A review of Napoleon: A Penguin Life, by Paul Johnson

Why do so many western intellectuals excuse thuggery and whitewash the crimes of megalomaniacs? I have received more angry mail, for example, over a brief article I published a few years ago called "Alexander the Killer" than about anything I have ever written. And the myth of Napoleon, like that of Alexander the Great, is also deeply enshrined in our collective romance—to question either risks real outrage. 

Both dictators were eerily similar in ways that go beyond being military geniuses who ruled entire continents by their early 30s. In each case ghastly records of slaughter were carefully masked by a professed concern for the arts and sciences—e.g., silly tales of Alexander sleeping with a copy of theIliad under his pillow and his real efforts to bring a legion of Greek natural scientists with him eastward; or Napoleon's patronage of Vivant Denon (author of the monumental 24-volume Description de l'Egypte) and his gifts of Egyptian booty to a generation of French scholars. Like Hitler's Speer and de Gaulle's Malraux, Denon was one of a long line of gifted toadies dating back to Alexander's Callisthenes, court intellectuals who simultaneously worshiped and loathed the powers that be, who at least noticed them. 

Napoleon and Alexander were money-driven thieves par excellence, perhaps the difference being only that the looted imperial treasuries at Susa, Babylon, and Persepolis yielded more specie than the Swiss banks at Berne. The Great's "Brotherhood of Man" was about as genuinely utopian as the Code Napoléon. Both strongmen dazzled their immediate circle with lapidary self-infatuation—for example, Napoleon's "At twenty-nine years of age I have exhausted everything. It only remains for me to become a complete egoist." Or Alexander's reply to Parmenio's urging before the battle of Gaugamela to take the terms offered by Darius III: "And I would accept them too—if I were Parmenio."

In the end, their real legacies were millions dead and empires that crumbled the second they were gone. I suppose the only real difference was that Alexander loved horses and named a city after his steed Bucephalas, whereas Napoleon rode to death dozens of mounts and exhausted Europe of its horseflesh.

Paul Johnson's polemical Napoleon, an entry in the Viking/Penguin series of brief biographies, is not impressed with the little corporal or anything he did. After all, the military record is unquestioned—17 years of wars, perhaps six million Europeans dead, France bankrupt, her overseas colonies lost. And it was all such a great waste, for, as Johnson shows, when the self-proclaimed tête d'armée was done, France's "losses were permanent" and she "began to slip from her position as the leading power in Europe to second-class status—that was Bonaparte's true legacy." 

Lest we think Napoleon perverted the French Revolution's idealism, we should remember that he in some sense embodied the very brutality of that entirely unnecessary event. As Johnson notes, "The example of Britain and the Scandinavian countries showed that all the desirable reforms that the French radicals brought about by force and blood could have been achieved by peaceful means." Still, Napoleon is inexplicable apart from the Great Terror, which elevated him from a minor artillery officer to First Citizen who could handle the mob "with a whiff of grape shot," and yet when needed could mouth the appropriate slogans of fraternity.

So why do we need another critical biography of Napoleon—purportedly the subject of more books than any figure except Jesus? His ephemeral military accomplishment is well chronicled. The sordid tales of how Napoleon betrayed most of his friends and abandoned thousands in Egypt and Russia are two centuries old; so are revelations about his bloody edicts in Spain and his barbarity against the Swiss, Iberians, and Italians. Most sober military historians concede that the less glamorous Wellington was the far better man and, ultimately, the more astute general.

But Johnson's intent is more didactic and timely, for he wishes to provide a Plutarchean moral tale of sorts for our own age. And after the Iraq war and our recent problems with France, we need it more than ever. Johnson shatters all our illusions that there was anything noble or idealistic about Napoleon, and then he seeks to explain why the petite dictatorstill does not receive the opprobrium he deserves. "At the beginning of the twenty-first century, if we are to avoid the tragic mistakes of the twentieth," Johnson warns, "we must learn from Bonaparte's life what to fear and what to avoid." 

Before labeling the melodramatic Johnson an alarmist, recall that the present French ambassador to the United Nations—pompadour hair flying and arms waving as he warned America of imperial overstretch and the need to lay off fascist Iraq—is none other than the starry-eyed Dominique de Villepin, author of Les Cents-Jours ou l'esprit de sacrifice (The Hundred Days, or the Spirit of Sacrifice), a recent postmodernist history that laments the dream that was lost at Waterloo ("a defeat which gleams with the aura of victory"), on a battlefield 12 miles from Brussels, the current center of the latest undemocratic European utopian fantasy. 

Indeed Napoleon's enduring resonance in some parts of contemporary Western society tells us as much about ourselves as it does the self-proclaimed emperor. Johnson's matter-of-fact chronicle of executions, grotesque battle losses, betrayal, and outright lying—stripped of Napoleonic fluff and bluster—reflects deeply-rooted Anglo skepticism about messianic killers, as the principled careers of Englishmen like Edmund Burke, the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill, and most recently Tony Blair attest. In contrast, for the insecure, megalomaniac, and duplicitous, Napoleonic power holds an eternal appeal, one apparently with increased attraction for a slowly eroding contemporary France, which deploys half an aircraft carrier as it eyes longingly the 12 fleet carrier groups of the United States.

