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Napoleon, The Father of All Our Ills
on 9 September 2002
This small book by Paul Johnson sees Napoleon as the precursor of the wars and totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. To Johnson Napoleon begat Lenin, Stalin, Hitler Mao, Kim Il Sung, Castro, Peron, Saddam Hussein, Ceausescu, and Gadhafi. In fact Johnson facilely evokes Hitleresque and Stalinesque imagery repeatly throughout the book. Bt as Pieter Geyl warned, comparisons of Hitler with Napoleon could only benefit the former.
The book seems almost to have been written from memory. Mistakes abound--Lucien Bonaparte is repeatedly referred to as the King of Holland, Betsy Balcombe becomes Betsy Briars, the Napoleonic electorate was "smaller than the one that produced the...lower house under the ancien régime," Napoleon's artillery drowned 2,000 Russians by firing "red-hot shot" into frozen ponds, Charles XII was king of Sweden during this period and Wellington's Peninsular army was made up of British troops and "Spanish auxiliaries." Johnson retails rumor like a gossip columnist-Napoleon's mother had a "leisurely affair" with Marbeuf, Napoleon was a bad lover.
Johnson's writing style also produces strange turns of phrase that imply things that are just not true--the Directory followed the Terror; Napoleon instituted conscription, the metric system and the secret police (or that the Revolution had instituted the prefectorial corps); Napoleon is blamed for massacres in Switzerland while he was cut off in Egypt; or Johnson's comparisons of casualties between the French armies fighting in 1805-1809 and Wellington's Peninsular campaigns. It is hard to say whether these are deliberate distortions or not. According to Johnson, Wellington wore is hat "fore and aft" because he, unlike Napoleon, whose hat was worn from "side to side," liked to "raise his hat, out of courtesy and return salutes." Johnson contends it was "British efforts to circumvent Bonaparte's Continental System [that]...eventually drove the United States into war with the British Empire." According to Johnson the three most important men in Napoleon's administration were Talleyrand, Fouche and Vivant Denon!
Johnson proposes in his introduction to examine Napoleon's life "unromantically, skeptically, and searchingly." I guess two out of three isn't bad. He certainly has removed all the "romance" from Napoleon's career, and he is skeptical. But as a biography "searching" for the real Napoleon, I think it fails. Johnson's characterization of the "bad" Napoleon is as much of a cardboard cutout of the "Man" as the worst hagiographies that Johnson derides. There is a place for an intelligent, modern "pricking" of the balloon of Napoleonic myth and legend, but Johnson, like Schom, seems to have merely run wild in the nineteenth century "Napoleon as Ogre" school of historiography. Lacking any fresh insights, with no new ideas, retailing a mixture of hoary nineteenth century myths, the book is superficial at best. Considering the final product, the price tag seems high for such a lightweight book.