Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Georges Lefebvre: Napoleon

My Christmas present to myself has arrived: Georges Lefebvre's two books on Napoleon, From 18 Brumaire to Tilsit 1799-1807, and From Tilsit to Waterloo 1807-1815.

The author, a distinguished French Marxist scholar, wrote these before the war. They were translated into English in 1969, and have now been bound into a fine single Folio Society volume, with a new introduction by Andrew Roberts.

So far I have not got much beyond Roberts' introduction. I notice though that the period of exile on St Helena is dismissed by Lefebvre in a few telling lines:
His captivity was not only due to the terrifying effects of his very name; it was also an expression of vengeance against the upstart soldier who had presumed to take an archduchess to wife.

I was particularly interested to read his judgement on the breakdown of the Treaty of Amiens with England:
If Bonaparte's provocations are undeniable, nonetheless it is a fact that England broke the treaty and took the initiative to wage preventive war from the moment that she could hope for Russia's collaboration. Britain's justification was the preservation of the European balance of power, but this grave concern did not extend to the sea, since in her eyes God had created the oceans for the English. The conflict between Bonaparte and the English was in reality a clash between two imperialisms.
Interesting that Roberts, a conservative British historian, quotes this passage in his introduction and says that it is probably not far off the truth.

I should perhaps warn potential readers that despite the title this is not a biography of Napoleon. Marxists don't really do biography and certainly don't indulge in trivia! It is as Lefebvre himself points out, a history of a period:
during the course of this period .. everything seemed to yield before him. It was he who dominated history. What then could be more natural than that this volume should bear his name?
There are though a lot of beautiful pictures, many of which are new to me. Some 600 pages long, it should keep me busy for a day or two.


Ms. Lucy said...

Sounds like a heavy read- but an interesting one nevertheless...makes you wonder how a Marxist will interpret Napoleon...hmmm

John Tyrrell said...

Yes, it is heavy - in both senses of the word! I have been wanting to read it ever since reading Pieter Geyl's Napoleon For and Against , and I like beautifully bound books!