Friday, November 02, 2018

Book Reviews: 'Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth' by Adam Zamoyski

By Gerard DeGroot
13 October 2018

Napoleon Bonaparte became a brigadier-general at the age of 24. At 30, he was first consul of France, then emperor five years later. He was a brilliant military commander, an enlightened political leader, an intellect and a sexual colossus. He was, quite simply, a genius.
Or so he would have us believe.
Adam Zamoyski doesn’t buy the Napoleon hype. “He was in many ways a very ordinary man,” he argues, “the product of his times.” The turbulence of post-revolutionary France provided opportunities for men of gargantuan self-belief. “In war . . . people quickly rally to the person who gives the impression of knowing what they are about, and Bonaparte’s self-confidence was magnetic.” In truth, his brilliance was nine-tenths illusion. “I find it difficult,” Zamoyski writes, “to credit genius to someone who . . . presided over the worst (and entirely self-inflicted) disaster in military history” — by which he means the long string of defeats from Moscow to Waterloo. He was also, by the way, terrible at chess and no great shakes in bed.
The French are going to hate this book. Napoleon has, for the most part, enjoyed an easy ride from historians, who are usually too intoxicated by his daring military victories to notice his serious flaws. The conventional narrative is ably represented by Andrew Roberts, whose mammoth 2014 biography (Napoleon the Great) describes a military genius and enlightened political leader, while glossing over Napoleon’s taste for empire and autocracy. Paul Johnson’s 2002 biography takes a more negative view, emphasising parallels between Napoleonic France and the totalitarian regimes that plagued Europe a century later. What distinguishes Zamoyski from Johnson and Roberts, however, is Zamoyski’s willingness to doubt the image of greatness. Zamoyski argues that Napoleon’s genius was in large part the creation of his own propaganda machine.
As Zamoyski argues, the narrative that Napoleon spun eventually “deformed his sense of reality, leading him to believe that he really did have the power to make things happen simply because he willed it”. He forgot the special skills that had once made him formidable, relying instead on simple self-belief. The one-time master of technology was defeated by commanders more adept at exploiting technological progress. They had learnt from him, but he refused to learn from them.

