When I was growing up, there was no doubt about it: Winston Churchill was the greatest statesman Britain had ever produced.
My brother and I pored over Sir Martin Gilbert ’s biographical “Life in Pictures” enough to memorize the captions. I knew that Churchill had led my country to victory against one of history’s most disgusting tyrannies. I knew that he had a mastery of the art of speechmaking, and I knew, even then, that this art was dying out. I knew that he was funny, irreverent and (even by the standards of his time) politically incorrect.
At suppertime, we were told the apocryphal stories: the one where Churchill is on the lavatory, is informed that the Lord Privy Seal wants to see him and says that he is sealed in the privy. We knew the one where Labour member of Parliament Elizabeth Braddock allegedly tells him that he’s drunk, and he shoots back, with astonishing rudeness, that she’s ugly, while in the morning, he’d be sober.
I knew that he had been amazingly brave as a young man, that he had killed men with his own hand and that he had been fired at on four continents. I knew that he had been a bit of a runt at Harrow, his famous boarding school near London; that he was only about 5 feet 7 inches with a 31-inch chest; and that he had overcome his stammer and his depression and his appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman.
I gathered that there was something holy and magical about him because my grandparents kept the front page of the Daily Express from the day he died in 1965, at the age of 90. I was pleased to have been born a year before his death: The more I read about him, the more proud I was to have been alive when he was too.
Most Americans, when they think of Churchill at all, seem to retain that pride and reverence. So it seems all the more sad and strange that today—nearly 50 years after his death—he seems in some danger of being shoved aside in the memory of the nation he saved. British students who pay attention in class are under the impression that he was the guy who fought Hitler to rescue the Jews. But a June 2012 survey of about 1,000 British secondary school students aged 11 to 18 showed that while 92% of them could identify a picture of a dog named Churchill from a popular British insurance advertisement, “only 62% correctly identified a photo of Sir Winston Churchill.”
That fading memory is a particular shame, since Churchill is so obviously a character who should appeal to young people today. He was eccentric, over-the-top, even camp, with his own trademark clothes and genius.
Of course, a hundred books a year are published on him—and yet we cannot take his reputation for granted. The soldiers of World War II are gradually fading away. We are losing those who can remember the sound of his voice. But we should never forget the scale of his deeds.
These days, we dimly believe that World War II was won with Soviet blood and U.S. money; and though that it is in some ways true, it is also true that, without Churchill, Hitler would almost certainly have won, and Nazi gains in Europe might well have been irreversible.
We need to remember the ways in which this British prime minister helped to make the world in which we still live. Across the globe—from Europe to Russia to Africa to the Middle East—we see traces of his shaping mind.
In March 1921, as Britain’s colonial secretary, he summoned all the key Middle East players to the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo to discuss the running of the region after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. T.E. Lawrence (more famously known as Lawrence of Arabia) thought the summit an outstanding success, and 11 years later, he wrote to Churchill that the arrangements it produced had already delivered a decade of peace.
That peace hasn’t lasted, of course. Nor has the empire Churchill loved. He would have been saddened but not entirely surprised by that. He believed that the future of the world lay in America’s hands, and he was right. In our own time, it has fallen to the Americans to try to hold the ring in Palestine, to reason with the Israelis, to try to cope with what Churchill called “the ungrateful volcano” of Iraq. As a British imperialist, trying to salvage an empire destined to fade, he was inevitably a failure. As an idealist, summoning humanity’s grander values and fending off its worst demons, he was lastingly a success.
Churchill is the resounding human rebuttal to all Marxist historians who think history is the story of vast and impersonal economic forces. Time and again in his seven decades in public life, we can see the impact of his personality on the world and on events—far more of them than are now widely remembered.
He was crucial to the beginning of the welfare state in the early 1900s. He helped give British workers job centers and tea breaks and unemployment insurance. He was the dominant force behind the invention of the Royal Air Force and the tank, and he was absolutely critical to the conduct of World War I. He was indispensable to the foundation of Israel (among other countries), not to mention the campaign for a united Europe.
At several moments, he was the beaver who dammed the flow of events; and never did he affect the course of history more profoundly than in 1940, when he and his nation stood alone against Hitler. Without Churchill, Hitler would almost certainly have won, and Nazi gains in Europe might well have been irreversible. Churchill spoke to the depths of people’s souls when Britain was alone, when the country was fighting for survival, and he reached them and comforted them in a way no other speaker could have done. His language—stirring and old-fashioned—met the moment.
What were the elements that enabled him to fill that gigantic role? In what smithies did they forge that razor mind and iron will? “What the hammer? what the chain? / In what furnace was his brain?” as William Blake almost put it.
To try to answer that vast question, I had a long lunch in June 2014 at the Savoy Grill with his grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, the Tory MP for Mid Sussex. As the waiter produced the bill—fairly Churchillian in scale—I noted that his grandfather was the man who changed history by putting oil instead of coal into the superdreadnoughts, the great battleships of World War II. So what sort of fuel did Churchill run on? What made him go?
