Those who find themselves ill-disposed towards Napoleon (as I am on balance) should avoid reading the 25 page introduction of his abridged autobiography. With crackling prose Napoleon gives us
- An explanation of the success of his siege of Toulon
- A concise theory of his rules of war
- A demonstration of how Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick the Great, . . . and he himself . . . all followed these rules (he also makes sure to say how he fought in more campaigns and battles than many of those he lists).
- An outline of recent French campaigns that failed to adhere to these rules and failed . . . neither of which directly involved him in any way (other generals made the mistakes).
- An explanation of Charles XII failed invasion of Russia, told with no irony or self-awareness whatsoever.
- A comparison of his wars and the wars of Louis XIV, in which he shows that the Sun-King’s wars did far more damage to France, and had far less legality, than his own campaigns (some estimates place French casualties in the Napoleonic Wars at around 1 million).
Such audacity and restless energy is hard to comprehend and one can’t help but admire it at least on some level. He is the consummate NYC cab driver. If this is the man in exile at the end of his life (when he wrote his memoirs, ca. 1816-17), imagine how many secretaries he drove insane in 1805. His meteoric rise to power makes perfect sense in those first 25 pages. But for those who wish to dislike Napoleon, fear not! Simply read a bit further and one grows weary of such energy, audacity, and his utter and complete moral blindness. You begin to understand not just his ascension to power, but why he alienated almost everyone close to him and why those characteristics would inevitably carry him too far.
Napoleon shows his best side when discussing practical matters of policy. In the beginning of his career at least he showed a keen political sense. He criticism of the Assembly in the days preceding the Terror ring true:
[The Assembly] committed two errors, which might have produced the total ruin of the nation. The first was to establish a Constitution at odds with the experience of all ages, whose mechanism contrived to restrict public power [during a time of uncertainty]. Great as this error was, it was less fragrant and had less deplorable consequences than the second — that or persisting in re-establishing Louis XVI on the throne after his flight to Varennes. It ought to have sent commissioners to Varennes not to bring the king back to Paris, but to clear the way for him to abdicate; to have proclaimed Louis XVII king, and to have created a regency, to a princess of the House of Conde and a regency council composed of principal members of the Assembly.
Later he shows the same clarity in his analysis of the controversy between the Jacobins and Girondins (though also a touch of ruthless practicality):
The factions of the Girondins and the Mountain [Jacobins] were too violent in their mutual animosity. Had they both continued to exist, impediments to the administration of government would have multiplied and France would not have been able to maintain her territory in the face of all Europe. The good of the country required the triumph of one of those parties. . . . Would the result have been the same had it been the Girondin party that gained the day and the Mountain sacrificed? I think not. The mountain party, although checked, would always have possessed great influence, in the popular societies and armies. There was undoubtedly more talented and better men in the Girondin, but the Girondins had more speculative men, less resolute and less decisive.
Though this kind of analysis has its darker side (many worthy Girondins lost their lives unjustly in the Terror), Napoleon at least writes convincingly in these sections. In his campaigns he insisted on a strict unity of command and clear lines of communication at all times. His armies marched with great speed and yet avoided confusion in the ranks. So too, his political analysis and his prose have the same distinguishing marks. He maintains fidelity to his emphasis on practical results and his love of the simplicity of power. He never leaves any doubt as to what he means to say. This is a man soldiers would instinctively respect, a man easy to follow. All such a man would need is an opening, and the French Revolution provided many such openings for Napoleon.
Napoleon has his charms, to be sure, and should not be regarded as a vicious monster. But his ego led him to make almost absurd claims about his career. Even a massively abridged version of his autobiography (in this case, 275 pages as compared to about 1200), even a very sympathetic editor, cannot hide this. Nothing is his fault, and everything has an explanation. The fall of Cairo goes on Kleber’s shoulders, the murder of the Duke of Engheim was England’s fault, and so on, and so on. “I never committed crimes,” he writes.
I reached the summit of greatness by direct paths, without ever having committed an act that morality could reproach. In that respect my rise is unparalleled in history — in order to reign, David destroyed the house of Saul, his benefactor;* Caesar kindled a civil war and overthrew the government of his country; Cromwell caused his master to perish on the scaffold. I was a stranger to the crimes of the Revolution.
