Lead book review

If you want to admire Napoleon, it helps not to have met Gaddafi

A review of Napoleon the Great, by Andrew Roberts. The immense collateral damage of Napoleon’s imperial ambition never gets the attention it deserves in Roberts’s biography

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

Napoleon the Great Andrew Roberts

Allen Lane, pp.940, £30, ISBN: 9781846140273

Forty-odd years ago, in the early phase of the Gaddafi regime, I had the slightly mixed fortune to attend the new Benghazi University’s first degree ceremony. The university had actually been closed for months and there were no degrees to award, but that did not stop them kitting out their foreigners in a job lot of academic gowns shipped in from Poland and marching us off to sit, ringed with machine-gun-carrying guards, in a huge tent under a broiling sun to wait for the Colonel himself to arrive.

Every so often the band would strike up, we’d all stand, a loudspeaker would blare out ‘Mu’ammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi’ and nothing would happen. We must have been there a good five hours while this went on, and were just about giving it up when suddenly he was there, followed in by his whole revolutionary government, dressed in white and looking, in those days, more like a Greek shipping magnate than the raddled madman of his last years.

As well as students, the heroes of the 1930s Libyan freedom struggle against Mussolini’s Italy were being honoured. They had managed to find a few fairly plausibly aged veterans, and we were just reassuring ourselves that the day had gone pretty well when an old janitor stumbled up for his medal, walked straight past Gaddafi, blithely unaware of who he or any of them might be, and got way past the prime minister, Major Jalloud, before he was grabbed by the shoulder, spun round and sent grinning back towards Gaddafi. For a terrible second the whole tent held its breath. And then — performance or the one human moment in the whole farce? — Gaddafi lent across, took him in his arms, and hugged him. Then he went, the rest of the ceremony cancelled.

I was made to think of this incident again while I was reading Andrew Roberts’s new biography of Napoleon. I don’t imagine Roberts would be overly impressed by the comparison of the Corsican and Libyan dictators, but there was something about that brief glimpse of power, something in the bizarre mix of the charlatan and the real, of the charismatic and the stage-managed, of magnetism and latent brutality that, with every successive chapter of this marathon study, seemed an increasingly relevant lesson.

This is a formidable and authoritative book and, after a slow burn of a start, a largely enjoyable one; yet whether it will convince anyone who is not already a Bonapartist in the first place is another matter. The title tells us all we probably need to know about Roberts’s own position and, while he is a far too shrewd and scrupulous historian not to give the opposition its say, he is careful to mark our card in his introduction:

For those writing immediately after [Napoleon’s] abdication, the lure of employment or a pension, or merely the right to publish under the Bourbons, wrecked objectivity in dozens of cases… Such contemporary ‘sources’, which need to be treated with caution, are everywhere in the Napoleonic canon.

Roberts is right, of course — and the ‘memoirs’ of Bourienne, the repellent Fouché, Talleyrand, Metternich, the ‘self-serving’ Barras and a dozen others all get short shrift — but it is not as if Bonaparte’s reputation rests on the real or fabricated accounts of the men and women who buzzed about his court. For the best part of 20 years, Byron’s ‘Pagod’ dominated Europe and filled the imagination of a whole generation. Everything he did, from the bridge at Lodi to his death on St Helena, every dazzling triumph on the battlefield and every crime, blunder or act of ‘political necessity’ — the murder of the duc d’Enghien, the massacre of the Ottoman garrison on the beach near Jaffa, the execution of Andreas Hofer, the flight from Egypt, the abandonment of his army on the retreat from Russia, the ditching of his wife — was played out in the full blaze of the world’s attention.

The Congress of Vienna did not declare the ‘Grand Disturber’ an outlaw on his escape from Elba because his old creatures had done the dirty on him but because it didn’t trust him, and by the end of Roberts’s biography it is hard not to think it was right. It seems at times as if Roberts takes the ‘betrayals’ of the men and women who had risen with Napoleon almost personally. And yet if they were, on the whole, a pretty wretched lot and quick enough to jump ship, it has to be said that they had learned from the best in the business — the passionate Corsican nationalist turned Frenchman himself.

Napoleon was also a Bourbon officer who betrayed his oath to his king; a Jacobin who betrayed the revolution; an affectionate husband who sacrificed his first wife to dynastic ambition; a ‘Robespierre on horseback’, as Victor Hugo called him, whose endless protestation of peace left a ravaged Europe from Portugal to Moscow counting the cost. He was the ‘little corporal’ with the common touch, who tweaked his soldiers’ ears, pinched their cheeks, never forgot a face, and, just to show his regard for them, left tens upon tens of thousands to freeze in the Russian wastes, litter the Egyptian sands and provide gruesome copy for Goya’s Disasters of War.

