Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts

Today I'm looking at a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man whose ambitions took him from the shores of Corsica to the deserts of Egypt to the fields of Austerlitz to the ashes of Moscow. It is impossible to understand Europe in the nineteenth century without talking about Napoleon. With such a figure it is difficult to put them within historical context and look at them as a person rather than an idea. To the French Napoleon is often idolized, the glorious general-statesman who made French arms victorious across Europe. To the British Napoleon is a war-mongering monster who burned Europe to feed his ceaseless ambition. Ultimately the truth about Napoleon the man, rather than Napoleon the idea, will be somewhere in the middle.

Roberts pulls on a variety of resources, including the voluminous documents available at this time period and letters by Napoleon that were not previously available. The result is a book that feels very well-researched but I'll admit at the beginning I was a little concerned about this being a little hagiographic. Because there is so much acrimony surrounding Napoleon I can understand Roberts's efforts to dispel the opprobrium surrounding him, but I was worried at times that Roberts went a little too far in the other direction. I will admit that there are things Napoleon did which were net positives, such as the reform of the French civil code which has influenced legal codes in countless countries today. But there are some simple facts, like Napoleon's decision to overthrow the French Directorate and get declared consul, then consul for life, then emperor reflect badly on him. I'm aware this is very much my American-ness coming out with the example of George Washington an exceedingly rare example of a man who could have become king if he wanted (and in fact some people thought about making him king) but instead chose to step down from political power and created a precedent of peaceful transfer of power for two centuries.

 However, Roberts does point out numerous mistakes Napoleon made, especially later in his reign, and takes Napoleon to task for these mistakes. Examples include the invasion of Russia which was a logistical nightmare and the point where the Grand Armee's hubris became a weakness rather than an advantage. On top of that was the continuation of the Peninsular campaign, a drain of troops and resources that Napoleon could ill afford as Russian troops continued to batter his main force. Napoleon also trusted people he definitely shouldn't have, such as Talleyrand. Napoleon had already caught Talleyrand playing both sides against each other for his own advantage. Napoleon did briefly remove Talleyrand from positions of influence, but later found himself relying on Talleyrand which would prove to be Napoleon's undoing. So I think Roberts's opinion of Napoleon for the whole of the book is fairly balanced. And like most people Napoleon is a mix of good and bad so it comes out complicated in the end.

Overall I think this book did a pretty good job of talking about Napoleon. Roberts uses a variety of sources and while he gushes about Napoleon at some points, he is equally hard on Napoleon at later points as well. It's a long book with a lot of information, but well worth the read to gain insight into the most influential figure at the start of the nineteenth century.

- Kalpar

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