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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Biographies


By Emil Ludwig

Ludwig, Emil. Napoleon Eden Paul and Cedar Paul, translation. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926. 707 pages. Hardcover. (Out of Print.)

Emil Ludwig's biography of Napoleon, now 74 years old, continues its remarkable presence as a classic of Napoleonic literature and has yet to be surpassed for its unique presentation. Writing in the present tense, Ludwig brings to life his subject's character better than any other biography of Napoleon.

Although long out of print, Ludwig's masterpiece remains one of the most easily found biographies of Napoleon in second-hand bookshops and over the Internet. A recent check of the Advanced Book Exchange site ( showed almost 500 copies of various paperback and hardcover editions ranging in price from $5 to $30 (with only 11 copies matching the description of first edition with dust jacket).

Ludwig (1881-1948) was 45 and living in Germany when he published "Napoleon" in 1926 and, fortunately for the English-speaking world, the work was translated and published in English the following year. Napoleon sold well in the United States, making number two on the non-fiction best-seller list in 1927 (Will Durant's Story of Philosophy was number one). By this time he had established himself as a biographer in the new school of biography emphasizing the personality of the subject. He published a biography of Goethe in 1920, perhaps the first long biography of the modern school, according to Marston Balch, describing it as a "novel biographical procedure -- from intuitive prepossession to evidential conviction." Before that publication, Ludwig had been working on the life of Bismarck. Before he turned 30, Ludwig wrote 12 plays, half of which were produced, and one of them featuring Napoleon.

Following the publication of Napoleon several other biographies by Ludwig were translated into English including Jesus, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Beethoven. He also wrote his autobiography, Gifts of Life. The original English edition, published by Boni & Liveright (and also the American edition published by Garden City Publishing) contained 22 illustrations and featured different content headings at the top of each page. Subsequent editions, such as Modern Library (1953) and the paperback copies (the Cardinal Giant in 1953 and Pocket Books in 1972) lack the illustrations and page headers. The book went through numerous printings.

The biography is divided into five books One, "The Island" (birth to marriage); Two, "The Torrent" (Army of Italy to First Counsel); Three, "The River" (Marengo to birth of Napoleon II); Four, "The Sea" (Russia to Waterloo); and Five, "The Rock" (St. Helena). Each book begins with a quote from Goethe. Although Ludwig does not include a bibliography, the concluding four pages, the "Envoy", he states, "In this book, all the data are recorded facts, except the soliloquies." Also, in the acknowledgments he thanked Professor Pariset and Kurt Wildhagen for advice on the book and Edouard Driault and F.M. Kircheisen for help with supplying material for the illustrations.

The British publication The Times Literary Supplement ran a review of the book on the front of its May 12, 1927 issue. "His study has been awaited by English readers with curiosity," the reviewer remarked, "and by those who have themselves studied Napoleon perhaps with some misgivings." The reviewer praised the "brilliant technique" of the book and Ludwig's ability to "analyze character so admirably." According to the review, Ludwig "disclaims the title of historian and asks us to consider him student of character only."

The Times review said that some "may be astonished at the warmth of his enthusiasm; may feel, not that he is uncritical, for he is critic before all, but that he sometimes appears determined to contemplate only the fairest side of the medal. Yet it cannot be said that he ever bestows admiration without cause." Ludwig's admiration for Napoleon is "mainly intellectual, though morally he is prepared to go farther in his support than many critics." Discussing the appeal of Napoleon, the reviewer said it is the "universal genius of Napoleon which has focused upon him the attention of so many thousands."

In the "Envoy" section Ludwig explains the scope of the work, that he "tried to write the inner history of Napoleon." He explained that "Nothing could be admitted to this one volume that did not throw light upon the history of the one interior," which is why he gives only minor attention to the battles and campaigns.

I recommend that the reader begin with the "Envoy" section. Following that, if one is hesitating to read the book cover to cover, a full appreciation of Ludwig's gift of writing can be gained by reading the beginning portions of Book Five, "The Rock". Section Two of that book explains how the "soul which governed this body was driven forward by three fundamental powers: self-confidence, energy, imagination." What follows over the next 50 pages is a truly amazing essay and some of the best writing on Napoleon that exists. It is wonderful prose filled with fascinating insights.

Some highlights from these pages:

- "His self-confidence confers on him a natural dignity that amazes and angers the legitimist world, which believes dignity to be consonant only with heredity and culture."

