Great Soldier, Naive Politician

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 2, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Great Soldier, Naive Politician


When Carl von Clausewitz wrote about war being the continuation of politics by other means, he was writing about Napoleon Bonaparte. Clausewitz's life was consumed with his nation's wars against the Napoleonic regime in France and what Napoleonic warfare meant for the future.

However, it was not Clausewitz's interest in Napoleonic politics that inspired his tome "On War"; it was Napoleon the soldier who riveted Clausewitz and most of the rest of his generation.

Steven Englund feels that Napoleon was under-appreciated in his role as a politician, and he devotes nearly 600 pages to making his case. In the end, he fails to convince. This doesn't mean that "Napoleon: A Political Life" is a bad book, it's not; Mr. Englund just has a tough sell.

Napoleon was admittedly the great soldier of his age. For better or worse, his accomplishments shaped Europe to this day. He was not only a great soldier, he was also a discerning patron of the arts, science, architecture, and legal reform.

As a politician and statesman he was a failure. Anyone can become a politician. Only the great politicians become statesmen.

However, the author gives it the old college try. He relates in full Napoleon's early efforts as a revolutionary agent in Corsica and his first political doings in metropolitan France. His uneven battles with the legislature and his own bureaucracy as first consul and later as emperor are recounted, in sometimes excruciating detail.

Despite all this, the reader gets the feeling that Napoleon never politically matured from the naive days of the early revolution. Although a cynic himself, he seems to have at least superficially believed in the revolutionary ideals to the end.

In the area of grand strategy, Napoleon often acted like a Corsican street thug. Domestically, though, he lacked the brutality of a Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, or even a Saddam Hussein. To this end, he would not even have made the good 20th-century Mafioso that some commentators have likened him to. A successful Mafia don has to be willing to break legs, even in the family; as the author points out, Napoleon was unwilling to discipline or even to confront those close to him.

In spite of his assertion that this is a political history, Mr. Englund does a good job of describing key battles and putting them in political context.

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