Napoleon the Great
Allen Lane, 976pp, £30
The French historian Élie Halévy asked the rhetorical question: comparing France to Britain in 1750 and 1850, which country seriously modernised? It was obviously the nation of shopkeepers, not the descendants of “Napoleon the Great”, the elevation that Andrew Roberts seeks to justify in his magisterial biography of the “founder of modern France”.
In 1750 France was the magnet of Europe. By 1850, Britain was the workshop of the world, leading an industrial and agrarian revolution that France had barely begun. It was also a stable constitutional monarchy, whose political class took the decisive steps towards fully representative government with virtually no bloodshed, no reactionary backlash and no military coups. France, by contrast, lurched from revolution to revolution, and coup to coup, in the 70 years after the 1789 meeting of the Estates-General which began the undoing of Louis XVI and the absolutist Bourbons.
For all Napoleon’s brief colonisation of much of Europe, by the time something resembling stability was achieved under the Third Republic in the 1870s France was the economic inferior of Britain, the military inferior of a united Germany, and beset by internal crises that constantly threatened further revolutions. It took another general-turned-president – Charles de Gaulle – finally to end this cycle, and that was another 70 years, and two European wars, later.
In this longer view, what was the legacy of Napoleon’s 1799 coup and his 16-year reign? Some improvements to French law and infrastructure, an emphasis on meritocracy; but the broader political, economic and military effects were hardly positive. Napoleon’s regime was not even the longest-lasting of the revolutionary era. More enduring were both the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe and the reign of his adventurer cousin Louis-Napoleon, whose empire crumbled equally fast on the battlefield.
Andrew Roberts brings Bonaparte brilliantly to life as a military leader and public administrator of immense skill, energy and resourcefulness who took control of France through a military coup “only six years after entering the country as a virtually penniless political refugee”. As a portrait of the man and his times, it is superb.
But “Napoleon the Great”? The challenge Roberts has in establishing this claim is summed up by this sentence in his conclusion: “Although his conquests ended in defeat and ignominious imprisonment . . . Napoleon fought 60 battles and sieges and lost only seven.” In other words, ultimately his record was one of comprehensive failure, but with much success and glory en route.
What’s more, these seven losses include neither his naval failures nor the overwhelming disaster of Russia. Roberts does not attempt to justify Napoleon’s strategic and tactical errors of 1812-13, from the initial decision to invade Russia right through to the mistake of retreating from Moscow by a northern rather than a southern route. Instead, he cites the emperor’s motives and state of mind. He had not intended a deep invasion, but rather expected Tsar Alexander I to sue for peace. Similarly, he did not expect Alexander to order the burning of Moscow – “an event”, Bonaparte said, “on which I could not calculate as there is not, I believe, a precedent for it in the history of the world”. These are not great excuses for the man’s monumental military and diplomatic misjudgements.
In truth, Napoleon was a great warrior, but one who had constantly to be at war and to enlarge any war in which he was engaged – which proved his fatal flaw. In this last respect, his military trajectory, complete with a Russian invasion, bears striking similarities to that of Hitler 130 years later.
The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl, writing during the German occupation of Holland in the early 1940s, notably portrayed Napoleon as a totalitarian dictator, the harbinger of the concept and method in modern times. Roberts defends Napoleon robustly against the Hitler parallel. There were relatively few political executions, in France at least, and if representative government was one of the first casualties of the Napoleonic coup, he was not totalitarian in many aspects of civil life, including the right to private property and religious tolerance. There was some approximation to the rule of law, and although his new state institutions were not independent, they were for the most part rational and competent. Some of them even outlived him.
These are fair points. In making them, Roberts makes a wider argument – that Napoleon saw an ideal France and French society essentially as an extension of the army: “It was very much as a French army officer imbued with the military ethos that he rose . . . seized power and then maintained his rule.” Fortunately for France, de Gaulle, when given his Napoleonic moment in 1958,
took a broader view and did not seek to extend French military adventurism.