By Philip Dwyer
A personality as strong as Napoleon’s forces people to take sides. He was a polarizing figure during his own lifetime, accumulating as many admirers as detractors and as much glory as infamy over the course of his career. After his final defeat at Waterloo and his exile to St. Helena, Napoleon continued to wage war for the hearts and minds of posterity through his memoirs, which were as biased and self-serving as the accounts produced by his enemies. The blending of fact and fiction was purposeful and universal, as the man himself, his supporters, and his adversaries each variously tried to exalt or bury his legacy. As a result, two dueling narratives have emerged, to the vexation of historians.
It is not hard to imagine the course these narratives might follow. To one side, Napoleon was the finest soldier and the greatest mind of his generation. The savior of France who pulled his country out of chaos and having reestablished order, calcified and made permanent the gains of the Revolution. Predictably, the other side arrived at different conclusions. To them Napoleon was a megalomaniacal dwarf, an ungracious monster and a bloody minded tyrant, hell-bent on world domination. Each of these views was applied to Napoleon by his contemporaries and by those who came after, with varying degrees of accuracy. Two hundred years later, it’s easy to embrace the label of ungracious monster, because that’s largely (though certainly not universally) how he was viewed when he exited the world stage. But even a decade earlier he was just as likely to be viewed as a humanitarian and a liberator. The key to truly understanding Napoleon is to understand his personal evolution (or devolution), an example of which is captured in this story, told by Alistair Horne in his excellent survey of the period, The Age of Napoleon:
In Vienna, Beethoven composed a symphony, the Eroica, for Napoleon – then, disillusioned with the coronation of 1804, canceled his dedication. “Is he then also nothing more than an ordinary human being?” he lamented to his friend Ferdinand Ries…. Beethoven then went to the table, took hold of the title page of the Eroica by the top, tore it in two, and threw it on the floor.
I’d hoped Dwyer’s new biography would trace Napoleon’s rising star and give insight into his eventual betrayal of the Revolution, but it quickly becomes apparent that Dwyer embraces the ungracious monster perspective. He in effect only promises to deliver clarity to that argument by going back to the beginning and discovering within the boy those latent tendencies that (he believes) will surely explain the man. However, Dwyer’s efforts are inevitably hampered by the fact that such a view processes young Napoleon’s growth and development solely through the lens of the person he would one day become. The problem this presents is that everything viewed through a single lens will inevitably be distorted by it. When one works backwards, as in this case, searching for examples of the behavioral traits in the youth that would eventually characterize the adult, it is easy to find examples that support your conclusions and dismiss those that do not. It’s similar to connecting the dots to make a picture but purposely not following the numerical sequence in order to use the dots to draw whatever you want. Nor does Dwyer do himself any favors when in the name of pursuing fresh avenues he chooses to mitigate his reliance on one traditional source of Napoleon’s youth, the memoirs of his siblings and friends, which he claims are of dubious veracity. The sin of these accounts, it seems, is that they were written after the fact, toward the end of the lives of those who knew Napoleon. One’s twilight years seem a rather obvious time to write one’s memoirs, but the dangers of nostalgia and misremembering Dwyer warns of are real enough, as he expresses in one of his most insightful passages:
These stories – these myths – gained credence for being in print and were then simply repeated by others, thereby assuming the weight of authority… The image of the child Napoleon as an asocial loner, picked on by his fellow students, who displayed a strong desire for liberty, and who already displayed martial virtues- including stoicism and selflessness – is, in some respects, a political image that needs accordingly, to be treated with a certain amount of skepticism. If not Bonaparte, then others were fabricating the image of an outsider who had been chosen by destiny in childhood to play a great role, and whose heroic potential was evident even as a boy. It fits the classical mould of the hero: alienated from his surroundings because misunderstood, he finds inner strength to continue on his path towards greatness.
