Reviews: Books of General Interest


Napoleon

Alexander, R. S., Napoleon "Reputations Series," (London: Arnold, 2001; co-published in the USA in New York by Oxford University Press, 2001.) 273 pages. ISBN 0340719168.  $19.95 Paperback (also available in hardback).

More than a quarter of million books have already been written about Napoleon, yet authors and historians continue to interpret his life—often in contradictory terms.  Was Napoleon a devil or a god, a charlatan or a visionary, a superman or a madman?  Contemporary events color the view of the past so that during the Restoration Napoleon was "the Revolution Crowned," in the middle of the nineteenth century he was his nephew, in the 1940s Napoleon was Hitler and in the 1950s he was Stalin.  After the slaughter of WWI Napoleon's military reputation suffered.

Peter Geyl has called Napoleon "the debate without end."  Napoleon's own complexities, contradictions and ambiguities have made that endless debate possible.  As in a Rorschach test writers often see what they want in the protean and evolving examination of his reputation; sometimes it seems reflecting as much of themselves as of Napoleon in their view of him. "Seeing something positive in Napoleon's legacy," Alexander writes, "was not simply a matter of expediency; it was also a product of the way in which altering circumstance could place Napoleon in a different light."   Mark Twain once wrote, "Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man -- the biography of the man himself cannot be written." Ultimately one has to wonder whether, even if one could read all those quarter of a million books, one would be any closer to understanding Napoleon.

Alexander begins his overview of Napoleon's reputation with a quick reprise of the key facts of Napoleon's life.  Then he turns his eye to the perennial question of whether Napoleon was the heir or the betrayer of the Revolution.  This question especially comes to the forefront after the death of Napoleon and the fall of the Bourbons.  Supporters of the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe, called by some "Bonapartism without Bonaparte," and the Second Empire of "Napoleon the Little," made the First Empire both a lash to scourge Napoleon's successors and a model to which they to which they must necessarily fall short.

Victor Hugo, bored by the pacifism and materialism of the July Monarchy, celebrated the glory of the Imperial years while rejecting imperial tyranny.  Tocqueville wrote, "I reproach [the Empire] for the non-liberal side of its institutions, but at the same time I do full justice to the personal grandeur of Napoleon, the most extraordinary being, I say, who has appeared in the world for many centuries."  For Thiers Napoleon was "the greatest human being since Caesar and Charlemagne," but "the country must never be handed over to one man, no matter who the man." The ambiguity and ambivalence of Napoleon's legacy became even more pronounced as Bonapartism divided and mutated in strains of Left Bonapartism and Right Bonapartism.

The "Black Legend" of Napoleon, created during his life and after his fall, found renewed vigor after Sedan.  From the destruction of the Vendôme Column, to Lanfrey's History of Napoleon I, to the novels of Erckmann-Chatrian, to the Society for Republican Education, the Third Republic witnessed a diminution of Napoleon's legacy.  Napoleon is rejected by elements of the Right—Catholic, Royalist, etc., as well as by the Left—anarchist, socialist, etc., and embraced by others across the political spectrum.  By World War I, Napoleon had already taken on the chameleon colors of being all things to all people.

Next Alexander looks at Napoleon's relationship to the political Right.  Napoleon's reputation has been affected by the rise of the "Man on Horseback," a political type of which Napoleon has been seen as the modern prototype, and by the rise of the modern dictators.  Originally the Right viewed Napoleon as a "crowned Jacobin," and, prior to the Second Empire, the army was more likely to be viewed as a tool of the Left. The circumstances that allowed Napoleon to come to power were not all that unique in the nineteenth century but, as a prototype, Napoleon set a high standard to live up to.  Alexander compares Napoleon to other Men on Horseback, in Haiti, Mexico and Spain, pointing out the similarities between these "little Napoleons" and the original.  In each case they were, Alexander attests, poor imitations.  Though Napoleon owed his rise to his military prowess, his regime was not, historians tend to agree, a military dictatorship.

It was from the Right that the image of Napoleon as the "Corsican Ogre"—the so-called "Black Legend"—sprung.  Napoleon was the "godless destroyer," who kept alive and spread the poison of the Revolution, whose principles were just a mask for personal ambition and warmongering.  Émigré writers and foreign opposition combined to give birth to the legend.  In the German Catechism of Kleist, Napoleon was a "patricidal demon, spawned by hell"; to the Italian Braccini, he was a "bloodthirsty tiger feeding on his Italian slaves"; to the Tories in Britain Napoleon was a Jacobin capable of any crime and to the Whigs he was the "Liberticide Barbarian."

