Very Short Reviews: Andrew Roberts’ _Napoleon: A Life_

Napoleon A Life

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life (New York: Viking, 2014).

  1. Roberts argues that every generation needs to rewrite and rethink Napoleon; Roberts seeks to counter the work of previous historians who have tended to see Napoleon as a kind of precursor to Hitler.
  2. In Roberts’ very readable and highly intelligent retelling, Napoleon is a figure who served as a bridge between the Old Regime and the  modern age.
  3. Napoleon’s membership in the Old Regime petty nobility gave him access to a first-rate military education, and his natural curiosity led him to read a great number of Enlightenment works—but he was responsible for safeguarding the finest ideas of the French Revolution that helped usher in the modern age.
  4. Eventually, according to Roberts, Napoleon became the last of the Enlightenment absolutists who promoted “the ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances and so on.”
  5. The ethos of his military education, however, led him to express “little interest in equality of outcome, human rights, freedom of the press or parliamentarianism,” but Roberts argues that as far as Enlightenment despots went, Napoleon was not terribly despotic.
  6. Thus there is a tension throughout this book between Napoleon the inspired lawgiver and administrator versus Napoleon the overreaching and ruthless dictator (General Paul Thiébault: “He [Napoleon] can subdue, but he cannot reconcile.”); this tension reflects, perhaps, the fundamental tension within the man.
  7. On the whole, Roberts’ skillful apologia for Napoleon is successful because it does eventually (and sometimes grudgingly) recognize the more unpleasant sides of Napoleon’s character, but at times, Roberts’ sympathies color his judgment, such as when he tries to mitigate Napoleon’s attempt to reimpose slavery in Haiti.
  8. Roberts tends to defend Napoleon by claiming that if the emperor did something bad, other countries were doing more or less the same thing (or worse) at the time, but such an inclination leads inevitably to the following question: shouldn’t one demand more of Napoleon (if he was indeed such an Enlightened figure) and revolutionary France than the unreformed, Old Regime monarchies of Europe?
  9. Roberts however, is forthright about recognizing Napoleon’s mistakes that led to his overthrow (which is different from conceding that Napoleon was a bad man)—these include the arrest of Pope Pius VII, mismanaging an attempt to forge a marriage alliance with Tsar Alexander I’s family, believing that a marriage to Marie Louise would somehow assuage the Habsburgs, providing insufficient military support for the French occupation of Spain, allowing Marshal Bernadotte to become king of Sweden, implementing the Continental System (particularly the licensing regime), making several fundamental miscalculations over the course of his invasion of Russia in 1812, and committing a series of errors during the Waterloo campaign (probably his worst performance as a commanding general).
  10. On several occasions, Roberts adopts such a Napoleon-eye view of the subject (for understandable reasons), that he a) takes Napoleon’s own assessment of his achievements at face value and b) he sometimes fails to represent adequately the motives or thoughts of Napoleon’s adversaries (e.g. the British, in particular, are represented as being motivated by nothing more than an irrational malevolence).

Since this book is 800 pages long, I can’t help indulging myself, breaking the rules, and adding two sentences:

Interesting Historical Fact: During the invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon seriously considered halting his advance at Vitebsk along the Dvina and Dniepr Rivers (most of his marshals wanted to stop here); in 1941, Operation Barbarossa planned to destroy the Soviet armies inside the line of the Dvina-Dniepr.
Gross Fact: Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife, was born and raised on Martinique in the Caribbean, where she fell into the habit of chewing on cane sugar; as a result, by the time she was an adult, she had “blackened stubs for teeth” (Laure d’Abrantès: “Had she [Josephine] only possessed teeth, she would certainly have outvied nearly all the ladies of the Consular Court.”).

Hugh Dubrulle


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