Sir Nicholas brooded, then surprised me by saying that his grandfather had been an ordinary sort of chap. He did what other Englishmen like doing: mucking about at home, enjoying his painting and other hobbies. “You know, in many ways, he was quite a normal sort of family man,” he said.
But no normal family man produces more published words than Shakespeare and Dickens combined, wins the Nobel Prize for literature, serves in every great office of state including prime minister (twice), is indispensable to victory in two world wars and then posthumously sells his paintings for a million dollars.
What was the ultimate source of all this psychic energy? Was it psychological or physiological? Was he genetically or hormonally endowed with some superior process of internal combustion, or did it arise out of childhood psychological conditioning or some mixture of the two?
I remember, when I was about 15, reading an essay by the psychiatrist Anthony Storr arguing that Churchill’s most important victory was over himself. He meant that Churchill was always conscious of being small, weedy and cowardly at school. So by an act of will, he decided to defeat his cowardice and his stammer—to be the 80-pound weakling who uses dumbbells to acquire the body of Charles Atlas. Having vanquished his own cowardice, goes the argument, it was easy to vanquish everything else.
I always thought this analysis vulnerable to charges of circularity. Why did he decide to master his fear? Was he really a coward? Would a cowardly schoolboy, as Churchill did, kick an awful headmaster’s straw hat to pieces after the headmaster had given him a thrashing for taking some sugar?
So what else do we have in the mix of Churchill’s psychology? There was the father, no doubt about it: the pain of Randolph Churchill ’s rejections and criticism, the terror of not living up to him, the need after his death both to avenge and excel him. Then there is the mother, who was obviously crucial given the way she pushed and helped Churchill—his glory being at least partly her glory, after all.
There was also the general historical context in which Churchill emerged. He was born not just when Britain was at her peak but also into a generation that understood that it would require superhuman efforts to sustain her empire. The sheer strain of that exertion helped make the Victorians somehow bigger than we are now, constructed on a grander scale.
And then there was the natural egotism, shared to a greater or lesser extent by every human being, and the desire for prestige and esteem. I have always thought Churchill had a secret syllogism in his head: Britain is the greatest empire on Earth; Churchill is the greatest man in the British Empire; therefore Churchill is the greatest man on Earth.
But this is in a way unfair. Churchill did possess a titanic ego, but one tempered by humor, irony, deep humanity and sympathy for other people, and a commitment to public service and a belief in the democratic right of people to kick him out—as they did in 1945.
That is what I mean by his greatness of heart. Just before we left the Savoy, Sir Nicholas told me a last story—perhaps apocryphal—about his grandfather’s sentimentality and generosity.
One evening during the war, a cleaner at the Ministry of Defence was heading for her bus to go home and spotted something in the gutter: a file covered with pink ribbon and notices saying “Top Secret.” She picked it out of the puddle, tucked it under her raincoat and took it home. She showed it to her son, and he immediately realized it was terribly important.
Without opening it, he hurried back to the Ministry of Defence. By the time he got there, it was late, and most everyone had gone home—and this young fellow was treated pretty insolently by the people at the door. They kept telling him just to leave the file there, and someone would deal with it in the morning. He said no and refused to go until he had seen someone of flag-officer rank.
Finally someone senior came down and took the file—which turned out to contain the battle orders for Anzio, in which the Allies planned to try to establish a beachhead on Italy’s west coast.
The war cabinet was called the following day to work out how serious the security breach was and whether the Anzio landings could proceed. They looked at the file carefully and decided that it had only been in the water for a few seconds and that the cleaning lady’s story was true—and so on balance, they decided to go ahead with the invasion of Italy.
Churchill turned to Gen. Hastings Lionel “Pug” Ismay, the chief of the Imperial General Staff, and asked, “Pug, how did this happen?” Ismay told him about the woman and her son, and as he did, Churchill started to cry.
“She shall be a Dame Commander of the British Empire!” he said. “Make it so!”
That story, alas, has withstood all my efforts to verify it at the Churchill Archive or elsewhere. But it illustrates a fundamental truth. Winston Churchill had a greatness to his soul.
It is easy to see why so many historians and historiographers have taken the Tolstoyan line, that the story of humanity isn’t the story of great people and shining deeds. It has been fashionable to say that those so-called great men and women are just epiphenomena, meretricious bubbles on the vast tides of social history. The real story, on this view, is about deep economic forces, technological advances, changes in the price of sorghum, the overwhelming weight of an infinite number of mundane human actions.
The story of Winston Churchill is a pretty withering retort to all that malarkey. He, and he alone, made the difference. There has been no one remotely like him before or since.
Mr. Johnson is the mayor of London. This essay is adapted from his most recent book, “The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History,” to be published Thursday by Riverhead.
