Napoleon: For or against ... and Beyond

By Dunne, John | History Review, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Napoleon: For or against ... and Beyond


Dunne, John, History Review


Written over fifty years ago, Napoleon: For and Against by the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl retains a special and enduring place in Napoleonic historiography.[1] Yet Geyl was not a specialist in the period, and his book is not a work of history in the normal sense. Rather it is about the writing of Napoleonic history. How Geyl came to pioneer historiography in this way is an interesting story in itself, which illustrates one of the book's themes, namely the influence of the present on the study of the past. Forced to abandon his research by the German occupation and a brief stay in a concentration camp, and with the parallel with Hitler in mind, Geyl turned his attentions to Napoleon. Under house arrest he worked his way through the major French works of Napoleonic history produced from Napoleon's fall in 1814 down to his own day. The end-product was a survey of the historical debate, which analysed conflicting interpretations of Napoleon and his achievement and related historians' respective positions to wider political conflicts in French society.

The book's conclusion is that all 'history is an argument without end', but in the case of the Napoleonic historiography Geyl examines the argument was peculiarly polemical, polarized and, as it were, personalized. Though every aspect of Napoleon's personality and actions has been argued over -- including, believe it or not, his ability as a military commander -- the debate concentrated in two areas. First and foremost, Napoleon's relationship to the Revolution: did his actions and policies as ruler of France -- as First Consul from 1799 and Emperor from 1804 consolidate or destroy the work of the French Revolution? Secondly, what Geyl refers to as the `problem of foreign policy', which includes both the question of responsibility for the continual wars of the period and whether there were any long term strategic goals to Napoleon's foreign policy and territorial acquisitions.

In two years time the bicentenary of the coup of Brumaire 1799, which brought the thirty-year-old General Bonaparte to power, will coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Geyl's path-breaking study. This would seem to be an ideal moment for a publication taking up the story of the development of the historiography when Geyl left off--including works by non-French historians. If anyone were rash enough to take on the project, what would they come up with' And would the story be one of progress or of stagnation? It has become something of a tradition for specialists, in review articles or in introductions to books, to lament the backwardness of Napoleonic studies and catalogue its many deficiencies. At one time or other no doubt all their criticisms were founded but how many remain so is another matter. Certainly, the current bumper crop of Napoleonic histories by British historians -- six in the last half dozen years provides grounds for fresh optimism.

Post-Geyl trends

When the sequel to Geyl appears, it will not be called Napoleon: For and Against II. Occasionally amateur scholars, for whom Napoleon has a special fascination, have been known to take up the cudgels over the great man -- or tyrant, depending on their view-point.[2] However, the polemics went out of academic scholarship long ago. This is not to say that professional historians are immune from the strong emotions the figure of Naoleon often arouses, but Richard Cobb in referring to the Consulate and Empire as France's most appalling regime' was exceptional in giving vent to them in print.[3] A more normal reaction on the part of the few inveterate anti-Napoleonists in the profession has been to withdraw their labour from this particular field of historical endeavour, and in a couple of instances encourage their research students to do likewise.

Historians continue to discuss the question of Napoleon's relationship to the Revolution but this is no longer the pivot on which the historiography turns. …

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