The Wars Against Napoleon
A.D. Harvey reviews a new book on Napoleonic foreign policy.
The Wars Against Napoleon: Debunking the Myth of the Napoleonic Wars
Michel Franceschi and Ben Weider
Casemate 227pp £18.99 ISBN 193 203373 1
Their thesis is that Napoleon had an ‘obsessive attachment to peace’, maintained his ‘intangible principle of avoiding conflicts’, never provoked a war, and never took the initiative in declaring war: even his invasion of Russia in June 1812 was a reluctant response to Tsar Alexander’s ultimatum of April 1812 which ‘in fact if not in law’ had established a state of hostilities between the two empires.
It is possible, as the authors claim, that those who hold a ‘conventional’ image of Napoleon as a ‘megalomaniac conqueror drunk on glory’ will be ‘shaken in their hostility and prejudices’ if they read this book: people who have such a caricature view of Napoleon are unlikely to have read much on the subject previously. No-one who has looked twice at this period can have failed to have been impressed by the opportunism of the British and the Prussians, the alternation of arrogance and desperation in Austrian policy, and the consistent fatuousness in Russia’s attempts to be the arbiter of European affairs. Nor does it require much reading to recognize Napoleon as one of the most remarkable men in European history, who extended the realm of what appeared possible in a way that Charlemagne, whose political legacy was more enduring, or Wellington, a more proficient general, never came near to equalling.
Nevertheless, the misconduct of foreign governments is no alibi for Napoleon’s policy. He never concealed the fact that his objective was French domination of Europe. ‘My principle is: France before all else.’ And he never concealed the means by which French domination was to be imposed. A child of the Enlightenment, he was adept at rhetoric and lofty agendas, wept for the unhappy victims of war and voiced indignation at outbreaks of disorder, all in the best Enlightenment style, but he never managed to persuade the other governments of Europe that the peace settlements he imposed were intended to be anything other than acknowledgements of French hegemony. His seizure of Spain and his assembling what was then the largest army in history to impose yet another peace settlement in Moscow, impressed contemporaries with the scale of his appetite for supremacy; but they had long suspected that he was willing to stop at nothing. The hereditary rulers of Europe, who had inherited cynicism along with their territories, objected less to Napoleon’s obscure birth and tangential connection with the French Revolution than to his resemblance to Louis XIV, who had sent his artillery beyond his borders with the words Ultima Ratio Regum embossed on their barrels: ‘the last argument of kings.’ Napoleon used a more decorous rhetoric, but he pushed his artillery forward just the same. And yes, he never declared war on anyone: nor did Adolf Hitler, till December 1941 presented him with an enemy too distant to invade without a declaration of war.
A. D. Harvey is the author of Sex in Georgian England (Orion, 2001)
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