It's no surprise that the hagiographer Villepin and his "handful of dreamers" in contemporary Paris would ignore the endemic terror inherent in Napoleon's methods, offer cant to hide amorality, and instead focus on raw power. Villepin's France is a sort of hollow Directorate come alive, talking of the need for U.N. approval, all the while it intervenes unilaterally in the Ivory Coast; protesting the horrors of Middle East war while it sells weapons to Saddam Hussein; expressing notions of universal brotherhood while it abets the criminality of the Iraqi Ba'athists who ran up a bill in the billions to everyone in France from perfumists and pornographers to oil men and missile salesmen; and praising the Atlantic "alliance" as it strongarms two-bit dictatorships into opposing American efforts to take out the same type of fascists that once took it out. For the current naïfs who lament the Bush Administration's purported ineptness at trans-Atlantic relations, they could do no better in fathoming the current French antics than reading Paul Johnson's Napoleon alongside Villepin's Les Cents-Jours ou l'esprit de sacrifice.

Johnson dismantles all such napoleonic mythology. It is not a difficult task. Napoleon's 1798 expedition to Egypt was an utter disaster, leaving the French fleet sunk by Lord Nelson at Aboukir Bay, the war against the Ottomans lost at Acre, and his army sick and stranded—as their general scurried home, leaving behind thousands of corpses, French and Arab. His string of successes in Italy, Prussia, and Austria was amazingly brief—not more than the eight years between 1800 and 1809, and of any lasting importance only in the narrow sense of marking the creation of modern professional military staffs in charge of recruitment, logistics, intelligence, and weaponry. 

By 1809, at Aspern-Essling, the Austrians had begun to catch on. As Wellington would scoff of Waterloo, French armies had become predictable, coming on in the old way and in turn easily dealt with in the old way. Military historians are impressed with Napoleon's 50 or so battles and his later small victories against the odds at Lützen, Dresden, and Hanau, but forget sometimes that he lost the really great historical decisions at Leipzig ("The Battle of Nations") and Waterloo, not because of overwhelming enemy superiority but because of tactical and strategic blunders. We scarcely can appreciate the catastrophe of the Russian campaign, which by 1813 left the French army nearly destroyed—a catastrophe that dwarfs the Athenian debacle at Sicily, and foreshadows the German Götterdämmerung at Stalingrad.

At all times, Johnson connects Napoleon the flawed person to Napoleon the abhorrent ruler. And he uses the grotesque to good, if not salacious, effect—reminding us of Napoleon's rapacious use of women, his unsatisfying experience with the Ottoman Bey's gift of an eleven- year old virgin and a pre-adolescent boy, his customary cheating at cards, and his near-religious lying and duplicity. Sometimes Johnson's visceral dislike extends even to the corporeal. Indeed, his description of Napoleon's autopsy is downright spooky: 

The teeth were healthy but stained black by the chewing of licorice. The left kidney was one-third larger than the right. The urinary bladder was small and it contained gravel; the mucosa was thickened with numerous red patches. Had the urethra been sectioned (or so runs the theory) it would probably have demonstrated a small circular scar, too tight to allow the passing of even small stones. That would have been the key to the slow decline in health and performance that started when Bonaparte was in his late thirties. The body was what doctors call "feminized"—that is, covered by a deep layer of fat, with scarcely any hair and well-developed breasts and mons veneris. The shoulders were narrow, hips broad, and genitals small. We can all make up our minds about these findings, their significance and reliability.

As for the second theme, Johnson tries to explain the pass given Napoleon by artists and intellectuals—the fawning by Shelley, Keats, Hegel, Carlyle, Belloc, Chesterton, Hardy, and Shaw—as the precursor of the Left's modern-day worship of odious tyrants. Attraction to a brute was not compelled, as Johnson points out, by the alternative of a decadent and corrupt French monarchy. For all his loud embrace of "the popular will," Napoleon impoverished and got more Frenchmen killed than did half-a-dozen Bourbons, and he removed republicans only to install family hacks in their place. He certainly was as dictatorial as any monarch, and aped the worst excesses—both material and cultural—of the Old Regime.

So what accounts for those who professed beauty but worshipped evil? It was not merely the romantic naïveté of artists and men of letters; a wide array of them from Beethoven to Coleridge quickly sized up Napoleon's atrocities in Spain and Switzerland. Here Johnson is not so explicit in his diagnosis, but implies something more deliberate: some intellectuals, cut off as they are from the practical life, are impatient with the clumsiness of republican government. They yearn for the enlightened autocrat, the philosopher-king who can by fiat do le peuple "good." As Napoleon put it, "The people must not be judge of its own rights." We still see this leftist attraction for the military in aspects of modern-day Clintonism, which, when thwarted by Congress, looked to implement its social agenda among the military, where it could be imposed rather than ratified.

Add also a warped system of values that puts a higher premium on artistic and literary sensitivity—brilliantly and cynically exploited by the mostly ignorant Napoleon—than on mundane and unheralded morality. A Shelley no more knew or cared about typhus in Cairo, frostbite at Moscow, or mass executions of Swiss farmers than does a Noam Chomsky about the thousands murdered in Cuba, or Dominque de Villepin about the one million victims of Saddam Hussein's three-decade reign of terror. For the armchair idealist it is the grand gesture alone that matters.

In the twentieth century this infatuation was to occur time and again: George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice and Sidney Webb falling for the Stalin image, Norman Mailer and others hero-worshipping Fidel Castro, and an entire generation, including many Frenchmen such as Jean-Paul Sartre, praising the Mao Zedong regime, under which sixty million Chinese perished by famine or in the camps.

Even within the parameters of the Penguin Lives series—a brief 200 pages, no footnotes, index, or scholarly controversy—Paul Johnson has written a gripping biographic essay, whose ultimate message is a much needed moral reminder: "We have to learn again the central lesson of history: that all forms of greatness, military and administrative, nation and empire building, are as nothing—indeed are perilous in the extreme—without a humble and a contrite heart." 

Amen to all that.