By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Andrew Roberts
Narration by: John Lee
Human nature marks the great and common. Andrew Roberts’ biography of “Napoleon” chronicles human strengths and weaknesses of a great leader. Napoleon Bonaparte rises from a lower caste noble Italian family to become the first and only Emperor of France.
Born in Corsica, as one of eight surviving children, Napoleon’s mother expects great things from her young son. Napoleon is sent to a French religious school for an education that requires him to learn a new language at the age of 10. He masters the language with a heavy Corsican accent. He graduates from the French school with a scholarship to the French Royal military academy. He is commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the French army at the age of 16. From these early years of education and training, Napoleon rises to become the leader of the greatest empire in Europe; at least, since the days of Augustus and Caesar.
Roberts notes that Napoleon’s classmates see him as egotistical, and proud but immensely energetic, intelligent, and hard-working. Napoleon is a voracious reader and his first wish is to become an author. However, fate and the revolution-of-1789 compel Napoleon to pursue a military career that begins outside of France.
The Terror after the revolution decimates the leadership of France. Because of early success in battle, Napoleon is promoted to Brigadier General at 23. He becomes Commander of the Army of the Interior at 26; as a full General. Napoleon is characterized as a sexual naïve when he meets Josephine who is to become his first wife. Josephine is six years older but at 32 is considered a beauty; with the additional benefit of noble connections.
Napoleon and Josephine marry but soon after Napoleon is called to war. Josephine becomes the ardent mistress of a young Hussar lieutenant named Hippolyte Charles. In spite of mutual affairs, Napoleon and Josephine remain married through most of the future Emperor’s career.
Napoleon is seen as a great threat to Europe because he is viewed in the context of 1789 when Kings and their royal equivalents are dethroned or beheaded. The irony of that fear is that Napoleon is a monarchist. Napoleon is an admirer of the Roman Empire. He is a student of the Roman Empire and plans to dominate European culture through war, cooptation, and assimilation.
Roberts notes that Napoleon’s successes are, in some respects, a repeat of Caesar’s history as leader of the Roman Empire. Napoleon understands the importance of feeding, clothing, and rewarding officers of his army. He makes sure they have shoes and uniforms. He promotes army officers to higher ranks based on merit. The men grow to love and respect their leader.
Napoleon emphasizes speed and surprise when attacking the enemy but meticulously plans attacks based on intelligence gathered in the field of battle. Roberts notes instances where Napoleon risks his own life to survey battle fields before attacking. Napoleon thinks strategically by planning attacks based on enemy positions and how best to take advantage of terrain. He takes calculated risks and propagandizes false statistics to minimize French losses and maximize enemy losses.
Napoleon institutes massive organizational change in France. As is recorded in history and fiction, France nearly disintegrates after the 1789 revolution. Napoleon establishes a meritocratic bureaucracy with “rule-of-law” as its founding principal. Though Napoleon strongly believes in noblesse oblige, his actions are based on the premise that “all people are equal before the law”. This principal scares the ruling classes of Russia, Prussia, and Spain.
Roberts also notes some of Napoleon’s weaknesses. Napoleon abandons meritocratic ideas when promoting relatives. Napoleon’s ambition for hereditary inheritance compels him to appoint family members as Kings and Queens or lesser royal positions; without regard to merit or ability.
In listening to Roberts’ book, one is struck by the recurrent mistakes by national leaders. Adolph Hitler foolishly invades Russia just as Napoleon did in 1812. Hitler is said to have been a great admirer and student of Napoleon; presumably, not a very good student. Both Napoleon and Hitler foolishly believe they are omniscient and invincible. For many of the same reasons, both Napoleon and Hitler are defeated. Hubris and the force of nature destroy their ambition. War with Russia becomes a turning point for both leaders. In the case of Hitler, most rational human beings breathe a sigh of relief. In the case of Napoleon, one wonders what might have been.
Roberts’ defines some of the harsh qualities of Napoleon but notes how his intelligence, education, and energy class him among the pantheon of great leaders. Napoleon is a connoisseur of the arts; both as a subject and a promoter of painters and paintings. Napoleon is admired by Goethe, and initially by Beethoven (until Napoleon crowns himself as Emperor). Mathematics is one of Napoleon’s great interests and his belief in science supersedes belief in religion. Napoleon promotes religious toleration with elimination of laws that discriminate against Jews and Muslims.
A tribute to Napoleon’s appeal is defined in the story of his escape from Elbe and his near defeat of the English and Prussians at Waterloo. The end of course is on St. Helena where a young man becomes old. After listening to Robert’s biography of Napoleon, one is reminded that “No Man is an Island” (John Donne). No one is self-sufficient; everyone relies on others. Most that pass just turn to dust. But biographers like Roberts make a few immortal. Napoleon, like Caesar, is one.