Monday, 5 November 2018

THE REAL NAPOLEON - John Tarttelin

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Napoleon in Egypt(1868)

John Tarttelin is a Fellow of the International Napoleonic Society, and a recipient of the society's Legion of Merit. THE REAL NAPOLEON, The Untold Story (GB 2013) is dedicated to the memory of Ben Weider, the founder of the society, and it should perhaps come as no surprise to find that John is no fence sitter. The book's cover with its capitalised title and modified painting of Napoleon demands our attention.

Even before the preface a quote from Napoleon sets out the author's intent

The great works and monuments that I have executed, and the code of laws that I formed, will go down to the most distant ages, and future historians will avenge the wrongs done to me by my contemporaries.

Sunburst representing the Englightenment added by the author

The book puts much emphasis on Napoleon as an Englightenment figure, and reminds us that 177 scientists accompanied him on his Egyptian campaign. There is also a useful checklist of Napoleon's attributes that are too often overlooked by those keen to paint a negative portrait.

  • a phenomenal memory and capacity for concentration and hard work
  • kindness to his servants and people of all ranks
  • his approachability to his soldiers
  • the only ruler who promoted careers open to talent
  • tolerance of people who were disloyal to him - Fouche, Talleyrand and Bernadotte
  • passion for intellectual enquiry- he sought out the great minds of his time
  • voracious reader of history and literature
  • support of the rights of Jewish people

The author reminds us of the support the British Government gave to Royalist attempts to assassinate Napoleon. He also correctly disputes the conventional British view which holds Napoleon personally responsible for all the wars that were later to bear his name. As he points out, the Liverpool Government and its allies were determined to "snuff out equality and restore privilege." After the wars Britain actively encouraged Louis XVIII to use far more severe repression against Bonapartists than any Napoleon had carried out against his opponents, but such repression was of course common place in the United Kingdom at the time.

Ultimately of course the struggle with Napoleon was not just about the threat that the ideas of the Englightenment and the French Revolution posed to the established order. Britain's payrolling of all the coalitions against France over two decades was the climax of its century long struggle for European and World domination. In this contest the continental land wars were to some extent a sideshow. The real victory was being forged in the cotton mills of Lancashire, but that is another story, and outside the terms of reference of this book!

I have to admit that I find the book a little disjointed and bitty, and the language is very unacademic, perhaps as befits the times in which we live. I do not have a taste for polemicism, nor for hero worship, and on Napoleon in particular I have been a fence sitter, as I indicated some eight years ago when I thought my blogging was nearing its end! But I do share John's revulsion at the treatment of Napoleon by many historians and particularly by the British press, so maybe he has finally got me off the fence.

Over the past decade I have covered the views of a number of Whigs and Radicals who refused to accept Government propaganda about Napoleon, admired much of what he had achieved, and compared the UK unfavourably with contemporary France. On any rational basis of comparison they were right to do so.

John's quote from one British academic historian, Clive Elmsley is worth reproducing

there's no dispute that Napoleon launched modern Europe. He completely redrew the map, he swept away ramshackle governments, modernized administrations, and he didn't just do this in France, but in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and .. in what is now Belgium."

I may add that when coming across British or more exactly English chauvinists I always find it ironic to remember that Napoleon was the hero of the man who not long ago was voted the greatest ever Englishman, Sir Winston Churchill no less.