This article was first published in the December 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine
Historian and author Adam Zamoyski has written more than a dozen books on European history, including Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty 1789–1848 (2014), Poland: A History (2009), and Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna (2007)
Your new biography aims to bust the myths surrounding Napoleon, to get at the human underneath. What are some of the most common misconceptions you’ve had to tackle?
We’re brought up on a whole ant-heap of myths about Napoleon. The apocryphal stories that swirl around him are legion, and are deeply embedded in the consciousness of most Europeans.
The whole idea of Napoleon as a towering genius is flawed. The fundamental image that we’re all familiar with is of this extraordinary man who was amazingly brilliant and only had to cast his eagle eye over a situation and that was it, he won the battle. But if you actually deconstruct events, the reason that Napoleon won battles was because he worked extremely hard, studying the terrain and making sure his men were in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
Particularly in the early days, he was also pitted against octogenarians whose entire ethos was that if you were surrounded and outflanked, you simply surrendered. At this time however, Napoleon’s men were volunteers – they were revolutionaries and they were desperate to fight. He was a very good general, but he wasn’t a godlike genius for whom everything simply went to plan. Often, things jolly nearly went wrong, or did go wrong, but he was good at covering it up and starting again.
Another thing that most people don’t take into account is that Napoleon was very much a product of his times. People can only achieve certain things if the mood of society is favourable to their ambitions. France was a mess at the time, and Napoleon himself said several times that if it hadn’t been him, it would have been someone else. Most of his greatest accomplishments were in fact group achievements, in which he acted as the catalyst. That’s undoubtedly a very interesting and brilliant role to play, but most people tend to forget the fact that he didn’t achieve everything single-handedly.
Another idea you challenge is that of the ‘Napoleonic Wars’. Why?
I wanted to address the assumption that Napoleon was solely responsible for the so-called ‘Napoleonic Wars’. The series of conflicts that stretched from 1792 to 1815 are best understood as an ongoing Darwinian struggle between the great European powers. It was a very complicated geopolitical situation that actually had nothing to do with Napoleon initially – they certainly weren’t his wars.
It still surprises me how many people think that Napoleon single-handedly unleashed warfare and horror upon Europe. There were, in fact, only two occasions in which he went into action without being attacked first, and in both cases treaties had been broken by the other side. One was in 1812 when he invaded Russia, but arguably he had little choice in the matter, because Tsar Alexander had put him in an impossible position. The other was in 1815, after he had escaped from Elba. Again, that was because the only way to save himself from a second exile was to try and reclaim France.
Why do you think so much mythology has emerged around Napoleon?
He was in many ways the first great propagandist. Through all the prints and paintings he commissioned, he created a huge visual epic around himself, which made everything sound and look so fantastically magnificent that people came to believe in it. But in many cases, the reality was less than glorious. In actual fact, things could be pretty tawdry and, frankly, moments in his life teetered on the verge of slapstick. Take, for example, one of the most iconic moments in Napoleon’s story: crossing the bridge of Arcole. In reality, he never got anywhere near the wretched bridge. He was knocked off a dyke, ended up in a ditch and nearly drowned. It was all rather farcical. Uncovering the truth behind moments like that was the real joy of researching this book.
You call Napoleon the “embodiment of his epoch”. How much was he shaped by the times in which he lived?
To make a slightly frivolous comparison, we are all shaped by the music we listen to as teenagers. My generation won’t be understood by someone writing about us in 200 years’ time unless they read about sixties culture, and listen to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The key to understanding Napoleon’s generation is that they were brought up on ancient mythology, the literature of the Enlightenment and the emergence of romanticism. So while Napoleon was endlessly going on about Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, he was also reading wonderful soupy sentimental novels. For this generation of young men, the ultimate goal was true heroism. This yearning for glory was so strong that it almost became a kind of pseudo-religious urge. They really believed that if they dashed into the jaws of death, they would somehow transcend it.
Why did Napoleon keep pushing for ever more power?
What really motivated Napoleon was his profound insecurity. The fact that he was the son of a pushy snob from a smelly little hick town in Corsica stayed with him, and manifested into an absolute plethora of complexes. He was physically insecure, because he was small. He was socially insecure, because of his father. He was sexually insecure, as he didn’t have much luck with girls. And he was intellectually insecure – although he read voraciously, this reading was very haphazard and you can see from his notes that he misunderstood certain books. He was always showing off his knowledge of literature, which is a sure mark of self-doubt.
Ultimately, insecure people can achieve success after success and it’s never enough, it eats away inside of them. Even when Napoleon was emperor of France and dominant in Europe, he would still say that nobody really rated him. He was obsessed with the fact that he was an upstart parvenu, and was always looking to achieve something that would finally establish him, and mean that he could sit back and relax. But, of course, that never happened.
What was he like as a person?
It’s fair to say that Napoleon was a very difficult man. In society, he was always ill at ease and made others ill at ease as a result. This all meant that he was often very difficult to be around. He totally lacked the quality of empathy, and took offence very easily, but was utterly incapable of seeing that he could give it. That’s partly why every treaty he made was unnecessarily harsh and demanded revenge.
However, even people who didn’t like him admitted that he could sometimes be enormously charming. He would always be at his most delightful when playing and joking with servants, children or simple soldiers, because presumably with them he didn’t feel insecure.
What ultimately led to the downfall of Napoleon?
Himself – his own insecurities and lack of faith in his own system. By 1807, Napoleon had defeated the Russians, leaving only the British. At this stage, he could have called it a day, and returned to France with a strong security system. Eventually, Britain would have been left with no option other than to make peace. However, Napoleon desperately wanted to get one over on the Brits.
This was partly because of the anti-Napoleonic press, which had been not just condoned, but in some cases financed, by the British government. Blistering cartoons by Rowlandson, Gillray and others scraped away at Napoleon’s insecurities like you scratch at a mosquito bite, making him ever more angry, furious and insecure. Pitt’s cabinet also made the whole thing very personal: the war was not with France, but with Napoleon. Partly because Bonaparte had been so enraged by all these red rags the British flashed in front of him, and partly because he already had so many chips on his shoulder, he became desperate to show the British what he was made of.
There were possibilities for compromise at several stages, but he felt that he had to achieve a settlement entirely on his own terms. And that was what ultimately drove him to destruction. In death, though, Napoleon did manage to exact his final revenge by making the Brits’ name stink in romantic Europe for the next 50 years.
What was the most significant aspect of his legacy?
It was definitely societal. Napoleon – along with his collaborators – created not just modern France, but the template for the modern constitutional state that lies at the basis of most western nations. The Napoleonic system grew out of the necessity to replace the divine authority of monarchy with something that was equally all-embracing, and which demanded total service and submission. The result was this extraordinary thing called ‘the state’. That’s quite a mark to have left on the world.
How did you feel about Napoleon when you finished writing the book?
I try to remain at arm’s length from people I write about, but I actually ended up feeling immensely sorry for the poor fellow. He lived in a revolutionary world where if you fell behind, you could easily end up on the guillotine. The higher he climbed, the more likely he was to fall.
In many ways he was a nasty little tick, but at the same time, there were moments where his achievements were really quite extraordinary. He was a real catalyst, who made some miraculous things happen at desperate moments. Either way, Napoleon definitely polarises people in a way that few other historical figures do.
Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth by Adam Zamoyski (William Collins, 752 pages, £30)