“Napoleon” by Paul Johnson


The Louisiana Purchase must rate as Bonaparte’s greatest single failure of imagination. “Louisiana” compromised 828,000 square miles, subsequently becoming thirteen states. France was paid $15 million, or four cents an acre. If Bonaparte had used France’s legitimate rights to its American territory to explore and create an enormous dominion across the Atlantic, instead of trying to carve out an illegitimate empire in Europe, he would have enriched France instead of impoverishing her, provided scope for countless adventurous young Frenchmen instead of killing them in futile battles, and incidentally inflicted more damage on his British opponents than all his efforts in Europe. He would also have changed the globe permanently, something his career failed to achieve in the end.

This is a departure from the short biographies I’ve read by Paul Johnson because it’s obvious that he doesn’t like Napoleon. I’ve read his biographies on Socrates, Charles Darwin, and Winston Churchill, and each were intoxicating because of the author’s passion for his subject. His breathless enthusiasm is like that of a passionate teacher lecturing on something that excites him. But with Napoleon, Johnson’s usual enthusiasm is tempered by the tyrant’s pivotal failures.

Johnson sees Napoleon as a monumental but ultimately tragic figure, dragged down by his overwhelming aggression and ambition, a force of destruction and upheaval rather than creation. An opportunist for opportunity’s sake.

Perhaps that is the central lesson of Napoleon’s life, who was a brilliant battlefield strategist but miserable politician and statesmen. In fact, this point was made best by Johnson himself, in the final paragraph of this book:

The great evils of Bonapartism–the deification of force and war, the all-powerful centralized state, the use of cultural propaganda to apotheosize the autocrat, the marshaling of entire peoples in the pursuit of personal and ideological power–came to hateful maturity only in the twentieth century, which will go down in history as the Age of Infamy. It is well to remember the truth about the man whose example gave rise to all, to strip away the myth and reveal the reality. We have to learn again the central lesson of history: that all forms of greatness, military and administrative, nation and empire building, are as nothing–indeed are perilous in the extreme–without a humble and contrite heart.

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Few persons of ambition have failed to see Bonaparte as an exemplar or a spur. It is significant how many of those who exercise various forms of power, and wish for more–media tycoons, for example–have decked their offices or even their persons with Napoleonic memorabilia.

It is one of the contentions of this book that Bonaparte was not an ideologue but an opportunist who seized on the accident of the French Revolution to propel himself into supreme power. I say “accident” because the example of Britain and the Scandinavian countries showed that all the desirable reforms that the French radicals brought about by force and blood could have been achieved by peaceful means. As it was, the horrific course of the Revolution led, as was almost inevitable, to absolutism, of which Bonaparte was the beneficiary. And once installed in power he relentlessly sought further power by extending his rule to encompass most of Europe. It does not seem to have occurred to him to study the example of his older contemporary George Washington, who translated military victory into civil progress and renounced the rule of force in favor of the rule of law. But Bonaparte always put his trust in bayonets and cannon. In the end, force was the only language he understood, and in the end it pronounced a hostile judgment on him.

As the wars proceeded, the military casualties increased relentlessly, but the civilian populations also suffered in growing measure. First Italy, then Central Europe, finally Spain and Russia became victims of Bonaparte’s wars of conquest. The German-speaking lands in particular were fought over again and again, and the eventual revulsion against Bonaparte played a critical part in creating a spirit of German nationalism that was to become aggressive and threatening itself.

Oddly enough, the one form of ferocity in which Bonaparte was a little deficient was revenge; he was uncharacteristically, if unpredictably, forgiving of injuries–not always or even usually, but often enough to surprise.

Bonaparte was not by temperament a mercenary. But he was not a patriot, either. He was not moved by sentiment, secular or religious. If metaphysical forces played on him at all, he was a victim of superstition, though a willing one. He believed in his stars, like the ancient Romans he admired (insofar as he admired anyone). He felt he had a destiny, and most of his life he was confident in it. But, sure as he was of what destiny intended for him, he nonetheless was determined to wrest it from events with his own brain, arms, and will.

In the military parc at Valence, he tried to educate himself by intensive reading, as the young Winston Churchill was to do during his Indian service. He still wrote letters in Italian, though his French, grotesquely misspelled, was improving. He read Plato’s Republic; Buffon’s Histoire naturelle; Rousseau and Voltaire; James Macpherson’s Ossian works, those bibles of the early Romantics; various histories and biographies; and a volume, in English, of English history, which he read with particular attention,believing England to be a successful country, well worth studying for its secrets–though he never seems to have grasped the essence of the English constitution, then regarded as its chief virtue.

