The Many Faces of Napoleon: A Review of Three Napoleon Books

In 1841, Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle penned On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History. One of the first histories to bring forth the “Great Man” tradition of history–the view that certain individuals are driving forces of history, and simply knowing about such individuals would give one a good command of the history of that era, Andrew Roberts, an English historian, joined this small but notable rank of Anglosphere historians to laud Napoleon as such a figure. What makes this work even more incredible, all things considered, is that an English historian would write and publish a biography of Napoleon that is certainly apologetic and positive on the eve of the bicentennial of the over mythologized Battle of Waterloo where British Nationalists have long wanted to assert that this event, rather than the terrible campaigns of 1813-1814 where Britain played a minimal role, as the Gotterdammerung of Napoleon’s life and empire.

Therefore, the biography written by Andrew Roberts stands drastically apart from the majority of scholarship in the last 40 years of Anglosphere scholarship that has undeniable attempted, with vigor, sometimes very eruditely, and at other times poorly–to destroy the “great man” historiographical tradition and with it, any attempt to view Napoleon as “Great” in the same tradition of the other “Great” leaders in world history. From Charles Esdaile (2008) who attempted to destroy the credibility of the Great Man historiographical tradition, to Philip Dwyer (2008 and 2011) whose two-volume work on Napoleon attempted to cast him as a myth-maker and brutal battlefield butcher, to Alan Schom (1997) whose biographical work was described as a “hatchet job” on the French emperor, to Owen Connelly (1987) whose work Blundering to Glory: Napoleon’s Military Campaigns cast Napoleon as an otherwise incompetent battle-planner whose real genius was his ability to improvise in the heat of battle that won him fame and glory on the battlefield, the list goes on of Anglo-American historians who apparently have an axe to grind with Napoleon. While Connelly’s work is, perhaps, somewhat pro-Napoleon in an awkward way, the majority of Anglosphere scholarship has constantly attempted to tear down Napoleon’s status–but Andrew Roberts eruditely attempts to dispel and overturn these constant attacks against one of the modern period’s last great rulers and generals. Rather than cast Napoleon as an “Anti-Christ,” butcher on the battlefield, or a bloodthirsty ego-maniac, Roberts casts Napoleon in the same vein that Napoleon saw himself as, one of the great individuals of history: a general, husband, emperor, and lawgiver.

Upon the eve of the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt, in which Napoleon’s forces would utterly devastate the Prussian armies and lead to the emperor’s swift capture of Berlin, forcing a Russian intervention, the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote of his encounter with “The World Soul” (speaking of Napoleon) whom sent shockwaves through Hegel’s body. As the tradition story goes, Hegel even altered aspects of his great work Phenomenology of Spirit (one of the most important works of modern Western philosophy) after this encounter with the Frenchman who could only ever be admired by his onlookers (pp. 415-418). Napoleon, likewise, as Roberts’ shows throughout his work, thought of himself as a great “World Soul” pushing the progress of humanity forward. Rather than a usurper and tyrant, as Anglo-American scholars have often depicted Napoleon for us, Napoleon himself saw himself as the embodiment of French Enlightenment philosophy. Any student of the French political philosophers would naturally agree, the Enlightenment philosophes were extremely elitist and saw institutional absolutism as the only avenue for the progress of humanity since the normal peasant was a brutish animal by their very nature. In this same tradition, Napoleon truly did see himself as the pinnacle of the Enlightened absolutist political tradition, and paradoxically for many, saw himself as the protector of the French republican tradition despite becoming an emperor. Contrary to Anglo-American scholarship, Napoleon isn’t a pseudo-republican despot, but the very epitome of Enlightenment republicanism, or better, Enlightened Absolutism. After all, this is why Andrew Roberts says of Napoleon, “[He] was the Enlightenment on horseback.”

Roberts’, while certainly presenting a positive case for Napoleon, is not short of his criticism of the French emperor. Roberts highlights some of the battlefield brutality that Napoleon was capable of committing and, therefore, did commit. He has no apologetic defense for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the fallout that ensued, Roberts equally makes clear that many Europeans, but especially Frenchmen, died in Napoleon’s gambit to wrangle Europe under his boot.

Yet, at the same time, Roberts doesn’t shorthand Napoleon’s battlefield brilliance, his ability to inspire friends and foes alike, but more importantly, does not attempt to destroy Napoleon’s Legal reforms: the Napoleonic Code. Napoleon, as a Law Giver, is perhaps the most successful legislator or administrator of any figure in Europe in the last 200 years. Napoleon’s institutions that embodied meritocracy, religious tolerance and pluralism, and a legal structure that certainly curbed the influence of favoritism in politics because one’s noble birth rank have remained, at least structurally, the mainframe of modern European law ever since Napoleon’s ride across Europe. His armies may have failed to conquer Europe, but his legislation, in bitter irony, conquered his conquerors. Roberts’ chapter on the Napoleonic Code is where his work shines most brightly, even if it is a short chapter—for Napoleon himself saw his civil code as his greatest accomplishment nearing his deathbed (p. 270).