Nobody is seriously going to question Napoleon’s genius for warfare, and Roberts, who is clearly familiar with all the major battlefields, more than does him proud. Marshal Foch was only half joking when he said that after his own experience of coalitions his admiration of Napoleon was not what it was; but if Bonaparte was lucky in the early days to fight old generals and old systems, Ulm and Austerlitz, Jena,Wagram and — most remarkable of all in some ways — the 1814 campaign against commanders and armies who had all learned their lessons the hard way never lose their power to astonish.

Roberts is equally at home in the grubby world of late revolutionary and Directory politics, vivid in his characterisation and his scorn for the men whom Bonaparte swept aside. But that still leaves the character of Napoleon himself — and that is a big leave. Roberts does not duck any of the accusations of Napoleon’s enemies, but rather like Hazlitt he seems so enraptured by the magnitude of the life he is dealing with, the inhuman energy and Caesar-like scope of the Napoleonic reach — the battles fought, the armies raised, the miles marched, the 33,000 letters written, the sovereigns defied, the obsessive micro-management of every tiny detail of French national life — that the immense collateral damage of his imperial ambition somehow never quite gets the attention it might.

For all Roberts’s championing of the cultural and scientific achievements of the reign, the savants in Egypt, the great flowering of French painting, it all, ultimately, seems so tawdry, too — wretched puppet kings, ridiculous titles, imperial flummery, bombastic military bulletins, state theft, court art, a controlled press, family greed, Corsican tribalism, ludicrous love letters, a sponsored cult, a lies and propaganda machine that might provide a template for any dictatorship — and all in the end for what? A Napoleonic French hegemony and the revolutionary ideas carried by his armies across Europe were never compatible, and even victory carried with it the seeds of its own inevitable reverse.

After Napoleon there could certainly be no going back for Bourbon France or Europe to old borders and concepts of legitimacy; but he had done his job too well. Nations, like armies, learn from defeat. He had shown what a ‘state-nation’, in which all the economic resources and energies of the people are subordinated to the demands of the state, could achieve, and Prussia, for one, took the lessons of Jena to heart — with dire consequences for France.

This is a biography, I suspect, that for all its scholarship, combativeness and exhaustive detail will leave readers pretty well where they were. ‘Napoleon the Great’? Maybe. But it was not for nothing that Britain alone — the one country that had steadily opposed him — never recognised ‘General Bonaparte’s’ imperial title. Or that it would add a ‘u’ to the name when it was feeling particularly sneery.

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Show comments
  • tolpuddle1

    So Andrew Roberts worships Power and the Powerful ? What a surprise – very hollow people do. And egotism worships egotism – Buonaparte (let’s give the man his proper name) had no cause other than Buonaparte (he wasn’t a French patriot or nationalist) and believed in nothing but Buonaparte.

    He achieved nothing except a legend – and mass-slaughter, though no one expects the average historian to care a jot for the millions slaughtered by Buonaparte’s crimes. That these were motivated by ambition rather than hatred, doesn’t diminish their horror, nor wins their perpetrator a place in Heaven (as opposed to some fictitious Pantheon).

    • Freedom

      Hear hear.

    • Oracle12

      Among his other crimes, let’s never forget that it is Napoleon who was
      responsible for imposing the metric system upon us. Each country he
      conquered in his devastation of Europse was forced to adopt this
      awkward, unpopular system and we inherit all its faults to this day. On
      his deathbed, Napoleon was asked if he regretted anything. He said
      “Yes, the metric system. I know now it was a huge mistake. You see, I
      can easily envisage a quarter of an inch but I find it impossible to
      picture a thousandth of a metre!” Alas, his repentance came too late.

  • Charles Hatvani

    Why do we, people, so willingly entrust our government in the hands of gifted madmen? Alexander, Ghenghis, Ivan, Napoleon, Idi, Hitler, Stalin, Milosevic, Saddam, Putin…

    • Freedom

      WE don’t. Which is why we had Churchill. And Thatcher.

      • Charles Hatvani

        Hallowed be their names!

      • No Man’s Land

        Oliver Cromwell? A mixed bag of a man to be sure.

      • If Thatcher had been given amphetamines and
        a basic grasp of military matters, she would have been up there with the worst of them.

      • ottovbvs

        Churchill was a great admirer of Napoleon! And both Churchill and Thatcher were delusionary at various points in their careers.

  • Kitty MLB

    Ah! A coldblooded, culculating, unprincipled userper without
    virtue; Knowing nothing of commerce, political economy or
    civil goverment and supplying ignorance by bold presumption-
    The handsome Wellington’s remarks about old froggy eyes himself, mind you those words could be said about any of our
    present day Labour leaders.

  • willybach

    Apparently more books have been written about Napoleon that any other individual in history. The choice of biographies in print is immense, but some are so long and detailed (running to several volumes) that I am deterred from reading them (but I will have a go at Andrew Robert’s effort). However, Paul Johnson (well known to Spectator readers) wrote a splendid, concise (224 pages) biography of Napoleon published in 2003 in a “Lives” series, which is more of a critical (and with plenty of Johnson’s opinions) essay that very well captures the measure, achievements and – most importantly – the authoritarian legacy of the man. A highly readable and recommended study.