But the archetype of Paoli, not just conquering soldier but supreme legislator and enlightened ruler as well, became part of the furniture of Bonaparte’s mind. He was already seeking power, but the fate of Corsica enabled him to give a purpose to power. Winning a battle, a campaign, a war, was not an end in itself but an opportunity to impose a new order on the old corrupt and inefficient systems. He was to be a Paoli for all Europe, built in an incomparably larger mold and operating on a continental, perhaps a world scale, for the better governance of mankind. He did not realize, and perhaps he never realized, that there was a fundamental contradiction in this version. Whereas Paoli, acting on behalf of the Corsicans themselves, was a mere liberator who then legislated with their consent, Bonaparte, with his overarching scheme for Europe, was not so much a liberator as a conqueror, and the violence of the conquest was incompatible with the idealism planned for the subsequent government, which thus became mere occupation by force, unjust and cruel. Warfare, from being a means to an end, became an end in itself, and Bonaparte, having once unsheathed his sword, found it impossible to lay it down for long. He ended by being no nearer his goal, and no safer, than his last victory–thus inviting inevitable nemesis. All this seems clear enough to us now. But nothing was clear then, in the early 1700s, except that the world could be reorganized afresh–that all Europe was a tabula rasa–and that a bold soldier was exactly the man to write his destiny on it.

Revolutionary France of the 1790s provided the perfect background for an ambitious, politically conscious, and energetic soldier such as Bonaparte to make his way to the top. It demonstrated the classic parabola of revolution: a constitutional beginning; reformist moderation quickening into ever-increasing extremism; a descent into violence; a period of sheer terror, ended by a violent reaction; a time of confusion, cross-currents, and chaos, marked by growing exhaustion and disgust with change; and eventually an overwhelming demand for “a Man on Horseback” to restore order, regularity, and prosperity.

The object of power, in his view, was not only to crush opposition to his will, but more usually to inspire fear, so that power did not need to be used at all. An opposing army must be made to fear you, because once terror began to creep over it, the battle was half won.

The Revolution was a lesson in the power of evil to replace idealism, and Bonaparte was its ideal pupil. Moreover, the Revolution left behind itself a huge engine: administrative and legal machinery to repress the individual such as the monarchs of the ancien regime never dreamed of; a centralized power to organize national resources that no previous state had ever possessed; an absolute concentration of authority, first in a parliament, then in a committee, finally in a single tyrant, that had never been known before; and a universal teaching that such concentration expressed the general will of a united people, as laid down in due constitutional form, approved by referendum. In effect, then, the Revolution created the modern totalitarian state, in all essentials , if on an experimental basis, more than a century before it came into its full and horrible fruition in the twentieth century.

Bonaparte thus returned to France with a new role as cultural hero ahead of him. His receptions was enthusiastic and confirmed his view of the French, and especially the Parisians, first formed during the Revolution–that they were volatile and frivolous, with a short attention span, and could easily be diverted from serious misfortunes by transient excitement.

If Bonaparte became a ruler of exceptional treachery and mendacity, it must be remembered that he emerged from a political background where a man’s word meant nothing, honor was dead, and murder was routine.

In fact the new First Consul was far more powerful than Louis XIV, since he dominated the armed forces directly in a country that was now organized as a military state. All the ancient legal restrains on divine-right kingship–the church, the aristocracy and its resources, the courts, the cities and their charters, the universities and their privileges, the guilds and their immunities–all had already been swept away by the Revolution, leaving France a legal blank check on which Bonaparte could stamp the irresistible force of his personality.

The armies identified their interests and their future with Bonaparte, and the lower the rank, the more complete this identification became. There is a puzzle here. Bonaparte cared nothing for the lives of his soldiers. He disregarded losses, provided his objectives were secured. He told Metternich in 1813, during a day-long argument about the future of Europe, that he would gladly sacrifice a million men to secure his paramountcy.

The freedom to take risks, which Bonaparte enjoyed except at the outset of his career, was not enjoyed by any of his opponents, all of whom were surrounded by jealous rivals and subject to political authority. And Bonaparte took the fullest possible advantage of it throughout. It fit in perfectly with his general strategy of swift aggression and offensive battle seeking. It usually came off, and when it did not, Bonaparte gave practical expression to the old army maxim “never reinforce failure,” and left.

The soldiers liked his high-risk approach. In their calculations, they were as likely to be killed by a defensive and cautious commander as by an attacking one, and with little chance of loot to balance the risk. Soldiers like action. High casualty rates mean quicker promotion and higher pay. Moreover, in Bonaparte’s armies, unlike all the others, promotion was usually on merit.

He preferred Alexandre Yvan, who served him from 1796 to 1814. The reason was that Yvan held old-fashioned views on amputation and the use of the scalpel as opposed to time, nursing, and medications. Bonaparte preferred the risk of losing a limb to the possible alternative of putrefaction and death. The same reasoning seems to have applied to his preference for Percy, an old hacksaw-and-chopper man. We have here a clue to an important element in Bonaparte’s personality. Like many people–most people, probably–who are radical and “progressive” in general, he tended to be conservative in particular, especially on matters he thought he knew a lot about. Battle wounds were one of these subjects. Another was cannon and ammunition. On these matters he thought the improvements introduced in his youth were quite enough, and though he fiddled with the standard equipment, he never changed it substantially.

