Arts & Books

Napoleon the Great review: six million lives sacrificed for one giant ego

Napoleon’s coronation robe, portrait and throne at the Symbols of Power exhibition (AP)

Napoleon the Great
by Andrew Roberts, Allen Lane, £30
Buy here

You would not have liked to have been in the path of Napoleon’s army as it marched on your town or village. Scorched earth might not have been his avowed policy, but those standing in his way would have been killed, their livestock slaughtered, their crops eaten and everything left to rack and ruin. A guillotine might also have been employed as a way of showing you the “revolution” had visited town. And then the great emperor would move on to further conquests.

Perhaps an unlikely candidate for “greatness”, Napoleon Bonaparte was an obscure artilleryman who spoke French with a distinctive Corsican accent. But he always had self-belief and in the French Revolution he found his cause. By 24, he had been made a general. By the time he was 30 he had commanded his country’s armies in Italy
and Egypt, and was already the centre of an extraordinary personality cult.

Napoleon took power in a coup d’état in 1799. By the end of the year he was effectively dictator of France and in 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of the French, his two crowns designed to mimic the emperors of Rome and the great Frankish monarch Charlemagne. He was only 35: the scourge of old Europe, known the world over by his unusual first name.

Napoleon was born in Corsica in 1769 and descended from a minor branch of the Italian nobility. The most gifted of eight children, he was a shy, serious boy and a voracious reader, but until the age of 10 he did not speak a word of French.

In the chaos of the Terror, with invading armies at France’s borders and blood in the streets of Paris, there was a rare chance for an opportunistic young man with few scruples and tremendous military gifts. And this impatient, untidy young man got results.
In 1793, he retook the vital port of Toulon from the British. Two years later he fired grapeshot on royalist rebels in Paris, an act of cold-blooded ruthlessness that earned the respect of his political masters.

There is no doubt, as Andrew Roberts shows, that Napoleon was a general of exceptional talent. His earliest campaigns in Italy and Egypt turned him into a hero. An intellectual with an enormous grasp for details, he had a hypnotic personality and was a master of flexibility, control and movement.

Roberts describes how he would stop to gossip with his troops, swapping war stories and giving their earlobes a friendly squeeze. They called him “the little corporal”. This contrasts nicely with Wellington’s famous remark about his own men: “I don’t know the effect they have on the enemy, but they certainly frighten me.”

In reality, Napoleon was on nobody’s side but his own. He was out, he once told a French official, for “my own profit … I have tasted authority and I will not give it up.” His propaganda presented him as a man of republican austerity, yet he and his wife, Josephine, lived in palatial splendour in the Tuileries Palace.

He could claim, however, to have introduced some much-needed reforms. He emancipated Jews from laws which restrict-ed them to ghettos, and he expanded their rights to property, worship and careers. He also protected Protestants in Catholic countries and Catholics in Protestant countries.

The real charge against Napoleon, though, is that his regime brought Europe nothing but bloodshed and misery. From the day he took power to the moment he knew that the Battle of Waterloo was lost, he was obsessed with war.

Roberts points out that some of this was forced upon him by the enmity of Britain and Austria. But nobody forced him to invade Spain and install his feckless brother Joseph on the throne, just as nobody forced him to launch his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 – truly a step too far.

Some historians estimate that the death toll in the Napoleonic Wars was as high as six million. When you read Roberts’s harrowing descriptions of the desperate French retreat from Moscow in 1812 – the toes, noses and fingers lost to frostbite, the baying wolves, the ravens circling greedily – it is hard to resist the thought that his army were suffering what they had inflicted on so many others.

But Napoleon was lucky in his enemies. After the high drama of his escape from Elba, when his followers marched on Brussels to defeat at Waterloo, the British did not put him on trial but dumped him on the remote, peaceful island of St Helena, where he reverted to his bookish ways. There, he remained the supreme egotist, boring visitors with tales of his military victories, spreading out maps to describe his triumphs and pouring scorn on great historical figures such as Alexander and Frederick the Great.

In this, as in so much else, Napoleon cut an oddly adolescent figure, desperate for attention and applause. Did he ever grow up? One wonders if he ever paused to reflect that so many millions had to die or endure hardship to appease his lust for glory.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (16/1/15)