NAPOLEON: A LIFE
By Adam Zamoyski
Basic Books, $40, 784 pages
Military genius or a war-obsessed tyrant? Few readers of history are neutral about the dynamic Frenchman Napoleon Bonaparte, whose name is reflexively attached to the incessant wars that wasted Europe in centuries past.
War gripped the continent long before a young Napoleon began his rise from young artillery officer to commander of a powerful military while still in his 20s, and thence emperor.
Why all the fighting? As Adam Zamoyski writes in his engaging and highly readable account, nations sensed “a need to keep up with rivals and seek security through a ‘balance of power.’ If one state made a gain others felt they must make an equivalent gain.”
What sets Mr. Zamoyski apart from countless other biographers is his ability to (1) provide context to the factors that made Napoleon a constant warrior and (2) to explore his restoration of order to post-revolutionary France (1792-1812). His account goes far beyond military matters.
Napoleon’s primary foe was Britain, which competed with France for colonial powers in new-world America and the Indies as well as in Europe.
The French Revolution had sent a shiver down British royal spines — especially after its new rulers issued an “Edict of Fraternity” pledging support for any people struggling against feudal oppression.
Britain pictured “Boney” as “degenerate, vicious and ridiculous.” France sided with Britain’s “toiling masses,” billing them as pawns of “vampires of the sea” who must be exterminated lest they rule the globe.
Intelligence wars raged as well. British operations against Napoleon ranged from assassination plots to fostering internal revolts. Napoleon narrowly escaped death from explosives planted along his carriage route; four bystanders died.
Napoleon’s dominant adviser, Charles de Talleyrand, created “a web of intelligence-gathering, all over Europe,” consorting with “most of France’s and Bonaparte’s enemies.”
Once he established primacy in battle, Napolelon declared “that effective government required a dictator.” In a plebiscite, voters endorsed him as emperor by a vote of 3,569,885-8,374. A suspicious margin, to be sure, but Mr. Zamoyski contends that “there is no real evidence of manipulation.”
“In three years, Napoleon declared, “I shall retire from public affairs.” (He soon pushed the date forward a decade.)
An early act was to “take controls of the levers of public opinion.” As he stated, “If I give free rein to the press, I won’t survive in power for three months.” His secret police chief, Joseph Fouche, agreed. He called newspapers “the tocsin of revolution.” Within days, 60 out of 73 papers were closed.
Concurrently, he launched broad social reforms. He wrested control of education from the Catholic Church, creating, by decree, some 23,000 schools for pupils between ages 7 and 11. These were joined by 45 lycees for the classics and mathematics.
A proud initiative was the codification of laws into what was known as the “Code Napoleon,” which Mr. Zamoyski terms “a kind of rulebook for a new society.”
But Napoleon’s private life was a painful muddle. Several early love affairs floundered. Then, at the peak of his career, he married a vivacious divorcee named Josephine de Beauharnais, a decade his elder, with two children. She was no beauty; her horribly rotten teeth led one man to opine that she was “growing preciously decrepit.” But she charmed a smitten Napoleon.
And she cuckolded him from the beginning, often with junior officers while he was off at war. With much agony in his heart, he finally cast her out.
Although Napoleon coaxed his nation to grant him the title of “hereditary emperor for life,” the public gradually soured on him. He launched a lavish building program mindful of the excesses of the ousted royals, driving France into debt.
Continued continental turmoil drove him into an invasion of Russia (undertaken reluctantly), which failed miserably. His “grand army” now depended on mercenaries and impressed soldiers from 10 nations besides France. He was driven back to Paris, and thence into exile.
A brief return brought him back to leadership two years later but ended in crushing defeat at Waterloo. He died in solitude on a remote island in the South Atlantic.
What was Napoleon’s cost to France — and the rest of the world? Mr. Zamoyski puts French battle losses alone during the 15 years of his rule at 800,000 to 900,000 dead, wounded and missing. Carnage among other combatants is not stated, but were surely several times as great.
Yet, as he states, every European state was “breaking treaties and betraying allies shamelessly.” Napoleon was born into a world at war. “[T]o condemn the lust for power is to deny human nature and political necessity.”
Perhaps because my reading of past decades centered on British-centric historians, I loathed Napoleon as a general who drenched a continent in blood. Mr. Zamoyski, of Polish descent, tells a convincing “other side of the story.” An inclusive life of a historical dynamo.
• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.