Napoleon: Master of Europe 1805-1807 
by Alistair Horne.
Weidenfeld, 232 pp., £6.95, September 1980, 0 297 77678 9
Show More
Napoleon’s Diplomatic Service 
by Edward Whitcomb.
Duke, 218 pp., June 1981, 9780822304210
Show More
Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars 
by David Chandler.
Arms and Armour, 576 pp., £12.95, November 1980, 0 85368 353 0
Show More
Napoleon, the Jews and the Sanhedrin 
by Simon Schwarzfuchs.
Routledge, 200 pp., £5.50, March 1979, 0 7100 8955 4
Show More
Auguste de Colbert: Aristocratic Survival in an Era of Upheaval, 1793-1809 
by Jeanne Ojala.
Utah, $15, February 1979, 9780685953709
Show More
Show More

It would appear to be difficult to write a book about Napoleon without apologising for it. Alistair Horne talks about the three hundred thousand which have already been devoted to this one man, but Edward Whitcomb brings about a substantial (and welcome) reduction by referring only to some two hundred thousand. David Chandler explains that ever since he wrote his excellent book on the campaigns of Napoleon ten years ago, he has been inundated by requests for further information coming from the widest possible variety of people, all of whom are, as he puts it, ‘caught up by the awesome range of Napoleon’s attributes and talents’, while Simon Schwarzfuchs, in his more specialised study of Napoleon and the Jews, refers to a change in Napoleon’s reputation and to his recent loss of repute among historians.

Perhaps there is a significance in the public modesty which precedes such acts of writing. One would not expect an author to apologise when he sets out to tell a romantic rags-to-riches epic which ends up with defeat, exile, loneliness and an early death. A biographer such as Emil Ludwig revelled in the symmetry of a life which began on a small island, overran the whole continent of Europe, and ended on another small island. No writer is normally hesitant when he has to write about the drama and glory of past battles, even when the subject loses its glamour and war has to be seen as a sorry tale of marching, waiting, freezing, starving, dying. The problem is only to decide which moment of Napoleon’s career is the most attractive to describe. Was it the young general of the Italian campaigns? Or was it the First Consul who provided France with institutions which had an unexpected longevity? Was it the almighty Emperor who met the Czar at Tilsit? When he abdicated in 1814, he reviewed his guard at Fontainebleau and set out for the humiliation of Elba. He had, in Chateaubriand’s words, struck his tent, his tent which had covered the world. But then there was the adventure of the Hundred Days and what Michelet called ‘the towering stage of St Helena’. Surely no writer should be embarrassed by having to choose a moment from within this compact legend?

Since historians nowadays are concerned with the trivia of the past, and believe that it is through them that they may find deeper understanding, they ought to be interested in Napoleon, because we must know more details about his daily life than about anyone’s. We know what he liked to eat and when and how he ate; we know about his dreams and superstitions, how he behaved when angry, how he could be flattered, what he played on the piano with one finger. And we could well build up a new interpretation of Napoleon by asking linguists to comment upon a man who governed by talking and dictating, and who thus endeavoured to escape from the tyranny of the written word and revelled in the freedom and magic of the spoken word.

We must therefore explain the timidity with which historians approach this subject, and it could well be that there are reasons for their advertised reluctance. One could be that the 1970s have re-acquainted us with the sort of crisis that is too deep for any individual either to resolve or to understand. It is increasingly difficult to envisage the past in terms of one man, however considerable his energy or powers of concentration. Another could be that whereas Napoleon could once be seen as a vast and overwhelming subject, who dreamed of raising an Arab army, becoming Emperor of the East and returning to Paris via Constantinople, nowadays the whole history of Napoleon and his Empire seems slightly parochial. A young man from a poor Corsican family seizes power; his armies invade neighbouring territories and he puts his brothers and his brothers-in-law on their thrones; the bourgeoisie of Rouen applaud him in the Place de la Bourse, Monseigneur de Rohan seeks to become chaplain to the Imperial Court and the Duchesse de la Rochefoucauld becomes the lady-in-waiting of the Empress Josephine (formerly Rose Tascher). After a short time, the whole system collapses. We are considering only a few years in the history of France and Europe, even though Napoleon fought 60 battles and lived with great intensity. Strangely enough, he realised this himself. If at St Helena he reflected, ‘What a romance my life has been,’ he also said: ‘What efforts in order to fill half a page in a universal history.’

