"History is indeed an argument without end" Pieter Geyl
“le personnage ne se prête pas aisément à l’exercice biographique. Sans même parler, pour chaque épisode ou presque de cette vie hors du commun, de l’existence de témoignages si contradictoires qu’il faudrait croire à la présence, non pas d’un mais de deux ou trois Bonaparte”
Gueniffey, Patrice (2013-09-26). Bonaparte: (1769-1802) (NRF Biographies) (French Edition) (Kindle Locations 124-126). Editions Gallimard. Kindle Edition.
In my experience reading and discussing Napoleon I realized that most people hold one of the following opinions of the man:
They have a visceral hatred of him, see no redeeming quality.
They admire him without limit
They find some aspects of his career/ character fascinating but are repulsed by others (many shades here)
IMHO the reason for that is the complexity of the man. Anyone who reads extensively about him will come across instances where he exhibited great qualities and others where he did the opposite.
In my reading I came across cases of great courage, cowardice, fortitude, despair, gentleness, cruelty, gratitude, ungratefulness, tolerance, tyranny, loyalty, betrayal, generosity, pettiness, greatness, “petitesse”, great vision, blindness etc.
This complexity makes it very difficult to make a fair assessment of the man. Two “truth seeking” historians could look at the same material and come to opposite conclusions about the man.
Here's an exemple of two Napoleonic scholars with impeccable credentials holding opposite views on the same topic:
"Many who came to know Napoleon spoke of his self-control [...] it was the product of iron self-discipline, for Napoleon was a man of powerful, often violent emotions [...]"
Broers, Michael (2014-03-04). Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny (Kindle Locations 167-171). Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition.
"Of petty noble origin, a rough and ready soldier without tact and with little self-control,"
Dwyer, Philip (2013-11-25T21:00:00+00:00). Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power (Kindle Location 6783). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
How can this be explained?
I was thinking about this question in terms of one day writing a biography of Archduke Charles.
It would be quite straightforward to emulate the recent biog by Hertenberger and take the material from the dynastic historians like Criste and Angeli. It would be easy to reject the critiques by Clausewitz and Delbruck as a couple of Prussians pushing nationalistic agendas and being advocates of total war - well look where that got them. Looking at Rauchensteiner, it could be said that he wrote his PhD dissertation on Hiller, something of a rival to Charles, but ha, ha, Hiller was that good in Italy in 1813 that he was soon replaced by Bellegarde. Likewise with our own Jack Gill, one could dismiss his comments as those of a Confederation historian, for whom Austria was only a limited angle, or some of the authors of Krieg 1809, about whom one could say they were just in thrall to Prussia after the 1866 defeat.
This is of course nonsense, but precisely what we are invited to do by Cronin and his followers on Napoleon or indeed the Emperor’s main detractors. In reality, it is best to start with the Archduke’s own writings, notably in the Ausgewaehlte Schriften and what is reproduced Cristy, as the opening building blocks to get inside his head. Then, it is necessary to read the likes of Clausewitz and Delbruck - certainly there probably was nationalism in their comments, but they push total war while criticising Charles for pursuing limited war. That leads you to a key issue that needs to be explored to show how Charles thought and he was vindicated by the events of 1945 and how warfare has changed since then. That takes you to a valuable critique by Rauchensteiner on this very aspect.
"or indeed be in the slightest bit interested in the opinions of my peers" Well, I say...I mean, y'know, that could make a chap feel unwanted.
@Kevin F. Kiley 1812 occupies the same place as many conflicts in this period, did not directly involve Napoleon. Fundamentally though “Napoleonic Wars” is an historian’s construct and as such is transient. History isn’t a closed shop, there is no History Teamster’s Union that I’m going to be run out of if I don’t use an ‘official’ designation. I’m not taking any exams or submitting any essays, so why should I care? And more importantly, why should anyone else?
