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Book Review: Citizen Emperor

By (November 12, 2013) No Comment

Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Powercitizen emperor cover

by Philip Dwyer

Yale University Press, 2013


As historian Philip Dwyer pointed out years ago in his 2007 book Napoleon: The Path to Power, Napoleon Bonaparte is one of those rare figures in history whose legend, carefully crafted and industriously maintained, “confounds historical reality.” That earlier volume, praised by the great Bonaparte scholar Charles Esdaile as “conceivably the best biography of Napoleon ever, in any language,” only covered the little Corsican’s rise from provincial obscurity to a somewhat dubious pinnacle of military success – it wrapped up its proceedings just as the Bonaparte known to the average reader was emerging from the chrysalis of the French Revolution and becoming a world-stage figure.

Dwyer has now concluded his study of the man with Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power, a hefty new hardcover from Yale University Press that resoundingly proves out the claim Charles Esdaile made nearly a decade ago: these two volumes taken together certainly constitute the best biography of Bonaparte ever written in English and – in their relentless, almost clinical refusal to mythologize, or to believe mythology – may very well be the single best work on the subject in any language (it certainly surpasses anything I’ve read in French, but who knows what towering work may be gathering dust untranslated in some Prague library?); this is Bonaparte given straight out to the reader, shorn of sentiment and assessed – with sympathy, yes, but also with unblinking scrutiny.

Citizen Emperor takes up the story just as Bonaparte is betraying the ideals of the Republic and installing himself as a detached and arbitrary dictator over the French people whose economy he’d wrecked and whose army he’d abandoned. He’d walked away from the Peace of Amiens as an open victor (in one of his many understated bons mots, Dwyer points out, “If Britain had given up everything, nothing it gave up had belonged to it in the first place”), and he and his flunkies had already launched a powerful and all-pervasive campaign of image-shaping – a slippery and often funny process that Dwyer assesses with gusto:

Two of the best-known busts [of the newly-celebrated Bonaparte] are by Antonio Canova and Antoine-Denis Chaudet, both commissioned in 1802, both done in the Greco-Roman style, with hundreds if not thousands of cheap copies made in plaster of Paris that could be found on ‘every gingerbread stall’ in Paris. Even at this early stage, enterprising entrepreneurs cashed in on the mania around Bonaparte by producing his image on just about anything they could get away with, including barley sugar in the form of Bonaparte’s head.

Dwyer returns repeatedly to this element of public perception-handling on the part of Bonaparte and his apparatchiks, an element usually treated too quickly in full-dress studies. Due to the particularly precarious combination of military adventurism, social momentum, and personal charisma to which Bonaparte owed his rise to power, he was more cognizant than any comparable ruler in a thousand years of the centrality of image-manipulation – and he was exceptionally adept at it, as Dwyer points out, for example, in connection with Bonaparte’s coronation as emperor with the blessing of the Pope in Notre-Dame:

This was not the first time a sovereign had crowned himself. Napoleon’s excuse was that he did not want any arguments among the court elite about who would presume to hand him the crown in the name of the people … Of course, the self-crowning was a matter of Napoleon asserting his political independence, underlining how much he owed his elevation not to the pope but to himself and himself alone. In the age-old conflict between the spiritual and the temporal, Napoleon was vigorously asserting the supremacy of the temporal. This sent not only a political but a personal message.

Philip Dwyer

Philip Dwyer

But of course the years covered in this volume – from Bonaparte’s rise to power to his trampling of Europe to his defeat, exile, defeat, and exile – deal with brutal reality as much as finessed perception, and Dwyer follows the slaughter as assiduously as he does the selling of it. He consults the brutal numbers, for instance, when dealing with the appalling human cost of Bonaparte’s headlong retreat from his rash invasion of Russia:

When one takes into account the Russian military losses – according to one estimate, as many as 300,000 dead – one an reasonably assert that up to one million people died between the end of July 1812, when the expedition into Russia was launched, and February 1813, with the remnants of the army continuing to die from wounds, disease, malnutrition and exhaustion. Of the 27,000 Italian troops only 1,000 made it back. Of the 25,500 Saxon soldiers that went into Russia, 6,000 came back alive. Looking at figures for individual regiments sometimes tells an even bleaker story. Raymond de Montesquiou-Fezensac had 3,000 men under his command. Of those 200 came back with him and another 100 were eventually returned from prison – that is, nine-tenths of his effectives were dead or missing.

The climax of it all being, naturally, the Battle of Waterloo – which Dwyer dresses in suitable flash and thunder but shifts just slightly (and very enjoyably, especially considering how often Bonaparte biographers simply present the flash and thunder and sit back with smiling pride) into the subjunctive, bringing things back persistently to the man who brought it all about – and along the way raising some fascinating what-if scenarios of the type that obsessed Bonaparte’s lieutenants in their memoirs:

The astonishing thing about Waterloo is not so much that Napoleon lost the battle as his reaction to it. In all, 55,000-60,000 men were killed and wounded during that day in the space of a few square kilometres, along with 10,000 horses. But Napoleon still retained control over about 117,000 men in the north, yet he did not attempt to rally his troops, nor continue the fight and bring the battle to the enemy at another point. Blucher and Wellington did not co-ordinate their advance on France, so it is more than possible that, had Napoleon rallied his troops, he could have inflicted defeats on both armies separately in order to be in a stronger position to negotiate.

“Even if Napoleon had carried the day,” Dwyer calmly and convincingly asserts, “it would not have made the slightest difference to his fate.” That fate is rancorous final exile on the other side of the world while Europe tried to pull itself together after the chaos his megalomania had unleashed upon it, and Dwyer chronicles that chaos with verve and scrupulous care. Citizen Emperor on its own merits is a towering achievement, and in combination with its earlier volume it forms a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte that’s unlikely to be bettered. The enormous work as a whole can’t be recommended strongly enough.