Unfortunately, the framework Dwyer has established for his inquest leaves him little latitude but to pursue the unequivocal condemnation of Napoleon. Astounding contradictions in his logic abound, sometimes stringing from one sentence to the next as he seeks to prove his conception of Napoleon as an impulsive, vainglorious, and ruthlessly ambitious sociopath (while on alternating occasions admits his passion and natural talent). Having denied himself a major outlet of empirical evidence, Dwyer is forced to go down a dark road that many historians spend their careers trying to avoid.
A licensed psychologist will rarely attempt to make a serious diagnosis of an individual’s state of mind or try to identify whatever phobias or complexes motivate their behavior without speaking to or at least observing that individual. But occasionally a historian, Dwyer for instance, feels he is both competent to and justified in psychoanalyzing someone like Napoleon, a man who died 187 years ago. The urge to do this goes far beyond a reasonable desire to understand simple motivation – it seeks to diagnose Napoleon with some intrinsic evil, just waiting to escape. Furthermore, whatever conclusions are drawn for this method’s application are ultimately not provable and therefore of little legitimate historic value. For instance, when trying to explain Napoleon’s passion for Corsican independence and his devotion to the movement’s leader Pasquale Paoli, Dwyer places Napoleon squarely on the couch:
One of the most revealing elements of Buonaparte’s [throughout the book Dwyer tracks the evolution of Napoleon’s name – this is a more Corsican version] idealization of Paoli is the light it throws on his relationship with his own father. It is no coincidence that Paoli represented just about everything that Bounaparte’s father did not. As we have seen, both fought the French, but, after the collapse of the independence movement at the battle of Ponte Nuovo in 1768, Paoli chose exile, while Bounaparte’s father remained behind and collaborated. Carlo [Napoleon’s father] had, in Bounaparte’s eyes at least, betrayed the Corsican cause. Seen from this perspective, Bounaparte’s obsession with Corsica in his youth becomes clearer. It was not only a case of using his cultural heritage to reassert his identity in the face of a hostile environment (largely at school), but also a muted revolt against his father. To identify with Paoli and the Corsican independence movement was to identify with everything his father had rejected, and, hence, was a rejection of everything that his father stood for.
And as if such baseless guesswork weren’t eyebrow-raising enough, he continues hypothesizing, almost creepily:
The two brothers [Napoleon and Joseph] were so close, especially at this stage of their lives, that Freud once speculated Napoleon may have been under the influence of a ‘Joseph fantasy’. By that he meant that Buonaparte, as a child, may have held a deep hostility towards his older brother, forced to compete with him for his mother’s affection. As he grew older, though, his feelings were transformed into love. This is why, argued Freud, he was attracted to Josephine, and why he went to Egypt – ‘to loom large in the brother’s eyes’. Freud’s thoughts on the subject may seem farfetched but they warrant consideration.
While Mr. Dwyer might feel these insights are worthy of consideration, I’m not so sure he’s considered how much his use of such factually unanchored speculation erodes his credibility. The injection of an intangible theory is doubly harmful to the historical process because it’s grounded in little besides the author’s faith and is not easily disproved precisely because it’s so wildly subjective. It can, as Christopher Hitchens would quip, “only be found to be completely lacking in evidence or proof.” Without any evidence, I myself could suggest that, instead of a rejection of his father, Napoleon’s involvement in Corsica was an example of a petty provincial noble pursuing politics on a stage where he had the most familial connections and where success seemed the most attainable – and I’d stand an even chance of being right. Or I could say that Napoleon’s ambitions were rooted solely in self-aggrandizement and weren’t attributable to some Freudian silliness simply thrown in to degrade him by suggesting he was motivated by the desire to have sex with his brother. Am I right? I know I can’t support such claims but you certainly can’t prove that’s not how Napoleon felt. The shabbiness of the method is self-evident.
Despite this quirkiness, the author has ample opportunity throughout his book to present an even-handed and compelling account of Napoleon’s life by relating a human story of an ambitious outsider whose attempts to advance himself in an unprecedentedly chaotic world are alternately both appreciable and deplorable. Of a man who was amoral in his pursuit of power, which is not necessarily the same as immoral. Of a chameleon, who while traversing the dangerously shifting political sands of the first French Republic was capable of making an expedient about-face in the name of self preservation. In short, of a man who resembled Alcibiades much more than Alexander. Other Napoleonic biographers, like Felix Markham or Alistair Horne, manage to produce a fair account, neither demonizing nor lionizing their subject. Dwyer doesn’t manage to do this. He doesn’t even try.
