Monday, 16 June 2014

Review: Napoleon: A Political Life

Napoleon: A Political Life
Napoleon: A Political Life by Steven Englund

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Epic biography of Napoleon, focussing on his acts as a statesman and on his political philosophy. While acknowledging that his military exploits laid the foundations for Napoleon's fame and political power, Englund argues that his political feats were as impressive and much longer lasting than his military legacy.

Writing about Napoleon's motivations and ideas is extremely difficult as Napoleon has tried so hard to influence his historiography. It also implies judgments on whether Napoleon was a heart a cynical and opportunistic power player or somebody who tried to stick to certain principles. Or whether he changed from one into the other and in which period?

I think Englund has done a great job of separating the wheat from the chaff. This Napoleon is much more interesting than the Corsican Ogre and Napoleon le Grand. This is almost a human being. Even if it's a man of uncommon talent, intelligence and energy. There are weaknesses, errors of judgment, post hoc rationalisations and petty insults enough to balance the scales.

That doesn't mean that an interesting version of Napoleon is more true than other versions. It just rings more true to my vision of how people, even Great Persons, are. That, probably is the great attraction of Napoleon: everybody can find in him the man we long to see.

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  1. Thank you for this review, I shall look for this book and consider it for summer reading. I am currently reading John Elting's old (and fine) book Swords Around a Throne and he definitely takes the Napoleon le Grand view.

    1. I've got to admit that Napoleon's nastier sides don't come across so much in his military exploits, unless you subscribe to the ' blundering to victory' school. But Englund is well worth your time


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