At Waterloo the Napoleon of old might have probed Wellington’s weaknesses before executing a devastating flanking manoeuvre. Instead, he opted for a brutish frontal assault, fuelled by French arrogance. What resulted was “not just a military defeat . . . [but] a morale-shattering humiliation”. The man who relied so heavily on war to generate grandeur became rather lousy at waging war.
Napoleon’s success is often attributed to his awareness of his soldiers’ needs — his understanding that an army marches on its stomach. Yet, as Zamoyski shows, this too was hype. In 1798 he was in such a hurry to capture Cairo that he failed to take account of the heat of the Egyptian desert in July. Deprived of water bottles, his troops died of heat stroke, or were driven to suicide. One soldier cut his own throat in front of Napoleon, yelling: “This is your work!”
Mistakes were repeated on the march to Moscow in 1812, when his soldiers starved or died of dehydration. Some became seriously ill from drinking contaminated water or horse’s urine. Those that survived the advance suffered the retreat, when temperatures plunged to minus 20C. They ate horses, dogs and cats, or axle grease mixed with melted snow. Food froze so hard that animals had to be sliced up while still alive.
The myth of Napoleon was, Zamoyski argues, mostly his own creation. In the production of propaganda, he was indeed a genius. During the Italian campaign, more than 500 images were produced to publicise his exploits. The official account of the Battle of Marengo, writes Zamoyski, “reads like a bad novel”. His “mendacious dispatches” were quickly printed, then posted on walls throughout France for the public to read. “The hyperbolic language . . . created a subliminal sense of the supernatural, of the miraculous, of an adventure being enacted by men who appeared as superhuman as the heroes of The Iliad.”
A famous portrait by Antoine-Jean Gros shows Napoleon, with battle standard and sword, leading his troops over the Bridge of Arcole in 1796. In fact, he never got anywhere near that bridge. After getting knocked off his horse by an artillery volley, he fell into a drainage ditch and sank up to his neck in water. Echoing Gros, Jacques-Louis David painted Napoleon crossing the Alps in 1802. The great commander sits astride a massive white steed, his red cape and gold breeches oozing gallantry. In the actual crossing, however, Napoleon rode a mule and his uniform was covered with a drab oilskin to keep him from getting wet.
Stripped of the heroic embroidery, Napoleon seems a rather pathetic creature, one “bedevilled by a mass of insecurities, social, intellectual, physical and sexual”. He was a tempestuous little man, prone to tantrums, who amassed a huge fortune by stealing from the state. Contrary to myth, women found him quite resistible. His wife, Josephine, cheated on him relentlessly and often made fun of the febrile frenzy of his boyish ardour. Not particularly keen to give him a child, she convinced him that he was infertile. When Gros arrived to make sketches for the Arcole portrait, Napoleon, like a hyperactive child, was unable to sit still. Josephine took him on her lap and stroked his head, calming him down long enough for the sketches to be completed.
Napoleon did not, apparently, command an epic snowball fight at his school in 1783. Nor is there any evidence that he played with swords as a child. The story about a comet appearing at his birth and his death is also false. Zamoyski rejects all these myths, substituting instead his own “solid facts”. The only problem, however, is that those myths were fun. This book is, to an extent, the victim of its own sober honesty. Zamoyski’s research is meticulous, his writing sublime, but the story suffers because of his admirable refusal to indulge in romantic fantasy. This is probably one of the truest biographies of Napoleon, but unfortunately the truth can sometimes be dull. That qualification aside, this book undoubtedly needed to be written.
Arrogance carried Napoleon a long way, but was also the cause of his downfall. He came to believe the propaganda he wrote. As Zamoyski argues, he was “sidetracked by the lure of aristocratic grandeur” with the inevitable result that “human vanity . . . triumphed over the so-called age of reason”. In other words, the liberator became the oppressor. At the Battle of Wagram in 1809, Napoleon turned to General Mathieu Dumas and asked whether he was “one of those idiots who still believed in liberty”. When Dumas replied that he was, Napoleon ridiculed his naivety. Ambition, he argued, was a more important driver of history than liberty. Yet who, in truth, was the idiot?
As one contemporary observed, his power “rested on an authority whose foundations were in opposition to the irresistible march of the human spirit”. That was what doomed him. Liberty eventually overwhelmed Napoleon’s pathetic quest for omnipotence. His most brilliant achievement was perhaps the resilient myths he created.
Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth by Adam Zamoyski, William Collins, 727pp, £30
By Adam Zamoyski
Basic Books, $40, 784 pages
Military genius or a war-obsessed tyrant? Few readers of history are neutral about the dynamic Frenchman Napoleon Bonaparte, whose name is reflexively attached to the incessant wars that wasted Europe in centuries past.
War gripped the continent long before a young Napoleon began his rise from young artillery officer to commander of a powerful military while still in his 20s, and thence emperor.
Why all the fighting? As Adam Zamoyski writes in his engaging and highly readable account, nations sensed “a need to keep up with rivals and seek security through a ‘balance of power.’ If one state made a gain others felt they must make an equivalent gain.”
What sets Mr. Zamoyski apart from countless other biographers is his ability to (1) provide context to the factors that made Napoleon a constant warrior and (2) to explore his restoration of order to post-revolutionary France(1792-1812). His account goes far beyond military matters.
Napoleon’s primary foe was Britain, which competed with France for colonial powers in new-world America and the Indies as well as in Europe.
The French Revolution had sent a shiver down British royal spines — especially after its new rulers issued an “Edict of Fraternity” pledging support for any people struggling against feudal oppression.
Britain pictured “Boney” as “degenerate, vicious and ridiculous.” France sided with Britain’s “toiling masses,” billing them as pawns of “vampires of the sea” who must be exterminated lest they rule the globe.
Intelligence wars raged as well. British operations against Napoleon ranged from assassination plots to fostering internal revolts. Napoleon narrowly escaped death from explosives planted along his carriage route; four bystanders died.
Napoleon’s dominant adviser, Charles de Talleyrand, created “a web of intelligence-gathering, all over Europe,” consorting with “most of France’s and Bonaparte’s enemies.”
Once he established primacy in battle, Napolelon declared “that effective government required a dictator.” In a plebiscite, voters endorsed him as emperor by a vote of 3,569,885-8,374. A suspicious margin, to be sure, but Mr. Zamoyski contends that “there is no real evidence of manipulation.”
“In three years, Napoleon declared, “I shall retire from public affairs.” (He soon pushed the date forward a decade.)
An early act was to “take controls of the levers of public opinion.” As he stated, “If I give free rein to the press, I won’t survive in power for three months.” His secret police chief, Joseph Fouche, agreed. He called newspapers “the tocsin of revolution.” Within days, 60 out of 73 papers were closed.
Concurrently, he launched broad social reforms. He wrested control of education from the Catholic Church, creating, by decree, some 23,000 schools for pupils between ages 7 and 11. These were joined by 45 lycees for the classics and mathematics.
A proud initiative was the codification of laws into what was known as the “Code Napoleon,” which Mr. Zamoyski terms “a kind of rulebook for a new society.”
But Napoleon’s private life was a painful muddle. Several early love affairs floundered. Then, at the peak of his career, he married a vivacious divorcee named Josephine de Beauharnais, a decade his elder, with two children. She was no beauty; her horribly rotten teeth led one man to opine that she was “growing preciously decrepit.” But she charmed a smitten Napoleon.
And she cuckolded him from the beginning, often with junior officers while he was off at war. With much agony in his heart, he finally cast her out.
Although Napoleon coaxed his nation to grant him the title of “hereditary emperor for life,” the public gradually soured on him. He launched a lavish building program mindful of the excesses of the ousted royals, driving France into debt.
Continued continental turmoil drove him into an invasion of Russia (undertaken reluctantly), which failed miserably. His “grand army” now depended on mercenaries and impressed soldiers from 10 nations besides France. He was driven back to Paris, and thence into exile.
A brief return brought him back to leadership two years later but ended in crushing defeat at Waterloo. He died in solitude on a remote island in the South Atlantic.
What was Napoleon’s cost to France — and the rest of the world? Mr. Zamoyski puts French battle losses alone during the 15 years of his rule at 800,000 to 900,000 dead, wounded and missing. Carnage among other combatants is not stated, but were surely several times as great.
Yet, as he states, every European state was “breaking treaties and betraying allies shamelessly.” Napoleon was born into a world at war. “[T]o condemn the lust for power is to deny human nature and political necessity.”
Perhaps because my reading of past decades centered on British-centric historians, I loathed Napoleon as a general who drenched a continent in blood. Mr. Zamoyski, of Polish descent, tells a convincing “other side of the story.” An inclusive life of a historical dynamo.

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