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The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It [Paperback]

David A. Bell
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 16, 2008 0618919813 978-0618919819 Reprint
The twentieth century is usually seen as “the century of total war,” but as the historian David Bell argues in this landmark work, the phenomenon actually began much earlier, in the age of Napoleon. Bell takes us from campaigns of “extermination” in the blood-soaked fields of western France to savage street fighting in ruined Spanish cities to central European battlefields where tens of thousands died in a single day. Between 1792 and 1815, Europe plunged into an abyss of destruction, and our modern attitudes toward war were born. Ever since, the dream of perpetual peace and the nightmare of total war have been bound tightly together in the Western world—where “wars of liberation,” such as the one in Iraq, can degenerate into gruesome guerrilla conflict.

With a historian’s keen insight and a journalist’s flair for detail, Bell exposes the surprising parallels between Napoleon’s day and our own in a book that is as timely and important as it is unforgettable.

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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.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (January 16, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618919813
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618919819
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 1.1 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: #92,109 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
49 of 51 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Intellectual History of the Napoleonic Wars February 27, 2007
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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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Flawed but fascinating May 8, 2008
By Rick W
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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The French Revolution and the Emergence of Modern Warfare February 15, 2008
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The role of War in human events has been discussed by political philosophers for centuries. David Bell describes the early French traditions in his book; today, the argument continues: Authors like John Mueller claim that war is on the road to extinction (Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War), while others, "realists", think that it's very much here to stay (The Independence of Nations). In "The First Total War", Bell describes not only the conversation but its consequences - how the discourse of Peace and War affect the practice of warfare. And Bell offers a paradoxical observation: that ideas about the obsolescence and even obscenity of war themselves cause war to be more terrible then otherwise.

There are two ways of thinking of Bell's book: you can read it as a pretty straight history of The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era, a little strange in its focus but that nonetheless covering most of the basics, or as an illustration of the main idea: That one of the great renovations of the French Revolution was instituting a view of War as abnormal and unnatural; And, ironically, that this de-legitimization of War made the Wars of the French Revolution into modern - total - wars, much worse than the wars that came before.

Under the Ancient Regime, wars took place regularly. The European powers constantly fought one another. Every decade, at least one major European power fought another, and usually, more than one. The wars were perceived as a natural, inevitable part of international politics: Indeed, warfare had been the raison d'etre of the stae.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written and written
I found this book very interesting. Bell clearly knows a good deal about the subject and writes about it concisely. The book is a pleasure to read. Read more
Published on February 15, 2011 by J. Mckenna
2.0 out of 5 stars Had potential
His history of the events in Europe in the late 18th century is good. His overall theories of war are worth looking into, but of course it is always good for a laugh to read an... Read more
Published on November 15, 2010 by ctd
5.0 out of 5 stars A Compelling Study of a Fundamental Cultural Shift
Enlightenment produced new currents of thoughts that repudiated the military culture of the old regime as merely pursuit of honor and glory. Read more
Published on July 8, 2009 by Patrick Yeung
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book by a leading historian
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. Read more
Published on February 21, 2009 by Lehigh History Student
5.0 out of 5 stars Very accessible and interesting book
David Bell is a leading academic historian who specializes in early modern European history with an emphasis on the French revolution. Read more
Published on November 3, 2008 by mathprof
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, But with the Usual Academic Flaws
Mr VanGaalen's review is pretty much on point, but I rated this book somewhat lower due to several flaws. Read more
Published on August 1, 2008 by David M. Dougherty
1.0 out of 5 stars Tosh
David A. Bell operates by trying to sneak ridiculous analogies past his readers, then treating them as true by definition. Read more
Published on February 4, 2007 by Michael Dawson
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting but flawed thesis
David Bell has written an interesting but somewhat flawed book which states that the Napoleonic Wars was the first total war in European history. Read more
Published on January 5, 2007 by 1.
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