    • David Hollins MBA

      The thing about Napoleon is that he mixes the military and political in a way that only leaders before him did – and they lived when there was much less literacy or the documents haven’t survived. The Fondation Napoleon new set of ‘Correspondance’ (French spelling!) runs to 33,000 letters alone and they are the ones written by him – there are no answers etc.
      Thus it is very difficult to cover the subject, although most people would do well to start with something like Johnson and then for the military side, Chandler.
      The late Dr Chandler famously described napoleon as a “great, bad man” – of course Roberts in typical modern style picks his information to suit the idea he started with and goes for the first bit.
      The most interesting failure of most biographers is that they go on endlessly about Napoleon’s attention to detail – yet declare that he used a modern corps system in war, which is all about general orders and devolved authority! (Of course, he didn’t, it is a myth dreamt up by a US staff officer called Hittle after WW1 when the US used French staff procedures).

  • David Hollins MBA

    God save us from “rent a quote” Roberts, now putting out a book for the deluded Boney worshippers to wet themselves over. Roberts starts with his conclusion (what will sell most), claims to be “controversial (having done the square root of f*ck all original research), and then writes something worse than that hagiography by Cronin.
    Wouldn’t dispute N’s military genius? Do some research on his intelligence and spies and you will see a direct correlation between his victories and the success of his spies (Rivoli is easy when you have the enemy plans) .
    Then we get the canard about the Napoleonic code – even Cronin admits this was started by the Revolutionaries to centralise power and Napoleon had as much to do with it as HMQ does with Uk statutes.
    I bet Roberts hasn’t even considered the state of the French economy, which Napoleon proceeded to wreck before (like Hitler) having to fight ever more difficult wars to keep the money coming in – yes, that’s why Russia was the end for both (plus Spain too).
    In short, this kind of regurgitated, recycled rubbish just stops good original work being published. Still, Boney fans will lap it up to improve his bank balance.

    • John Walsh

      I see the anti-Nappers (and reviewer) are making the same old blunder. They are viewing a 200 year old historical character with a modern viewpoint. They also have the luxury of hindsight, which even the simple of minds can say what should or should not have been done because they already know the result. And Napoleon was only doing what the others were doing during the period. He was just better at it for most of the time. And do those knocking Napoleon complain about the rulers of Austria, Prussia and Russia carving up states like Poland? Of course not. And what about Austria breaking the peace and invading Bavaria and start the war off again in 1809. They were virtually all the same. And any excuse is made to deflate his military skills. But he beat most of his opponents most of the time, and Wellington was saved by the Prussians. Waterloo was an allied victory not a British one! Boney ‘fans’? I guess that makes a change from being called Napoleon worshippers, the usual insult. But that insult refers to anyone who dares to see anything positive about Napoleon. But this book dares to go against the trend and does not have the usual negative selling angle with authors ‘telling’ us what we should think about Napoleon. This book lets the reader make their own minds up. Perhaps that’s what the anti-Nappers don’t like? It really is so pleasing to see that this book has rattled people like Mr. Hollins. A bad book would not do this. Andrew Robert’s title will be a classic and a best seller. And that really is great, like it or not.

  • Ed  

    There’s one thing about Napoleon that his admirers don’t want you to talk about.

    He lost.

    I’m rather more interested in Wellington, the man who beat him.

    • takasar1

      he got help from blucher.

      the end

      • Ed  

        True. However, just as Blucher dealt the finishing blow, it was Wellington, with a core of British professionals and various other forces, who held him in place for that finishing blow.

        Teamwork, led by Wellington. Good stuff.

        • takasar1

          well. if you wish to see it like that. nothing i can do to change your mind it would seem. however, it can much more easily be construed as napoleon driving a wedge between the prussians and the anglo-german army, like he had done a thousands time in the past. turned to crush wellington and expected ney to mask the defeated prussians. unfortunately for him, his subordinate failed, blucher arrived in the nick of time to save wellington and napoleon lost. viewing it as you did is kind of like shootintg an arrow into a barn and then painting a target around it.

          • Ed  

            As far as you go you’re right. Wellington didn’t cooperate, however. He refused to be crushed. “They came at us in the same old way, and we defeated them in the same old way”. Napoleon reminds me of Churchill’s comment about the SS – they’re much less frightening when their intended victims shoot back. Wellington was Napoleon’s first opponent to present him with professional, disciplined soldiers and competent battlefield leadership, and when faced with the first true test, Napoleon failed. Because of Wellington.

  • Insanity with lots of manic energy is often mistaken for something admirable. The more cunning a madman possesses, the worse the results of his activities.

  • Ed  

    The worst people in history, in order:
    1. Mao
    2. Stalin
    3. Hitler
    4. Napoleon
    5. Genghis Khan

    Next question?

  • Rush_is_Right

    I’ve just been watching Roberts’ TV series on Buonaparte.. When talking of his hero’s achievements I spotted him cum in his pants at least three times. It’s a pretty revolting spectacle.