Napoleon – Paul Johnson

I am an avid reader of Paul Johnson. Having read Modern Times early in my college career, I went on to read The Birth of the Modern, A History of the American People, and Intellectuals. Recently I even picked up his short work on the Renaissance. I enjoy reading Johnson because he brings a unique perspective to his subjects, he is not afraid to make judgments, and he is righting has a certain liveliness to it – a zip if you will. You can tell he enjoys history and enjoys explaining it to you. His books touch on history, art, the military, politics, and religion; whatever is necessary to paint the picture of the people, places, and ideas he is describing. You come away with a deeper appreciation of the subject not just a technical knowledge of the subject. I think this explains his popularity – the joy of reading interesting history. One can certainly find more scholarly and more technically adept historians but it is hard to find one easier to read.

With that in mind, when I saw that Johnson had written the Penguin Lives Series work on Napoleon I scooped it up and put it towards the top of my reading list. Napoleon is a fascinating subject (I had covered it in some detail in a class I TA’d in grad school) and a short book on the subject would be perfect.

Johnson did not disappoint. The book is lively and the writing is crisp. You get a quick romp through Napoleon’s remarkable rise and fall from power without getting bogged down into the minutia. You get a sense of the pattern of the events and their timing without a overly detailed analysis of each and every battle or political change.

Mark Mazower, writing in the NYT, feels that “Hitler stalks the pages of Johnson’s ‘Napoleon.’ Although he does note that it was written with “the author’s characteristic panache” and that the book “lays its cards on the table.” Mazower is correct to note the theme of the drive for power and its implications for history. Johnson sets out from the beginning that the use of power will be a central theme of this short work:

“The totalitarian state of the twentieth century was the ultimate progeny of the Napoleonic reality and myth. It is right therefore that we should study Bonaparte’s spectacular career unromantically, skeptically, searchingly.”

Mazower asserts, “Johnson’s is not the voice of moderation.” But what Mazower fails to explain is why we must demand moderation of Johnson. Mazower feels that Johnson’s hard headed view fails to account for the mystery surrounding Napoleon. I disagree. Johnson reveals that Napoleon’s thirst for power and his practically unlimited willingness to grab and use it explains much of the attraction and fascination surrounding Napoleon. Napoleon’s energy, power, and charisma, not to mention military prowess and glory drew people to him seeking a way out from under the burden of the corrupt and stagnating “Ancien Regime” yet away for the terror of the revolution that had supplanted it.

But as Johnson shows, Napoleon had neither the instincts nor the skills of a statesman. He new only conquest and battle and in the end it fell to Talleyrand, the master diplomat, to pick up the pieces of Europe that Napoleon had left behind – to return France to her seat with the great nations. Johnson insightfully points out that Napoleon’s drive to rule Europe awakened and strengthened the demons of nationalism that would haunt Europe during the twentieth century. The Congress of Vienna postponed the reckoning during what was for the most part a peaceful nineteenth century but the bill came calling in the twentieth.

It is Johnson’s ability to sketch the ebb and flow of Napoleon’s life, to describe both the events and the impact of his actions that give this short work its pace. Mazower may be right that Johnson leaves out the gray and shady issues surrounding Bonaparte but if he hadn’t the work would lose much of its charm. If you are interested in a quick read on the life of a fascinating historical figure as well as a meditation on power and its uses, pick of this little gem. It is well worth the investment.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. Estimado Profesor:
    Soy alumno del programa de doctorado del a Universidad de Salamanca, España. Mi trabajo de tesis se titula “El Partido Socialista y la Violencia Política en Chile, 1964-1973. Un largo camino a la democracia”. En ella hago un análisis respaldo con documentos rusus y desclasificos de la Cia para algumentar como el Partido Socialists de Chile escoge la vía armada y conduce al Chile al quiebre institucional de 1973.
    Le comento esto dentro de los nombres que se estudian para conformar el tribunal que calificará mi tesis doctoral está el suyo, al ser un usted un experto en temas americanos y en el caso de Chile un historiador excepcional.
    Le rogaría puediera contestarme a la brevedad, si es posible, y de no poder contar con su participación si me puede sugerir el nombre de algún profesor universitario que este en Europa para invitarlo a formar parte del tribunal de tesis.
    Un saludo afectuoso, y en espera de sus noticias.
    le saluda cordialmente
    Marcelo Arturo Jara Román
    Facultad de Historia y Geografía
    Universidad de Salamanca
    Telf. : 0034-923-294500/294400 Ext. 1562

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