Napoleon: A Political Life

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9780684871424: Napoleon: A Political Life

A definitive new political biography of the legendary military leader draws startling new conclusions about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte as it charts his remarkable rise and fall, detailing his devotion to the French Revolution and his seminal influence on the face of nineteenth-century European history. 40,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

Steven Englund received his graduate degree from Cambridge and his doctorate in French history from Princeton. In the 1970s, he wrote for the Paris Bureau of Time magazine, where his knowledge and love of France originated. He has taught courses on French history and on Napoleon at UCLA, the University of Paris and Paris's prestigious School of Advanced Studies in Social Science. He lives in Paris.

From The Washington Post:

The Napoleon industry continues to produce books at a relentless pace. How can a reader keep up? We've had several recent biographies and a procession of studies on nearly every aspect of Napoleoniana, from his wives to his youthful literary exertions. Even the minutiae of his life and times send historians scurrying to the archives -- consider the scholar who spent seven years researching a single 1813 military campaign in Prussia.

But with all the ink spilt on Napoleon, perhaps the most studied figure in human history, it is sometimes hard to get a clear fix on this man, who was small in stature but larger than life. A lively debate persists about the nature of his reign and the content of his character. Was he merely an upstart Corsican and craven dictator or a visionary leader and herald of modernity?

He was a hero to Byron and Hegel in his own time, but in ours there has been a pronounced tendency to see him as a forerunner of Hitler, Stalin and 20th-century totalitarianism. Steven Englund, in his strikingly argued new biography, would have us think otherwise. Though the author, a freelance university lecturer, concedes that Napoleon would not have been a particularly nice man to have dinner with, he pointedly argues that Napoleon's rule, while dictatorial and authoritarian, was a far cry from Hitler's or Stalin's.

Nor was it nearly as inhuman: "We search the annals of the First Empire in vain for crushing acts of pure evil, on the order of the Gulag, the Final Solution, the Night of the Long Knives." Still, if he has not quite reinvented Napoleon as an enlightened dictator, Englund takes the measure of his flawed character with an unusually nuanced sense of proportion. He is an animated, often witty stylist, who isn't reluctant to take shots at his subject's titanic self-regard: "Napoleon Bonaparte," Englund quips, "was a self made man, and he worshipped his creator." Thankfully, however, Englund goes light on the psychology. Napoloeon was a narcissist, yes, but hardly a warped little man with a mother fixation. ("True, he was short, at five feet three," Englund notes, "but not dramatically so for the era.") Englund's special focus is on Napoleon's "evolution as a political animal" and his dual identity as a warrior and statesman. The author rightly stresses Napoleon's complex, nettlesome entanglement with the ideals and consequences of the French Revolution, which "framed his consciousness and his conscience." It had profoundly altered the relationship between the citizen and the state; elections, parties, ideologies and representatives replaced old ties and feudal ways; mass politics was born.

For a young Corsican officer, an outsider, this new world presented "radically new possibilities and challenges." He seized on every opportunity that came his way. He was a general at 26; his inspired, if ruthless, leadership carried him far on the field of battle. But for all of his military exploits and martial disposition, he was at heart a "homo politicus," Englund contends, one who "preferred the political life to the military."

For Napoleon, power flowed from the state, which, in theory, derived from the sovereignty of the people as enshrined by the principles of the Revolution. He remained committed to civil equality, but he was no democrat. Englund pinpoints a crucial hallmark of Napoleon's political ideology, his preference for "the political" -- the management and formation of the state and the community -- over mere "politics," the freewheeling clash of interests found in America and Britain. As Napoleon surveyed the France of the 1790s, all he saw was bloody partisanship, the unfortunate byproduct of revolutionary energies, which, he felt, must be redirected. He believed that the mission of the new French state would be "to centralize and administer the nation -- and reduce and contain 'politics.' "

Englund's incisive forays into political theory don't diminish the force of his narrative, which impressively conveys the epochal changes confronting both France and Europe. With a new France struggling to be born, rent by political terror and internal subversion within, confronted by the massed armies of Europe's royal powers without, we see Napoleon racking up one victory after another, tearing up the map of Europe in the process, founding republics and deposing monarchs. He seizes power in 1799 in a coup and becomes first consul; five years later, in an act of bombastic self aggrandizement, he crowns himself emperor of the French. "His Caesar-like restlessness and demonic struggle" plunge him into in a relentless series of epic battles against Britain, Russia and Austria, which lead to his defeat in 1815 at Waterloo.

Englund's chapters on Napoleon's apotheosis and decline are often masterful, but his discussion of Napoleon's rule sometimes takes him dangerously close to apologizing for what seems like an exercise in absolute power. Through dissimulation, propaganda, demagogy and the manipulation of patriotic symbols (what Englund dubs "nation-talk"), Napoleon defeated "politics": "he, and nothing or no one else, became party, parliament, and politician." There would be no turning back to the bloody factionalism of the revolutionary years. Bonapartism, in Englund's memorable phrase, became a system where "all was done for the 'nation,' nothing by it."

Still Englund, argues that his "appel au peuple" -- appeal to the people -- in the form of several plebiscites (which, however flawed, returned overwhelming endorsements) and his tolerance of constitutional checks on his power made his rule something other than despotic. In the end, Englund concludes, Napoleon "may ultimately be seen as a liberal [because] he sought, via a regime of laws and institutions, to elude profound political conflict." If all this doesn't quite add up, Englund should be commended for frequently challenging us to reconsider Napoleon and his turbulent era.

Reviewed by Matthew Price


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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