Reviews: Biographical Books



Napoleon: Humanitarian and Man of Peace

By Emile René Gueguen

Gueguen, Emile René. Napoleon: Humanitarian and Man of Peace. La Jolla, CA: Vincendo Publishing, 1993. 84 pages. (Out of print.)

Perhaps the most extraordinary book I have ever read is a book that sets out to prove that Napoleon was not a man of war, but a man of peace and a humanitarian.  Emile René Gueguen, the author of this book, is a retired French army officer living in Southern California.  It is a slim 84-page paperback book and is perfect for those who hate reading long books that take forever to finish.  Although there is no index at the back of the book, the author does give a lot of footnotes.   In addition, the author provides an excellent list of sources, including such primary sources as the memoirs of Napoleon’s private secretary, Claude Francois, Baron de Méneval and Las Cases’ Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène.

Interestingly, I first heard of this book in 1993 while I was a member of the Napoleonic Society of America.  One day, I received a promotional mailing from none other than the author himself who is also a member of this society. He apparently thought it was a good idea to peddle his book to fellow members. 

The aim of the book is to set Napoleon’s record straight and to prove that unlike Hitler or Stalin, in the words of Gueguen, “he was a good and generous man.” The strongest point this book made was that it gave some strong and convincing arguments to prove that Napoleon was indeed a lover of peace and a humanitarian, who was in the author’s words, “incapable of holding a grudge” and “whose good heart led to his downfall.” 

For example, here are a few quotes that reveal the most positive characteristics of Napoleon, the humanitarian and man of peace, “First of all, as evidence of Napoleon’s selflessness and lack of personal ambition, let us remember his visit to the Jaffa hospital, (1799), where he was moved to embrace his plague-ridden soldiers, thus running the risk of contagion and death.” (p. 6)

“Contrary to what is generally believed, Napoleon did not execute a Coup-d’Etat in order to seize power.  Being a disciplined soldier, he simply obeyed the orders of Abbe Emmanuel Joseph Siéyès, President of the 'Directoire,' and thus head of the government.  Besides, it is absurd to think that Napoleon, returning alone from Egypt, without his army penniless and with few friends in Paris would have been able to organize in two weeks and successfully lead the Coup-d’Etat that was to save France and the Republic.” (p. 7)

The next quote is actually from Méneval's Memoirs, which Gueguen used in a footnote to the above quote to cite another example of Napoleon's kindness, “General Bonaparte, detained in Ajaccio by unfavorable wind, found the troops in pitiful state.  Learning that the past nineteen months, these soldiers had received neither pay nor allowances of any kind, he made haste to put at their disposal towards meeting their most pressing needs, all the money in his possession—about forty thousand francs—reserving for himself only just enough to pay his posting expenses to Paris.”

Another example of Napoleon's positive character, according to the author, was that Napoleon did not become emperor as a result of seizing power. The French people elected him emperor.  To give more detail about how Napoleon became Emperor of the French, we must, once again, let Gueguen prove his point in the following long quote, “The French people who had never been so happy feared losing Napoleon through violent death or resignation.  They urged the representatives to grant him the power that would ensure his presence as head of state.  The Senate pressed him to accept his appointment as hereditary emperor, in order to end the assassination attempts by the monarchs of Europe, who were unwilling to accept this Republic’s “des Droits de L’Homme et du Citoyen” (Bill of Rights), which was attractive to their people and thus placed their own survival in jeopardy.  Napoleon refused saying, “I have no heir and no chance of having one with Josephine….It was after much reluctance that he finally accepted becoming Emperor of the French, but only on condition that this title be endorsed by a vote of the people.  The results of the referendum yielded 3,572,329 yes and 2,569 no.  He was, therefore, the only legitimate monarch in Europe.  None of the others had ever won the right to rule by the vote of his people.” (pp. 11-12)

Yet another example of Napoleon’s positive character was how Napoleon brought back stability to France during his early years as First Consul. The author explained that the corrective action he took from January to May 1800 to restore order in France and to bring an end to the anarchy that was raging in the country after ten years of revolution was not only a true miracle, but is unique in history.  “In a matter of weeks,” Gueguen wrote, “he restored internal peace, trust in the future, enthusiasm and a desire in the French people to work for the betterment of their society."  Among Napoleon’s many accomplishments is improving the French economy, the author explained, stating, “Napoleon established the Banque de France.  He brought money into the state treasury by restoring confidence among the citizens and by creating the Droits Reunis.” (p. 29) In a footnote to the above quote, the author defined the Droits Reunis as taxes on gold, silver, tobacco, alcohol, salt, stamps and playing cards.

A native of Morlaix in Brittany, the author is a retired Colonel in the French Army and now lives in La Jolla, California, outside of San Diego.  Although he was only 15 years old when France capitulated to Nazi Germany in 1940, he joined the French Resistance.  During World War II, he was a paratrooper officer in General Charles De Gaulle’s Free French Army.  According to the brief biography of the author at the back of the book, Gueguen “led and won over fifty fights and battles, often against large numerical superiority, in France, Vietnam, and Algeria,” and, “his chivalrous spirit was acknowledged even by the communist North Vietnamese.” Gueguen was also wounded three times in battle.  As a result, he was one of the most decorated officers in the French Army and was made a Chevalier, an Officer, and a Commander of the Legion of Honor. In 1969, the author left the army and became the Director of the French Olympic Center.  Gueguen is also the author of Volontaire, which was published in 1986 in Paris by Grasset.

 

Reviewed by Ira Grossman
Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2003

 

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