Instead Dwyer seems to hate Napoleon with a special hate only a subject of a British Commonwealth can reserve for l’Empereur. Despite the stated pretext of his book, Dwyer does not root out the ambiguity of Napoleon’s childhood and early career, and instead seems to hit upon a formula in which he does little more than mention a contemporary source, speak of it derogatorily, dismiss it, then fill the chasm he’s created with the sort of problematic conjecture we’ve discussed above. Ultimately he is also unable to faithfully apply this methodology and fails to bring the same cautious scrutiny to all the contemporary sources he comes across, leaving himself vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. The following is a pretty crystallized example of this; specific historical knowledge of the context is not as important here as it is to note how easily a potentially compromised source that supports Dwyer’s thesis is allowed to pass:
Where to begin with this? First, doesn’t such a gushing of sensitive, potentially seditious feeling by Napoleon to a political opponent seem suspicious, especially if he is in the process of meticulously cultivating his public image as Dwyer suggests? Secondly, why can we safely assume the accuracy of an individual’s account if they are fundamentally hostile to Napoleon, but view pro-Bonapartist accounts from roughly the same time as inherently inaccurate and biased? This is only logical if one begins with the assumption that Bonaparartism itself was wrong and that conversely the opposition was right. And finally, the last part of the passage makes an enormous leap in connecting Napoleon’s enjoyment of authority with his “court-like” dining habits: which is how Dwyer interprets Napoleon breaking with the Revolutionary practice of the general messing with troops and instead cultivating a small group of officers and persons of interest around his private table. Pretending it automatically follows that he’s displaying a deep desire for kingship is a rather spurious presumption, after all; a common saying among soldiers in the American Civil War was that ‘there is nothing so close to God on Earth than a general on the battlefield’ which gives us insight into the aura of independent power attached to the position that would only increase when on campaign deep within hostile territory. Dwyer’s conclusion is arrived at by cherry-picking evidence to cram into an equation he hopes will yield a hypothesis-friendly result.
At this juncture, even if we attempt to look past such examples and somehow give Dwyer the benefit of the doubt in his hope to awaken our inner skepticism concerning the motivations of Napoleon’s rise, we would then expect him to stop at disproving such presuppositions, unless he has something concrete to replace them with. But this he does not do; regularly he tears apart these presuppositions and then offers nothing as a substitute. So as he asks us to question everything others have conjectured and supposed, he inserts conjecture and supposition of his own into the void of doubt he’s created. Coupled with his overall derisive tone and unscholarly language (“I think,” “might,” “could,” and “may” all abound), alarm bells should be sounding in the heads of all serious students of history, biography, or Napoleon.
Indeed, time and again Dwyer proves to be unusually skilled at dissipating his own authority, openly twisting and manipulating situations, rendering them misleading, such as this little teaser that insinuates Talleyrand may have given his blessing to the plot to overthrow the Directory:
…there may very well have been collusion between Talleyrand and Bonaparte over this, even though there is nothing in the written evidence to suggest it.
Well if there is not written evidence to suggest it, why is it included? It seems as if coincidence is being passed off as intrigue to make the work sexier, and without anything besides circumstantial evidence, it’s unclear to me what supports such a claim. In the following passage I’ve added the italics to visually demonstrate why we should be in no hurry to run and chisel any of Philip Dwyer’s ideas into stone:
Talleyrand may also have helped him, at least some of the way. Bonaparte had his first official meeting with the Directory’s foreign minister the day after he arrived in the capital (5 December), although they had quite possibly met briefly on the same evening of his arrival at Talleyrand’s residence, where they supposedly remained behind closed doors for several hours. The conversation was not recorded…. Was Bonaparte already thinking of assuming power and sounding out Talleyrand about the possibility? Perhaps.
