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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, July 9th, 2002


Napoleon (Penguin Lives Biographies)

by Paul Johnson

A review by Brooke Allen

The Penguin Lives series of short biographies has produced some provocative pairings of author and subject. Some of the choices have been solid and serious: R.W.B. Lewis on Dante, for instance, and Jonathan Spence on Mao. Others, such as Wayne Koestenbaum on Andy Warhol and Francine du Plessix Gray on Simone Weil, have been clever and slightly offbeat. Some — Roy Blount Jr. on Robert E. Lee and Kathryn Harrison on Saint Therese of Lisieux — are a bit of a stretch. The selection of the venerable British historian and right-wing gadfly Paul Johnson to write on Napoleon (who has been the subject of more biographies to date than any other human being except Jesus Christ) has turned out to be a wise one: Johnson is succinct, critical, and deeply skeptical of the Napoleonic legend.

Nearly twenty years ago Johnson's Modern Times attacked the notion, long current among twentieth-century intellectuals, that "leftist" dictators were somehow more acceptable than the rightist or fascist variety; a dictator is a dictator, he asserted, irrespective of professed ideology. Now Johnson turns to Napoleon, the anti-idealist who believed in no principle except that of power, yet paved the way for the preaching ideologues who would take the stage more than a century after his death. Johnson finds Napoleon to be the originator of all the major aspects of modern totalitarianism: faked elections and plebiscites, government propaganda machines, large-scale espionage, and secret-police forces. "No dictator of the tragic twentieth century — from Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Zedong to pygmy tyrants like Kim Il Sung, Castro, Peron, Mengistu, Saddam Hussein, Ceausuescu, and Gadhafi — was without distinctive echoes of the Napoleonic prototype," he observes.

Johnson sees Napoleon as the ultimate opportunist, and believes that subsequent history has proved the narrowness and shallowness of his vision: "In the end, force was the only language he understood, and in the end it pronounced a hostile judgment on him." The great soldier's downfall, when it came, was spectacular. It is true that he changed the map of Europe, but the results were dubious, because in smashing up the decrepit Holy Roman Empire he cleared the way for the unification of Germany and the ensuing nationalism that would threaten and eventually eclipse France. And the achievement that made him, for a brief moment, the hope of liberal Europe — the apparent destruction of royal legitimism — turned out to be a chimera: the principle was authoritatively restored by the Congress of Vienna and lasted another century before it finally self-destructed in the maelstrom of World War I.

Although Napoleon was not evil in an obvious way, like Hitler or Stalin, he was surely one of the most ruthless men in history: in 1813 he told Prince Metternich, Austria's Foreign Minister, that he would rather sacrifice a million French lives than accept terms he considered dishonorable. Despite France's worship of this megalomaniac as the personification of its national gloire, history's judgment on Napoleon will probably, in the end, be close to Johnson's. "Had these events occurred at the beginning of the present century," Johnson comments, "there can be little doubt that Bonaparte would have been obliged to face a war crimes tribunal, with an inevitable verdict of 'guilty' and a sentence of death or life imprisonment. The evidence then produced would have determined, forever, in the minds of reasonable people, the degree of guilt he bore for events that had cost four or five million lives and immense loss of property."

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