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Napoleon (Penguin Lives) Hardcover – May 13, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The career of a different kind of celebrity hound is examined in historian Paul Johnson's Napoleon. Johnson (A History of the American People) contends that Bonaparte sowed the seeds of the devastating warfare and totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Stressing that the Corsican general was motivated by opportunism alone, Johnson traces his rise to power and expansionist bids, arguing that the most important legacies of his rule were the eclipse of France as the leading European power and the introduction of such enduring institutions as the secret police and government propaganda operations. ( on sale May 13)
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

In this newest addition to the "Penguin Life" series, Johnson (The Birth of the Modern) produces an "unromantic," "skeptical," and "searching" study of a person who exercised power "only for a decade and a half" but whose "impact on the future lasted until nearly the end of the twentieth century." Characterizing Bonaparte primarily as an opportunist "trained by his own ambitions and experiences to take the fullest advantage of the power the Revolution had created," Johnson suggests that, by 1813, the emperor "did not understand that all had changed ... and events were about to deposit him ... on history's smoldering rubbish dump." Why another biography of Napoleon now? Johnson's answer is that the great evils of "Bonapartism" "the deification of force and war, the all-powerful centralized state, the use of cultural propaganda..., the marshaling of entire peoples in the pursuit of personal and ideological power came to hateful maturity only in the twentieth century." Thus, Napoleon's is a grandly cautionary life. Readers might wish to counterbalance Johnson's deliberately sparse outline of Bonaparte's amazing career by examining James M. Thompson's Napoleon Bonaparte: His Rise and Fall. But Johnson's antiromantic treatment brings into sharp focus the ills he identifies with "Bonapartism," and that focus certainly justifies this new look at the much-studied old general. Recommended for larger public libraries. Robert C. Jones, Warrensburg, MO
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Lives
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1st edition (May 13, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670030783
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670030781
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.8 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #546,493 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Beginning with Modern Times (1985), Paul Johnson's books are acknowledged masterpieces of historical analysis. He is a regular columnist for Forbes and The Spectator, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

57 of 69 people found the following review helpful By Kathleen on March 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Why the vituperative reviews for what is intended as a concise but accurate psychological treatment of a historical figure?

Napoleon has been much romantacized. As Johnson states, more books have been written about Napoleon than any other historical figure except Jesus Christ.

I had always thought of Napoleon as the brief restorer of France's glory after the devastation of the French Revolution. Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo ended what would have been France's return to glory. This books shows that Napoleon's brief reign in France consisted of very thin soup. Contrary to some of the negative reviews, Johnson doesn't think everything Napoleon did was bad. He quit persecuting the Catholic Church, restored some order to governing, and did not hold grudges. He treated the army rather well.

On the other hand, he bankrupted the country with endless military campaigns. As soon as the money ran out, he would decide to attack another country. There was no stabilty to the government because it depended financially upon the next military victory which inevitably quit coming. Napoleon also established a secret police. Bribery was rampant.

Johnson rightly debunks the past attempts to romantacize Napoleon's relationships with women especially his first wife, Josephine. There have been entire novels purportingly based upon Napoleon and Josephine's love life. Very little is known about their actual life together except the bare facts.

I found this book easy to read and informative.
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47 of 60 people found the following review helpful By C. Ebeling on December 10, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My reasons for choosing this book: my world history background is weak, I wanted to fill in a crucial gap; I did not want to spend several months on a steamer trunk of a biography; I am a fan of the Penguin Lives series; I have read Paul Johnson before and know him to be a fine stylist in content areas that many writers lay waste with stultifying prose. I was not disappointed for the most part.

Understandably, it is impossible to catch every fact, every nuance of Napoleon Bonaparte's life and ongoing contribution to history in just under 200 pages (one Victorian era writer dedicated 10 volumes to the man). Johnson limns the environment of the Enlightenment and revolution that was sweeping the western world and connects the life in terms of its how, why and consequences. He strikes a remarkable balance between the birds-eye view of Bonaparte sweeping through Europe and close-up personal sketches, the former conveying the formidably shrewd man of action, the latter revealing an often comic figure. It is to Johnson's credit that he reconciles the two in one body.

Johnson is in no way forgiving of Bonaparte but he does invite wonder at how he rose up out of inauspicious beginnings, could seize a continent, only to make such glaring errors in strategy at Waterloo and ultimately die in exile on a distant island. The autopsy report is a final ironic twist.

Johnson is not without his biases, but I got very good information from him via bright, fluent prose.
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65 of 84 people found the following review helpful By RedRocker on March 10, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Johnson does a good job of channeling William Pitt, but a poor job of history in this tendentious, glib, shoddy, but, thankfully ,short volume. It is one thing to shy away from hagiography, quite another to omit facts or invent them to create a historical figure that did not exist.

From the very first pages, Johnson proudly displays his biases. He views the French Revolution as an unnecessary "accident", and announces, without any supporting argument save England's example, that the inequalities it addressed would have been solved peacefully in time by history. The scholarship is extremely sloppy, and Johnson continually contradicts himself and gets his facts wrong. Her are but a few examples:

He says Napoleon was not an ideologue, then proclaims him the progenitor of "a new brand of ideological dictator" like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

He says that Napoleon "never seems to have grasped the essence of the English constitution", yet during the young Napoleon's school years, the text on which he made the most notes was a history of the English constitution. He also tried to bring the English jury system into the Code Civil, but was blocked by the Directory.

He cites a M. de Remurat as saying that Napoleon "is really ignorant, having read very little, and always hastily." A glance at the reading Napoleon did while in school, the notes he took, and the memoirs he dictated at St. Helena, with their detailed knowledge of history and past political affairs, easily give the lie to this.

He writes that Napoleon "did not understand [the sea's] true strategic significance", ignoring Napoleon's continued respect--and envy--of the British Navy, a service he once tried to join.
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66 of 88 people found the following review helpful By Tom Holmberg on September 1, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Johnson simply sees Napoleon as the precursor of the wars and totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. To Johnson Napoleon begat Lenin, Stalin, Hitler Mao, Kim Il Sung, Castro, Peron, Saddam Hussein, Ceausescu, and Gadhafi. In fact Johnson evokes Hitleresque and Stalinesque imagery repeatly throughout the book. But Johnson doesn't stop with his references to Nazis and other unsavory types in order to cut Napoleon down to size. In Johnson's view Napoleon was a "cultural racist," a rapist (literally), ignorant, with bourgeois tastes.
Johnson also criticizes Napoleon's military abilities. Napoleon "made little use of observation balloons; he indeed took no notice of airpower, though it was then much discussed. He ignored steam power, though traction engines and the railroad were just over the horizon...One might have said that military rail was made for Bonaparte's geo-strategy of swift transfer of armies. But he preferred merely to improve the old military road system." Of course we are all familiar with the aerial armies, submarine services, rail-based logistical support and steam-powered tank armies of Napoleon's enemies!
The book seems almost to have been written from memory. Mistakes abound--Lucien Bonaparte is repeatedly referred to as the King of Holland, Betsy Balcombe becomes Betsy Briars, the Napoleonic electorate was "smaller than the one that produced the...lower house under the ancien régime," Napoleon's artillery drowned ... Russians by firing "red-hot shot" into frozen ponds, Charles XII was king of Sweden during this period and Wellington's Peninsular army was made up of British troops and "Spanish auxiliaries.
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