Napoleon Bonaparte was the founder of modern France and one of the great conquerors of history. He came to power through a military coup only six years after entering the country as a penniless political refugee. As First Consul and later Emperor, he almost won hegemony in Europe, but for a series of coalitions specifically designed to bring him down. Although his conquests ended in defeat and ignominious imprisonment, over the course of his short but eventful life he fought sixty battles and lost only seven. For any general, of any age, this was an extraordinary record. Yet his greatest and most lasting victories were those of his institutions, which put an end to the chaos of the French Revolution and cemented its guiding principle of equality before the law. Today the Napoleonic Code forms the basis of law in Europe and aspects of it have been adopted by forty countries spanning every continent except Antarctica. Napoleon’s bridges, reservoirs, canals and sewers remain in use throughout France. The French foreign ministry sits above the stone quays he built along the Seine, and the Cour des Comptes still checks public spending accounts more than two centuries after he founded it. The Légion d’Honneur, an honor he introduced to take the place of feudal privilege, is highly coveted; France’s top secondary schools, many of them founded by Napoleon, provide excellent education and his Conseil d’État still meets every Wednesday to vet laws. Even if Napoleon hadn’t been one of the great military geniuses of history, he would still be a giant of the modern era.
The leadership skills he employed to inspire his men have been adopted by other leaders over the centuries, yet never equaled except perhaps by his great devotee Winston Churchill. Some of his techniques he learned from the ancients—especially his heroes Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar—and others he conceived himself in response to the circumstances of the day. The fact that his army was willing to follow him even after the retreat from Moscow, the battle of Leipzig and the fall of Paris testifies to his capacity to make ordinary people feel that they were capable of doing extraordinary, history-making deeds. A more unexpected aspect of Napoleon’s personality that also came out strongly over the course of researching this book was his fine sense of humour. All too often historians have taken seriously remarks that were clearly intended as humorous. Napoleon was constantly joking to his family and entourage, even in the most dire situations. Scores of examples pit this book.
Napoleon’s love affair with Josephine has been presented all too often in plays, novels and movies as a Romeo and Juliet story: in fact, it was anything but. He had an overwhelming crush on her, but she didn’t love him, at least in the beginning, and was unfaithful from the very start of their marriage. When he learned of her infidelities two years later while on campaign in the middle of the Egyptian desert, he was devastated. He took a mistress in Cairo in part to protect himself from accusations of cuckoldry, which were far more dangerous for a French general of the era than those of adultery. Yet he forgave Josephine when he returned to France, and they started off on a decade of harmonious marital and sexual contentment, despite his taking a series of mistresses. Josephine remained faithful and even fell in love with him. When he decided to divorce for dynastic and geostrategic reasons, Josephine was desolate but they remained friendly. Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, would also be unfaithful to him, with an Austrian general Napoleon had defeated on the battlefield but clearly couldn’t match in bed.
Napoleon was able to compartmentalize his life to quite a remarkable degree, much more so even than most statesmen and great leaders. He could entirely close off one part of his mind to what was going on in the rest of it; he himself likened it to being able to open and close drawers in a cupboard. On the eve of battle, as aides-de-camp were arriving and departing with orders to his marshals and reports from his generals, he could dictate his thoughts on the establishment of a girls’ school for the orphans of members of the Légion d’Honneur, and shortly after having captured Moscow he set down the regulations governing the Comédie-Française. No detail about his empire was too minute for his restless, questing energy. The prefect of a department would be instructed to stop taking his young mistress to the opera; an obscure country priest would be reprimanded for giving a bad sermon on his birthday; a corporal told he was drinking too much; a demi-brigade that it could stitch the words ‘Les Incomparables’ in gold onto its standard. He was one of the most unrelenting micromanagers in history, but this obsession with details did not prevent him from radically transforming the physical, legal, political and cultural landscape of Europe.
More books have been written with Napoleon in the title than there have been days since his death in 1821. Admittedly, many have titles like Napoleon’s Haemorrhoids and Napoleon’s Buttons, but there are several thousand comprehensive, cradle-to-grave biographies too. Every one of them published since 1857 relied upon the correspondence that Napoleon III published as a tribute to his uncle. We now know that this was shamefully bowdlerized and distorted for propaganda purposes: letters that Napoleon never wrote were included while embarrassing or compromising ones that he did write were passed over. In all the compendium included only two-thirds of his total output.
In one of the great publishing endeavours of the twenty-first century, the Fondation Napoléon in Paris has since 2004 been publishing every one of the more than 33,000 letters that Napoleon signed. The culmination of this immense project demands nothing less than a complete re-evaluation of this extraordinary man. Napoleon represented the Enlightenment on horseback. His letters show a charm, humour and capacity for candid self-appraisal. He could lose his temper—volcanically so on occasion—but usually with some cause. Above all he was no totalitarian dictator, as many have been eager to suggest: he may have established an unprecedentedly efficient surveillance system, but he had no interest in controlling every aspect of his subjects’ lives. Nor did he want the lands he conquered to be ruled directly by Frenchmen. He believed that one can control foreign lands only by winning over the population and sought accordingly to present himself in terms that would make him sympathetic to the locals, feigning sympathy for their religion as a means to an end. (It is notable that his strategies varied considerably in Italy, Egypt and Germany.) In the one instance where this was not the case—Haiti—he later acknowledged that the brutality of his policies had compromised his effectiveness and mused with foresight that one could not keep people subject for long at a great distance. Above all he hoped to modernize Europe.
