An excellent, refreshing biography of Napoleon. It is well-researched and concentrates on the "person" of Napoleon as much as his military and political failures or achievements. He is an unashamedly "revisionist" historian in that he relentlessly debunks the myths of Napoleon as legendary soldier and general, wise administrator, judicious lawgiver, patriot and liberal. He is at pains to point out how often luck played a hand - the dominating hand? - in his successes and how often marginal successes were (and are) painted as the epic achievements of the hero. As a basic character, the author finds the subject unsympathetic - an unprincipled, fortunate, unscrupulous adventurer and gambler - and the author has little patience with the subsequent generations of "Bonapartists", who were taken in by his propaganda.
What to make of all this? The "star rating" system employed by Amazon considers a five-star book one which the reader loves: and I love this book. It is punchy, well-written, erudite and convincing. However, I can't personally agree with the author's findings. He overstates his case about Napoleon the "lucky" general - I suggest that a general that "lucky" knows something about warfare that perhaps other generals - and the author? - just don't. The author decries the "mere pugilism" of the French Army and its leader, perhaps it was this straightforward determination which in fact provides a basic, real edge in warfare? Adverse circumstances are overplayed to condemn Napoleon, when at least a degree of admiration might be expressed for how Napoleon didn't panic or freeze but managed to escape. I don't think enough credit is given for his beauracratic and administrative reforms, which, since they have remained in place since he imposed them, we can perhaps assume that future generations have found some value in them. The author is ever-ready to criticize Napoleon's opportunistic and adventurer-like character: but against which contemporary heads-of-state should he be judged so harshly? It would have been impossible for a conventional "man of good character" (excepting perhaps some of Napoleons siblings used as puppets!) to become the leader of a state in this period.
In looking at Napoleon, there are two equal-but-opposite traps: the first is the uncritical, hagiographical wishful thinking which raises Napoleon far higher than his achievements could sustain - particularly in the field of statesmanship and diplomacy, but applying to other fields too - based on an uncritically sympathetic reading of Napoleon's self-justifications. This book is a perfect challenge and antidote to such thinking. However, we can fall into the trap of under-estimating and under-rating Napoleon's genuine achievements as a soldier and a leader, so I wouldn't recommend reading this book as a sole source of information and understanding of the life and times of Napoleon. - JWH


  • 1978 Hill & Wang; 1st edition

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