This book – or rather this set of three articles, as they don’t really mesh into a single narrative except in that all are attempts to refute the overall view of Napoleon as a warmonger and the sole cause of the wars of the Napoleonic era. Frankly, I’m not sure that the viewpoint that they are attacking is prevalent aside from British propaganda from the year 1806 or so, but the question is – do the authors pull it off?
Let’s find out.
“An Irreducible Belligerent Situation”
This section is probably the best, possibly because it is shortest. There were a number of reasons for the wars of the era, aside from Nappy himself. Remember, England in particular had been at swords’ point with France under the kings every dozen years or so. England has always had an unofficial policy of opposing a single overpowering nation dominating mainland Europe. When this nation was France, they opposed France. When in the 20th Century Germany became that nation, suddenly England and France were chums.
Added to that was the horror of the Revolution by the Monarchists, and the desire to avoid having that spread to their lands and you have the recipe for a long struggle.
Only the dubious addition of a supposed fear of France economically spoils the mix.
“A Builder in Love with Peace”
This section is trying to show Nappy’s importance in rebuilding civil institutions and infrastructure after the feckessness of the Old Regime and the horrors of the Jacobins. A lot of this is pertinent, and a nice corrective.
The rest of the argument goes entirely off the rails when it terms the annexation of North Italy and the Netherlands as a ‘protective glacis’, stuffing his relatives into rule of South Italy, Germany, and Spain as ‘a flank guard’ and dominating everything up to the Russian border as ‘a dream of European Union’.
Yes his neighbors were hostile, but chopping slices off of them and stuffing them with your relatives as a new Royalty isn’t making things better.
“Enemy of War”
This is probably the best section, being a brief history of his wars and the political maneuverings While I don’t think the contention of the Little Corporal as a pacifist and innocent victim is quite sustained, and at times the tone of outrage at normal power political moves is amusing or tiring, it does show that to set up a 20 year era of war it takes two to tango.
My own view is that the other nations were very eager to take France down a peg or two. Napoleon was perhaps a bit too eager to take the field himself, because that was what he was really good at. A less sure general would have been more willing to play Prussia, Austria, and Russia off against each other too keep the peace. England, for all its bluster, really could do little without the backing of these powers. But like the man with only a hammer who tended to see everything as a nail to be pounded in, Napoleon tended to think that one more campaign could solve his problems.
Even his one non-military act, the “Continental System” was too much a hammer to be effective. By punishing all the nations, including his own, to harm England he drove them together and deprived himself of the trade. A more interesting move would have been to try and encourage illicit trade and thus drive a wedge between the commercial interests in England financing the war and the hawks prosecuting it. It might have resulted in England enforcing his own embargo themselves!
So overall, the book has some points to make, but tends to rush well past them into the lands of special pleading and distortion. It also tends to be fighting a straw man picture of the image of Napoleon that hardly exists in the books I have read. It then sets up its own cartoon image in opposition. Personally, I prefer the real history and the real Napoleon, warts and all.