Monday, 17 March 2014

Napoleon as "careful pragmatist"

I read quite a lot of biography, but generally find biographies of Napoleon uninteresting: there are too many of them, they tend to be over long, few seem to me to get remotely close to the man, and too often they reveal more about the authors' own prejudices.

The latest biography by Oxford historian Michael Broers looks to have addressed the problem of externality: it is the first to have benefited from the publication of Napoleon's complete correspondence in 2004. This the publishers claim is "the first life in which Napoleon speaks in his own voice, but not always as he wanted the world to hear him."

According to the Financial Times it is a nuanced study and does not view Napoleon through the "prism of 20th-century totalitarianism."

The publisher's summary of the Napoleon revealed by the biography seems spot on to me: "a man of intense emotion, but also of iron self-discipline; of acute intelligence and immeasurable energy. .. the sheer determination, ruthlessness and careful calculation that won him the precarious mastery of Europe by 1807 .."

The FT reviewer picked out a number of points from the biography which seem eminently sensible judgements to me:

1. Only a positive optimistic mind would have thought about progressive reform to the degree Napoleon did all his life.

2. He had to work hard to try to hang on to what power he had won. Caution and self-discipline were necessary in the revolutionary climate in which he emerged to power.

3. He had a deep fear of popular assemblies. I always found it ironic that on St Helena, reading about the Peterloo Massacre, Napoleon showed no sympathy for Orator Hunt and the men and women who had assembled to demand parliamentary reform in Manchester in 1819. The radical reformers of course had great sympathy and admiration for Napoleon, and at previous meetings had expressly dissociated themselves from the British Government's action in imprisoning him on St Helena.

4. He relied greatly on committees to govern, recognising and promoting talent, and often deferring to the opinion of others.

5. Far from being a "paranoid psychopath", he took his revenge bloodlessly. The execution of the Duke of Enghien, "a stooge of the British ", was far from typical. His whole philosophy was one of ralliement and amalgame, atttempts to persuade reactionaries of the error of their ways and to promote cooperation between former reactionaries and revolutionaries in the new France.

6. A simple but obvious point: Napoleon's expansionism began as a riposte to the alliance of Britain, Russia and Austria, rather than from the megalomanic tendencies so beloved of many of his modern biographers.

Perhaps most important of all, the author recognises that never before in human history had anyone from outside the governing circles risen to such power. This to me is the key to the contemporary reaction towards him: to the loyalists he was an upstart whom they hated, feared, made fun of, and in whose fall from power and humiliating exile they delighted; to the radicals he was a romantic hero, a symbol of hope for a better world in which a man could rise to heights commensurate with his talents, an enemy and victim of hierarchy, heredity and privilege, as British seamen apparently used to sing Boney was an Emperor! Oh! Aye, Oh!.

I look forward to reading this biography, and even more to the second volume when it appears, to see what the author makes of Napoleon's decline and exile.