This is not to say that you didn’t show discipline in making the election a referendum on six years of Barack Obama. You exercised adult supervision over the choice of candidates. You didn’t allow yourself to go down the byways of gender and other identity politics.
The defeat — “a massacre,” the Economist called it — marks the final collapse of Obamaism, a species of left liberalism so intrusive, so incompetently executed and ultimately so unpopular that it will be seen as a parenthesis in American political history. Notwithstanding Obama’s awkward denials at his next-day news conference, he himself defined the election when he insisted just last month that “these [i.e. his] policies are on the ballot — every single one of them.”
They were, and America spoke. But it was a negative judgment, not an endorsement of the GOP. The prize for winning is nothing but the opportunity for Republicans to show that they can govern — the opportunity to seize the national agenda.
Five weeks ago, I suggested a series of initiatives that would be like the 1994 “Contract with America” but this time post facto. It’s not rocket science. Mitch McConnell, the incoming Senate majority leader, and Speaker John Boehner are already at work producing such an agenda.
It needs to be urgent, determined and relentless. Say, a bill a week for the first 10 weeks. Start with obvious measures with significant Democratic support, like the Keystone XL pipeline.
Like fast-track trade negotiation authority that Harry Reid killed and that Obama, like all presidents, wants. Republicans should propose and pass it, thereby giving Obama a victory and demonstrating both bipartisanship and magnanimity (as well as economic good sense).
Then a simple, targeted bill to repatriate the $2 trillion of assets being held by U.S. corporations overseas, a bill to authorize and expedite the export of liquid natural gas and crude oil (the latter banned by an obsolete 1975 law) and a strong border security bill.
As for Obamacare, a symbolic abolition that Obama will immediately veto is less important than multiple rapid-fire measures to kill it with a thousand cuts. Repeal of the medical device tax. Repeal of the individual mandate. Repeal of the employer mandate. Repeal of the coverage mandate, thereby reinstating Obama’s broken promise that “If you like your health-care plan, you can keep it.” And repeal the federal bailout for insurers on the Obamacare exchanges.
If Obama issues vetoes, fine. Let the Democrats defend them for the next two years.
Then go big and go positive: a sweeping reform of the tax system, both corporate and individual, abolishing loopholes and lowering rates, like the historic Reagan-O’Neill 1986 reform or Obama’s own abandoned Simpson-Bowles commission. And go large: Invite the other side into immediate negotiations with the aim of producing a tax bill by spring.
How will Obama react? My guess — with the petulance and denial he displayed in his post-election news conference. Moreover, he will try to regain control of the national agenda with executive amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Final memo to the GOP: That would be naked impeachment bait. Don’t take it. Use the power of the purse to defund it. Pledge immediate repeal if Republicans take the White House in 2017. Denounce it as both unconstitutional and bad policy. But don’t let it overwhelm and overtake the GOP agenda. That’s exactly what Obama wants. It is his only way to regain the initiative.
The 2014 election has given the GOP the rare opportunity to retroactively redeem its brand. The conventional perception, incessantly repeated by Democrats and the media, is that Washington dysfunction is the work of the Party of No. Expose the real agent of do-nothing. Show that, when Harry Reid can no longer consign House-passed legislation to oblivion, Congress can actually work.
Pass legislation. When Obama signs, you’ve shown seriousness and the ability to govern. When he vetoes, you’ve clarified the differences between party philosophies and prepared the ground for 2016.
Tuesday’s victory was big. But it did nothing more than level the playing field and give you a shot. Take it.
After Tuesday night, Republicans’ main objective is clear: Convince Oregon Measure 88 to run for president.
Measure 88 won more votes than anything else on the Oregon ballot. More votes than pot legalization. More than the incumbent governor, the incumbent senator or any of the six other ballot measures. The widely popular, landslide vote on Measure 88 prohibits illegal immigrants from getting drivers licenses.
In the nightmare scenario for MSNBC, by midnight Tuesday night, Republicans won 52 senate seats – 53 with their probable win in the Louisiana runoff in December, 54 if they win Alaska and 55 if they win Virginia. And I’m not even counting Democratic flips.
Don’t you wish all these new Republicans were joining Republican senators Richard Lugar, Mike Castle and whatever Republican was running against Todd Akin? How about Rob Simmons in Connecticut, who would be the senator from Connecticut if self-serving GOP consultants hadn’t gone for the money-bags, unelectable candidate instead?
Without tea party challenges and greedy Republican consultants, Republicans would be looking at 59 senate seats in the next Congress. Maybe 61 with Democrat flips.
One more wave election and it wouldn’t matter who the president is.
And what if the money and energy wasted this year saving incumbent senators Mitch McConnell, Thad Cochran and Pat Roberts from tea party challenges had been spent on senate elections in New Hampshire, Virginia or Minnesota? These guys weren’t Arlen Specter! They weren’t even John McCain or Marco Rubio.
