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.
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.
Even if he deserved them, Napoleon himself showed little interest in his reforming credentials until he got to Saint Helena. He was more interested in the distant past than in the future. His idea of a united Europe was based on the Carolingian empire of a thousand years before, and Forrest notes his symbolic visit to Charlemagne’s tomb at Aix-la-Chapelle shortly after he crowned himself emperor in 1804. He was backward-looking even in military matters, as his French biographer Jean Tulard made clear. He rejected all sorts of technical innovations, leaving his soldiers to fight with semi-obsolete weapons, and he seemed indifferent to the Industrial Revolution, even though it had made his most resilient enemy, Great Britain, wealthy enough to fund his continental foes and frustrate his ambitions at every turn.
One could argue, as the Czech-born American historian J. Christopher Herold did in The Age of Napoleon (1963), that his most important accomplishments were the inadvertent ones. They include: conjuring a fervent new German nationalism, which he brought on by abolishing the placid old Holy Roman Empire, with its crazy-quilt of 300-plus independent comic-opera principalities and free cities, and by repeatedly devastating and humiliating all the German-speaking lands; enhancing the spiritual prestige of the papacy, achieved by his kidnapping and imprisonment of the pope; and turning the United States into a great continental power, thanks to his impulsive offer (taking the American negotiators by surprise) of the whole of the vast Louisiana Territory at a giveaway price.
His other enduring legacy is his legend, which, as Forrest stresses, he embellished by dictating newspaper stories, commissioning heroic paintings, and, in exile on Saint Helena, inventing farsighted reasons for his always-impetuous, improvised moves. Yet even unembellished, there’s no denying that his life was more dramatic, and epic in scale, than that of anyone else since ancient times. “What a romance my life has been!” he exclaimed toward the end of it. It’s not surprising that no other historical figure has inspired so much biographical and historical literature.
Of course, a legend requires forgetting as much as remembering. As Chateaubriand put it not long after Napoleon’s downfall, when the French started getting nostalgic for his triumphs:
It is forgotten that everyone used to lament those victories, forgotten that the people, the court, the generals, the intimates of Napoleon were all weary of his oppression and his conquests, that they had enough of a game, which, when won, had to be played all over again, enough of that existence which, because there was nowhere to stop, was put to the hazard each morning.
Napoleon, a born gambler, could never get enough of the game. He bet on quick, easy victories in Spain and Russia, and lost badly. And, late in the game, every time he had a chance to save his regime by settling for ruling France rather than most of Europe, he turned it down. “No true gambler quits when he breaks even,” Herold commented. The impatience and rashness that allowed him to win battle after battle made him, as Paul Johnson has pointed out, unfit to establish a stable political order. His whole life, from Corsica to Waterloo, was a matter of taking chances, relying on timing and luck, and risking everything.
Still, the fascination he has always commanded isn’t just the fascination everyone feels at the sight of the high-stakes roller, the daredevil adventurer, or the tightrope walker. Hegel spotted him riding out of Jena the day before the 1806 battle and wrote of witnessing “this world-spirit” on horseback. Napoleon didn’t embody a “world-spirit,” or Weltgeist, as there is no such thing; but once you adjust for metaphysical inflation, Hegel may have been on to something—he did embody a Zeitgeist.
In an age captivated by Rousseau’s primitivism, Macpherson’s Ossian epics, and the novels of Walter Scott, a lot of Europeans were looking for something sternly heroic and mythic out of antiquity or the Middle Ages. Napoleon, influenced by the same writers, was made to order. It was the Romantic cult of heroic sublimity that drew many writers and intellectuals to him. His image turns up in all the arts. His blundering pursuit of retreating Russian generals into the steppes plays a major role in the greatest of novels, War and Peace, and becomes the occasion for Tolstoy’s philosophical tangents on history. There are plays, paintings, sculptures—and then all the films, including Abel Gance’s 1927 silent classic Napoleon; 1937’s Conquest, with Charles Boyer and Greta Garbo reenacting Napoleon’s affair with the married Polish beauty Maria Walewska; and Monsieur N. (2003), an escapist version of his exile.
Forrest mentions Tolstoy and the first two of these movies, but the “legacy” and “image” promises made in this book’s subtitle are only sketchily realized in what remains a lucid, balanced rendering of the life. Herold’s Age of Napoleon is the book to read for his cultural and philosophical resonance, and Johnson’s brief, damning 2002 biography is more incisive about the ominous precedents he set.
Unlike the dictators who wrecked the 20th century, Napoleon wasn’t doctrinaire or fanatical, but he suffered from a very bad case of hubris. He may have been, as Germaine de Staël put it at the time, “a chess-master whose opponents happen to be the rest of humanity.” But the last word goes to Marshal Foch, the French commander in World War I: “He forgot that a man cannot be God.”
Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.