NapoleonA Political Lifeby Steven EnglundScribner, $35, 543 pp.
Why the new Napoleon biography by Steven Englund deserves a place on your bookshelves. James J. Sheehan explains.
In 1840, Napoleon’s body was brought back to Paris from St. Helena, the island where he died nineteen years earlier. Eventually the emperor’s remains were covered with a massive slab of red porphyry and displayed under the dome of the Invalides, one of the grandest royal tombs in Europe. His legacy has not been so easy to contain. In 1851, his nephew, calling himself Napoleon III, established a second empire that collapsed after its defeat by Prussia in 1870. For several decades, Bonapartists lurked on the right wing of French politics hoping for another chance; gradually the Napoleonic legacy became more diffuse and protean, extending across the political spectrum and well beyond the boundaries of France. Most recently, he has been assigned a place among the forefathers of the European integration; two years ago, for example, the cover of the French monthly Historia showed a picture of the emperor crossing the Alps with the European Union’s insignia prominently displayed on his hat. “In life,” Napoleon’s contemporary and critic Chateaubriand wrote, “he missed having the whole world; in death he had it. After suffering the despotism of his person, we are now subjected to the despotism of his memory.”
Napoleon fascinated almost everyone who crossed his path, from those, like Chateaubriand, who knew him all too well, to the German poet Goethe, who met him once, to the philosopher Hegel, who saw him ride by in the streets of Jena. (It was, Hegel recalled, like seeing “the world spirit on horseback.”) And he has continued to fascinate novelists, artists, moviemakers, and, of course, scholars, who have produced a monumental body of work on every aspect of his life and reign. (Stanford’s online catalog lists 1,832 titles under the subject heading, “Napoleon”). Since 1997, Steven Englund notes, at least five major biographies have been published.
Englund makes his way through this crowded scholarly landscape with great skill. Without neglecting the classic histories (some of them more than a century old), he has read with care and discrimination the best recent work. Englund uses his command of the material to craft a lively and convincing account of Napoleon’s career from his obscure origins in strife-torn Corsica to his sad and lonely end on St. Helena. Englund’s subtitle identifies his central concern: this is a political biography, which deals with Napoleon’s character, private life, military campaigns, and diplomacy but subordinates those themes to Napoleon’s aspirations and achievements as state builder. Of particular importance in this regard are what Englund calls the “blocks of granite,” institutional reforms from the early 1800s that established “deep-seated structures of sociopolitical reconciliation, religion, law, finance, administration, education, and society.” These measures included the concordat signed with the pope in 1802, which healed the breach opened between the church and France during the revolution, but kept authority over ecclesiastical property and appointments in the hands of the state. In religious policy, as in the rest of Napoleonic state building, there was no turning back to the days before 1789; revolutionary achievements were not reversed, but they were reshaped and redirected so that they could be absorbed in new structures of authority, serving the interests of the state, the nation, and, of course, Napoleon himself, who, in his own mind and in that of many of his fellow countrymen, had come to personify both state and nation.
“Napoleon,” Englund writes, “put more of his interest and imagination into state-building than into military campaigns and diplomacy.” It seems to me that this would be a difficult proposition to prove, in large part because, in Napoleon’s mind, statecraft, war, and diplomacy were all inseparable parts of the struggle to maintain and expand his own-and his nation’s-power. The state was valuable as a source of order and an instrument of progress, but it was also the essential mechanism for mobilizing the material and human resources necessary to fight a far more expansive and destructive sort of war than had been possible under the old regime. Napoleon was always both warrior and ruler; his political life was never distinct from his military one. This was the primary source of his triumphs and the ultimate means of his defeat.
As Englund confides in a candid postscript about “This Author, This Book,” he has been fascinated by Napoleon since boyhood. At no point does this fascination lead him to pull any punches; he does not try to gloss over Napoleon’s egotism and defeats; nor does he hide the cost of Napoleon’s ambition and victories. Nevertheless, the author’s admiration for his protagonist is always apparent-and no wonder. Napoleon was a leader of quite extraordinary energy, skill, and imagination.
Englund is correct to resist any facile comparisons between Napoleon and twentieth-century tyrants like Stalin or Hitler. In many ways, Napoleon is much better understood as the last in a long line of warrior kings, which begins with Alexander the Great and has no modern representatives-probably because both strategy and statecraft have become too complex to be subjected to a single will. While Napoleon closed a long chapter in the history of war and politics, he also opened its more familiar and sinister modern sequel. Among the first to graft the awesome power of revolutionary nationalism onto the ancient quest for military glory, Napoleon stands near the beginning of a line of conquerors that reaches down to the present.
To explain the enduring hold on our imaginations of the myths created by, for, and about Napoleon, Englund concludes his book with this quotation from Lord Rosebery’s biography of the emperor published in 1900: “Mankind will always delight to scrutinize something that indefinitely raises its conception of its own power and possibilities.” Looking back at this remark across the wreckage of the twentieth century, one is tempted to respond, “Alas.” All too often an expansion of mankind’s conception of its own power and possibility is purchased with the suffering of millions of ordinary men and women. This is why we follow Steven Englund’s excellent account of Napoleon’s extraordinary life with a mixture of admiration and revulsion.