When an author is doing this much work on behalf of his sources, his sources are clearly not doing enough work for him. Then of course there is this next passage, where Dwyer does nothing but speculate, in a staccato of cliff-hanger questions that will undoubtedly cause a viewer to tune in for the next episode of As The World Turns:
Compoint then exacted revenge on her mistress (she was a house servant who’d recently been fired) by telling Bonaparte everything (about Josephine’s latest infidelity). Did he believe her? Did he confront Josephine only for her to calmly deny the accusation? We do not know, but witness reports of how morose they were at the ball suggest that a scene had taken place, and that she had probably managed to lie her way out of the predicament.
Questionable methodology aside, Dwyer also spends an inordinate amount of time tirelessly reiterating the same two points, first, that Napoleon was a relentless self-promoter who exaggerated his early successes as much as he hid his setbacks and second, that he cultivated a messianic aura around his person through the manipulation of images and the media, or as Dwyer puts it:
…the idea of a collective fraternity of soldiers, stressed at the beginning of the war, was slowly yielding to the ideal of the heroic individual. Bonaparte was instinctively able to exploit this need for the hero. He was not the only person to promote and dramatize his own role in the wars, but by the end of 1797, if Bonaparte was not yet a household name he was at least known to many people throughout France and Europe. “People were already speaking a great deal in Paris about General Bonaparte,” wrote the contemporary author Madame de Stael of this period, “the superiority of his mind, together with the brilliance of his talents as general gave his name an importance that no other individual had acquired since the beginning of the Revolution.” The following pages are about understanding how Napoleon went about constructing his life, and how he constructed his own legend.
Can this hypothesis – which suggests that Napoleon, a Corsican outsider, completely bereft of sincerity, really had the sand at the very outset of his career to premeditate the strategic calculations necessary in order to, by the age of thirty, reign over the French – be taken seriously? Apparently, Dwyer is serious:
The Italian campaign was also a political campaign, a propaganda campaign (although the word was never used by contemporaries), designed to make it appear as though everything that happened did so according to a plan laid out by Bonaparte. It is this political campaign that shaped both the legend with which we are now familiar – the dynamic young general who triumphed against the odds – and the individual who became known to history as Napoleon. We see now that the whole time Bonaparte was fighting, he was also consciously cultivating an image from reports and dispatches he wrote himself [aggrandizing] victories by exaggerating both the odds and the quality of the troops against which he fought. At the same time, he omitted any embarrassing setbacks that he or his generals had suffered by feeding the Directory inaccurate reports, and avoiding mention of any divisions in command during the more stressful periods of the campaign. Moreover, the audience he cultivated was not in Italy, it was in France. Everything Bonaparte did in Italy, and, for that matter, years later in Egypt, thousands of kilometers away from Paris, was done in the hope of influencing public opinion in France.
What this line of argument does not take into account is results: that Napoleon got them is the consensus of all historians; one doesn’t even need to look beyond Dwyer’s work to learn that Napoleon’s campaign in Italy was an outstanding success:
True, he [Napoleon] had drawn up plans in the Bureau Topographique that had impressed his superiors, and he had studied maps of Italy for the last three years, undoubtedly fantasizing about what might have been available to him in different circumstances. He had also visited Italy twice and had inspected the terrain in the region where he was to fight his first battles. Indeed, he had read accounts of previous campaigns and everything else on Italy he could lay his hands on (in fact, most of his military ideas came from books, and not battlefield experience).
In other words, Napoleon had readied himself and was earning his reputation by coupling results with good PR. But such inconsistencies hardly slow Dwyer from continuing to charge ahead, later admitting:
Other generals, like Moreau, Jourdan or Kleber, also published their letters to the Directory in newspapers – self promotion thrived in the French as in other armies and navies of the period – but their accounts lacked the flair and excitement that Bonaparte was able to convey. Like so many modern-day administrators, they were not writing to be read – indeed, it is more than likely that they had not recognized the importance of the press – whereas Bonaparte was writing for the public, instinctively aware of the importance of the newspaper as a medium.
