If you were a betting man in Autumn 1805, you would be hard pressed to lay your money on Napoleon’s France as she prepared to face down the Austrian-Russian-British Alliance that had mobilized against her.
Yet, with 200,000 men comprising his now legendary Grande Armeé, Napoleon Bonaparte, the self-proclaimed Emperor of the French, defeated Allied forces totaling over 400,000 strong, and had by Christmas finished what became known as the War of the Third Coalition.
This is where author Michael Broers lowers the curtain on his wide-ranging exploration of Napoleon’s life. Though 1805 is early in Napoleon’s reign, which lasted until 1815, it is a fitting end that allows readers to contemplate all the intricacies of Napoleon Bonaparte that his Allied enemies might have wished they understood.
Napoleon was a most unlikely Emperor, and his enemies, both foreign and domestic, saw him as a self-aggrandizing, mediocre military general who fell into power, and might be snuffed out just as swiftly as he blew in.
He was not of the nobility, and therefore disrespected in the places where revolution had not toppled old customs and regimes.
Further, he was leading a wildly unpredictable rogue state that had, over the previous decade, been characterized by incredible instability, ideological Revolutionary fervor, and ruthless, almost uncalculated expansionism in Western Europe.
These, in fact, became some of the justifications for the war against him. (Another reason for the war, interestingly, was Napoleon’s refusal to sign a trade deal with Britain that would have flooded France with British imports and swallowed up nascent French industries, namely silk production).
What everyone knows about Napoleon is that he was a Corsican who became a French artillery officer after his native island was purchased from Genoa during his youth. Generally quiet and unimpressive to those who met him (and with a serious accent on account of his just learning French), Napoleon had a flash of intelligence that could be ignited into long-winded monologues when the moment struck.
Coming up during the Revolution, Napoleon was himself a Jacobin leftist who frequented salons of the era and generally supported the anti-ancien regime causes. At some point, a point which Broers doesn’t quite identify, Napoleon abandoned his leftist idealism and began to assume the realist persona that characterized his legendary, and lasting, rule of France.
Napoleon won over his country by capturing the middle. First as a military general who was popular among the French people, and later as a ruler who earned the enmity of both the ancien regime Catholic right and the radical Jacobin left (both sides made multiple assassination attempts, including blowing up his carriage), Napoleon expertly played the extremes against each other to make himself the only man trusted to hold power.
Men of the left liked him because he could guarantee the doctrines of Catholicism would not once again become the laws of France; men of the right liked him because he allowed the Church to return to the country and practice of faith was reinstated; he even made a symbolic gesture by inviting the Pope to his Coronation in Notre Dame Cathedral (which had once been renamed the Temple of Reason during leftist rule).
Those who loved him called him the Emperor (Vive l’empereur! when his troops saw him); his detractors on the fringes called him the usurper, or perhaps more derisively, just ‘Bonaparte.’ But to each side, he was far better than the possible radical alternatives.
While devoting some pages to Napoleon’s military adventures (including his astounding and/or absurd Italian and Egyptian campaigns, respectively), Broers focuses primarily on Napoleon the man, and places this character within the politics of the era. This is not a book about Napoleon’s military genius, which is severely downplayed by Broers (though there is a spectacular section on the composition and training of his Grande Armeé).
This book is instead about the atmosphere of France and its neighborhood, and how Napoleon, in his moderation, was able to steel the victories of Revolution against counter revolution without tarnishing the great traditions that made France such a powerful regional force, including its faith and its sense of identity as a unique and unified people.