(The only person who had a worse night on Tuesday than MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow was Marco Rubio, who just lost the only argument for not primarying him in 2016.)
Republicans won every possible senate and governor’s seat, but one: long-shot, come-from-behind Scott Brown in New Hampshire. A month ago, no one thought we’d even be talking about New Hampshire on election night.
But Brown was such a fantastic candidate, aggressively denouncing amnesty and open borders, that he managed to single-handedly turn a safe-seat for the Democrats into a bloodbath. He is surely responsible for at least one Republican senate win by forcing Democrats to divert precious resources to New Hampshire.
Without many silver linings, all of MSNBC’s bitterness election night was directed at Scott Brown.
An angry Rachel Maddow repeatedly told her little joke about Brown being the first man to lose to two women in two states. Hey Rachel: Martha Coakley just became the first woman in the same state to lose to a man in two elections for two different offices -- senate and governor!
It was a tough night for Rachel. For those of you who haven’t seen her show, words cannot capture the giggling, smirky cutesy antics that accompany her remarks.
Exactly two months ago, Rachel was hyping Princeton’s Sam Wang, who, in 2012, “correctly predicted all 33 U.S. Senate races”! I don’t remember those being that hard to predict, but it impressed Rachel. “According to Sam Wang`s calculations,” Maddow smirked on September 3, “the odds of the Democrats holding onto the Senate nationwide for the whole country, those odds move to 85 percent.”
Senate Election Results by Midnight Tuesday:
Senate Republicans: 52
Senate Democrats: 44
Less than a month ago, Rachel devoted several shows to a complicated argument about how the Democrats could win the senate election in South Dakota. “Now, today, the new unthinkable,” she began. “The Democratic Party today just announced that, hey, South Dakota is hereby a contested race. South Dakota. Democrats all of a sudden think they can maybe win in South Dakota. … Woo-hoo!”
Tuesday Night Election Results in South Dakota:
Republican Mike Rounds: 51.1 %
Democrat Rick Weiland: 29%
One month ago, Rachel was gloating about Kansas governor Sam Brownback heading to defeat because of his experiment with “massive” tax cuts. “The result of Sam Brownback’s experiment,” she said, “is, number one, that Kansas is broke. Number two, that Sam Brownback is losing his re-election bid to a centrist Democrat who warned that Kansas couldn`t afford those cuts.”
Tuesday Night Election Results in Kansas:
Sam Brownback: 49.9%
Paul Davis: 46.1%
Rachel on Arkansas, earlier this year:
“Basically the unanimous beltway common wisdom was Mark Pryor, Democratic senator from Arkansas was definitely going to lose this year. … Except that it is not at all what happened. Check this out. Mark Pryor has been polling 10 and 11 points ahead of this Tom Cotton guy who is running against him. Senator Pryor is up in this race by double digits.”
(Translation of "this Tom Cotton guy": Magna Cum Laude graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School; Second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, infantry officer and platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq; U.S. Representative from Arkansas.)
Tuesday Night Election Results in Arkansas:
Tom "This Guy" Cotton: 56.5%
Senator Pryor: 39.5%
And what ever happened to A-Star-Is-Born, Wendy Davis? MSNBC spent all of 2013 telling us she was going to be the next governor of Texas.
Rachel began referring to Davis’s opponent, Greg Abbott, as the man “best known as the Republican running for Texas governor against Democrat Wendy Davis.” On June 26, 2014, Rachel spent airtime commemorating the one-year anniversary of Davis’s filibuster for abortion!
Tuesday Night Election Results in Texas:
Greg Abbott: 59.4%
Wendy Davis: 38.9%
I could go on and on. Rachel sneering about Thom Tillis, Rachel giggling about Mitch McConnell, Rachel laughing at Nathan Deal, Rachel mocking Rick Scott, Rachel dismissing Scott Walker.
Instead let’s review a few of Tuesday’s highlights:
-- A former House impeachment manager is now governor of Bill Clinton’s home state of Arkansas.
-- The deep blue states of Maryland and Massachusetts will now have Republican governors.
-- Republicans have just elected: the youngest member of Congress (Elise Stefanik of New York); the first black female representative from Utah (Mia Love); the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction (Tim Scott). The two black senators from the South before that were also Republicans, as was the first black senator from the North, Edward Brooke.
-- Americans really don’t want drivers licenses for illegal aliens.
France’s early-19th-century emperor was one of the most extraordinary men who ever lived: “What a novel my life has been!” he himself observed with complacency. It remains fiercely disputed, however, whether Bonaparte was an enlightened despot who laid the foundations of modern Europe or, instead, a megalomaniac who wrought greater misery than any man before the coming of Hitler.
