BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
A compulsively readable biography
, March 14, 2015
Napoleon in Power 1799-1815
by Philip Dwyer
Paperback: 816 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
In Australia, 2015 is significant as the centenary of the Gallipoli landing, but in the United Kingdom it is being remembered as the bicentenary of Waterloo.
Hence the anticipatory flow of books in the last few years on the Napoleonic Era in general, and Napoleon, Wellington and the battle in particular.
This is the second in a two-volume biography of Napoleon, and deals with the period from his seizure of power as First Consul in 1799 at the age of 30 (the coup d’état of the 18th Brumaire, usually seen as the end of the French Revolutionary period) until his exile to Saint Helena, where he died six years later in 1821.
Emerging as he did out of the upheavals of the French Revolution, which provided him with the opportunity to pursue his military and political ambitions, Napoleon has been regarded by some as the natural fulfilment of the revolution, and by others as its betrayer.
Given that there were many groups with a stake in the revolution, from moderate monarchists and bourgeois liberals, to Jacobins, quasi-anarchists and proto-socialists, such disagreement is inevitable.
According to Philip Dwyer, Napoleon portrayed himself at first as the man determined to preserve the Republic and its benefits.
He would do this by establishing a regime of order and stability which would avoid those destructive extremes of both conservatism and radicalism which had been so evident during the previous 10 years, 1789-99.
Despite Napoleon’s portrayal of himself as the saviour of the revolution, by 1810 the Republic had turned into an empire, with about 40 per cent of Europe’s population under uniform administrative and legal systems.
(Dwyer’s title, Citizen Emperor, Citoyen Empereur, captures this tension, but also reminds me of the student who once informed me in an exam answer that, after the French Revolution’s abolition of titles, everyone was known as Citroën).
He could argue that he was the missionary of the revolution, who had spread its principles and blessings to much of the rest of the continent, and this is partly true.
His soldiers carried with them the contagious concepts of liberalism, democracy, pluralism, individualism, equality and la carrière ouverte aux talents (“the career open to talents”, without distinction of birth or fortune). Napoleon himself destroyed vestiges of the mediaeval era, such as the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Inquisition, and pursued a tolerant policy toward Jews.
To this extent he was, in the terminology of Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That, a Good Thing.
However, it is questionable whether the emperor, as he was after 1804, constructed innovations such as the Code Napoléon (a clear, accessible and, for its day, progressive systematisation of civil law, based on Roman precedents) out of a commitment to philanthropy, or in the selfish interests of efficient, autocratic administration.
For example, he was quite prepared, for economic reasons, to re-institute slavery, which had been abolished during the French Revolution.
Some of the changes which Napoleon brought in to buttress his imperial authority are risible or pathetic attempts to compensate for his parvenu status as a Corsican upstart, demanding acceptance from Bourbons, Habsburgs, Hanoverians, Hohenzollerns and Romanovs.
They included the reintroduction of the ancien regime’s royal court titles and etiquette; arbitrary allocation of thrones to his tribe of difficult and incompetent siblings in an effort to establish an extended royal family; and divorcing the non-royal, and by now infertile, Josephine in order to marry the Austrian emperor’s daughter and begin a dynasty.
Other measures were less benign.
Dwyer warns against portraying Napoleon as a harbinger of totalitarianism, and it is true that he lacked both the means and the motivation to enforce the sort of ideological conformity which we associate with the 20th century’s worst dictators.
On the other hand, some of the features of his authoritarianism — some might say aspirational absolutism — irresistibly remind us of the later megalomaniac excesses of a Stalin, Mao or Kim Il-sung.
For example, he controlled the press; he projected images of himself as the omniscient and benevolent father of his people; he regarded with indifference the suffering and death of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians affected by his wars; and he arrogated to himself the right to religious veneration, even instituting his own feast-day.
Speaking of Napoleon and religion, Dwyer writes, “If he was not what one might call a true believer, nor was he an atheist.”
At the same time, he agrees that Napoleon’s attitude was largely utilitarian. If Napoleon did not in fact say, “I see in Christianity not so much the mystery of the Incarnation as the mystery of the social order”, he certainly believed something like it.
