Book Review: Napoleon — Savior or Hitler?

British historian Adam Zamoyski has drawn a portrait of Napoleon that is neither flattering nor diminishing.

Napoleon, A Life by Adam Zamoyski. Basic Books, 784 pages, $40.

By Thomas Filbin

Napoleon: murderer, despot, savior of a nation, lawgiver, civilizer. Like all grand historical characters, any statement about him is arguably true and false at the same time. Not even French, born on Corsica of Italian descent, he rose by success in warfare, but held power through exercising another gift: understanding people and what they desired. And being able to convince them he could supply what was needed. To the old French aristocracy, it was a partial return to life as it was before the revolution. For the ordinary folk, however, it was more complicated. Offering them peace after the madness of the Terror, his reign was mostly notable for its foreign wars, but the masses never lost faith in the emperor, even after his defeat and first exile, which was followed by his brief restoration.

Other books on Napoleon reviewed on The Arts Fuse over the past few years were Napoleon, A Life by Andrew Roberts and Napoleon on War by Bruno Colson. Compared to those volumes this latest study is more a penetrating lens than a mirror, capturing the greater depths of personality not often attributed to a short man who cast a long shadow.

Adam Zamoyski spends much of the first part of the book illustrating how threats to France from foreign invasion in the 1790s, mainly by Austria in the hope of restoring the Bourbons, provided a stage for Napoleon to rise rapidly as a military commander. He was brash, controversial, and impulsive, but he recorded victory after victory, and that  made him indispensable. Upon seeing how powerful his position had become through chance, he seized the opportunity to marginalize other leaders, first forming a triumvirate, and then assuming the role of “First Consul. ” Finally, he dropped all pretense of being a democratic revolutionary and proclaimed himself emperor. Napoleon was an avid student of history and saw himself and France as representing a rebirth of Rome. The famous coronation portrait by David shows him with a golden olive wreath before taking the crown.

It will perhaps be a surprise to some readers to see how well-read Napoleon was. As he set out to invade Egypt, he had a traveling library assembled with books on sciences and the arts, geography, history — even Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.

He was august and imperious in his manner when need be, but Zamoyski also notes:

He was most at ease with children, soldiers, servants, and those close to him, in whom he took a personal interest, asking them about their health, their families, and their troubles. He would treat them with joshing familiarity, teasing them, calling them scoundrels or nincompoops; whenever he saw his physician, Dr. Jean-Nicholas Corvisart, he would ask him how many people he had killed that day.

In the War of the Third Coalition, France was engaged in a final showdown with Austria. After Napoleon took Vienna, Austrian troops withdrew, awaiting reinforcements from Russia. Napoleon, however, pressed forward to deliver the coup d’etat at Austerlitz (1805) – “The finest of all (the battles) I have ever fought,” he said.

The Austrians proposed a truce at that point, and the omnipresent foreign minister Talleyrand argued for it. Napoleon agreed and met Emperor Francis, but later said, “It is not in the aftermath of a battle that one should have a conference. Today I should only be a soldier, and as such I should pursue victory, not listen to words of peace.”

In accepting an alliance with Austria, he met with an assembly of the country’s generals and officials and gave them a two-hour admonition containing “a little greatness, a little nobility, a little sublimity, a little mediocrity, a little triviality, a little Charlemagne, a little Mahomet and a little Cagliostro,” wrote one witness. Napoleon did not consider them worthy allies, Zamoyski observes.

So, you might ask, who ran the French empire while Napoleon was gone on campaigns for months at a time? He did, of course. Dispatches and documents were sent to the front, and he micromanaged budgets, public works projects, and the creation of his own code of law which remains the backbone of the French legal system even today. Zamoyski writes that “His presence haunted Paris, if only by the never-ending stream of letters, instructing, admonishing, reporting…Few states could have survived, let alone functioned efficiently, with their absolute ruler so far away so long.”

The sources of his undoing? The disastrous Russian campaign and mounting debts for war and domestic projects. One last grand alliance of his enemies stamped paid to any hopes of a permanent empire, packing him off to remote St. Helena for the last five and a half years of his life, which was a hell of boredom for such a man.

The reproductions of paintings in the book are one of its highlights. Among them: Napoleon’s mother Letizia, whom he loved and revered, Josephine, his brothers, whom he made kings of subordinate countries, and his favorite sister, Pauline. These images soften and humanize the man, suggesting his tender and sentimental side. His relations with Josephine were troubled; both were often unfaithful. Because she was unable to give him an heir he divorced her and married an Austrian princess, but his last words were of France, the army, and Josephine. Their passion was immense, and he once wrote her “A kiss on your heart, and one much lower down, much lower.” His non-marital amorous conquests never matched his relations with Josephine, and one suspects they were merely transactional. They say he often did not bother to remove his boots.

Almost two hundred years have passed since his death and the end of his empire. The judgment of history is mixed; was he a great civilizer and builder, or the Hitler of his day, bent on ruling most of the developed world? Both, of course, although he never saw his victories as unjust, but rather acts of Divine Providence smiling on his purpose of re-uniting Europe under a new Charlemagne.

Zamoyski has drawn a portrait that is neither flattering nor diminishing. Essentially he offers what historians can give us, a narrative subject to further interpretation, not a judgment laden indictment of the man’s failings. That era, after all, is still considered the age of Napoleon.

Thomas Filbin is a free lance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Sunday Globe, and The Hudson Review.

1 Comment

  1. Pierce on June 24, 2019 at 12:54 pm

    Napoleon Bonaparte was certainly not a proto-Hitler. He was Napoleon Bonaparte. A brilliant military and political tactician, but a poor strategist. His missmangment of the battle of Waterloo on the 18th of June 1815, was deplorable. The behaviour of Marshall May though courageous, was utterly unforgivable. Believing that the British were retreating he launched a calvery charge without infantry, or artillery support, and led his men into a British trap. Napoleon should have ensured that the Prussians were wholly crushed. Instead he did not provide enough men to his General to do this. Adam Zampyski believes that in power politics morality is unhelpful. Therefore the moral nature of Napoleon is not considered. It is up to the reader to interpret Napoleon’s moral status, and character. But Zampyski does leave us despite his denial with a moral judgement on Napoleon. The man who once ruled 60 million people from Portegal to Poland was the embodiment of his era. And that era was defined by a quest for glory, and accompanied by a certain hollowness. An era that extolled the principal of service to ones country as being the highest duty any citizen could perform. Bonaparte was not a democratic, nor did he believe in liberty. He was – as I said – Napoleon Bonaparte. He was most decidedly not a Hitler. A despot? Most certainly. But had he won Waterloo the rise of a Prussian Germany in 1871 would never have happened and two horrendous world wars would have been avoided.

    Pierce Martin

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