Monday 24 June 2019

Napoleon: just an ordinary man?

Biography: Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth, Adam Zamoyski William, Collins, hardback, 752 pages, €39.99

Workaholic: were it not for the French revolution, Napoleon would have had a mediocre military career
Workaholic: were it not for the French revolution, Napoleon would have had a mediocre military career
Napoleon: The man behind the myth

Posterity's view of Napoleon Bonaparte has oscillated wildly. During his own cosmopolitan upbringing, Adam Zamoyski was exposed to "violently conflicting visions" of the great man that included "godlike genius, Romantic avatar, evil monster or just nasty little dictator". His own view, having stripped away the accumulated layers of prejudice and myth - some of them applied by the subject himself - is that Napoleon possessed "some extraordinary qualities", but "in many ways was a very ordinary man".

The book, therefore, is a corrective to the biographies that deify Napoleon as both an enlightened ruler and a military "genius". How could he be, states Zamoyski, when, "for all his many triumphs", he "presided over the worst (and entirely self-inflicted) disaster in military history and single-handedly destroyed the great enterprise he and others had toiled so hard to construct"? The blunder was, of course, Napoleon's ill-advised invasion of Russia in 1812, an event on which Zamoyski is well-placed to pass judgment because he wrote a brilliant book about it in 2004.

The story of Napoleon's upbringing - born in 1769 "in one of the poorest places in Europe, the island of Corsica" - is well known. Yet Zamoyski uses many new first-hand sources to flesh out the detail of Napoleon's largely happy childhood, where his boldness, aggression and quarrelsome nature set him apart from his brothers. He owed his military cadetship, the start of his army career, to his ambitious social-climbing father Carlo, who had tied his fortunes to the French rulers of Corsica. What set him apart from his fellow cadets, however, was his "application and intellectual curiosity": he "read voraciously" and was an "excellent mathematician".

For all his talents, Napoleon would probably have ended his career as a mid-ranking artillery officer but for one seismic event: the French Revolution of 1789. By tearing down the social and financial barriers to advancement, the revolution gave a poorly connected "foreigner" such as Napoleon the chance to rise rapidly in rank and influence. Initially a convinced republican who celebrated the end of "feudal barbarism and political slavery", and flirted with Corsican nationalism, he gradually developed more pro-French authoritarian views as he witnessed at first hand the rule of the mob.

The most astonishing aspect of Napoleon's career was his meteoric rise from penniless political refugee and junior army officer in 1793 to celebrated general and First Consul of Revolutionary France, dictator in all but name, just six years later. He managed this, says Zamoyski, because he was a workaholic, physically and morally brave, and "a brilliant tactician, as one would expect of a clever operator from a small-town background".

He was also a self-publicist whose political aspirations were based on a burgeoning reputation as a military commander. He won a string of victories over the Austrians in Italy in 1796-97, for example, yet "grossly exaggerated Austrian losses while diminishing his own". Harnessing the power of propaganda, he sent "mendacious despatches" to his masters which he knew would be "plastered on walls for the public to read".

As First Consul and, from 1804, Emperor of the French, Napoleon initiated far-reaching civil reforms - including the unifying of France's many legal codes into a single Code Napoléon - which still underpin French society today. Zamoyski detects Napoleon's influence in the Code's "assumption of the family as the basis of society", as well as in its "clauses governing marital relations and the rights of women". He was not the Code's creator nor even its editor, says Zamoyski, "but without him it would not have come into existence". This was true of almost every achievement of the consulship, as Napoleon packed his Council of State with "the most brilliant minds and the greatest experts in the country".

He introduced the same meritocracy to the army, and it was partly thanks to the talents of other men that he was able to win a string of astonishing victories, particularly those over the Austria and Russia at Austerlitz in 1805, and Prussia at Jena a year later.

At first, many Europeans viewed him "as a liberator and a friend of the oppressed". But as his power grew and his rule extended as far as the Russian border, he came to be seen as an "oppressor". Thus was revealed the "inherent contradiction" at the heart of the Napoleonic imperium: "its mission was to enlighten, liberate and modernise", yet it created new hierarchies that imposed their own political, social and economic constraints.

Hubris did for him in the end, as he tried to bring the recalcitrant Tsar Alexander I to heel in 1812 by launching an invasion of Russia against advice. The three brief chapters that Zamoyski devotes to this sorry tale are as good a summary as you will read. Yet this is not a book for military trainspotters. The accounts of most battles are brief, if well-judged: Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo, for example, is covered in just six pages. The real value of this wonderful biography - elegantly written, exhaustively researched and compellingly argued - is the insight it gives us into Napoleon the Man. He was, concludes Zamoyski, neither a monster nor a saint. Instead, his motives "were on the whole praiseworthy" and his ambition "no greater than his contemporaries". What made that ambition "so exceptional was the scope it was accorded by circumstance".

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