By the twentieth century Napoleon had lost his Jacobin side and had come to be associated with Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.  Real or perceived threats of European hegemony by Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin evoke in the popular mind the wars against Napoleon.  Comparisons were often based on superficial similarities of circumstances or personal characteristics and often served a propaganda purpose.  A more sophisticated comparison in academic circles of the systems illustrates a vast gulf exists between Napoleon and the dictators of the Thirties.  Under Napoleon the oppressed people of Europe were scheduled for "enlightenment" not extermination.  But the image of Napoleon has been blackened by such comparisons.

As a police state Napoleon's France was, in the view of most modern historians, "relatively benign."  Violations of the rule of law were the exception rather than the rule and the number of political prisoners, Alexander points out, could not compare with those of the Terror which preceded it, or the White terror of the Bourbons that followed it.  Nor was scape-goating one group within the body politic a feature of the Imperial years.  Napoleon recreated France's nobility but a hereditary title was seldom granted (about 200 grants were hereditary) and the Imperial nobility largely lacked the privileges of the ancien régime. In the wider Empire, the French Enlightenment mind-set was mixed with a great deal of chauvinism.  Ultimately, Alexander posits that "While most historians can agree as to which was the 'good' side in World War Two, consensus comes less readily concerning the Revolutionary-Napoleonic wars…A full embrace of Napoleon's enemies is difficult unless one simply ignores what they represent for the vast majority of European people."  Within France the ultra-nationalist Right was as likely to be critical of Napoleon as the far Left was.  Jacques Bainville was more admiring of Mussolini and even Hitler than Napoleon.  Charles Maurras likened Napoleon to the Jews, both, in his view outsiders who profited by spreading anarchy and revolution.  Léon Daudet saw Napoleon as the heir to the bloodthirsty tyrants of the Terror.

Next Alexander turns his attention to Napoleon's impact on the arts.  Here Alexander proposes that Napoleon's greatest achievement was in capturing the minds, if not the hearts, of an era.  Though the Napoleonic empire did not last, Napoleon successfully built an empire of the imagination. Through art and literature Napoleon invaded the minds and dreams (or nightmares) of the nineteenth century imagination.  Demi-god or demon, Napoleon became more than a mere man.  If the "real" Napoleon was a mortal struggling to solve everyday problems, in the minds of his contemporaries and of succeeding generations, Napoleon became the embodiment of their hopes and fears.

In paintings, sculpture, monuments, literature and the decorative arts Napoleon left his mark.  The Empire style, according to Alexander, was "a direct threat to those who enjoyed privilege based on birth alone."  The works of David, Gros, Gérard, Girodet, Prud'hon, Ingres, Corbet and Houdon immortalized Napoleon.  Napoleon's enemies also used the arts in the war for the minds of the people.  In Britain caricaturists like Gillray and Cruikshank and writers like Goldsmith helped develop the Napoleonic "Black Legend."  Émigré writers including Chateaubriand and Mme. De Staël blackened Napoleon's name with every sin imaginable or sought to belittle him with accusations that he owed his success more to propaganda and charlatanism than to talent.   

The Romantics, such as Lamartine and de Vigny were at first hostile to the Napoleonic legacy.  But Napoleon's exile and absence made the heart grow fonder.  A Napoleon far away became useful as a weapon to use against the Bourbon and the Orléanist monarchy.  After Napoleon's death even more took up the torch—Hugo, Stendahl, Balzac, among the names that stand out—and helped create the Napoleonic legend.  After Sedan, anti-Bonapartist propaganda once again dominated France's elite culture, but the collapse of the Second Empire also allowed for a more universal view of Napoleon. 

This leads Alexander to look at Popular Bonapartism, perhaps the most successful chapter in the book.  In the view of Popular Bonapartism Napoleon was "of and by the people." Napoleon, for the common man represents the triumph of ambition, talent and will over birth.  Popular Bonapartism was not attached to any faction and was more a matter of sentiment.  Napoleon's enemies had helped spur the growth of Popular Bonapartism.  Alexander, echoing his study of the fédérés of 1815, observes that upon Napoleon's return from Elba, "popular rallying was impressive. Renewed war was inevitable, but from the standpoint of many Frenchmen, this was unquestionably a defensive war…There is no precise means of assessing public opinion, but two points are clear: Bonapartism already had an extensive mass base, and the regime fell in 1815 not because of domestic opposition, but because allied armies were much greater."

