A Much Needed But Failed Apology for Napoleon: A Review of Ben Weider and Michel Franceschi’s “The Wars Against Napoleon: Debunking the Myth of the Napoleonic Wars”

Ben Weider and Michel Franceschi have written an unapologetic apologia for Napoleon Bonaparte. This is unsurprising given that the two men are French, or more specifically Ben Weider was a Jewish emigre in Francophone Canada while Franceschi is a retired French general.

To be simplistic, portraits of Napoleon are usually thus: European and especially Anglophone scholarship tends to be very negative of Old Boney; he is a tyrant, egoist, and lover of war who plunged Europe into a decade of proto-modern total war in pursuit of his own glory and egomania. French scholarship, formed out of the ashes of Napoleon’s legacy and memory, has tended to be positive and defensive toward Napoleon. The French school breaks down in two camps: Napoleon was defeated because of bad weather and poor subordinates, especially between 1812-1814. The other side is that Napoleon was the victim of the prejudices of the Ancien Régime, not merely in France but elsewhere in Europe: especially in Britain, Austria, and Russia.

The Wars Against Napoleon take the second line of French historiography concerning Napoleon but not without echoes of the first. Moreover, Weider and Franceschi put Napoleon in a heroically tragic light, comparing the emperor—at end—to the Titan Prometheus, “Napoleon, like a Titan, dominated his epoch…Like Prometheus, Napoleon committed the ‘crime’ of ‘stealing the fire of heaven and giving it to mankind.’”

It is a nice story, if only it were true.

The central thesis revolves around the predictable but wildly inaccurate assertion that Napoleon was the victim of Europe united against Jacobin revolutionary and democratic radicalism emanating out of France—rightly or wrongly (and wrongly, in Weider and Franceschi’s resolute defense) still perceived in Napoleon. Napoleon, thus, becomes the victim of Europe’s united paranoia and want for revenge to kill the First Consul turned Emperor. It is yet another iteration of France vs. Europe—itself part of a Francophone tendency to see themselves as the greatest civilization in the world and the greatest ever produced in Europe (this is not dissimilar, mind you, of other forms of “exceptionalism” very prominent in Anglo-American consciousness).

However, the historical witness and testimony doesn’t bear much fruit for this thesis. The major drawback to the book is its lack of any bibliography. This may be a product of the book’s translation into English, or the fact that it is just a work of popular history. In any event, even most journalistic and popular histories carry bibliographies or author commentary on important reference works which influenced the composition. This has none, which leaves the reader scratching their head. Here, however, there could also be double-play. Will the reader simply take the authors at their word? If so, we run into big trouble.

Europe was never truly united against Napoleon, not even in 1813 and 1814 during his nadir and downfall. It is true that Britain wanted to prevent French resurgence and expansion to win the contest of global hegemony (which our authors duly point out, however brief, in their introduction). Yet Britain was notoriously divided between pro-peace Whigs and pro-war Tories (led by Pitt); though this is an oversimplification since as the war dragged on, ironically, some Tories became weary of endless war and some Whigs began to fear Napoleon’s radicalism and penchant for assassination and double-speak. Russia wasn’t at all concerned much with Napoleon until the 1812 Invasion; Russia was much more invested in its traditional rivalry with the Ottoman Empire and maintaining its sphere of geopolitical hegemony free of European entanglement—only through extensive bribery and diplomacy were the Russians brought into the fray of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, especially as it threatened Russia’s interests. Paul I, before his murder, was very friendly toward the French and Napoleon personally. Likewise, even Austria—whom are authors suggest were the most aggrieved and vengeful of the ancient monarchies—desired peace and a place under the Napoleonic Imperium. While certain Holy Roman Empire expatriates like Philipp von Stadion dreamt of Germanic romanticism and revolution against Napoleon in a cosmic eschatological battle of good and evil, most of the Austrian Court and leading ministers (including Emperor Francis, Archduke Charles, and most famously Count Metternich) wanted peace under a Francophone France. In fact, the seeming duplicity of anti-war sentiments among Austria’s leading politicos in 1813 was a major problem for the allied coalition.

In reality, the letters, diaries, and correspondences of the major European figures of the Napoleonic Era do not paint a commitment of ancient prejudices against Napoleon or even Jacobin democracy. Some of the German writers, naturally so as this era gave rise to Prussian-led German nationalism, are antagonistic. But other writers so signs of war weariness and willingness to cooperate with Napoleon and the Napoleonic satellites (especially Francis and Metternich). Austria repeatedly tried to lobby for peace with minor redresses (like gaining back Illyria) in 1813 during the supposed high watermark of European unity against Napoleon.

Nonetheless, our authors do give a nice counternarrative to the prevailing trends in Anglo, and more broadly speaking, European, scholarship on the Napoleonic Era. It is a very important epoch for modernity and Europe in particular, even those of us in America were not untouched by the events of the Napoleonic Epoch. For those unfamiliar with the Napoleonic Code or Napoleon’s reformation inside France, the first half of the book is a useful cursory overview of “Napoleon as a Man of Peace” when he had the time to devote to administrative and domestic reform. However, the culminating third and final chapter, fails to convince that Napoleon wanted peace and hated war—only fighting because he was himself attacked. That may have been true in 1805 when the Third Coalition arranged against him and again in 1809 when the Austrians led by the impetuous war party launched a suicidal campaign on the imaginary fantasies of a Germanic holy war against Napoleon (John Gill has a superb three-volume history of the 1809 campaign called “Thunder on the Danube”), but the 1806-1807 Campaign and the 1812 Campaign, not to mention the Napoleonic coup—though initially indirect—in Spain run contrary to the general thesis of Napoleon reacting to European aggression instead of Napoleon instigated aggression to further the Continental System which was wholly and entirely beneficiary to France to the expense of the rest of Europe.

I am a bit of Napoleonic dilettante, with a lot of Napoleonic works and even artwork. I also tend to have, shall we say, a sympathetic view of Napoleon for reasons far too complicated to get into here. So I came to this book hoping for something more than what we received.

That said, Ben Weider and Michel Franceschi have written a decent and much needed apologia for Napoleon. However, Andrew Roberts had also done so with greater vigor and scholarship in his biography Napoleon (The Great). Roberts’ book remains a critical, but sympathetic, biography of Napoleon in his times and context which extols his merit but criticizes his ego and blundering when he could have left France in a much stronger position had he accepted allied peace talks in 1813. As such, Roberts’ book remains the best (critical) sympathetic biograpraphy/history of Napoleon. Weider and Franceschi, sadly, have missed their mark which borders on idolatry—as evidenced by their comparing Napoleon to the suffering Titan Prometheus. In their attempt to defend Napoleon, our authors go too far in discounting all the evidence that Europe was very much willing to accept Napoleon as leading, but not universal, hegemon while Napoleon was unwilling to accept anything less than total hegemony.

Ben Weider and Michel Franceschi
The Wars Against Napoleon: Debunking the Myth of the Napoleonic Wars

New York: Savas Beatie Publishing, 2014; 248pp.

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