Andrew Roberts, a British historian who has written widely and well about both statesmen and generals, is in no doubt of his own view. “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice,” he writes, applying to Napoleon the Latin inscription on Christopher Wren’s tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral. “If you need a monument, look around.” Mr. Roberts means that the laws and structure of modern France—indeed, to a significant degree, of all Europe—derive from those created by Napoleon.
But his deployment of the Wren line invites an alternative interpretation: The emperor’s most immediate legacy was a mountain of corpses, starting with the 400,000 dead that his army left in Russia during its 1812 invasion. That most hubristic act of his reign alone cost as many lives as the U.S. lost in World War II.
Bonaparte was born in 1769, the second son of a minor Corsican squire. His ambition and abilities manifested themselves early. He read voraciously, excelled at mathematics and boasted a fabulous memory. Even as a child, he rejected association with defeat, spurning the Carthaginian side in Roman-era school games.
He won a royal scholarship to the military school at Brienne-le-Château, where he was taught by Franciscan monks. He became prodigiously literate, and Mr. Roberts describes him as a writer manqué. He was an ardent admirer of the ancient Scottish poet Ossian (even after his works were exposed as a modern hoax) but, in the decades following France’s expulsion from India and North America, learned to regard Britain as an implacable enemy.
Commissioned into the artillery in 1785, he was, four years later, dismissive of the implications of the fall of the Bastille: “Calm will return,” he wrote to his brother. Soon, however, he became an enthusiastic revolutionary. His meteoric rise began in 1793, when he played a heroic role in recapturing Toulon from French royalists backed by British troops. Here was the first revelation of his demonic energy and tactical wizardry, which found full play in an army desperately short of officers after the loss of so many to the royalist cause.
In December of that year, he was promoted to brigadier general at the age of 24 and in 1794 became artillery commander of the Army of Italy. He suffered one of the few failures of his career when entrusted with command of an unsuccessful attempt to recapture Corsica, but he was then posted to the army’s strategic planning office. In Paris in 1795, he won the gratitude of the revolutionary government by suppressing with a liberal infusion of grapeshot a mob revolting against a new constitution.
Elevation to command of the Army of the Interior followed, together with marriage to Josephine de Beauharnais, widow of a guillotined aristocrat. She made no pretense of loving him but was in sore need of a protector. She was six years older and far more sexually experienced than Napoleon, and indulged lovers throughout their marriage. But he adored her to the last, forgiving everything.
In 1796, he left Paris to command the Army of Italy against the Austrians committed to the overthrow of the revolutionary regime. Just 26, he said: “I shall be old when I return.” The months that followed brought the first full flowering of his military genius as a commander in chief at Montenotte, Arcoli, the bridge at Lodi, Rivoli and the taking of Mantua. He moved fast, then concentrated force at the decisive point. He displayed a brilliant eye for ground, together with a mastery of the vital art of logistics.
He became the first commander to employ a chief of staff. He imposed harsh discipline but took unprecedented care of soldiers’ needs, and especially of the wounded. He awarded medals for valor that were keenly prized and achieved a rapport with his men, who conferred on him a love unsurpassed by any general in history. His favored lieutenants—the likes of Junot, Marmont and Masséna—were mostly swaggering rogues of no birth, distinguished by courage, dash and loyalty to himself.
He imposed ruthless sanctions against any Italian who dared to oppose him, shooting priests and taking hostages at will. He transmitted to Paris and to the world a version of events that ornamented his reputation, but he gave birth to the cynical French expression “to lie like a bulletin.”
In Italy, he became assured of his own greatness. In the spring of 1797 he installed himself and his family in high state in conquered Venice. He often said afterward: “I no longer regarded myself as a simple general, but as a man called on to decide the fate of peoples.” He returned to Paris having led his army within 100 miles of Vienna and forced an armistice on Austria.
His next campaign, in Egypt, began with triumph at the battle of the Pyramids against the Mamluks but swiftly degenerated when Nelson destroyed the French fleet on the Nile, and Sir Sidney Smith and the Turks withstood his siege of the Ottoman port of Acre. The author acknowledges that Bonaparte’s bayonet massacre of several thousand Turkish prisoners was scarcely the act of a parfait gentil knight.
Nor was his dispatch to Paris of Lt. Jean-Noël Fourès so that the coast was clear for the general to sleep with the lieutenant’s wife, Pauline. This ruse misfired when the Royal Navy captured the ship carrying Fourès across the Mediterranean and chivalrously returned him to Alexandria. The couple were divorced. When Napoleon fled Egypt with his staff, he passed Pauline on to his officers Junot and Kléber. She lived to a great age, making an implausible fortune in the Brazilian timber trade.
Bonaparte’s indefatigable propaganda machine ensured him a hero’s welcome on his return to Paris in 1799, though the army he abandoned in Egypt was obliged to capitulate to the British two years later. It was almost inevitable that he became one of three members of the new Consulate, and soon afterward First Consul and de facto ruler of France.