Upon reading Roberts’ book, while it seems impossible that a figure as towering as Napoleon can ever have “the definitive one-volume biography,” Andrew Roberts comes as close as it can get. One is left only to awe at Napoleon’s meteoric rise to power, his battlefield ability, his own egoism, his political ability as lawgiver and administrator (which is where Napoleon has been most successful, now, almost 200 years after his death, his legal reforms still have more widespread influence than his armies ever died), and at the same time, one can see the propaganda machine and battlefield brutality hard at work. Roberts has written a biography of Napoleon not casting him as “Great” in the sense that Americans view the deified trio of Presidents: Washington, Lincoln, or FDR, but “great” in the historiographical sense—no other figure from 1796-1815 held the world in his hand, and moved almost 20 years of European history with a single breath, or had the rest of a continent trembling in their boots and reacting to his every move.

Napoleon
Andrew Roberts
New York: Penguin Books, 2014; 976pp.

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What is history, and how important is Napoleon in the “Napoleonic Era?” I am again amazed, reading some of the reviews, what people think history is and is not. History is not a discipline of unmitigated facts, facts, facts, that are written in an unbiased fashion. As someone who studies history, and predominately writes about history, and historical theory and historiography, it is important to remember that history – since it is written by humans, is subjective. Yes, in an ideal world, history should be objective. But it simply isn’t, and this is the view most modern historians have.

Esdaile isn’t so much “anti-Napoleon,” as much as he does not adhere to the “Great Man” Theory of history that he outlines in his first chapter, that he is seeking to analyze. He starts his preface by citing the historian John Holland Rose, who believes that Napoleon is a “Great Man,” one of the prime movers of history. His book however isn’t much a critique of Rose, as it is a critique of nineteenth century historian Thomas Carlyle, who pioneered the concept of “great man” historiography in his works, notably, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History. (Carlyle lists Napoleon as one the “heroic kings” and main agents of history).

This is what history, in many ways, is. Historians writing in reaction, critiquing, or affirming certain theories of history (Great Man Theory, Social Theory, etc.), and the days of the “objective” political history (which never really was objective to begin with) has been replaced. Esdaile’s account of the Napoleonic Wars is noted in his subtitle: “An International History.” This alone details how he views the era – it was not Napoleon’s era, but an international era that included many figures: Pitt, George III, Czar Alexander, Francis I/II Castlereagh, Metternich, etc., and they all are very important too. Esdaile’s works hopes to show that Napoleon was not the “great man” that many historians have come to believe he is/was – and that is not “great” in the sense that Napoleon was good, but that is “great” in the sense of Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” Theory of History. The Great Man theory asserts that if you study just the “great” men of history, you can know about the historical period (for example, if you want to know about WWII, just read about FDR, Churchill, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler).

Aesthetically, as some reviewers have pointed out, the book could have used a better editor to make the text more aesthetically pleasing. For what it is worth, Esdaile’s critique of Great Man Historiography instead of an ‘unbiased’ account of the Napoleonic Wars, he does a very good job in showing that Napoleon was not the major mover of history between 1803-1815, but other forces and factors were at play. This is what Esdaile concludes with at the end of his work, pages 564-565, saying that he has proven that Napoleon was not the embodiment of the history of the world (as the Great Man Theory argues), and the offer such simple generalizations does the person, the period of history, and the history discipline no favors.

Has Esdaile shattered the Great Man historical view of Napoleon? In my opinion, no. Does he lay out a very good, argumentative, and at times convincing case against Napoleon as a Great man of history – at times, yes. In addition, the work also serves as a good introduction to an era which countless thousands of books, from the politics, military, social, and “great men” narratives have been written. This is, a pretty good book on the Napoleonic Era, trying to overturn the paradigm that Napoleon was the main mover of history during the era that bears his own name.

Napoleon’s Wars: An International History
Charles Esdaile
New York: Penguin Books, 2009; 656pp.

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Alan Schom states he sets off to complete a one-volume biography of Napoleon that covers all aspects of his life. It is very clear when reading the book, that Schom does not like Napoleon, to put it lightly. He seems to have an outright hatred of him, blames him for the death and destruction that befell Europe, and even subtly belittles Napoleon’s greatest achievements – like how Austerlitz created his “Napoleonic Complex” instead of the general view of the battle being one of the greatest feats of military warfare ever. “The Austerlitz campaign was in fact not to prove his great triumph.” (p. 410). Schom should get credit for accomplishing what he wanted, a one-volume biography of Napoleon that is, well, massive for a volume biography, easily of the same size and content as some smaller two-volume histories/biographies.

