Book Review: Napoleon – Soldier of Destiny
by Michael Broers
Pegasus Books, 2015
Readers encountering Michael Broers’ 600-page new book Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny, the first of a projected two-volume biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, will naturally wonder if anything could really justify the publication of yet another enormous biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. And those readers can rest assured: there is nothing, nothing in the whole wide world, that can justify yet another enormous biography of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The attempt the latest crop of such biographers are using is the Napoleon Bonaparte, Correspondance generale being compiled by the Fondation Napoleon in Paris under the direction of Thierry Lentz – a sizable trove of Bonaparte’s personal papers never before available to researchers in this abundance. It’s thus a great evil that Monsieur Lentz is facilitating, but the superabundance of enormous biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte would be with us even if the Correspondance generale were at the bottom of the Seine; pick virtually any calendar year in the last century and you’ll find readers suffering similar bombardments of Bonaparte books. The picture is well-known. The details are well-known. The micro-details are well-known.
There remains only the question of spin. How will each biographer attempt to justify the unjustifiable? What little eyelash-sliver of an angle will they use to differentiate their wodge of verbiage about the pestiferous little Corsican from all the other wodges?
The most popular angle by far – the one used to such magnificently readable effect, for instance, in Andrew Roberts’ recent Napoleon the Great – is to strike a defiant tone and proclaim that Bonaparte wasn’t the monstrous tyrant history has painted him to be, that he was, rather, a badly misunderstood progressive, an enlightened ruler, a secret nice guy. The huge majority of enormous biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte in the last fifty years have used this angle, and each successive author seems just a little more baffled that the image-rehabilitation efforts are still needed.
This is the angle Broers uses in Soldier of Destiny, and he strikes the high note right away:
Many biographers and historians have accentuated the cynical and manipulative in Napoleon’s character, and they are not mistaken. He possessed these attributes in abundance, and it would be unrealistic to the point of absurdity to believe he could have survived his times without them, to say nothing of triumphing over them. Nevertheless, to put the accent on this side of his character, to the detriment of so much else, is to give both a false picture of the man and to render inexplicable his most lasting achievements. As Annie Jourdan has put it, “Napoleon sought the positive in everything.’ When this is set beside his extraordinary energy, a more rounded and plausible person emerges, for Napoleon was a powerful creative force in the life of Europe, during his own time and long after. Only a positive, optimistic mind would have thought in terms of progressive reform to the degree Napoleon did all his public life.
There would be very little point in listing the number of great men and women who managed to survive Bonaparte’s times without becoming the kind of cynical, manipulative little shitheel he was throughout his entire life; suffice it to say, the times didn’t require it. But such a proclamation isn’t really meant to lay out facts – it’s meant to bottle a rhetorical echo-chamber, to fore-warn the reader as to what kind of a book will follow. For those familiar with enormous biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte, the kind of book in question is depressingly predictable: every base treachery of Bonaparte will be rationalized, every sacrilege qualified, every blunder either whitewashed or omitted, every hypocrisy squared by referencing some half-line the man dashed off to a mistress in 1801 and never thought about again. The Correspondance generale certainly helps with these quisling efforts to save face and mend reputation, but again, it isn’t necessary – there’s an industry of Bonaparte apologetics, after all, and its tactics and materials are well-worn from use.
And it isn’t as though Broers makes all that much use of any newly-compiled tranches of documents, at least in this first volume. In writing his enormous biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, he relies far more on the enormous biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte that have preceded his. He refers to Pieter Geyl’s Napoleon: For and Against as “one of the greatest of the many books ever written about Napoleon,” for instance, and he leans quite extensively on such books as Paul Strathern’s Napoleon in Egypt, Philip Dwyer’s Napoleon: The Path to Power, and most of all Steven Englund’s Napoleon: A Political Life – Englund – “that shrewd biographer of Napoleon” – crops up every few pages and runs through the book’s end notes like kudzu.
“Napoleon lived in violently changing times,” Broers writes at one point, although he nowhere explicitly confronts how much Bonaparte himself was responsible for the violence of the times, “and it was part of his personal genius to recognize that the world would never cease changing, ever again: he put his finger on modernity when he said that his son would have to rule differently from himself.” This kind of loyal blindness to the import of his own assertions – it’s hardly “modernity” to be setting up a hereditary monarchy, obviously – runs throughout Broers’ book, which will render it a very frustrating experience for readers who come to it already knowing about the perpetual perfidy of Bonaparte’s life. Readers wanting a detailed introduction to that life will find a very smoothly readable book in Soldier of Destiny – but in order to balance Broers’ adulation, those newcomers would be well advised to read an objective account as well. If they can find one.