The Magazine

Emperor of Europe

The little Corsican with some big ideas.

Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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One thing that Napoleon— who didn’t believe in God, ideologies, or progress—did believe in was his own destiny. The spectacular victories of his Italian campaign in 1796 made the 27-year-old general famous in France and throughout Europe, and, at that moment, he later said, “I no longer regarded myself as a simple general but as a man called upon to decide the fate of peoples.” (The “peoples” themselves were to have no say in the matter.) He saw himself as another Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Charlemagne. The French historian Hippolyte Taine wrote that Napoleon’s career was the work of “egoism served by genius.” The genius extended even to language: “All his expressions are bright flashes, one after another,” said Taine, not otherwise an admirer. 

Napoleon by Ingres (1806)

Napoleon by Ingres (1806)

Compare the tedious rants, bombast, and doctrinaire banalities of the 20th-century dictators who, in some other respects, followed in Napoleon’s footsteps to his own lapidary, sardonic ironies: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake. .  .  . An army marches on its stomach. .  .  . The best way to keep one’s word is not to give it. .  .  . Imagination rules mankind.” Or, after his Russian debacle: “From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.”  

Also from the sublime to the barbaric. Taine estimated that 1.7 million people of French origin, and 2 million outside France, died as a result of his wars. His abortive invasion of Egypt in 1798 led to futile desert marches and massacres. In Spain, where he didn’t know how to fight against an elusive guerrilla resistance, the war was marked by the desperation and brutality made immortal in the art of Goya. After his disheveled retreat from Moscow through the snow, he had lost all but about 30,000 of his original 600,000-man army—plus 200,000 horses, many of them eaten by starving, freezing soldiers. 

He nevertheless impressed some impressive people, including Goethe (who met him), Stendhal (who was with his army in Russia), Byron, Hazlitt, Heine, Emerson, Carlyle, and Nietzsche. The anti-Napoleon contingent—from fiercely disillusioned contemporaries like Madame de Staël and Chateaubriand, Wordsworth and Coleridge, to W. H. Auden, who briskly summed him up as “an enemy of civilization”— is equally impressive. 

The novel thing about this biography isn’t that it avoids conspicuously joining either camp and maintains a low-key, measured tone. It’s that author Alan Forrest would like to tiptoe around the colossal statue and see what was going on in its shadow. He says right off that he wants to shift some attention to the generation of jurists and administrators who, like Napoleon (born 1769), came of age at the beginning of the French Revolution and, after the Reign of Terror was over, fashioned a new, more open meritocratic society through reforms such as the simplified legal system known as the Code Napoléon.   

This approach could have resulted in a performance of Hamlet without the prince. But Forrest keeps his eye warily on Bonaparte the whole time, and he’s particularly good on his childhood in Corsica and his rather lonely and melancholic formative years in French military schools under the Old Regime, where his Corsican accent and manners were mocked. Agreeing with Taine, Forrest says that Napoleon “remained deeply Corsican in his emotions and psychology,” and 18th-century Corsica, he reminds us, was “the land of the vendetta.” 

Still, despite ready acknowledgment of Napoleon’s mistakes and excesses, Forrest tips the scales in his favor by writing that 

Napoleon’s major achievement was to create a civic and legal order that inspired loyalties and, in many parts of Europe, survived after he himself had been banished to Saint Helena and the Empire was no more than a memory.

Yes, but the reforms would have eventually happened without him and his carnage, as they already had in places like England and Denmark. And the reaction, after 1815, to everything he had stood for either reversed or delayed modernization across Europe. Forrest seems inclined toward the views of the more liberal-minded of Napoleon’s admirers, such as Heine and Hazlitt and Stendhal, who saw him as basically a man of the Enlightenment—an enlightened despot on the 18th-century model, whose forcefulness was just what was needed to clear away the feudal relics and cobwebs from European society.