We may assume that by “morality” he means “political morality,” and not personal morality, for which he seemingly cared nothing. But even so, what of the death of the Duke of Engheim? His murder irrevocably turned Europe’s aristocracy against him. It turned Tolstoy against him, years later. Even Napoleon’s exceedingly practical Chief of Police, Joseph Fouche, said of the Duke’s execution, “It was worse than a crime. It was a mistake.”**
Explaining away the Russian disaster no doubt called upon all of Napoleon’s skills. He first argues that, “If Moscow had not been burnt [most all agree the French army did not do this], Alexander would have been compelled to make peace.” But he offers no argument as to why, and I at least can’t see why the czar would make peace. Whatever the case, Moscow burned, and a practical man like Napoleon should cease wondering why.
The cold of the Russian winter was “premature,” leading Napoleon to admit that, ok, I “remained in Moscow four days too long.” I believe that this is the only place where Napoleon admits to a mistake. It seems unlikely that the disintegration of an army 1/2 million men strong could rest entirely on this mistake alone. And indeed,
When the army was within two days march of Vilna, and no further dangers threatened it, I conceived that the urgency of affairs required my presence in Paris — only there could I dictate to Prussia and Austria. Had I delayed the passage might have been closed against me. . . . The [Imperial] Guard was then entire and the army contained more than 80,000 combatants . . . The Russian army did not now exceed 50,000 men. [Supplies] abounded at Vilna. Considerable stores of clothing and ammunition had likewise been established. Had I remained with the army . . . it would never have retreated beyond Vilna. . . . It is from this period in particular that the great losses of the campaign may be dated. Nothing was, or could have been more totally unforeseen by me than the senseless conduct adopted at Vilna.
Again, just as in Egypt, he, being a good father, left his children with every opportunity of success. Leave it to his prodigal subordinates to ruin everything.
But still, Napoleon had and has his devotees. You can see the blinding effect of Napoleon’s ego even on the editor of this abridged version of his memoirs, Somerset de Chair. Chair writes regarding Napoleon’s recounting of the Moscow campaign,
Almost all historians have treated the Russian campaign as a unmitigated disaster. Here Napoleon sets the record straight. After defeating Russia at Borodin . . . Napoleon withdrew. He experienced devastating weather conditions, but this does not alter Napoleon’s claim to have achieved what he set out to do. [He sought] to teach Russia a lesson not to interfere in French affairs in the future when his son should become Emperor and to punish the Tsar for opening his ports to Britain. [Napoleon’s] view that he left a defeated and humiliated Russia in his wake is hard to ignore. It was, admittedly, a harassed return . . . it was not as if the French had intended to occupy Russia indefinitely. If Hitler had succeeded [in Russia], where Napoleon did not ever intend to remain, it would have been a very different story.
I think we can agree with Chair that yes, Napoleon was not as bad as Hitler. Score a point for hero-worship if you wish. But to suggest that Napoleon achieved his aims in Russia by preventing Russia from challenging his son and heir is a gross absurdity. His failure in Russia directly led to his first abdication and the impossibility of his son ever succeeding him, and led also to the rise (not humiliation) of Russia an an expansive, imperial power in the 19th century.
Napoleon’s life can be viewed as tragic even if we don’t call him a tragic hero. Many of Napoleon’s top generals abandoned him and defected to the Bourbons. This must have been a bewildering and devastating blow. But I think that such men simply learned from their master that when a situation warrants it, find a way to survive. For Napoleon, even on St. Helena, his memoirs stand as his final battle, his last attempt to conquer. For me at least, his autobiography has a minor appeal as a kind of grand, doomed adventure — like that of Waterloo. And they must fail, that Napoleon might possibly learn humility.***
*Certainly not true from any glance at 1 Samuel – 1 Kings.
**Some believe that Talleyrand said this instead. Whoever said it, the difference is the same. Both men devoted themselves to Napoleon’s practical morality and they saw the consequences of such an “ill-considered” action.
***Towards the end of the memoirs he blames the allies for violating the Treaty of Fontanblieu and sending him to St. Helena. Again, he is either joking or willfully blind. He tore up that treaty when he escaped from Elba.
Still, there is some evidence at the very end of his life he may have had a genuine religious awakening.