Bonaparte’s strategy of lightning wars, aimed at bringing his opponents one by one to a large-scale battle, destroying their army, and occupying their capital, then imposing a punitive peace, was a highly successful formula. It directed Bonaparte’s great qualities–speed of action, decisiveness, risk taking, and wonderful leadership, together with iron will and courage–with absolute precision to the attaining of his objects. Of course, it could not have succeeded without the corresponding weaknesses of his enemies–lethargy, indecisiveness, and weak, divided leadership, together with a lack of will to see the struggle through, and often blatant cowardice.

For the Habsburgs, marriage was their geopolitics. They had, over the centuries, put together one of the largest empires in Europe, which had no common ethnic basis, entirely by marriage. They might not be very proficient at winning battles, but they were immensely shrewd and experienced in directing their sons toward land-rich heiresses and pairing off their daughters with powerful princes.

The Louisiana Purchase must rate as Bonaparte’s greatest single failure of imagination. “Louisiana” compromised 828,000 square miles, subsequently becoming thirteen states. France was paid $15 million, or four cents an acre. If Bonaparte had used France’s legitimate rights to its American territory to explore and create an enormous dominion across the Atlantic, instead of trying to carve out an illegitimate empire in Europe, he would have enriched France instead of impoverishing her, provided scope for countless adventurous young Frenchmen instead of killing them in futile battles, and incidentally inflicted more damage on his British opponents than all his efforts in Europe. He would also have changed the globe permanently, something his career failed to achieve in the end.

Where Bonaparte thought in the short term, Talleyrand thought in the long term, and this made him favor moderation.

Bonaparte was committing the elementary error that young cadets are taught at training school to avoid: “Never reinforce failure.”The occupation of Spain was a failure. It either had to be replaced by an entirely different concept or abandoned. Instead, Bonaparte continued to send in reinforcements, small and large but never of a scale likely to make a dramatic difference. It became, for him, like Vietnam for the Americans or Afghanistan for Soviet Russia.

“From the sublime to the ridiculous is only one step.” –Voltaire

Destroying the Holy Roman Empire seemed, to Bonaparte, no more momentous than ending the Venetian oligarchy or replacing the Knights of Malta. It was just dumping a medieval relic in the dustbin of history. In fact, the Holy Roman Empire filled a hole. It was a device for stressing the cultural unity of Germany while making it difficult to bring about its political and military unity. Prussia was the largest German power, but Austria, by virtue of its hereditary occupation of the German imperial throne, was its equal and the natural protector of the smaller German states. There was thus balance and multiplicity. The more responsible German thinkers wanted to keep things as they were. They argued that the balance between Prussia and Austria, and the existence of other German cultural centers, was of great benefit to Europe in music and painting, education and philosophy, theology and literature. Culture was Germany’s great benefit to Europe, not power. If, on the other hand, Germany was unified, it would be much more formidable than its neighbors and would inevitably seek to dominate the rest of Europe. That, when their arguments were brushed aside, was exactly what happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

He had once been “a man whose time had come.” In the second half of the 1790s, Bonaparte was an embodiment, all over Europe, of the protest against the old legitimists, their inefficiency, privileges, obscurantism, and misuse of resources, above all the talents and genius of youth. Thus he prospered and conquered. By 1813, however, he was out of date. His time had gone. A religious revival was under way, and that was something Bonaparte, a secular man if there ever was one, neither understood nor wanted.

Thus the empire dissolved in military ruin, and Bonaparte now had to fight, for the first time, on French soil. It was then that French public opinion turned decisively against him. The French had applauded Bonaparte’s conquests, not least the way in which he got them to pay for his empire by financial exactions and to man it by providing many of the troops. But those days were over, and the fill cost of any continued fighting had to be carried out by France herself, both in men and in money. In 1812 and 1813 Bonaparte had lost, in killed, wounded, prisoners, and simply disappeared, about one million men. About half were Frenchmen. Yet all had been in vain, as Germans and Russians were now pouring across the frontiers into France, often led by marauding squadrons of Cossacks, All looted, raped, and murdered, as the French had once looted, raped, and murdered in their homelands. Thus faced with the horrors of war, as the Germans, Italians, Russians, and Spanish–and others–had faced them, the French did not like what they saw, and quailed.

He had raised French nationalism to a gigantic height, but in the process he had awakened other nationalist forces that, collectively, overwhelmed him and his country.

No dictator of the tragic twentieth century–from Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Zedong to pygmy tyrants like Kim Il Sung, Castro, Peron, Mengistu, Saddam Hussein, Ceausescu, and Gadhafi–was without distinctive echoes of the Napoleonic prototype.



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