The social extravagances of the Revolution were undone, with royalist émigrés permitted to return, rights of property restored, “citoyen” replaced as a mode of address by “monsieur.” The rule of law was reinstated and soon also the old calendar. Freedom of speech, however, was rigorously suppressed. Napoleon’s awesome administrative powers were deployed to create a new autocracy, incomparably more efficient than that of the Ancien Régime.
Mr. Roberts argues that many of the vices and crimes attributed to his hero were no worse than those committed by his enemies. Wellington became rich commanding British armies. While Napoleon is calumniated for laying waste to Palestine as he retreated, Wellington did the same in Portugal during his withdrawal to the fortified lines of Torres Vedras.
But Wellington was the servant of a democratic government, while all Europe became enslaved to Napoleon’s insatiable personal ambition. Wellington acquired only a small fraction of the wealth of the Corsican, who lavished fortunes on his family and marshals. Wellington was a far more humane man than his foremost enemy, who said contemptuously: “If one thinks only of humanity . . . one should give up going to war.”
Bonaparte yearned for fresh battlefields, and the Austrians now provided these by renewing the struggle against France. Contrary to legend, Napoleon did not himself lead an army over the Alps but followed it. On June 14, 1800, he secured a lucky victory at Marengo, which secured his grip on Italy, confirming this through a Concordat with the pope designed to win the support of France’s Catholic priesthood.
In February 1801, the Austrians made peace, and a year later Napoleon was made consul for life. Britain and France signed the Peace of Amiens, but nobody expected the truce to hold. Just as a century later in World War I, though with different allegiances, the most powerful nations in Europe had become locked in a struggle for mastery that could conclude only when one was decisively defeated.
In May 1803, Britain, its trade shut out of Europe by Napoleonic tariffs, once more declared war. Bonaparte welcomed this: “We have six centuries of insults to avenge.” The years that followed witnessed his greatest victories over Britain’s allies—at Austerlitz against the Austrians and Russians in December 1805, at Jena against the Prussians in October 1806, at Eylau against the Russians in February 1807.
Mr. Roberts notes the steady rise in casualties since the early revolutionary war: from a mere 6% of those engaged at Fleurus, to 15% at Austerlitz, 26% at Eylau, 31% at Borodino, 45% at Waterloo. Napoleon, now self-crowned emperor, attained the zenith of his power with the July 1807 Treaty of Tilsit, by which Russia and France carved up Prussia. But Nelson’s 1805 victory at Trafalgar ensured that Britain remained unconquered.
From 1808 onward, Bonaparte’s adventure in the Iberian peninsula, where he had placed his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain, became an appalling drain. His armies suffered ever-mounting losses from guerrillas and successive defeats at the hands of Wellington.
Napoleon expected Spanish gratitude. Mr. Roberts writes: “He believed, as many Frenchmen did, that modern ideas of governance could be spread across Europe through the agency of the Grand Armée.” Yet his marshals responded to resistance with a brutality unequaled in Europe until the fascist era. Talleyrand once told the czar: “The French are a civilized people; their sovereign is not.” The “Spanish ulcer” made a major contribution to France’s defeat.
In 1809, Napoleon divorced Josephine in order to marry the Hapsburg emperor’s 18-year-old daughter, Marie Louise, in pursuit of a son and a dynasty. The resulting alliance with Austria emboldened him for his catastrophic invasion of Russia. Napoleon was obsessed with the pursuit of military triumph: “I owe everything to my glory. If I sacrifice it, I lose everything. . . . I wanted to assure for France the mastery of the world.”
The latter statement highlights the flaw in Mr. Roberts’s case for the fundamental benignity of Napoleon’s career. Whatever the shortcomings of Britain and its empire, its purposes in Europe at least were vastly more enlightened and above all peaceful than those of the French emperor.
He financed his empire by brigandage, looting the entire continent’s treasuries and palaces. Mr. Roberts’s apologia for his hero includes the lines: “The fifteen-year rule of Napoleon saved the best aspects of the Revolution. . . . He convinced his followers they were taking part in an adventure, a pageant, an experiment, and a story whose splendour would draw the attention of posterity for centuries.”
It is true that the continental monarchies opposing Napoleon were scarcely models of virtue or enlightenment. His stature is secure beside Alexander and Caesar, the foremost military achievers of all time. Yet in the eyes of some of us, nothing can undo the overarching reality that Napoleon was a tyrant in love with war, who murdered his enemies without scruple and whose foremost interest was the promotion of himself. It seems extraordinary that the French people continue today to revere a man who presided over bloodbaths unprecedented in European history and who brought their nation to ultimate ruin.
Napoleon first fell following his 1813 defeat by the Russians, Prussians and Austrians at Leipzig, engaging half a million combatants, more than twice as many as participated in the Waterloo campaign. Then, after his 1814 abdication and escape from Elba the following spring, he was conclusively undone before the ridge of Mont Saint-Jean outside Brussels on June 18, 1815. Mr. Roberts justly describes the latter battle as “one of the worst commanded” in all Napoleon’s wars. The emperor died in exile on St. Helena six years later.