Peasants, urban workers and discharged veterans were the wellsprings of Popular Bonapartism.  Anti-Bonapartism, though including Liberal critiques, came to be associated with Royalism and the "Black Legend" which became so extreme that the mass of Frenchmen could easily supply their own correctives.  By 1842 the Pellerin printing house was turning out more than 800,000 "penny" prints per year depicting Napoleonic scenes. Almost 600 plays based on Napoleon's life were written in the nineteenth century.

In the United States, Popular Bonapartism contained no implied threat to the political order and was almost as strong as in France.  Napoleon's life was one of Horatio Alger's self-made men writ large.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said that Napoleon had a special appeal to "the aspirations of the multitudes of little Napoleons, who read his life into their own histories."  Napoleon represented the American virtues of ability, hard work and enterprise.  In the view of many Americans Napoleon was an immigrant who rose from common people through his own will and extraordinary talents.  "In America," Napoleon wrote, "you may be on a footing of equality with everyone; you may, if you please, mingle with the crowd without inconvenience, retaining your own manners."  Popular prints, plays, biographies, musical pieces and an assortment of popular novelties and bric-à-brac fueled Americans' interest.

It was only the slaughter of WWI and the tyrannies of World War II which have tarnished the image of popular Bonapartism.  Twentieth century movements such as psychology which has classified and categorized Napoleon, stamping him as a "type", which have diminished Napoleon in the public mind.  Late nineteenth and early twentieth century schools of historiography moved away from the "Great Man" theory of history, shuffling Napoleon aside to be replaced by the "forces of History."  Napoleon's agency is diminished.  On the whole, in twentieth century academic historiography, the importance and uniqueness of Napoleon, except perhaps as a bugbear, has largely disappeared.  Though recent works, reflecting current concerns with European unity, have focused on whether Napoleon had a plan for the unification of Europe or not.  Typically, authors divide sharply in their opinions.

 

 The "debate without end" will, in all likelihood truly have no end.  Alexander demonstrates how passionate the debate over Napoleon's reputation has been.  Napoleon's strongest supporters and detractors have continued to see him as larger than life.  In the English-speaking world belittlement has been a liet-motif.  Invective against Napoleon, such as in the case of Schom, has often been personal in tone—a disapproval of the man himself, regardless of his actions.  Ogre, conqueror, visionary, Great Captain, unifier—a balance needs to be found.

Alexander's Napoleon (Reputations) can be viewed as a series of essays on different themes surrounding Napoleon's enduring reputation. The main weakness of this approach is that the individual essays do not always work to form a coherent whole.  The lack of conclusions or even a clearly expressed specific point of view tends to give equal weight to competing visions of Napoleon, adding the ambiguity.  Some chapters are more successful than others, with that on Popular Bonapartism standing out.  Other chapters become more of a catalog of differing opinions, which don't come together into a cohesive whole—such as that on Napoleon in twentieth-century historiography.  This might be a function of space, as it is likely the publishers wanted to keep the book to a compact size.

Alexander looks mainly at English language works on Napoleon or in the case of foreign language materials, mainly French works that have been translated into English.  This approach misses the opportunity to explore topics such as Bonapartism in Germany or its influence on groups like the Decembrists.  Although Alexander includes a chapter on Napoleon and the political Right, he does not give an extended view of Napoleon and the Left, especially of modern-day liberalism—whose view of Napoleon seems the most problematic.  (Alexander gives his reasons for this omission in his introduction.)  Such an overview would have been valuable, in my opinion, because it is this "liberal" viewpoint that now largely dominates the popular and even academic view of Napoleon's reputation.  Alexander points out that in the nineteenth century liberalism, republicanism and socialism all found accommodation with Napoleon's legacy.

A chronology of the events and works discussed in the book and an extensive bibliography of books on Napoleon and his legacy are included. A bibliographic essay summarizing Alexander's "take" of the key works of Napoleonic historiography, if it had been included, would have been an extra bonus.  Napoleon (Reputations) includes a detailed index.

R. S. Alexander is also that author of Bonapartism and the Revolutionary Tradition in France: The Fédérés of 1815 (1991) and is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
May 2002

 

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