Writing about Napoleon is a risky business. It exposes the author to the brickbats of the blind worshippers for whom he is a numinous hero and the equally challenged detractors who see in him only the petty tyrant. By the same token, most historians find themselves negotiating a slippery path between approval and censure of this most controversial and somehow still very relevant figure. It is one of Philip Dwyer’s great merits that he remains so detached from his subject that he makes the reader forget his own prejudices. He approaches it with the discipline of a chemist in his laboratory: he is understanding of his protagonist but not sympathetic.
His greatest merit is his ability to deconstruct Napoleon’s every statement and action into its historical, cultural and personal components. Like Nero, Napoleon consciously and consistently mythologised his person and his actions, making use of every available medium — art, the press, ceremonial — and the whole gamut of the cultural canon of the day. By giving his own gloss to every event, often rewriting history in the process, and representing his actions in certain ways, he wrote his own legend. That legend imposed its own logic and its own needs, which dictated or at least suggested his further actions. Napoleon did not on the whole do or say things out of emotional impulse or any moral sense of right and wrong. Most of his actions were calculated and followed a political programme. That is why whoever it was (or wasn’t) said of Napoleon’s murder of the duc d’Enghien that ‘It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.’
Dwyer’s familiarity with the political, cultural and human environment in which Napoleon operated allows him to read the runes which he used to transmit the subliminal messages that helped him achieve a God-like power. This in turn permits him to decrypt the rationale behind his words and deeds, which is far more enlightening than any attempt at psychological analysis. This always stops short at the man himself, while Napoleon, in political terms, was always part of a joint venture.
A good example is his seizure of power in 1799. Close analysis reveals that he was little more than the essential figurehead in a coup by a group of people who wished to bring stability to France. The need to find a third way between the Jacobins and the royalists suggested the model of a ‘Roman’ republic with a strong consulate. It is true that Napoleon outmanoeuvred many of those who had engineered it in order to become First Consul and virtually absolute ruler of France, but he did so with the full support of others, and an increasing number of the population, who considered the price worth paying. This was only made possible by the promotion of an image, through picture and print, of the young general as saviour of the nation, in which a great many people colluded. There is no way the swarthy little general with the reputation he had at the time could have seized power or held on to it by his own means.
The very fact that such a legend could have taken hold is ample evidence of the brilliance of his propaganda, of his ability to represent his life as fairytale. That fairytale was an essential element in the deeper purpose of the enterprise that brought him to power, namely to heal the gaping rift in French society caused by the Revolution and the Terror through social fusion under the leadership of an ordinary man predestined to rebuild France according to an entirely new blueprint.
Another area where Dwyer’s approach is so revealing is Napoleon’s assumption of the imperial purple. This act, with its attendant pomp and ceremony, its silly costumes and farcical display, is generally read (except by his worshippers) as an expression of his over-arching ambition and rampant megalomania, to which the late Jean-Bédel Bokassa’s coronation appeared as the most appropriate epilogue. I had always wondered how all those close to him, who had known him as an obscure young soldier, could go along with the burlesque pantomime and treat him with all the respect due to an anointed sovereign. Many of them were, after all, highly impressive figures in their own right and did not need the titles he bestowed on them.
What Dwyer demonstrates is that this too was an undertaking which those involved, including a very large body of the foremost political figures of the day, saw as a logical extension of the Caesarean model and considered necessary in order to create a modern France with a social hierarchy based on meritocracy. The whole Napoleonic venture, from Brumaire 1799 to Waterloo, was about the construction of a new French state and a new society. That was why there was so little opposition to Napoleon, even from those who disliked him intensely, why he was greeted with such enthusiasm when he returned from Elba and why such a large proportion of French society went on dreaming of a third coming — and why he remains a factor in French politics. Dwyer’s enviable mastery of the source material, not only on Napoleon and France, allows him to place the man and his deeds in the wider context of European history, on which he had such a profound effect.
He does not neglect the military aspect, though here too he shows how the battles were interpreted, represented and sometimes ignored for political and personal reasons. Nor does he neglect Napoleon’s emotional life. He is very good on the tensions and rows ripping through the Bonaparte family, which was such an important element in the whole enterprise. Here, as everywhere, he produces nice detail and the telling anecdote.
The publishers should be ashamed of themselves for reproducing the brilliantly chosen and interpreted illustrations so badly that they are almost indecipherable. But this cannot detract from what is a very fine book, which explains Napoleon’s extraordinary rise to power and equally meteoric fall, with great erudition, skill and verve.