Mr. Roberts is a masterly storyteller, but his judgments are entirely formed by veneration for his subject, whom he calls “a profound thinker” and “protean multitasker” with a “fine sense of humour.” He succumbs to self-parody by opening the book with acknowledgments to a huge cast of acquaintances headed by ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, Prime Minister David Cameron , former Bank of England chief Mervyn King, Henry Kissinger and New York moneybags Jayne Wrightsman, whom he thanks for showing him her collection of Napoleonic book bindings.
Yet this is a fluent account of Napoleon’s life, one in which the detail seems impeccable and most of the subsidiary judgments—such as the dismissal of absurd claims that Napoleon was poisoned on St. Helena—eminently sensible. But it is hard to identify significant new ground broken here. I would recommend Mr. Roberts’s book to anyone seeking an accessible chronicle, rich in anecdote, of Napoleon’s fantastic story.
But I would look elsewhere for a work that considers the place of imperial France in European history and that addresses the big why’s as well as cataloging the big what’s of Bonaparte’s life. Andrew Roberts belongs to a party doomed to disagree with me and mine, because they idolize their man. We, meanwhile, acknowledge his stellar quality but define him by the wretchedness he inflicted on Europe in pursuit of the vanities of la gloire.
—Mr. Hastings’s most recent book is “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War.”
Napoleon Crossing the Alps, May 20, 1800, by Jacques-Louis David, 1803 (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images)
Which historical figures deserve to be nicknamed "the Great"? Tradition has granted it only to a few: Alexander of Macedon, Rameses of Egypt, Darius of Persia, Charlemagne, Alfred of Wessex, Llywelyn of Wales, Peter and Catherine of Russia, Frederick of Prussia, and so on. Others have missed out. We Brits don’t speak of Queen Victoria the Great. Likewise, Frederick Barbarossa, Charles V of Spain and Louis XIV of France all remain unanointed, as does every American President – even George Washington and FDR.
Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France and by many people’s reckoning the most brilliant general of modern times, is one of those who has most conspicuously failed to have greatness thrust upon him. This was not for want of trying on his part. From his youth Napoleon studied the careers of history’s titans with a view to mimicking them. His dazzling rise and spectacular rule – he was a general at the age of 24, an emperor at 34 – was an object lesson in one man bending the world to his will. But Napoleon the Great? The title of Andrew Roberts’s masterly new biography will have many scratching their chins. It is worth considering why.
Napoleon was born in Corsica in 1769 into a family that was wealthy only by local standards. He was a bookish but not a scholarly child, whose written French was lousy and whose funny accent earned him plenty of teasing at school. But he found his way in the army, graduating from the Ecole Militaire in Paris and finding a commission as an artillery officer. He spent several years fighting in Corsica, then in 1793 played a prominent role in ejecting the British from the port of Toulon and captured the city for republican forces: this earned him his generalship.
When revolution engulfed France, Napoleon’s genius as a soldier and his reputation as a writer of political essays and pamphlets ensured that his rise continued. Infamously, he cleared the streets of Paris by firing grapeshot at rebels. He led armies into Italy and Egypt, emerging with a string of spectacular successes and a personal reputation for unequalled military genius. He was dictator of France by 1799. In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor, with his wife, Josephine, alongside him as Empress. The cult of Napoleon was born while the man himself was barely out of his twenties.
In researching all this – and Napoleon’s subsequent career, which took him to Spain, Russia and, of course, Waterloo – Roberts walked almost every one of his subject’s 60 battlefields. He also makes full use of the new scholarly edition of Napoleon’s 33,000 letters. The effect is a huge, rich, deep, witty, humane and unapologetically admiring biography of 900 pages, each of them a pleasure to read. The Napoleon painted here is a whirlwind of a man – not only a vigorous and supremely confident commander, but an astonishingly busy governor, correspondent and lover, too. "For myself, I have but one requirement, that of success," he wrote in 1805. But to achieve success in the field that Napoleon chose – rebuilding France and conquering the world – required personal qualities that no other human being of his age possessed. He never stopped. As Roberts notes, when Napoleon moved at top speed, water had to be poured on the wheels of his carriage to stop them from overheating.
But to what end? For every writer who would lionize Napoleon, there is another who would point out that he was responsible for wars which killed between four million and six million people; that his Iberian war was a disaster; that the catastrophic 1812 invasion of Russia and retreat from Moscow was the ultimate example of hundreds of thousands of lives lost in unutterable misery, for the sake of one man’s monstrous ego.
And maybe all this is so. But to dive into Roberts’s new book is to understand – indeed, to feel – why this peculiarly brilliant Corsican managed for so long to dazzle the world. The historical appellation "Great" is not a measure of peace-loving goodness, but of the rare ability of one person to stamp their personality on to their times.