- "His energy is concentrated on human beings. Very rarely does he come into conflict with natural forces; and whenever he does so, he is beaten."

- "The imaginative also the source of his knowledge of men and his guide to the management of men."

And finally, "The effects underlying his energy and his imagination are dominated by the clarity of this thoughts."

Like all good biography, this work reads like a novel instead of like a history book. In his source notes of his biography of Napoleon Albert Guerard says Ludwig's work on Napoleon "remains the most readable."

Meanwhile, Ludwig's approach does have its critics. Leo Gershoy remarks in his book that Ludwig is "much more readable than reliable." While Gershoy doesn't elaborate on this charge, it is evident today that not all of Ludwig's opinions have stood the test of time, if for no other reason than new documents that have become available since 1926, most noticeably impacting his coverage of the St. Helena years.

Writing about the art of biography in the Atlantic Monthly in 1932, Claude Fuess places Ludwig in the category of biographers guilty of producing works "prepared rapidly for the satisfaction of a greedy public." As his example, Fuess compared Beveridge's Abraham Lincoln ("one of the classics of American biography") to Ludwig's Lincoln, saying "the difference between the two is not unapparent to those who know anything about the subject."

According to the write-up on Ludwig in Twentieth Century Authors, "The duality which gave him wide popular appeal but only limited critical acclaim is defined by Leonard Woolf: 'His analysis of historical events and of character and motive is nearly always intelligent and often brilliant while he is also painstaking and not afraid of being laborious...Where he attempts a synthetic picture, it tends to be commonplace, obvious, or mechanical. This is partly due to a streak of sentimentality and banality in his whole outlook.'"

Louis Gottschalk attacks Ludwig (and also Lytton Strachey) for using omniscience in order to inform us what was going on in Napoleon's mind (or for Strachey's case, in Queen Victoria's heart). He also criticizes Ludwig for not using footnotes in Napoleon, which he says might have caused Ludwig to discover "that he was citing Napoleon's letters out of all chronological and logical order."

As a biographer (or "portraitist" as Ludwig has said) he did believe that he had more creative room than historians. In his 1927 book Genius and Character he wrote that a biographer "has correspondingly greater freedom in his method of treatment. He can exploit the dramatic form, or the short essay, the detailed, exhaustive life history, or the editorial. He should be at home in all these methods of approach, and should select them in accordance with the subject and purpose of his work -- just as his colleague, the speechless portrait-painter, makes use of oil, crayon or charcoal, etching needle or water color."

Marston Balch observed Ludwig's "extraordinary capacity for seeing and judging the 'true inwardness' of people and events." Balch wrote that should anyone ever publish the collected works of Emil Ludwig, an appropriate title would be "Character is Fate," since he argued that character to Ludwig, "is clearly and overwhelmingly the determinant of every man's destiny -- at least, since chance may affect outward events, of every man's spiritual and intellectual destiny." Ludwig became a Swiss citizen in 1932 and at the time of his death in 1948 had several biographies in progress including Alexander, Karl William von Humboldt and King David. His Napoleon earned a solid place among Napoleonic biographies and continues to have an impact today. The 1927 bestseller continues to delight and inform new readers with a lively portrait, easily available from the library or used bookstore shelf.


Balch, Marston. Modern Short Biographies and Autobiographies (background information on Ludwig preceding Ludwig's piece on Mussolini), New York, 1948, pp. 411-413.

Fuess, Claude M. "The Biographer and His Victims" Atlantic Monthly (Jan. 1932), p. 70.

Gershoy, Leo. The French Revolution & Napoleon New York, 1961, p. 554.

Gottschalk, Louis. Understanding History: A Primer of Historical Method New York, 1950, p. 19.

Guerard, Albert. Napoleon I: A Great Life in Brief New York, 1956, p. 196.

Kunitz, Stanley J. (editor). Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature (First Supplement), New York, 1963, p. 603.

Ludwig, Emil. Genius and Characte New York, 1927, p. 4.

Publishers Weekly for 1927 (

The Times Literary Supplement, review of Napoleon, May 12, 1927, pp. 325-326.

Reviewed by Thomas J. Vance March 2001

______ Tom Vance, a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Army Reserve, used Ludwig's Napoleon as a text for teaching Army ROTC cadets. In addition to contributing articles to The Napoleon Series, his articles on Napoleon have asppeared in Military History magazine, the British Army Review, and on the Napoleonic Literature web site.