@Kevin F. Kiley I’m very patient and it is a simple question. Are you seriously suggesting that Napoleon became Emperor against his will? If not, we have to presume his stated personal ambition and sense of destiny were major if not the sole reasons why he was elevated. It seems quite ludicrous to me that a Great Captain who spent his life at the head of his soldiers and in artillery range of his enemies would be in the slightest influenced by the prospect of assassination? Even if he was, how did a change in job title make any difference? There are more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese. I genuinely want to understand, specifically, what you are proposing and adapt my thinking if necessary. If however all you are doing is parroting a hagiographer with no footnote and an acolyte with no corroboration then this discussion isn’t going anywhere useful. I’m always happy to here of new sources and volumes, but I read and discarded these decades ago. If you have nothing new, then fine, we’ll leave it there.
@Kevin F. Kiley So secondary sources only? As I’ve explained many times, I don’t set much store in historian’s unsupported opinions. If you can’t provide any primary evidence that that was the motivation, I’ll happily consign that one to the bin marked “interesting myths historians amuse themselves with”. Who’s suggesting Napoleon was ‘forced’ me to become Emperor against his will? I’m using the following source: “There were circumstances that forced a transition from First Consul to Emperor of the French” Kevin F Kiley, placed on the Napoleonic Wars Forum 4 Sept 2020.
Well, that’s debatable, particularly in the Vendee. However, I wasn’t aware France was a belligerent in the war of 1812. If you believe otherwise, please provide your source.
Sorry @Kevin F. Kiley I’m missing the subtlety between drafted and authored? And isn’t the role that he was brought into the conspiracy for was as the military power base? Are you seriously suggesting he was somehow forced to become an Emperor against his will? I don’t understand it, Napoleon was transparent about his ambition and his attachment to the notion of being a man of destiny. Why do modern commentators persist in playing it down? It’s a reticence and a modesty he never possessed or claimed. As a general observation on the genre, It makes no sense and looks really strange.
As the French say "nul n'est prophète dans son pays".
It seems Napoleon is more popular in countries that weren't affected by the Napoleonic Wars.
@Mo Cheikh Ironically, I think Napoleon has more resonance in the US than France.
Claims of inaccuracy and unreliability are designed to mislead the unwary. They really refer to “what I want/don’t want to hear”. Without support or analysis, you finish up with the nonsense by the hagiographer Cronin and others, who dismiss certain accounts as “unreliable”, but in the next breath (to quote Cronin) say they have used them, because they are backed by other sources (but don’t apply that test to sources they like) or “cannot be wrong” - whatever that means.
If material is to be dismissed as inaccurate, it would require some explanation of its lack of validity. It is interesting that those using this approach will often talk about “credible secondary sources” without further explanation and indeed, whose credibility has already been shot through.
To answer the OP, yes a fair assessment of Napoleon can be reached, but only if the old British and allied propaganda is used carefully. Both Napoleon's detractors and his avid supporters are at two completely different poles and neither can be intellectually or factually trusted. And there are good and bad biographies of Napoleon and the latter needs to be ignored.
John Elting, in The Superstrategists, put it succinctly:
'Even fair-minded historians found their available sources full of booby traps. While he lived, enemy propaganda presented Napoleon as a monster who relished murder, treachery, theft, incest, blasphemy, and any other possible evil. The counterblasts of his supporters sometimes went to almost equal extremes in lauding him. The most misleading truth twisting, however, came from people who had served him to their profit, but - in hopes of making an equally profitable peace with the Bourbons who supplanted him after Waterloo - turned to defaming him. Prominent among them were former close associates of Napoleon such as Louis Antoine de Bourrienne, the Duchess of Abrantes, Claire de Remusat, and Marshal Auguste Marmont. The memoirs such people wrote, or had ghostwritten, were accepted as indispensable reference works by too many writers, though most of them are worthless and even the better ones contain much untrustworthy material. Only during the last few decades have English-language historians really managed an accurate recreation of Napoleon as an individual human being, as well as a ruler and statesman.'-139.
I have found Broers' biography to be excellent, Dwyer not so much. Dwyer is not as inaccurate as either Barnett and Schom, but there is an agenda there in his books which to my mind make the work suspect. In short, they should be read only after taking a very large salt pill.