Read in this way, Roberts's book is not just another brilliant narrative biography of Napoleon – although it is certainly this. It is also an essay on statesmanship and a meditation on history itself: a defence of the whole idea of the "great man" against what the author calls in his conclusion "determinist analyses of history, which explain events in terms of vast impersonal forces and minimise the part played by individuals".
Throughout his life, Napoleon wrote and spoke of himself as though he were already an immortal: his worldview was moulded by the concepts of duty, glory and genius; his law code, he thought, would "live forever". He would therefore be delighted to know that he is the subject of historical obsession nearly two centuries after his death (there are more than 13,000 items in the British Library catalogue under the term "Napoleon"). It goes without saying that he would also be delighted with the title and the content of Roberts’s gloriously enjoyable new book.
THE DEVILS’ ALLIANCE: HITLER‘S PACT WITH STALIN, 1939-1941 By Roger Moorhouse Basic Books, $29.99, 382 pages, illustrated
From a 21st-century perspective, the alliance that Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin concluded in August 1939 ushering in World War II makes perfect sense: two totalitarian monsters who had so much in common paving the way for Nazi Germany to fight democratic Britain and France — and in a secret addendum, carving up hefty chunks of Eastern Europe into “spheres of influence” for each to dominate and assimilate.
In fact, it makes more sense than the uncomfortable coupling of the USSR and its democratic allies after Hitler turned on his recently embraced fellow dictator after less than two years. At the time, though, the news that German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had flown to Moscow to sign the pact with his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov, was one of history’s great surprise coups. If anyone had a sense of humor, they might well have omitted playing the anthems “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles” and “The Internationale” in favor of what the British bands played at the Battle of Yorktown, “The World Turned Upside Down.”
Writing his vivid, well-researched and gripping account of this bombshell event and its terrible consequences, British historian Roger Moorhouse found that almost no one he spoke to even knew about the Nazi-Soviet Pact, perhaps because it has been glossed over in too many historical accounts of a war otherwise minutely dissected, “dismissed as a dubious anomaly, a footnote to the wider history.” With a determined passion evident throughout his revealing book, he writes early on that “[e]xcept in Poland and the Baltic states, the pact is simply not part of our collective narrative. It is my firm conviction that it really should be.”
Of course, what made this diplomatic volte-face such an amazing turn of events was that up to the very day before it was concluded, each country had regarded each other as public enemy No. 1. Hitler had risen to power largely by railing against Bolshevism and had consolidated his hold and attracted followers at home and abroad on account of that rabid anti-communism. The Soviets had demonized Hitler “as a lunatic, an ‘idiot,’ or a man ‘possessed by a demon’” in its domestic and foreign propaganda. The two nations had just been engaged in a savage fight — part proxy, but also directly through “volunteers” — in the recently concluded Spanish Civil War. When trying to tone down Ribbentrop’s flights of rhetorical amity between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Stalin told him, with characteristic pungency, “For many years now, we have been pouring buckets of [excrement] on each other’s heads, and our propaganda boys could not do enough in that direction.” However, now it was time for the eponymous devils’ alliance, a triumph of realpolitik at its most rebarbative and destructive.
Mr. Moorhouse is adept at showing all aspects of this sorry business, from the details of personal interplay on the ground and contemporary reactions, to the cruel and fatal consequences for so many, including, but by no means limited to, the Jews caught in those deadly pincers. We see diehard supporters of the Soviet Union like Britain’s Beatrice Webb indulging in intellectual contortions trying to reconcile her loyalty to it with her abhorrence of Hitler and sympathy for the “grim fate of the Poles,” but even she has to conclude sadly that “her beloved USSR has squandered its ‘moral prestige.’”
Details of the bouts of torment, torture and forced deportation by Nazis and Soviets alike show just how similar they were in their demonic ruthlessness. Swapping lists of “enemies” between the two secret police forces, NKVD and Gestapo, had fatal consequences for all too many. If history justly judges the Nazis winners of the dubious distinction of European champions at genocide, there is a stunning example in these pages of the sheer audacity of communist doctrine. When Menachem Begin found himself a prisoner of the Soviets accused of being a British agent, he was “asked by his interrogator if he knew the section of the Soviet law code under which he was charged Begin was confused. ‘But how can it apply to what I did in Poland?’ the NKVD officer replied, ‘Section 58 applies to everyone in the world. Do you hear? In the whole world. It is only a question of when he will get to us, or we to him.’”
Fortunately, this breathtaking example of arrogantly wrongheaded “historical determinism” was eventually overtaken by the more powerful historical imperative of democracy, but not before a terrible time of suffering. Mr. Moorhouse’s book is a valuable reminder of this most shameful event at the worn-out end of the 1930s, a low point even in what the disillusioned ex-communist poet W.H. Auden rightly termed “a low, dishonest decade.”
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.