The glory of France and the erstwhile Whig hero comes up short in this biography by a historian of decidedly Tory bent.
It seems a rarity these days to find a biography of Napoleon that does not glorify the Corsican revolutionary. Johnson (The Renaissance, 2000, etc.) surely does not. Instead, he writes, the defeat of Napoleon and the subsequent Congress of Vienna are to be counted among the great accomplishments of modern history, ushering in an era of peace that would not end for nearly a century with the outbreak of WWI—when, he asserts, the modern cult of Napoleon began. Had Napoleon committed his campaigns of conquest today, Johnson further asserts, he “would have been obliged to face a war crimes tribunal, with an inevitable verdict of ‘guilty’ and a sentence of death or life imprisonment.” Reckoning that Napoleon’s dream of empire cost four or five million lives and incalculable destruction of property, Johnson lays at his door blame for a number of sins, including the “deification of force and war, the all-powerful centralized state, the use of cultural propaganda to apotheosize the autocrat, the marshaling of entire peoples in the pursuit of personal and ideological power.” In brief, Johnson charges, Napoleon was less a liberator of Europe than a dictator of the sort that would follow in the century afterward—a Hitler or Mussolini for his day. The author recognizes Napoleon’s talents as a commander and bravery—throughout his career, he reckons, Napoleon had 19 horses shot out from under him in battle—but still has little use for the fellow, unlike more enthusiastic recent biographers such as Frank McLynn (see below) and Robert Asprey.
Despite an evident distaste for his subject, Johnson’s sharp-edged view of Napoleon is well supported, and well worth considering.