and 1930s, who is cited frequently by Gueniffey. This is a young “Napoleone” (he did not frenchify the name until 1797) who was neither a foreigner nor a France-hater, but was won over early on by the power of the mainland French schools he attended to integrate a young Corsican. They also persuaded him to respect the grande noblesse d’épée. Gueniffey finds in Napoleon none of the Figaro-like hatred of nobles evoked by Broers—au contraire: the First Consul was well aware that Talleyrand, a scion of one of France’s oldest and most prestigious families, had a long past with many vulnerabilities, but he chose him for foreign minister anyway, because the name “erased everything.”

Only in his early twenties did Napoleon invent a Corsica of his imagination and serve it patriotically for a time. But even then, “he saw the country of his youth almost with a foreigner’s eyes,” for he knew and remembered little about it, including its language. This, to me, is more convincing than any other account of Napoleon’s involvement with Corsica.

Gueniffey has the luxury of space: he uses 325,000 words to tell Napoleon’s story down to the First Consul’s nomination for life (1802), while Broers makes do with two thirds of that number to reach the same point.11 And nowhere does he make better use of his space than in his account of Napoleon’s youth and young manhood, where his interpretation is superb. In a brilliantly layered analysis, he sees the early death of Napoleon’s father (1785), together with the young man’s doubts about his own descent,12 as imbuing him with a sense of hyperfreedom, of having no ancestors, “of being the inventor of his own history,…[who] tolerated no subjection except to this ‘fortune’ that he so often mentioned.” Gueniffey brings to mind Machiavelli’s audacious prince taming the world: “He yielded to a power that confirmed him in the certitude of his own sovereignty.” For Gueniffey, the young hero’s capacity to be “the architect of his own destiny,” his steadfast belief that his fate could not resist his will, enabled him so completely to fill “this epoch with his name that he and his time can hardly exist separately.”

The greatness of Gueniffey’s book, like the excellence of Broers’s, lies in its limitations. In Broers, the paradox resides in the strong and original, but occasionally eccentric, moral judgments he is willing to make. Compared to Broers’s expansive interests in all of Napoleonic Europe, Gueniffey’s book submerges author, reader, and subject in a concerted, definitively French vision.

Gueniffey’s interpretation of Bonaparte contains a strong political perspective—an antirevolutionary one. It is a perspective Gueniffey took over in part from his late mentor, François Furet, with whom he is in constant dialogue throughout the text. Thus, if Broers sees the Concordat of 1801 with the Roman Catholic Church as an arrogant denial of popular devotion, Gueniffey heralds its success as “a genuine humiliation inflicted on the European powers, who were from now on forced to admit into their company the revolutionary France whose legitimacy they had contested.” Broers sympathizes with Italian peasants abused by French officials who viewed them as a derided “other,” to be taxed; Gueniffey writes of Napoleon’s “triumphal” reception by Italians who saw “in him a son of Italy” making them proud. There could hardly be two more different sensibilities confronting Napoleon than Broers and Gueniffey; neither is “right” or “wrong”; they choose different facts to make contrasting points.

Gueniffey, like Furet, has little good to say about 1789. “The Revolution,” he writes, “had passed through France, but had not left it entirely in ruins: Europe was soon to learn this at its own expense.” The Consulate, in his telling, was authority and force in the service of moderation; it was an end to the deadly mechanisms of “revolutions,” not because Bonaparte did not incarnate the latter (he did), but because he abjured the civil war that revolution had entailed for ten years.13 The consular reforms produced the national monarchy that enlightened despotism’s reformist ministers had dreamed of and that Bonaparte consolidated, but now in a modernized society.

Gueniffey simply stipulates that the Directory was a weak government trying to fool people with retaliatory measures that proved to be an all-around disaster for France, as if no scholarship existed to contest this view, although it does.14 Or again, he states, as though it was obvious fact, the controversial interpretation that “the nation, which had already forgotten the Revolution, was grateful to [Napoleon] for peace and for the order that had finally returned, and for church bells that rang once again every Sunday.” Our author magisterially refers to new foundations of France as if History itself were speaking, but in truth he is only adopting his subject’s criteria of “grandeur” and “administrative wisdom.” In his classic study, Napoleon: For and Against, the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl writes about such an approach as Gueniffey’s: it may have advantages for how a text sounds, but it “leaves the independent critical mind unsatisfied.” I would amend that: work like this quite dazzles the mind, even when it does not convince it.

