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This is a far more human Napoleon than we are usually confronted with—a man both heroic and oddly vulnerable. Roberts’ Napoleon details the Corsican’s rise from provincial obscurity, his shrewd, dangerous bets during the French Revolution—when he aligned too closely with the Jacobins—and then his military rise, owed to his courage, vision, technical aptitude and grasp of all arms. Indeed all-arms proficiency had been the very reason Bonaparte had chosen the artillery as his preferred branch, when an adolescent king’s scholar at the military school of Brienne. Only gunners understood the proper use of foot, horse and guns. In this invigorating biography, Andrew Roberts blends equally expert analysis of Bonaparte’s political changes and military exploits.
Roberts takes a refreshingly balanced view of Napoleon. He never doubts the man’s ego and ambition, but also gives credit for his ideals. Roberts views the Napoleonic Empire less as megalomania than an attempt by Napoleon to spread the more enlightened reforms of the French Revolution across Europe.
In Roberts’ judgment, Napoleon wasn’t a war-monger. He had war forced on him by the Austrians, Russians and British, who wanted to demolish a French Empire and satellite states that Napoleon would have been content merely to maintain. Roberts shows Bonaparte trying mightily to dissuade the Austrians, Russians and British from war, particularly after Wagram in 1809. Content with his spoils, he became the peacemaker, they the war-mongers.
Napoleon’s military system relied too much on the personal direction of the French emperor himself. When detached and left to their own devices, Napoleon’s marshals—Ney, Marmont, Grouchy and others—too often failed, whether in Spain, Russia, Germany, France, or, notoriously, at Waterloo. Revealingly, Napoleon’s 1814 campaign in France was among his most brilliant efforts, but only because his army by then was so withered—just 70,000 men—that he could command the whole thing himself.
Roberts conveys the chronic intrigue within the Empire—the constant treachery of conniving ministers like Fouché and Talleyrand, or jealous marshals like Bernadotte, Marmont and Augereau. Napoleon made them all, yet they didn’t hesitate to betray him. The emperor’s love life was checkered. He was tortured by an unrequited love for Joséphine de Beauharnais that was requited only when he’d grown tired of her and moved on to a gorgeous Polish countess half Josephine's age.
Roberts shows us what a brilliant mind Napoleon had. He accented his letters with literary quotations, plucked from memory; he read voraciously, leaving behind in Elba a library of 1,100 well-thumbed books. In his everyday speech and maxims, the light of his immense learning shone through. He was a great soldier but also a philosophe of the Enlightenment.
The incredible true story of an American doctor in Paris, and his heroic espionage efforts during the Second World War.