Napoleon Bonaparte, conqueror of Europe and emperor of the French, achieved greatness in just 51 years of life. Although he died in 1821 after six years of miserable exile, this account of Napoleon’s life and legacy begins in 1840, with the pomp and ceremony and public enthusiasm that greeted the return of Napoleon’s ashes to France from his burial place on the remote island of Saint Helena. Those remains eventually were interred under the grand dome of the Hotel des Invalides, where tourists to this day can witness the enduring hold that Napoleon has on the French.
Alan Forrest, an emeritus professor at the University of York, has written extensively on French history. He distills a lifetime of learning into what is less a traditional biography – those often- tedious tomes filled with excessive detail – and more a highly readable historical perspective that tells you everything you need to know about the lasting influence of this extraordinary leader. The book compresses a great deal of history into its pages. Forrest assumes the reader is familiar with the principal events of the French Revolution and often mentions key players in passing, filling in details only when essential to the narrative.
Forrest captures all of Napoleon’s contradictions. He was a champion of France’s Republican revolution who became a ruthless dictator, a general who led hundreds of thousands of young Frenchmen to an early grave but established a legend of national glory that France still revels in, a man of incredible energy and drive who spent his final days in tortured solitude on one of the globe’s most remote islands. Forrest provides a lucid sketch of a career that led a provincial artillery commander to rise to unparalleled power in the space of just 20 years.
Forrest focuses much of his narrative on how Napoleon consciously manipulated public opinion to create a larger-than-life image for himself, exaggerating the significance of his early victories in Italy and depicting his Egyptian expedition as an historic success even though by most measures it was a failure. In Forrest’s view, Napoleon’s genius in public relations contributed to his success just as much as did his skill as a military strategist. He cultivated journalists and monitored his press during his campaigns. He took to Egypt an entourage of artists and poets to turn that lackluster campaign into a triumphal epic. Once he seized absolute power he suppressed all contrary opinions.
Most everyone has heard of Waterloo, the 1815 battle when a vast coalition of European forces finally defeated Napoleon and sent him into permanent exile on Saint Helena Island in the middle of the South Atlantic. Many forget that this was the second defeat and exile for the erstwhile emperor. His first exile came in 1814 after the disastrous loss of French troops at the Battle of Leipzig. The victorious allies gave the man they saw as a usurper a mini-kingdom on Elba, an island off the shore of Italy, near his original home of Corsica.
But after only 10 months of exile, Napoleon fled Elba to France and marched on Paris to begin what Forrest calls the “bizarre adventure story” of the Hundred Days, when he sought to reclaim power and restore the empire. He managed to raise a force of 120,000 men to meet the European coalition on the famous battlefield outside Brussels in July 1815. But for some much-discussed miscues among his generals, he might have won.
It was Waterloo, however, that cemented the legend of Napoleon, Forrest says. With his return to Paris, his attempt to restore an empire based on the liberal principles of the Revolution, and his bold final battle, Napoleon in some senses redeemed his reputation.
“[F]or an important section of the French public,” Forrest writes, “and for romantics across Europe, it came as a reminder of Napoleon’s daring, his effervescent character, his indomitable spirit – those characteristics which they admired the most. They would come to see the Hundred Days as a moment of epic tragedy which could so easily have resulted in a glorious endgame, pulling victory from the jaws of defeat the previous year.”
Napoleon’s influence did not end with his lonely death on Saint Helena. His comprehensive reform of the civil code had a lasting effect, not only in France, but throughout much of the continent that at one point had been subject to his rule. The mystique of invincibility that he deliberately fostered led to a pattern of reaction, revolution and counterrevolution that marked France and the rest of Europe for a century. His dream of a united continent motivated French and other European statesmen after World War II to build a European Union.
Those who want more personal details about Napoleon, a fuller treatment of his famous romance with Josephine, or a comprehensive chronology of his military campaigns may want to turn to one of those longer biographies or a specialized study. What Forrest has provided is a relatively compact view of Napoleon’s life and achievements in the context of his times and a sweeping assessment of what he has meant for the history of Europe.
Darrell Delamaide, who was a foreign correspondent in Paris for 11 years, is a writer in Washington, DC.