Reviews: Biographical Books

Napoleon: A Penguin Life

By Paul Johnson

Johnson, Paul.  Napoleon: A Penguin Life N.Y. : Viking, 2002. ISBN# 0670030783. 190 p.  $19.95. Hardcover.

Napoleon Bonaparte: A Penguin Life

This small book by Paul Johnson is part of the "Penguin Lives" series of short biographies of famous individuals of history written by comparatively famous authors (novelist Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse and Southern humorist Roy Blount, Jr. on Robert E. Lee, for example).  Paul Johnson, a well-known conservative journalist who has written a number of fat books denouncing tyranny and celebrating liberty and "traditional Western values," was an unfortunate choice for reviewing Napoleon's life (though he has called Franco a "great man").  It is not surprising that Johnson simply sees Napoleon as the precursor of the wars and totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century.  To Johnson Napoleon begat Lenin, Stalin, Hitler Mao, Kim Il Sung, Castro, Peron, Saddam Hussein, Ceausescu, and Gadhafi.  In fact Johnson evokes Hitleresque and Stalinesque imagery repeatly throughout the book.  Alan Schom did much the same thing, but in almost 900 pages.  Mercifully, Johnson uses considerably less pages.

R.S. Alexander in his Napoleon: Reputations points out that Hitler and Stalin references to Napoleon were common in the 1940s and 1950s but adds that the comparison has been based mainly on "parallels of circumstance and similarities of character, rather than on analysis of political systems." Alexander adds that "few historians would seriously contend that Napoleonic rule was fascist." Unlike Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, Napoleon's rule was not party based.  Napoleon's occasional disregard for the rule of law was the exception not the rule.  And as Pieter Geyl worried, comparisons of Hitler with Napoleon could only benefit the former. 

In Johnson's view of history any pro-French uprisings are cynical "Stalinist" exercises in exploitation. All anti-French uprisings are spontaneous expression of popular longings for liberty.  Memoirs which don't support Johnson's views of Napoleon are dismissed as "Bonaparte's boasting and the goggling admiration of his clerical staff and other witnesses….Those who served Bonaparte most slavishly had most need, for their own self-respect, to present him as a colossus."  Napoleon's enemies' mistakes are brilliant plans, Napoleon's brilliant plans are mistakes. But Johnson doesn't stop with his references to Nazis and other unsavory types in order to cut Napoleon down to size. In Johnson's view Napoleon was a "cultural racist," a rapist (literally), ignorant, with bourgeois tastes.

Despite his assertion that "it is unhistorical to engage in psychological examinations of Bonaparte's character," Johnson's Napoleon (despite the title of the book Johnson persists in calling Napoleon Bonaparte, a throw-back to the nineteenth century practice of referring to him as Buonaparte) is a "Demogorgon."  In Johnson's words, Napoleon's "sensibilities were blunt.  His compassion was shallow. His imagination did not trouble him….His conscience, never active, was under control.  His will possessed his entire being, which otherwise was under no restraint."  Napoleon had "emerged from a political background where a man's word meant nothing, honor was dead, and murder was routine."  Napoleon from birth lacked "the ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood, or right and wrong…Bonaparte's word was worthless.  He had broken every treaty he had ever signed."

More space is devoted to Napoleon's marriage to Marie Louise, which Johnson seems to have raised merely to denigrate Napoleon's bad taste and bad lovemaking, than all Napoleon's military victories and domestic achievements combined.  Indeed Johnson states that "Nothing is more confusing than a detailed and rationalized description of a complex military campaign that probably left most of the participating generals bewildered."  But he does devote considerable space to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, which in Johnson's view "was essentially a simple affair."  As a general, Napoleon's only tactic was to attack.  Apparently Johnson has forgotten Ulm, for instance.

Johnson also criticizes Napoleon's conservative military ideas. "He made little use of observation balloons; he indeed took no notice of airpower, though it was then much discussed.  He ignored steam power, though traction engines and the railroad were just over the horizon…One might have said that military rail was made for Bonaparte's geo-strategy of swift transfer of armies.  But he preferred merely to improve the old military road system."  Of course we are all familiar with the aerial armies, submarine services, rail-based logistical support and steam-powered tank armies of Napoleon's enemies!  In fact from 1700 to the 1850s war hadn't changed much.  Armies were still made up of infantry, cavalry and artillery, armed with smoothbore, muzzle-loading weapons, as well as, swords and bayonets.  The "Brown Bess" remained the principal British infantry weapon from the middle of the 18th to the middle of the 19th centuries.

The book seems almost to have been written from memory.  Mistakes abound--Lucien Bonaparte is repeatedly referred to as the King of Holland, Betsy Balcombe becomes Betsy Briars, the Napoleonic electorate was "smaller than the one that produced the…lower house under the ancien régime," Napoleon's artillery drowned 2,000 Russians by firing "red-hot shot" into frozen ponds, Charles XII was king of Sweden during this period and Wellington's Peninsular army was made up of British troops and "Spanish auxiliaries." Johnson retails rumor like a gossip columnist—Napoleon's mother had a "leisurely affair" with Marbeuf and Napoleon was a bad lover. 

Johnson's writing style also produces strange turns of phrase that imply things that are just not true--the Directory followed the Terror (does Johnson not know of the Thermidorians or is he ignoring them?); Napoleon instituted conscription, the metric system and the secret police (or that the Revolution had instituted the prefectorial corps); or Johnson's comparisons of casualties between the French armies fighting in 1805-1809 and Wellington's Peninsular campaigns (is Johnson aware of the disparity between the sizes of the respective armies?).  According to Johnson, Wellington wore is hat "fore and aft" because he, unlike Napoleon, whose hat was worn from "side to side," liked to "raise his hat, out of courtesy and return salutes."  Johnson contends it was "British efforts to circumvent Bonaparte's Continental System [that]…eventually drove the United States into war with the British Empire."  According to Johnson the three most important men in Napoleon's administration were Talleyrand, Fouche, and Vivant Denon!

Add to this Johnson's propensity for stating as fact his opinions about his subject's inner thoughts—Napoleon was "already seeking power" in 1793, Napoleon had no patriotism, Napoleon knew that Revolutionary ideals were "rhetorical nonsense." Indeed, in Johnson's historical determinist view, Napoleon had his life all worked out in advance, always knowing years before what would be necessary for reaching his goal of ultimate power over Europe.  In this back-handed compliment to Napoleon's 20/20 foresight Johnson gives Napoleon too much credit.  Johnson presents all his exercises in historical ESP as facts.  He doesn't "prove" them, of course, for they are unprovable.

Johnson proposes in his introduction to examine Napoleon's life "unromantically, skeptically, and searchingly."  I guess two out of three isn't bad. He certainly has removed all the "romance" from Napoleon's career, and he is skeptical.  But as a biography "searching" for the real Napoleon, I think it fails.  Johnson's characterization of the "bad" Napoleon is as much of a cardboard cutout of the "Man" as the worst hagiographies that Johnson derides.  There is a place for an intelligent, modern "pricking" of the balloon of Napoleonic myth and legend, but Johnson, like Schom, seems to have merely run wild in the nineteenth century "Napoleon as Ogre" school of historiography. Lacking any fresh insights, with no new ideas, retailing a mixture of hoary nineteenth century myths, the book is superficial at best. The book contains no index, no footnotes, no maps, no illustrations and only a rudimentary note on "Further Reading." Considering the final product, the $19.95 price tag seems high for such a lightweight book.

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg

Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2002


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