Napoleon For and Against...and Beyond

John Dunne follows historians along the trail signposted by Geyl fifty years ago.

Written over fifty years ago, Napoleon: For and Against by the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl retains a special and enduring place in Napoleonic historiography.' 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.

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