Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny, by Michael Broers, Faber, RRP£30, 608 pages

Viewed through the prism of 20th-century totalitarianism, Napoleon can look like a proto-Hitler or proto-Stalin. Yet for a new generation of historians, the picture of a bloodthirsty dictator with a messiah complex is giving way to something more nuanced. There are fresh sources, too, on which to base a reassessment: since 2004, when publication of his complete correspondence began, it has been possible to read his thoughts about events as they occurred rather than in self-mythologising retrospect.

In Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny, the first part of a projected two-volume biography, the Oxford historian Michael Broers proves to be an even-handed assessor of his subject, acutely aware of the cynical and manipulative side of his character but also convinced that “only a positive, optimistic mind would have thought in terms of progressive reform to the degree Napoleon did all his public life”. If one theme emerges most forcefully from this book, it is that Napoleon had to work hard and be prodigiously inventive in order to hang on to what power he had won. “The constant need to protect his gains was why his caution so seldom left him,” writes Broers, “and why he placed such value on self-control.” His “patience and self-discipline” were “refined in the viper’s nest of revolutionary politics”.

Napoleon may have been a true son of the French Revolution but he harboured a deep fear and resentment of popular assemblies and uncouth mobs. Broers explains how he admired the Clarys, the bourgeois family of Marseille merchants whose daughter he courted in 1794, because their world “came to be the France he adored and championed in all his work in power”, although “he could not quite bring himself to join it”. His own family proved to be grasping and troublesome.

He purged corrupt officialdom, saw to it that the public finances were put in order, wielded the weapon of the newly formed gendarmerie to root out counter-revolutionary guerrillas and to enforce mass conscriptions, steered the new Civil Code towards what the French provincial propertied classes wanted, and created the educational institutions to forge a new governing elite. By making himself emperor, he not only paid homage to ancient Rome but also demonstrated that the French Revolution had been a rejection of the Bourbon dynasty rather than of the monarchical principle.

Far from being a dictator who blithely sought to impose his will on all and sundry, Napoleon governed by committee, recognising and promoting talent, and often deferring to the opinions of others behind closed doors when it came to technical matters. In practical terms, in both the army and politics, he showed himself to be a shrewd manager of men.

Interestingly, Broers is at pains to point out that there was nothing of the paranoid psychopath about Napoleon. Time and again he notes that Napoleon “took his revenge bloodlessly”, that he was content with ostracising or pensioning off rivals and enemies instead of destroying them. The kidnapping and execution of the Duke of Enghien, a stooge of the British, was one of the rare instances when Napoleon demonstrated a vicious animus.

Indeed, Broers argues that the two central tenets of Napoleon’s political philosophy embodied his forgiving attitude. Ralliement meant persuading reactionaries to cease their opposition to the new regime, while amalgame meant former reactionaries and former revolutionaries working alongside one another in the new France. Nor were these processes confined to France. Napoleon reached out to aristocrats and reformers alike to forge the Cisalpine Republic in the late 1790s, the model for his later French polity, and attempted similar bridge-building exercises in Holland and Switzerland.

There were certainly black marks against him – his secret police, the fiasco of his Egyptian campaign, the “blood tax” of repeated conscriptions levied on the French people – but his expansionist policies began as a riposte to the offensive alliance of Austria, Russia and Britain. “If the British could not classify Napoleon, neither could he classify them,” writes Broers. “Neither side understood the other, at any level.”

Instead of letting the rebel slave leader Toussaint L’Ouverture become viceroy of the Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, Napoleon squandered some 50,000 men (of whom 45,000 died of disease) in a futile bid to recapture the island. He later described the expedition as “probably the greatest error of judgement I ever committed in administration”. Broers, however, is more scornful of Napoleon’s bungling command of the French navy during the war against Britain in 1804-05 – he treated ships as if they were mere army units and expected them to undertake the maritime equivalent of forced marches without due consideration of tides and winds – calling it “the most incompetent, and disgraceful, act of his public life”.

On the other hand, Broers argues that Napoleon’s “masterpiece” was not the Civil Code of 1804 but the Grande Armée he created in the Channel camps between 1803 and 1805, which would cut a swath through Europe in the years that followed. Once again, this army was an embodiment of ralliement and amalgame, comprising elements from the old army of the ancien régime, the armies of the revolutionary period, and even troops who had been loyal to Moreau, a general sent into exile for plotting against Napoleon.

This is a masterly biography, both critical and empathetic, which analyses Napoleon’s career, if not on his own terms, then on terms he would have recognised. We can dismiss Napoleon’s guff about destiny yet, as Broers emphasises, never before in human history had anyone from outside the governing classes risen to such heights. Broers’s chapter on the coup d’état that brought Napoleon to power in November 1799 is a gripping account of a touch-and-go affair. What ensued was a fragile structure, though it would prove enduring. All was in flux and Napoleon was never in repose.

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