Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Napoleon the Great

Napoleon the Great by Andrew RobertsRoberts_Napoleon

Napoleon. The ‘god of war’ according to Carl von Clausewitz. A military leader in the pantheon of those known just by one name. Bonaparte modelled himself on these men (Alexander, Themistocles, Caesar), and through his achievements became one of them.

While I knew of the reputation, I knew very little of the man himself. Hence reaching for a more popular and engaging tome to begin setting the record straight. At 820 pages —a length I typically shun— I kept waiting for the story to lag, and the author to bore. But it never occurred. Some sections take a little more effort to chew through, but there is plenty of story to sustain a full tome of a biography.

The subject was a migrant who rose to ultimate power and identification with one of the great states of Europe. A believer in the French Revolution who compelled Europe to modernise their governments, while sliding into his own hereditary monarchy. A man of science and literature who was responsible for some of the worst bloodshed and needless waste in Europe’s long history. He led campaigns across Europe and Egypt, fought 60 battles —winning most of them— was Emperor at 34 and exiled twice.

Napoleon’s civic reforms were something I was most surprised by. He personally authored over a dozen constitutions, often with admirably ‘modern’ conceptions of law and justice. A one-man revolution in governance, it is hardly surprising that the conservative monarchs of Europe coalesced to defeat him —and initiate the fabled Congress of Europe to try and stop anything like it happening again for the next century.

Roberts is particularly strong at describing the military campaigns, giving due attention to the problems of logistics and movement. There is enough gristle here for those interested in strategy to gain value without dragging out interminable troop realignments or heroic last stands.

While Napoleon’s strategic thought was fundamentally tied to the desire for a ‘decisive battle’, he recognised war’s reciprocal nature, focusing on out-thinking and outmanoeuvring his opponents rather than just overwhelming them. While a few more maps and better diagrams could have helped, Robert’s deploys his personal visits to 53 of the 60 battlegrounds to good effect to help explain Clausewitz’ famous epitaph.

Along with significant travel, Robert’s seems to have read every one of the 33’000 plus letters of Napoleon, many unreleased before 2004. This occasionally overwhelms, but ultimately gives us an intimate picture of the man. A depressive Romantic in his youth, the lover of Josephine, an intellectual in science and literature, a micro-managing bureaucrat and a frustrated patrician.
The figure who emerges is one Robert’s deeply admires, and makes a compelling case for his readers to do likewise. While it would be easy to want stronger moral condemnation of Napoleon’s actions, as a monarch or initiator of a continental wide conflict that chewed through lives on battlefields to sustain his honour, I see value in such a portrait for two reasons.

First, biography has a different purpose from history. It is most valuable when it enables us to empathise with its subject. That does not mean to embrace or glorify, but we need to be able to see their actions through their eyes. Robert’s achieves this. Second, while ‘great men’ history has rightly been toppled from its dominance, it ought not be obscured. It was one man alone who changed France and Europe in this period, and his name was Napoleon. Circumstances and grand forces enabled or channelled his behaviour, but he mattered. We misunderstand history and human nature when we forget the importance of agency and individuals.

There are many things to dislike about Napoleon as well. He distrusted and disliked women, he made several major strategic errors, he let his pride and familial ties overwhelm his political needs, and he was ultimately corrupted by his status at the top. But he was a deeply remarkable and engaging figure. He had an internal engine that never stopped, and he outworked and outthought France and Europe’s best for nearly two decades.

As a scholar, if I come to write on Napoleon in the future, I’ll probably look to cite more traditional histories. But in helping to illuminate and encourage an understanding of a key figure in western history it makes a valuable contribution to society. Something too many dour historians forget or even regret

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