In Gueniffey’s book, unlike the others, I spotted no mistakes.15 There is, however, a quirk in his telling that goes beyond the merely annoying. Like Furet, Gueniffey has much to say about earlier French authors on the First Empire, from Chateaubriand to Bainville, as well as Adolphe Thiers, Hippolyte Taine, and Albert Sorel—and occasionally about conservative modern politicians, like Michel Poniatowski. But, again like Furet, he has contempt for “the professors” whom he rarely cites in his footnotes or even his bibliography, and almost never engages in his text. Broers and Roberts refer to modern scholars to good effect, but Gueniffey usually ignores Anglo-American and French colleagues, some of whose positions he nevertheless adopts, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not.16 He has produced a magnificent and scintillating study of political (but not social or economic) analysis that will take its place as a classic French account of Napoleon’s life. But he has more debts to more writers than he cares to acknowledge.

Gueniffey suggests that biography as a genre is “not susceptible of a cumulative conception of knowledge,” and it is certainly true that the books under review offer different interpretations that do not converge and could not be blended.17 The three books present ambitious and important approaches, but they have predecessors. Roberts has the British Liberal imperialist prime minister the Earl of Rosebery, whose sensitive and appreciative view of Napoleon must have surprised his colleagues in the late nineteenth century. Broers is harder to situate, but the French Catholic writer Joseph d’Haussonville comes to mind, for he appreciated aspects of Napoleon while deploring his treatment of the church. Gueniffey, finally, has many predecessors among the conservative writers of the French past (Albert Vandal, Albert Sorel, Jacques Bainville), none of them academics like him, but all were académiciens, in the French sense: members of the French Academy.

Just as we would expect, Napoleon remains a mystery. Roberts accepts this and tells a good story without puzzling over his identity; Broers tries to ferret out the man behind 30,000 letters; and Gueniffey deduces the fortuna of the young Napoleon from the institutions he created during the Consulate. Surprisingly many of those who were closest to Napoleon left no real memoirs to speak of: for example, Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès, the archichancellor of the Empire; the two empresses Joséphine and Marie-Louise; Prince Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepson and viceroy of Italy; Maria Walewska, Napoleon’s mistress and great friend; Louis-Nicolas Davout, his greatest marshal and minister of war; Charles-François Lebrun, one of the consuls, etc. So to some extent, one is left to—forced to—punt, as it were, when it comes to the inner man.

My own thoughts, reading these books, lead me to ponder a line of Napoleon’s featured by Gueniffey: “My fate will never hold out against my will.” We know from Roberts, who tells the entire story, that the emperor’s fate did overcome his will after 1808, if not sooner. Broers and Gueniffey strongly hint that Napoleon will eventually be hoisted on the petard of his temperament, his famous will broken not only by the strength of his enemies but by his own failure to evolve psychologically.

Nietzsche famously called Caesar “self-outwitting,” but I see, thanks to our authors, that we could not say as much of the first French emperor. It is already a bad sign when Jacques Bainville notes that “nothing ever surprises him,” for it leads us to wonder if Napoleon’s “dual vision”—i.e., both of himself and an adversary—had much bite when it came to his own character. The lack of capacity for introspection seems undeniable in Napoleon. On our authors’ telling, he was certainly very gifted, but finally anchored in traits and qualities that “possessed him,” more than vice versa. In Nietzsche’s sense of radical self-reinvention, he did not know how to hover among potentialities, assertions, and constant dissolutions, as perhaps Julius Caesar did.

We shall never know the heart of l’Empereur’s mystery: that is becoming clear. But as I noted at the outset, the conscientious telling of this story is more revealing—indeed, unmasking—of authors than of their subject. I would suggest that Andrew Roberts’s exuberant narrative shows him to be an enthusiastic amateur in the French sense of “lover of something” more than a workaday military historian. Michael Broers’s diatribes reveal an angry moralist and conservative anarchist hiding in Oxford professorial tweeds. And Patrice Gueniffey? The academic in this Frenchman barely hides, if at all, his indifference to the university and his willingness to be an académicien.