Monday, September 08, 2008

Napoleon by Leslie McGuire

(Book Review)

Another book in the “World Leaders: Past and Present” series which I picked up from Oita Prefectural Library on my last trip down to Oita City.
This was a very brief summary of Napoleon’s life aimed at the young adult audience, but the gaps in my historical knowledge are such that I still learned tons from it. And I found it fascinating reading. I hope to someday find a full length biography of Napoleon, but for now this will have to do the trick.

I think everyone who ever reads a biography of Napoleon comes away astounded by what he was able to accomplish, and perhaps slightly appalled by the tremendous amount of death and bloodshed that was necessary to satisfy his ambition.

Considering Napoleon started out as nothing but the son of a petty Corsican noble who couldn't even speak correct French, and then was later had his military career almost finish before it even started because of his association with Robespierre, what he managed to accomplish was truly amazing. He inherited a situation with France in disarray and under attack by all of Europe, and he was able to beat all of Europe back 3 out of 4 times.

The Napoleonic wars are something I still don’t know about, and this book does a good job of summarizing it. It’s a bit confusing though, since in a relatively short period of time there were 4 coalitions of European powers united against Napoleon.

The scope of the Napoleonic Wars is somewhat astounding as well raging, as it did, back and forth across Europe several times.
To the extent that European wars are sometimes called “World Wars” (World War I at least can be thought of as primarily a European War in which the colonies also took part), the Napoleonic Wars can almost be thought of as 4 World Wars in a 20 year period of time.

One of the things I remember from my Calvin history classes was the paradox of how Napoleon both ended the French Revolution by establishing autocratic rule, but at the same time also cemented the advances of the French Revolution by spreading an enlightened (non-feudal) code of laws and administration throughout Europe.

In some of her last few paragraphs, Leslie McGuire attempts to sum up Napoleon’s mixed legacy:

Some consider him the enlightened bearer of revolutionary ideals; others regard him as a forerunner of 20th-century dictators.
It is hard to asses his role. He redrew the map of Europe several times. He brought lasting reforms to the legal, administrative, judicial, and educational systems of an entire continent. He revolutionized warfare. But the political and social upheavals such as the French Revolution, that shook France and the rest of Europe would have happened without him.
Many of his actions brought unintended results. He paved the way for the unification of Italy and Germany. He helped make the United States a world power by selling the Louisiana Territory. His war with Spain gave the countries of Latin America an opportunity to fight for their independence. He strengthened the pope and the Catholic church despite his attempts to do the opposite.
Napoleon left behind a powerful legend that grew to enormous proportions after his death. His son, Napoleon II, never ruled France. But in 1852 his nephew, Louis Napoleon, traded on the popularity of his name to proclaim the Second Empire, and took the title Napoleon III. Bonapartism-the belief in a strong, authoritarian ruler appointed by the will of the people-continued to cast its spell over French politics for years and remains a tangible force even today
.” (P.106)

A few notes:

* Leslie McGuire claims that: “As head of [the committee of public safety] Robespierre was responsible for the deaths of some 50,000 people during the Reign of Terror”. (P. 24)
This differs slightly from the other books I've been reading recently. Other books in this same series put the figure much lower. In the book on Robespierre, S.L. Carson gives a figure of 2,596 (p.20). Frank Dwyer in his book on Danton says, “during the period known as the “Reign of Terror”, more than 2,300 people were guillotined” (p.16). Guy Endore in “The Werewolf of Paris” which (although not really a serious history) also quotes 2,596.
I’m no expert myself, but I’d be curious to know where McGuire gets her figures from, and why it’s different than the other figures. Is she adding in the deaths caused by the September massacres and the civil war? If so, is it fair to lay all of those deaths at the feat of Robespierre?

* As these are young adult books, they are filled with illustrations, as well as various captions, quotes, and other information filling up the margins of each page.
This adds a lot to the enjoyment of these books, especially for those of us with short attention spans. Although I wish the editors had done a better job of lining the illustrations and quotes up with the main text. Often a picture caption will give away information that won’t be revealed in the main text for a couple more pages.

* And speaking of which, one of the quotations in the margins of the page gives a very graphic portrait of Napoleon’s view of the German Empire.
“The Empire is an old serving woman who is used to being raped by everyone.”-Napoleon Bonaparte speaking with reference to the German Empire.
Although that does provoke a very vivid image of the political situation of the time, I’m a bit surprised that the quote made it into a young adult book. Especially since it was just used as one of the superfluous quotes on the side margins.

Link of the Day
YAFers sought elective office in August

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