Reviews: Biographical Books

The Napoleonic Era in Europe

By Jacques Godechot

Godechot, Jacques, Beatrice F. Hyslop, and David L. Dowd. The Napoleonic Era in Europe New York : Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 1971. ISBN# 0030841666. 340 pages. Out of Print.

The 1969 bicentennial of the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte inspired a renewed wave of interest in the Emperor of the French. Historians and authors alike produced a number of new works in Europe and in the United States that retold the story and opened new chapters, while numerous special exhibitions presented the story to the general public as well.

Beatrice Hyslop, in the preface, explains the origins of this almost 300-page survey of the Napoleonic era. Professor Jacques Godechot, Universite de Toulouse, and Professor David L. Dowd, University of Florida and later University of Kentucky, agreed to write a book on the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. Professor Dowd would write the first part on the Revolutionary era and Professor Godechot would write the second part on the Napoleonic era, which Professor Dowd would translate. Unfortunately, Professor Dowd died in an automobile accident in 1968, leaving the work unfinished. Professor Hyslop was then asked to collaborate with Professor Godechot to complete the work with a projected first volume on the Napoleonic era and the second on the Revolution to follow. This work is the first of these volumes and features a particular focus on the interactions between France and Europe.

Presented primarily as a university-level text, the work is organized chronologically, with special issues presented at appropriate intervals. Chapter 1 begins with "Europe in 1799;" Chapter 2, "The Consulate;" 3, "General Pacification;" 4, "Resumption of War and Creation of the French Empire;" 5, "France and Europe in 1804;" 6, "Trafalgar and Austerlitz;" 7, "The Blockade and The Continental System;" 8, "The National Resistance to the Imperial Regime;" 9, "The Grand Empire;" 10, "The Russian Campaign;" 11, "The Fall of Napoleon;" 12, "Europe in 1815;" 13, "Culture in the Age of Napoleon;" 14, "Napoleon: The Man and the Legend." Also included in the volume is an extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary source materials and a chronology.

Though others, including regulars of this forum, may disagree, I found the book on the whole presented a balanced view of Napoleon which reflected the complexity of his lives as a man, husband, family man, military commander, man of the revolution, political figure, and head of state. In this regard, I found the following passages from Chapter 2 which express some of this complexity:

"His [Napoleon's] great victories on the Italian peninsula, unexpected and almost miraculous, were won against superior forces. Bonaparte had transformed a bedraggled, ill-provisioned, remnant-force that had been demoralized by successive defeat into a strong, patriotic fighting army. His victories allowed him to make his first affirmation of authority vis-à-vis the French government. Until then, he had not realized is own value."

"Undeniably, he was exceptionally intelligent and he was capable of making split-second decisions. He had an almost unlimited capacity for work. He was possessed by insatiable ambition. As soon as he had attained his goals, he pressed on to exceed them."

"Napoleon never forgot that he owed his fortune to the Revolution. However, more than a man of the Revolution, more than a man of the nineteenth century, he was a disciple of the philosophes of the eighteenth century, a disciple of Montesquieu and particularly Voltaire rather than Rousseau. Napoleon was to become an enlightened despot--no doubt the most enlightened of the line, and the last."

In the final chapter, "The Legend," The Napoleonic Era in Europe traces the birth of the Napoleonic myth to Bonaparte's memoirs written on St Helena, but shows also how these intertwined with the works of others written even during his years of power. Even works of the Bourbon restoration period are noted for developing sympathy for the fallen Emperor. The romanticized views brought about under Napoleon III are also noted. For the opposing camp, the authors credit Englishman Lewis Goldsmith with using, as early as 1809, the epithet "ogre of Corsica." They also point out that many French historians critical of Napoleon I are focused upon the changes brought about by the French Revolution which were not always carried through the Napoleonic period.

The text's viewpoint is in my opinion best reflected in a quote it presents from the Russian, Count Rostopchin.

"Napoleon was in my eyes a great general after his campaign in Italy in Egypt, benefactor of France when he stemmed the French Revolution during the Consulate; a despot dangerous for Europe as soon as he made himself emperor; insatiable conqueror until 1812; man drunk with Glory and blinded to fortune as soon as he undertook the conquest of Russia; a genius defeated at Fountainbleau and Waterloo; and at Saint Helena, a Jeremiah prophet."

I would highly recommend this volume as a good basic, survey history of the Napoleonic era. While not a detailed history of the period, it presents in a compact package, all of the desired "highpoints" - political, military, economic, and even cultural and social - that are often discussed in this forum. And for those desirous of more detail - the bibliography points the way to first hand sources as well as modern works that can meet demand. I doubt that it is still in print, but I found my copy at a good second hand bookstore for a mere two dollars. It is well worth both the hunt and even a higher price to provide anyone's Napoleonic library a broad, well-written survey history of the period - against which one can better understand those more popular histories of battles, campaigns, and armies.

Reviewed by Robert Mosher
January 2001


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