It could well be, however, that as these various authors settled down to write their books, they were impressed, not by the amount that is known about Napoleon and the consequent difficulty of finding something new to say, but rather by the fact that so little is known both about the man and about his period of rule. It is daunting to think that so many books (whether three hundred thousand or two hundred thousand) should have been devoted to this subject, and that so much that is vital should have been overlooked. For Alistair Horne, whose book is heavily illustrated and deserves a wide readership, what has been overlooked is the connection between the military genius and the man who showed remarkably little political and diplomatic tact. For Dr Whitcomb, there has been an almost total neglect of the political and administrative history of the period, and an ignorance of the institutions and personnel responsible for diplomacy. David Chandler, while always conscious of the massive shadow of Napoleon hovering over his pages, is concerned to illuminate the existences of the individual officers who lived through and endured the battles, and Simon Schwarzfuchs seeks to examine, almost for the first time, Napoleon’s attempts to change the religious life and institutions of French Jewry. Professor Ojala has benefited from the existence of a large family archive, in studying what attracted an individual cavalry officer, Auguste de Colbert, to Napoleon, and examining the enthusiasms and the weariness of those who fought in the campaigns. (This is all the more interesting because Colbert has not been given an entry in David Chandler’s dictionary.)

What emerges from the study of the battles is their intrinsic unimportance. Ulm and Austerlitz, studied in detail by Alistair Horne, were obviously great victories. Napoleon was entitled to be jubilant. His army had moved from Boulogne to control Europe in a few weeks; in three months he had destroyed the most dangerous military machine that had been directed at France and had seriously shaken the governments of Austria, Russia, Prussia and Great Britain. The streets of Paris may have been filled with errand boys selling propaganda leaflets extolling the greatness of the Emperor, and the obsequious notabilities of that city may have prepared (as always) to erect monuments to the glory of their leader, but one has to recognise the falseness of the exercise. It is not so much the ‘ifs’ that count, although the list of the ‘ifs’ as outlined by Alistair Horne is very impressive. On several occasions Napoleon himself might have been captured or shot, there were remarkable errors in battle preparation and in the pursuit of the enemy, and there were many occasions when the so-called Allies were disunited, uninformed about each other’s movements, unable to apply a concerted and organised strategy, and therefore destined to be defeated in spite of their basic strength. In all this, however, Napoleon had very little liberty of action.

He took risks because he was obliged to take risks. If the enemy refused to give battle, then he was lost; if the battle was indecisive, then he was also lost; thus he was forced to seek a decisive confrontation which he would either win or lose. He was hardly interested in tactics, and his strategy was limited. Apart from his ability to move his troops with speed, so that he could be said to have won his battles by marching rather than by fighting, he had two strategies only. The one was employed when his forces were inferior to the enemy’s: he divided the hostile armies into two or more, and then built up a local superiority against each force consecutively. The other was for occasions when he possessed superior forces: then he would surround the enemy, cut off his lines of communication, and force him into fighting the French in a carefully-selected battle position. It was clear that these ploys were inadequate, and the Allies soon learned how they could be countered, either by refusing to give battle at all or by withdrawing. Napoleon boasted, when on St Helena, that at the end of many battles, he had learned nothing which he had not known at the time of his first battle. Precisely. He was a predictable general.

And when he had won his victory, what then? Invariably he learned of economic collapse in France, of rising political discontent in Paris, and of the blockade and British naval victories. Invariably, too, he was urged to make peace and to win over at least one of his enemies with a generous peace policy. But he was complacent in his victories: a battle such as Austerlitz gave him the impression that he was in direct, personal charge of things. And there was nowhere the Empire could stop. It had to go on until it was destroyed. He could not stay in Paris long enough to celebrate the last victory, but was forced to leave and to improvise the next campaign. Just as his so-called parliamentarians were summoned to Paris and forced to hang about there (at their own expense) until the Emperor had returned from his wars and journeys, so there was never any chance of reform, consolidation or progress. Victory in battle settled nothing and only led to further battles. ‘All empires come to an end,’ he remarked gloomily to the Austrian General Mack: but did he know that he was speaking essentially of his own?

If Napoleon was not such an irrepressible gambler on the field of battle as has sometimes been claimed, it is also true that he was not such an irresponsible autocrat as innumerable anecdotes would suggest (‘if Milan catches fire you will report this to me and await instructions’ is an order supposedly sent to one hapless official). Edward Whitcomb shows how Napoleon helped to create an efficient bureaucracy which steadily improved in quality. It is often said that Napoleon ended the confusion and chaos of the Revolution without anyone giving a clear picture of what is meant by that. This book gives a detailed example, in that the author explains how he established the stability of personnel without which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not function properly. Although the continuous wars meant that the external service was frequently altered, in general terms changes in personnel occurred at the normal rate. Rules of procedure were established and were followed; officials were trained and all branches of the service became increasingly professional.

