Adam Zamoyski tells El­lie Cawthorne about his new bi­og­ra­phy, which dis­man­tles two cen­turies of pro­pa­ganda to re­veal Napoleon not as a hero or vil­lain, but a flawed, dif­fi­cult man

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

The lat­est re­leases re­viewed, plus Adam Zamoyski dis­cusses his book on Napoleon Bon­a­parte

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

“Mo­ments in Napoleon’s life teetered on the verge of slap­stick”

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 an­tiNapoleonic 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-em­brac- ing, 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.

Pho­tog­ra­phy by Fran Monks

Adam Zamoyski, pho­tographed in Lon­don. “We’re brought up on a whole ant-heap of myths about Napoleon. The apoc­ryphal sto­ries that swirl around him are le­gion,” he says

Napoleon sits with death at the bat­tle of Leipzig in a litho­graph by Thomas Row­land­son. The em­peror’s “lack of faith in his own sys­tems” pre­cip­i­tated his down­fall, says Adam Zamoyski

Napoleon: The Man Be­hind the Myth by Adam Zamoyski (Wil­liam Collins, 752 pages, £30)

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