What Dwyer here seems to resent is that Napoleon was just better at doing what most of contemporary French generals were also doing, and this resentment constantly prompts Dwyer to import sinister overtones by the gross. It’s also worth noting that such self-promotion by generals is a practice not exactly without precedent, employed most famously by Julius Caesar and not entirely unknown even in the virtuous present.
To resort to the over-delicate phraseology of contemporary historiography, alternate views of Dwyer’s nemesis can be held by reasonable people. Is not a tenet of free societies that each individual has the liberty to seek that destiny they believe will make them happiest? Whether your ambition is to own your own business or become emperor, it’s the interplay of individual actions, interests and wills that make free societies naturally volatile and dynamic. Napoleon’s ambitions eventually lead to decades of unrelenting war and carnage, and for this reason those ambitions cannot be condoned, but the time-frame of Dwyer’s book doesn’t extend to the end-product of those ambitions; it works only in Napoleon’s present. Now, it can be supposed that Napoleon harbored ambitions for supremacy and seized a golden opportunity in 1799 when it was presented to him, but this should not be an automatic excuse to demonize him. In all the maneuvering and jockeying for position that lead up to that moment (in which he was hardly the only participant, nor even, arguably, the worst), he was only acting as the political animal Aristotle had labeled man millennia earlier. It is not his fault that at the point where he came along, the French Republic had been greatly weakened by purging itself of many countervailing ambitions and by the fact that the Directory had squandered the legitimacy that could have sustained it. Even Dwyer recognizes this at times:
On three occasions, the people of France expressed their discontent with the Thermidorians – those who had maintained themselves in power after the fall of Robespierre – by voting in either royalist or Jacobin majorities, or by simple staying away from the elections altogether. On the same three occasions the Directory had hit back, hard…overthrowing the results of the elections in three parliamentary coups by removing deputies they objected to and replacing them with men of their own, thereby ignoring the wishes of the electorate.
In this light, Napoleon’s coup was not altogether unwelcome by the French or unpredictable. In performing it, he did not betray the French as much give them what they were looking for, a point on which Dwyer and I actually agree:
Bonaparte filled a vacuum in the French political culture of his time: the need for a personality who would dominate the revolutionary landscape. Each time this had begun to happen in the past, the man in question either died – as with Mirabeau; was discredited as politically inept, as with Lafayette; or was sent to the guillotine, in the case of Danton and Robespierre… Bonaparte, however, seems to have filled a need for ordinary French men and women, as well as members of the political elite, to identify with and celebrate an individual who embodied republican virtues – honour, glory, and the possibility that an individual or relatively humble origins could achieve great things.
Underlying any other shortcomings in Napoleon: The Path to Power is Dwyer’s unnatural need to mock, degrade, and belittle his subject. Ambiguity will always hover around Napoleon, since his was a larger-than-life persona bridging the gap between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. The complexities of his personality and the innumerable angles from which his life can be viewed are precisely the reasons why there are so many of books about him.
What’s clearer is that the coup of Brumaire (which overthrew the Directory in 1799 and brought Napoleon to the fore of the French political world) was an organic manifestation of institutional decay. The question was simply a matter of who was going to be there to reap the spoils. Napoleon had worked hard to position himself advantageously, but so too do most public people today who actively cultivate an image and sell themselves as a brand. Among his co-conspirators, who ultimately asked Napoleon to join their coup, he was a dark horse, whose rise as new central player was a surprise to most of those involved. He in fact hadn’t been the first military man they tried to engage, but he was the one who ended up being available. He was not evil in the simplistic sense of Dwyer’s insinuations, and any attempt to portray his elevation as one of far-off calculation, culminating in a long-planned rise to dominance, ultimately has at its heart the flaw of denying Napoleon his humanity. After all, who among us sets out in life to be a failure?
Thomas J. Daly graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Rowan University in New Jersey. This review is dedicated to the memory of Thomas M. Daly who passed his love of reading onto his children.