‘They seek to destroy the Revolution by attacking my person,’ he said after the failure of the royalist assassination plot of 1804. ‘I will defend it, for I am the Revolution.’ His characteristic egotism aside, Napoleon was right. He personified the best parts of the French Revolution, the ones that have survived and infused European life ever since. Although the Terror had finished five years before he grabbed power, the Jacobins were a powerful force who could always return. Similarly, a royalist restoration which would have wiped away the benefits of the Revolution was also possible. Instead, the fifteen-year rule of Napoleon saved the best aspects of the Revolution, discarded the worst and ensured that even when the Bourbons were restored they could not return to the Ancien Régime.
The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire. At the same time he dispensed with the absurd revolutionary calendar of ten-day weeks, the theology of the Cult of the Supreme Being, the corruption and cronyism of the Directory and the hyper-inflation that had characterized the dying days of the Republic. ‘We have done with the romance of the Revolution,’ he told an early meeting of his Conseil d’Etat, ‘we must now commence its history.’
For his reforms to work they needed one commodity that Europe’s monarchs were determined to deny him: time. ‘Chemists have a species of powder out of which they can make marble,’ he said, ‘but it must have time to become solid.’ Because many of the principles of the Revolution threatened the absolute monarchies of Russia (which was to practice serfdom until 1861), Austria and Prussia, and the nascent industrial kingdom of England, they formed seven coalitions over twenty-three years to crush revolutionary France. In the end they succeeded, but, thanks to Napoleon, the Bourbons were too late to destroy the revolutionary principles he had codified into law. Many of those who opposed him were forced to adopt aspects of his reforms in their own countries in order to defeat him.
‘There are two ways of constructing an international order,’ Henry Kissinger wrote in A World Restored, ‘by will or by renunciation; by conquest or by legitimacy.’ Only one of these was open to Napoleon. In Britain, which had already had its revolution 140 years earlier and thus enjoyed many of the legal benefits that the Revolution brought to France, Napoleon faced William Pitt the Younger, who saw in the destruction of French power—be it revolutionary or Napoleonic—an opportunity to translate Britain’s maritime trading success into global great power status. Napoleon’s threat to invade Britain in 1803 ensured that successive British governments would remain determined to overthrow him. Their decrying of French imperialism was pure hypocrisy as Britain was busy building a vast empire at the time. Napoleon boasted that he was ‘of the race that founds empires’—but he had a different kind of empire in mind, more in keeping with those of Caesar, Alexander and Frederick the Great.
Napoleon is often accused of being a quintessential warmonger, yet war was declared on him far more often than he declared it on others. France and Britain were at war for nearly half the period between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and Waterloo, and Napoleon was only a second lieutenant when the Revolutionary Wars broke out. He launched the Peninsular War and the war against Russia in 1812 in the hope of extending the reach of his ‘Continental System,’ a misguided protectionist answer to Britain’s control of the seas, and thereby force Britain to sue for peace. It was thus Colbertian protectionism that brought him down, far more than the bloodlust and egomania of which he is so often accused.
His decision to invade Russia was not in and of itself his worst mistake. The French had defeated the Russians three times since 1799, so it was understandable that he should believe he could do so again. He had fought in blizzards at Eylau and in the Sierra de Guadarrama, and at the end of long lines of communications at Austerlitz and Friedland. It was the very size of his army in 1812 that forced the Russians to adopt their strategy of constant retreat, and their adroitness in avoiding battle until they had lured him to within 75 miles of Moscow accounted for much of their victory. He could not have known how to block the ravages of the typhus epidemic that killed around 100,000 men in his central striking force as its origins and cure would not be discovered for another century. Despite this, had Napoleon chosen either one of two other possible routes back from Malojaroslavetz, he would have saved enough of the Grande Armée to preserve his crown. He thought he could bring the enemy to a decisive battle and pushed his forces too fast and hard in pursuit of that goal. He failed to appreciate that the Russian army had fundamentally changed and that Alexander I would stop at nothing to annihilate him.
Overall, however, Napoleon’s capacity for battlefield decision-making was astounding. Having walked the ground of fifty-three of his sixty battlefields, I was astonished by his genius for topography, his acuity and sense of timing. A general must ultimately be judged by the outcome of the battles, and of Napoleon’s sixty battles and sieges he lost only Acre, Aspern-Essling, Leipzig, La Rothière, Lâon, Arcis and Waterloo. When asked who was the greatest captain of the age, the Duke of Wellington replied: ‘In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.’
He convinced his followers they were taking part in an adventure, a pageant, an experiment and a story whose sheer splendour would draw the attention of posterity for centuries. He was able to impart to ordinary people the sense that their lives—and, if necessary, their deaths in battle—mattered in the context of great events. They too could make history. It is untrue that he cared nothing for his men and was careless with their lives. He lost a friend in almost every major battle, and his letters to Josephine and Marie Louise make it clear that these deaths, and those of his soldiers, affected him. Yet he could not allow that to deflect him from his main purpose of pursuing victory, and he would not have been able to function as a general if it had, any more than Ulysses Grant or George Patton could have done.
Napoleon certainly never lacked confidence in his own capacity as a military leader. On St Helena, when asked why he had not taken Frederick the Great’s sword when he had visited Sans Souci, he replied, ‘Because I had my own.’
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