Does this mean that another very popular cliché in discussions of the Empire has to be dropped, that concerning ‘the career open to talents’? If by this one is meant to understand that the humblest Frenchman could go from the bottom of the social ladder to the top by virtue of his ability, this was probably never true, except in the days when the revolutionary wars brought young and brilliant soldiers into command (many of whom, as one can see from the dictionary, have been unjustly overlooked – Suchet is a good example). If by ‘the career open to talents’ one means that it was possible for young men to be trained and efficient and gradually to ascend the ladder of promotion, then this was clearly possible under the Empire. But those involved came from a restricted group of families. They were known to Napoleon and he had no doubts as to their loyalty. This was government by patronage and he always made the most of his powers to promote, to reward, to gratify, or, quite simply, to bribe. In these ways he was a very ordinary Frenchman, and his was a typical French government.

Napoleon was an ordinary Frenchman in other ways too. His opinions were often the views most readily held by many Frenchmen. On the subject of the Jews, he echoed the views of those (mainly in eastern France) who saw the Jews as usurers who were profiting from land sales by lending money at exorbitant rates. The government cannot stand still, said Napoleon, while the Jews strip Alsace. He also rejected any notion that they had to be considered alongside Catholics and Protestants. They were not, he claimed, in this category, since they were not a sect but a nation. This nation within a nation was dangerous, and Alsace, a border province, had to be protected against these potential spies who had no real attachment to France. Hence he proposed that measures should be taken against the Jews and their business activities, that their numbers should be kept down, and that Jewish schools and rabbis should be supervised. Once again, it was because of the existence of a bureaucracy that Napoleon was not able to introduce such sweeping legislation as he had envisaged. The Conseil d’Etat wanted to proceed legalistically, and Napoleon, who was always a bargainer, accepted that the Jews should send representatives to Paris to make recommendations for their own future. He decreed that the execution of contracts and judgments which had been obtained against farmers in eight eastern departments should be suspended for a year. But how could this be enacted? There seemed to be no way other than recourse to the courts. The result was confusing, and it seems as if in some cases the decree was never applied, or that, if applied, it led at times to considerable hardship.

Meanwhile the Jewish deputies arrived in Paris in 1806 to find that nothing had been prepared for them, that there was not even a building ready for their meetings. Since many of them spoke no French, and since others spoke only French and no German or Italian (there were Jews there who represented the kingdom of Italy), and since few of them were aware of Napoleon’s real views about them, the Assembly of Notables, as it was called, got off to a very bad start. The fact that out of this disorder there emerged a new definition and organisation of French Judaism was in no way attributable to the Emperor, although, as always, it appeared that it was he who was responsible. It is historians who have helped to maintain this kind of legend and we must be grateful to those historians who are now so ably destroying it.

Another legend, which is nearly disposed of by Dr Whitcomb, is that Napoleon’s eventual defeat was to be explained by a deterioration in the quality of his government, and of the advice which was offered to him. Essential to this idea is the old liberal assumption that there is something evil about dictatorship (even bureaucratic dictatorship?) and that power inevitably corrupts. Napoleon used to say, when he was First Consul, that if you wished to eat well you should go to the Second Consul (Cambacérès), that if you wished to eat badly, you should go to the Third Consul (Lebrun), but that if you wanted to eat quickly, then you should go to the First Consul; and when on one occasion it was pointed out that a dinner had already lasted 20 minutes, Napoleon commented, ‘Power is beginning to corrupt’, and the comment sums up this legend. By the end of his regime Napoleon had an excellent administration. He was receiving excellent advice from excellent administrators, which was not to be compared to the shifty, ambiguous and concealed advice that came from Talleyrand, whose reputation as a skilful diplomat has been exaggerated by generations of historians who have chosen to follow Talleyrand’s own estimation of his abilities and are only too ready to appreciate and repeat an aristocratic witticism. In fact, Napoleon frequently chose to ignore wise advice, and displayed a lack of political sense which stemmed from the egoism of his political situation. He had to keep going, to maintain a personal initiative, and to appear to be in charge of events. He was among the most distinguished of the many Walter Mittys of French history.

And he felt sorry for himself. Just as his admirer Auguste de Colbert, at the age of 31, pleaded, ‘Make haste, Sire, for I am old’, so Napoleon never believed that there was any real permanence in his Empire, and this was why he clutched so pathetically at the symbols of history and stability. Colbert, suffering from frustration, discomfort, hunger and exhaustion, would write from his campaigns to his wife, protesting that she had not written, that she had not sent the boots which he desperately needed, that she was distant and silent. Napoleon, the victor of Austerlitz, wrote to Josephine: ‘Mighty Empress, I have not had one single line from you … That is not very nice, not very loving. Deign from the height of your splendours to take a little notice of your slave.’ Napoleon was at one with his followers. But they were living in a theatre, and the play was shoddy and artificial, as well as tragic.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences