Saturday, 23 April 2011

Napoleon. By Emil Ludwig


Emil Ludwig

First published 1926. I read the version published by Jaico Publishing House in their 'Jaico Great Lives Series', 29th impression 2010

    This book is subtitled 'The Definitive Biography'. A great book, giving a fairly objective picture of this 'great soldier, politician, lover and the first modern European', to quote from the subtitle. I will address the book in two section. First I will summarize what it says about the life of Napoleon. Then I will talk about the book itself and its author.
      Napoleon was a Corsican, i.e. more Italian than French. His name is a version of Naplione - presumably from the same root as 'Naples' and 'Neopolitan'. Corsica was under the French when he was born, and his father was a small-time Corsican noble, who, though eager for independence from France, nevertheless used his influence with King Louis of France (who was to soon loose his head in the revolution) to get his second son, Napoleon admitted to a military academy. Napoleon's first important deeds, on joining the revolutionary French Army, was to try and free Corsica, but his imagination soon outgrew the confines of this island, and his vision encompassed the entire world, modelling his thoughts on Alexander (the 'Great'), and wishing to bring lands as far of as India under his control. His first battles as a General (at age 21!) were against Italy and in Egypt, all for the French revolutionary government. He rapidly moved up in the hierarchy to command all of the French forces, and then in a coup, he replaced the Directory, which was ruling France after the revolution, as Consul of France, i.e. dictator. He fought many great battles. First these were against the other European kingdoms  and principalities, including Austria, England, Prussia, Russia, Poland, Italy, Spain and Holland, which were unable to accept a democratic France, and were working constantly to restore the Bourbon monarchy. Some of the battles he fought have been made famous on their own, as masterpieces of war strategy or as scenes of great destruction and loss of human life. Names of these battles include Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena, Borodino and Hohenlinden. This last name is familiar to me from the poem by T Campbell ( that I learnt in school. His motivations became more and more mixed up with his own ambitions to emulate Alexander, and also to found a dynasty. After his initial great victories he crowned himself (literally - he placed the crown, which was a Roman style gold circlet, on his own head) as Emperor of France. I remember the painting of this event that I saw in the Louvre. His first major defeat was against Russia, as was well described by Tolstoy in 'War and Peace'. When he came back to Paris, he found that, after a decade or more of admiration, and indeed, worship, the French people, encouraged in their dissatisfaction by intriguers such as Talleyrand, started to turn against Napoleon. At the behest of the other European Kings, in particular Tsar Alexander of Russia, he was imprisoned on the island of Elba (situated between Italy and Corsica). After some months however, he escaped from the island. The people were by then sick of the restored Bourbon king, who, in the famous words ascribed to Talleyrand, 'had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing', and with their renewed support Napoleon set out once more to restore to France all the lands he had conquered for her and which now had been given or given back to other kings. In 100 days he had to meet Blucher (of Prussia) and Wellington (of England) at Waterloo, and he suffered his final and decisive defeat. He was exiled to the tiny, rocky Atlantic ocean island of St Helena, under the charge of a small-minded English Governor, and died of ill-health after about six years of captivity.
    Emil Ludwig has written this biography in the present tense throughout, giving it an air of immediacy and a sense to the reader of being actually present at the various events. Apparently he has based the book on the extensive papers, letters, speeches and diaries written by Napoleon. There are many actual quotations of conversations which may have, at least in part, sprung from Ludwig's imagination. This seems especially so when we read descriptions of Napoleon's thoughts in conversational form. (Ludwig wrote the book in German, and the English version was translated by Eden and Cedar Paul - there must be something which was added, as well as lost in the translation). The book is fairly objective, but one can see a small progression of the writer's opinion of Napoleon from bad to good.  The last few chapters especially are full of admiration for him, and occasionally appear almost  to be an apology for the misdeeds of the man. The focus of the book throughout is steadfastly on Napoleon as a person, his genius, his thoughts and his deeds. It only gives the absolute minimum background history, does not talk in any detail about even such great events as the revolution. There is no elaboration of the role or background of even such important people in Napoleon's life as Josephine. There is certainly no description, even cursory description, of battle strategies. Thus it is not a book written by or to be read by a war historian, or a strategic planner (or a management graduate). Rather it is more like a psychological study of this genius. Most of the 600 pages of the book describe what Napoleon did, and what he thought. There is, in the final chapter, about 50 pages of analysis by the author about the persona of Napoleon. Here he describes what he thinks defines Napoleon - firstly his energy (he famously could sleep anywhere for even 10 minutes at a time, and sometimes could go for days on horseback without rest, without sleep, working on an average 20 hours a day in the first decade of his career ); secondly his self-confidence (as evidenced by his constant urge to emulate Ceasar and Alexander, and his belief that he was destined to overthrow the old feudal system and rule Europe); and thirdly his imagination, which helped him to put himself in the position of his antagonists and anticipate their actions.  Whether this can be a complete and true picture of Napoleon and his motivations are difficult for me to say. I can only juxtapose against this analysis the much less flattering one by Tolstoy who, in 'War and Peace' described Napoleon as an ostensible, but not real cause of history. 
    My own take on Napoleon is of course modulated by my being a modern non-European with left-of-centre liberal ideas. I think Napoleon was a thug, maybe a genius thug, but a thug all the same, in the mould of Dawood Ibrahim or Don Corleone. He was large-hearted and generous, but so are/were Dawood and the Don (and many more such). Perhaps his initial motivations were honourable, i.e. to protect the revolution against obviously hostile kings in the neighbourhood, but with power, these good intentions were soon corrupted. In that respect, he was the same as his idols - Ceasar and Alexander.
    Here are some particular quotes and scenes from the book. 
->Napoleon on  meeting Goethe for the first (and only) time: "Voila un homme!" Ludwig interprets this to mean that the only intellectual equal to Napoleon was Geothe and that both these megaminds recognised this.
->"Napoleon never grew wise, but was always clever."
->"Do you not see," he exclaims to his brother, "that I can only keep my seat upon this throne by means of the fame which brought me to it? That a private individual such as I, who has risen to become a ruler, dare not call a halt? That such a one is constrained to mount higher and ever higher, and is doomed to perish the moment he stops climbing?"
->"Wherever I may be, I command, or else I keep silence."
->"I am a man whom people may kill, but will not affront."
->"One who worships the golden calf may have money, but not honour."
->"I am always at work. I think a great deal. If I appeared to be ever ready and equal to any occasion, it is because I have thought over matters long, before I undertake to do the slightest thing; I have foreseen all eventualities."