Many reviewers seem “angry” that Schom is unfair and biased in his account. I am not sure if these reviewers actually study history and historiography (the study of history as discipline, which I do at the university). Ever since the influx of postmodernism into the history discipline, there has been an ongoing debate, since the 1970s, whether history can be “objective.” History is seen as the lowest of the social sciences (if we consider it a social science) or a humanities that wants to be a social science.

I will be blunt, I would never rate a book of history based on how “fair” the author is. All authors have biases and prejudices that cannot be completely removed. The British historian Niall Ferguson states the same thing. Ideally, history would be objective. But since it is a human discipline, written by humans of the past (the primary sources) and by humans in the present (the secondary histories), all history is somewhat subjective. For example, primary accounts of the Austrians and British are anti-Napoleon, and for good reason – he was a threat to their stability and power. Just as Schom notes, in France, Napoleon is viewed as a hero. It seems fitting of course, that Napoleon would be a hero to a country which he became emperor, embodied the ideals of the Enlightenment, especially in his social and religious reforms, and brought France to its apex of power and prestige before it quickly came crashing down. What any author decides to highlight or omit is a reflection of their bias.

I tend to have a positive view of Napoleon because I like his social reforms (the Napoleonic Code), his emphasis of meritocracy over aristocratic birth and “birthright,” his high degree of religious toleration – especially towards the ghettoized Jews; when Napoleon entered Venice during his earlier Italian Campaign, he tore down the gates of the infamous Venetian Jewish ghetto and “liberated” the Jews. Naturally, these accomplishments are neglected, or belittled by historians who dislike Napoleon – Schom being one of them.  Secondly, his work is well-documented and has a great appendix of resources for the reader to look into to further an interest in Napoleon and the Napoleonic Era. Although, for reasons I stipulated above, even “primary” sources have their biases and Schom’s selection of primary documentation can be seen as a confirmation of his own biases. Yet, all of his references are worth looking into for any serious “lay” scholar or even the aspiring scholar. If on these standards alone: accomplishing a one-volume biography, having a good, but not great, reference of resources, and being pretty thorough in some of his descriptions of the campaigns and battles of Napoleon, Schom is to be commended for his work despite its many flaws.

However, Mr. Schom makes a few glaring errors in some parts of his book that I think are incredible for a man who has written on the Napoleonic Era before writing this biography. Back to Austerlitz, he correctly writes that the Austrian Emperor Franz II and the Austrian Army were one of the main opponents during the War of the Third Coalition (1805 campaign). He writes that the Austrian Army under mack surrenders at Ulm (p. 402), yet, unbelievably, by page 410, he writes, “The Russians and Prussians were hitting Soult’s division around Telnitz…” in the sentence preceding this, he writes, “The Austrian strategist (Weirother), was overruled” (p. 410). The Prussians were not at the Battle of Austerlitz, and Prussia would not be the focus of Napoleon’s army until the next year (1806). This is either an incredible error on his part, or the editor. It is clearly a typo, since by page 411, he refers to the allied army as “Austro-Russian” as it was. There are other small and glaring errors throughout the text. When covering the Sixth Coalition, and Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Aspern-Essling (1809), he sharply criticizes Archduke Charles for not taking the advantage he had in countering Napoleon, which ultimately leads to his (and Austria’s) defeat later at the Battle of Wagram and its aftermath. In this criticism, he does not offer any alternative reasons why Charles, who was heralded by contemporaries as the best commander in Europe besides Napoleon (even superior to Wellington), didn’t act in a follow up assault that may have saved Austria (possible, but doubtful in retrospect). He just simply criticizes him and doesn’t provide the reader with any context for his criticism. (Austria, even after the “victory” was in an ill-suited position and Charles knew that; he also knew that preserving the Austrian army as an effective fighting force was a major bargaining chip for the peace settlement and didn’t want to risk it.)

In the end, Schom accomplished what he wanted to do. His biography is, okay, but not great. Yes, his bias is readily apparent and visible to any reader – but then the reader should be aware, what works have they read that can be truly unbiased? For someone who dislikes Napoleon, their mind will be satisfied with the account as a reflection of “confirmation bias.” For those who have a more positive view of Napoleon, they were be dissatisfied as a reflection of their “confirmation bias.” If one can overlook some errors and recognize that Schom set out to achieve his one-volume study and that he did so with fire, energy, and passion, then you will find a harsh alternative account to the many biographies and histories that hold up Napoleon as a “great man.”

Napoleon Bonaparte: A Biography
Alan Schom
New York: HarperCollins, 1998; 1997; 944pp.

 

These reviews were adapted from Amazon reviews I had provided many years ago while an undergraduate history major.

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