BOOK REVIEW - (4 STARS)
“THE WARS AGAINST NAPOLEON”
By Gregory Biggs
This new book by Michel Franceschi and Ben Weider has pretty much put to rest any notion that once he was emplaced as First Consul, Napoleon's overriding vision was to send his magnificent Grande Armee to overrun Europe for his own devices.
The genesis of their argument dates from the outcome of the American Revolution and the amazing blow it was to the crowns of Europe. The 1775 "shot heard around the world" was much bigger than most Americans realize today. With final victory, not only was the American republic established, but the notion of a people's government shook the very foundations of monarchist Europe to the core. The monarchs, in particular England, having been on the receiving end of this war and without a doubt paying very close attention to its longstanding foe France and their complicity in this outcome, were going to make darn sure that this political disease (from the British perspective)was never, ever, going to cross the pond to Europe.
Hence Britain's full complicity in the diplomatic, military and financial backing of the various European powers to align against Napoleon and drive him - the very personification of republican government in Europe - to destruction and make sure the inept Bourbons were kept on the French throne. This is a simple fact of the era that cannot be denied!
The authors detail how, during the French Revolution, the crowns of Europe fielded their armies to crush the nascent republic in its crib before it threatened their peace and tranquility - which translates to "we few want to keep our power over the masses." This should be proof enough that the European monarchies greatly desired to crush France and this republican poison that was taking hold. With Napoleon's rise to political power, they simply shifted the symbol of that governmental from France to him and, as stated a couple times in the book, declared war on him rather than France!
The authors cite example after example of Napoleon's efforts to be left alone to complete the reshaping of France as a nation. This was happening not only in the political front but also in science, industry and other areas which also, no doubt, added fuel to the crowned head's fire of an economic competitor they did not want, in particular the British!
And so coalition after coalition was formed to defeat Napoleon and time after time they went down to defeat. This book does a nice job relating the political/military events from the revolutionary era through these coalitions, all the while keeping the reader informed of Napoleon's dilomatic efforts to return to the cause ante bellum via diplomacy. Victories allowed him to dictate peace at the point of a sword and treaties were signed only to be broken time and again as new coalitions of the defeated once again took the field to crush him.
In the end, sheer overwhelming numbers crushed republican France, which, after the Bourbon restoration of 1814-1815, brought about a powerful desire for Napoleon's return. Once again the inept King Louis drove a wedge between him and his people learning nothing, as the authors point out, from his exile in England that the cat was out of the bag and the concept of people's government would not die easily. But British Pounds bought a lot of loyalty then and they were willing to break the bank to restore British commerce on the continent thus breaking Napoleon's embargoes that cost them so dearly financially.
It is my opinion that the authors make their case quite well and cite example after example of the efforts Napoleon made to keep or restore peace. Even as campaigns began his use of personal diplomacy to some of his adversaries continued even well into the 1814 campaign that would unseat him. Direct quotes are used from these communications proving that the Emperor was indeed more interested in running the French ship of state than commanding its armies to defeat threat after threat, although as we all know, he did that exceedingly well using an army that marched to protect the nation in 1805 that was arguably the finest of the 19th Century. After the debacle of Russia his amazing talents to rebuild and train new armies were shone time and again save for his terrific cavalry arm.
Russia is typically the event that is used to show Napoleon's desire to extend his empire, something the authors pretty well disprove. It is also often considered the true downfall of the empire and a powerful case for that can still be made for it crushed his magnificent army (particularly the cavalry arm). This directly lead to the rise of German nationalism (seeded, as the authors point out, by republican French principles)and the eventual defection of allied German state after state from Napoleon's ranks leading to his ultimate defeat. This was in addition to the huge armies raised by the other European powers.
The authors use Spain, instead of Russia, as their cause celebre for this downfall and it makes an interesting choice that is quite thought provoking. The "Spanish ulcer," as one author has termed it, after political beginnings that spun out of control with infighting within the Spanish royalty as to who would rule, lead to the Madrid uprising, Murat's heavy-handed response and full-blown war with powerful British intervention. French columns met a Spanish people's guerrilla army (where the term was first coined) and retributions followed guerrilla atrocities which did nothing to settle the question except by force of arms. Ultimately, Spain drained off thousands of the best French troops and officers who would be needed to defend France elsewhere as the European crowns rose up again, seeing the possibility of taking Napoleon out once more. It is a very interesting argument indeed but I still think that Russia might have more to do with his end than Spain; yet I remain open-minded about this.
Where the book falls short, hence my 4 stars instead of five, is in these areas. First, this book screamed for footnotes. With all of the diplomatic communications cited it would have been very nice to see these sourced for further reading. I not only use sources to perhaps challenge an assertion but I also use them to seek out further works to expand my knowledge of a certain aspect. Related to this is the complete lack of a bibliography. I can forgive footnotes much more than the lack of a bibliography. I was really wanting to see some of the sources the authors cited for further study.
The authors make powerful arguments that Napoleon was, indeed, more interested in peace than war and that his wars were forced upon him rather than initiated by him. Perhaps one can still quibble about the Russian Campaign of 1812 which Napoleon did do to force them back into the continental embargo of England. But the authors do show that the Emperor tried many times to get Czar Alexander to come back in peace rather than by war. His entreaties would be rebuffed time and again. But even if we accept the argument that attacking Russia is proof of him being a war-monger, where is the evidence that he sought to do more than just punish Russia but also add it to his empire?
Napoleon Bonaparte was an amazing character in history. And, as with all people, he was flawed. He did great things for France and eventually Europe via the Code Napoleon and his maintaining of republican principals (even after being crowned as Emperor) that were established in the Confederation of the Rhine and other areas allied and run by him. Indeed he was a political visionary seeking a Europe filled with people rising to be what they could be, as was happening in France and America at the time, rather than being what they were because of their birth status. The modern European Union owes much to this vision. A case can even be made that had Napoleon been successful in exporting republican ideals across the continent that the Franco-Prussian War, which cemented the power of a united Germany to the detriment of Europe and even the world in the 20th Century, might
not have happened. Even further, that little squabble between First Cousins we call World War 1 might not have happened either for republics tend not to wage war on each other and these nations might well have succumbed to republican government long before 1914 had they only been willing.
Ironically, these principles that Napoleon did establish within his German allies helped fuel the German nationalism of 1813-1814 that unseated him the first time. This in turn, as the book points out, fueled the rebellions of 1848 that brought much needed change to the German states. Indeed, even the Prussians in their 1813 resurgence, let lose the reigns on their people somewhat with the creation of their Landwehr, their first "people's army" that was raised to supplement their regular troops. These were the first cracks in a monarchy in Europe and it was because of Napoleon.
Napoleon also brought advances in science, the arts and through industry, but he failed as a ruler by entrusting people who time and again stabbed him in the back. Talleyrand was chief among those, but also Fouche, Bernadotte (the most inept of the marshals in my opinion) and eventually his brother in law Murat, not to mention some of his own family members, stabbed him in the back after he raised them to posts of great importance. This was his biggest and most fatal flaw and this book ties that in very nicely with the other cases it makes.
This book is well worth getting and reading. It gave me a greater insight to the diplomatic overtures that Napoleon extended throughout his reign. I have certainly accepted its premises. If you accept what Von Clausewitz has stated that war is politics by another means, this book does a fine job of wedding the military with the political/diplomatic and showing the outcomes of both.
Quite often the political/diplomatic side of this era is overlooked. That is certainly not the case now.