In 1801 he concluded a Concordat with the papacy which, like Mussolini’s 128 years later, made him for the time very popular with a predominantly Catholic population, which had been very uncomfortable over the rift with Rome as a result of the French Revolution’s anti-clerical legislation (in the case of Fascist Italy, the issue was the seizure of the Papal States which accompanied the foundation of the Italian nation).
Napoleon’s best-known interaction with the Pope, recorded by the painter Jacques-Louis David, was his self-coronation as emperor in 1804, followed by his coronation of Josephine, in the presence of Pius VII, whom Napoleon had forced to come to Paris for the occasion.
Dwyer points out not only that this was planned, and not a spontaneous gesture which he sprang on an unaware Pope and congregation, but also that there were precedents for kings crowning themselves and their wives.
Before the ceremony, Pope Pius and Josephine had forced Napoleon to undergo a religious wedding as a condition for the coronation’s going ahead, an ambush which he later avenged by divorcing Josephine, and exiling Pius VII from Rome for five years.
Napoleon’s ruthlessness was evident not only in his treatment of the church, but also in the field for which is most famous, his military career.
As noted above, he was thoroughly prodigal in his sacrifice of soldiers and civilians; but Dwyer reminds us that time and again he failed to even feed his soldiers adequately, something which enlightened self-interest might be imagined to demand, even in the absence of humanitarianism.
“Amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics”, as the military maxim goes, and Napoleon himself is supposed to have warned that “an army marches on its stomach” (or “Vive l’Interieur!”, as his troops chant in 1066 and All That), but vast numbers of them were disabled by hunger, some dying of malnutrition.
This was particularly true in the Russian campaign of 1812, the description and analysis of which constitute perhaps the best thing in an excellent book. Napoleon invaded with an army of 450,000, of which only one third was French, and 85 per cent of which were eventually lost to death, wounds, desertion or capture.
Before Russia, Napoleon had never lost a campaign, with the exception of Egypt in 1798-99.
During the three years, 1805-07, he had reached a peak of success with his great victories against the Austrians at Austerlitz, the Prussians at Jena and the Russians at Friedland, triumphs which imbued his subsequent opponents with an assumption of defeat even prior to the outbreak of any actual hostilities.
The Russian disaster destroyed this aura of invincibility, and was followed by defeats in Spain, Germany, France, and then finally at the hands of Wellington and Blücher.
The last pictorial reproduction in the book depicts Napoleon fleeing Waterloo, pursued by a “goddess of victory” derisively blowing a large trumpet.
In the days before photography and electronic media, the graphic arts were an important medium for projecting images of power, positive and negative, and throughout the narrative Dwyer comments on contemporary paintings and cartoons, explaining the many ways in which artists sought to present the emperor to the European public at various points in his career — as military hero, demi-god, family man, compassionate sympathiser with the suffering, but also as despot and buffoon.
While not remotely approaching the obscurantist nihilism of postmodern historiography, Dwyer is too competent a historian to be unaware of the limitations of his profession.
Napoleon is the sort of figure to whom legends, anecdotes, loyalties, loathings and attributions of bon mots become irresistibly attached; so, at the conclusion of a comparison of conflicting views by contemporaries of Napoleon’s temperament and character, he wisely warns: “No historical evidence can be taken at face value.”
Citizen Emperor is 800 pages long, of which over 200 are footnotes and bibliography.
This statistic might seem a trifle confronting, but it underlines what is obvious from the text: this is the compulsively readable product of an academic master craftsman who is effortlessly in control of his material.
Penultimately, pedantically and self-indulgently, I should note that he gets a few dates wrong (these might be typos); that he more than once confuses, in context, “overestimate” and “underestimate”; and that during his gestation his mother was obviously frightened by a comma, a punctuation mark which he avoids at all costs, to the detriment of his syntax.
Finally, however, a biography of this quality reminds the reader once again of the sad disconnect between Napoleon’s prodigious talent and force of character on the one hand, and his lack of any worthwhile and transcendent passion — France , Europe, humanity, liberalism, progress — to which to dedicate them.
Instead, just monumental egotism.
In the famous words of Walter de la Mare:
What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
Bill James is a Melbourne-based writer.