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The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It Reprint Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0618919819
ISBN-10: 0618919813
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Bell combines his roles as professor of history at Johns Hopkins and contributing editor for the New Republic in this interpretive study arguing that history's first total war was waged during the Napoleonic era. Scholars have increasingly stressed the global aspects of the network of conflicts extending across North America, South Asia and Europe during that time. Bell goes further, presenting a fundamental transformation of war from an ordinary aspect of human existence to an apocalyptic experience whose "terrible sublimity" tested societies and individuals to their limits and ultimately became a redemptive experience. Total war developed not in the context of nationalism or revolutionary zeal, but in the fundamental sense of a "culture of war" driving participants in the direction of complete engagement and total abandonment of restraint. Ironically, the intellectual roots of this modern militarism are in the Enlightenment belief in the coming of perpetual peace. Revolutionary France transformed a moral concept into a practical one: war to emancipate humanity from its past. Bell's conclusion that this mentality survived two world wars is open to challenge, yet his appeal for the rediscovery of restraint and limitation is particularly relevant at a time of nuclear proliferation and apocalyptic rhetoric. (Jan. 12)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

The wars of the French Revolution acquired a pitiless character and an unprecedented scale for which historians have groped for explanations: ideology and French nationalism are most commonly cited. Bell elaborates an alternate viewpoint without dismissing traditional analyses. The author of two books on the ancien regime, Bell roots his thesis in Enlightenment theorizers of progress and, less philosophically, in the eighteenth-century aristocratic attitude toward war. Bell effectively personifies his case in a nobleman favorable to the Revolution but ultimately consumed by it, titled the Duke of Lauzun. The boudoir and the battlefield were all the same to him, stages for stylized and restrained performances of honor. When Lauzun was sent to western France to quell royalist revolt in 1793-94, his scruples doomed him as radicals demanded the annihilation of rebels. In this shocking civil war of the Vendee, Bell observes the seeds of the "total war" methods that grew apace in ensuing wars and established dark precedents for the future. Astute and fluid, Bell's study has ramifications beyond his historical specificity. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (January 16, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618919813
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618919819
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #184,129 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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53 of 55 people found the following review helpful By Izaak VanGaalen on February 27, 2007
Format: Hardcover
We have grown accustomed to viewing the World Wars of the 20th century as the first total wars in modern history, for they required the total mobilization and militarization of the societies involved. Their accompanying ideologies, fascism and communism, were appropriately called totalitarian since they left no aspect of society unaffected. Now historian David A Bell has written a new and different history of the Napoleonic Wars (1792 - 1815) arguing that they were in fact the first total wars.

In his introduction, Bell tells us that he is borrowing techniques from intellectual history to write a military history. Traditionally military historians have restricted themselves to accounts of battlefield tactics and weapon systems. Bell is attempting to go further in showing that the ideals of the Enlightenment played a role in what he calls the first total war. He believes that the French Revolution - the apotheosis of the Enlightenment - radicalized people's ideas about how and why wars should be fought.

During the time of the ancien regime - which is Bell's main standard of comparison - wars were limited and short-lived. They were fought according to established rules and usually to defend the honor of this or that aristocrat; in fact, many times the armies were made up of mercenaries. The philosophes of the Enlightenment such as Kant, Diderot, d'Alembert, and the Marquis de Condorcet were certain that with the advent of reason wars would be a thing of the past. As late as 1790 Robespierre was declaring in the Assembly that the French nation had no desire to engage in war, that to invade another country and make it adopt their laws and constitution was the furthest thing from their minds.

Much changed in two years.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Rick W on May 8, 2008
Format: Paperback
As a brief history of the late Enlightenment and the French Revolution: 4 stars
As a brief history of the Napoleonic Wars (only 3 of 8 chapters): 3 stars
As a coherent political theory: 2 stars

On average, this amounts to 3 stars and makes for a light readable history accompanied by some often interesting theory. However, if you're getting the book based on its title, 2.5 stars might be more accurate.

The history itself is fine, making for a broad overview with a few good insights, so my critique will focus on the theory and the parallels Bell draws.

Bell is not an idiot and seems to have a good grasp of general history, capable of soberly pointing out that the total American casualties in the War on Terror have so far amounted to less than what the Russians would have suffered in an average 6 hours during WWII. Yet he will often come up with the most inane comments to keep the book contemporary. For instance, he repeatedly states how "uncannily similar" the guerrilla war in Spain is to the current Iraq insurgency. "Uncannily similar" in what sense? The answer seems to be that they're both insurgencies - just like Afghanistan, Somalia, Vietnam, Lebanon, and thousands of other historical insurgencies. Arguably Iraq has more in common with the Jewish revolt against the Romans than with the Peninsula War. But then, of course, if he argued that, he would be admitting that fanatical insurgency predates the French Revolution by a long margin.

What he terms "Total War" is also problematic. The West has only fought a handful of total wars since Napoleonic times. Instead, less technologically advanced societies have tended to be the ones to most fully mobilize their populations in war. But is this really a modern phenomenon?
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Lehigh History Student VINE VOICE on February 21, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
David Bell provides an interesting thesis through an intellectual look at the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars and their effect on European culture and thinking. The rise of militarism and the move towards modernity in the army is categorized well throughout and supported by looking at actions from Vendee, Italy, Egypt, Prussia and Spain. From brutalizing campaigns where the limited warfare of the old regime was cast aside in favor of not only large scale relentless battles but guerilla actions. The book is not simply a recasting of the great battles but combines the results of these battles with popular works of literature and theater at the time and the shifts in beliefs from the intellectuals down to the masses. Bell as always delivers a fresh look at a tired topic by utilizing the aspects of intellectual history and using them as a lens to view various events. In this case we see the development of a new type of warfare and how it crystallized in the Napoleonic era. The reason that I use the word interesting and disagree with various reviewers is that Bell thesis is not flawed but the fact that this warfare did not stick and went back to a traditional European model means it did not become dominant until later on. It planted the idea that this type of war could be waged and laid the groundwork for some of the great military minds to publish works such as On War creating new tactics and strategies to shape future wars. Overall well worth the time for those who enjoy military history or the exciting things that intellectual history can unlock when looking at a topic.
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