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Napoleon's Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 Hardcover – November 13, 2008
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A magisterial account of the wars that engulfed Europe during the rise and fall of Napoleon.
No military figure in history has been quite as polarizing as Napoleon Bonaparte. Was he a monster, driven by an endless, ruinous quest for military glory? Or a social and political visionary brought down by petty, reactionary kings of Europe? In the definitive account to date, respected historian Charles Esdaile argues that the chief motivating factor for Napoleon was his insatiable desire for fame. More than a myth-busting portrait of Napoleon, however, this volume offers a panoramic view of the armed conflicts that spread so quickly out of revolutionary France to countries as remote as Sweden and Egypt. Napoleons Wars seeks to answer the question, What was it that made the countries of Europe fight one another for so long and with such devastating results? Esdaile portrays the European battles as the consequence of rulers who were willing to take the immense risks of either fighting or supporting Napoleonrisks that resulted in the extinction of entire countries. This is history writing equal to its subjectgrand and ambitiousthat will join Vikings impressive backlist of European history titles, such as Tim Blannings The Pursuit of Glory and Diarmaid MacCullochs The Reformation.
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While not intended as criticisms, I wanted to point out a few things about the book for potential readers:
1) The book's title is a bit misleading, because it is primarily a diplomatic history and spends very little time on military issues. Major battles are described in a sentence or two, or sometimes only mentioned in passing. Of course there are plenty of other military histories for this period, but I wanted to point this out.
2) As other reviewers point out, the author is not a fan of Napoleon, and is borderline hostile. While it is hard to argue with many of his conclusions, personally I find arguments more convincing if made in a more objective manner.
3) As other reviewers have pointed out, while not a big deal, this book is a bit difficult to read because it is not broken down into very digestible chunks--everything from paragraphs to chapters are of great length.
4) The best thing about this book in my opinion are all of the quotes from letters from and memiors of the various historical actors (from Napoleon to junior officers, Metternich, etc) which the author frequently uses to make his points--reading these first-hand accounts from these highly intelligent and articulate observers was a real pleasure and revelation.
Esdaile has two broad themes that he repeatedly emphasizes. The first is Napoleon’s character. He paints Napoleon as an untrustworthy opportunist who holds personal responsibility for perpetuating the conflict in Europe. Esdaile’s evidence is often convincing, with highly relevant quotations from Napoleon and those close to him clearly supporting his premise. However, Esdaile tarnishes his persuasive analysis with what can only be described as rants. He uses emotional language and “takes sides” in his history, both of which are uncharacteristic of most professional historians. He even seems strangely “conspiracy theory-ish” at times. For example, he says in the preface: “Through the memoirs that he encouraged his companions to write, he reached out beyond the confines of grave and exile, and established a version of events which historians have found impossible to ignore.” He seems genuinely concerned about the support and fascination that Napoleon has inspired over the centuries. His attacks on Napoleon are often visceral and occasionally distasteful. Included here are theories about Napoleon's sexual life and its relation to his warlike nature, and a really strange comment about a possible physical attraction to Tsar Alexander. Though the book generally becomes more tolerable in this regard as it moves forward, Esdaile never lets go of his personal bias against Napoleon. Indeed, the very last sentence of the book reminds us that Napoleon’s primary contribution to European history is as its “bogeyman.”
The second major theme of the work (though inherently linked with the first) is handled in much better fashion. This is the focus on the international political relationships between the European powers and their leaders. Esdaile’s argument is that the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were dominated by the same foreign policy objectives that had concerned the various European states for much of the previous century. He is adamant in illustrating that France never faced a Europe united in common cause until the very end of Napoleon’s reign. The governments of Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria (France’s chief rivals) all had disparate and often conflicting foreign policy objectives emanating from decades of competition. Each coalition against France prior to 1813 was characterized more heavily by these traditional territorial/dynastic concerns than by distinct ideological opposition to the French Revolution or Napoleon’s aspirations. Esdaile brilliantly analyzes this complicated and amorphous political landscape, providing excellent insight on the many competing interests among the European nations, and also within them. As can be guessed, he lays the blame on Napoleon and his unwillingness to compromise for providing the impetus for the major European powers to set aside traditional interests and unite in a formidable (and at the time historically-unique) alliance against France. As mentioned, his evidence and analysis is generally convincing.
As far as the writing and the style of the book, Esdaile's chapters are long with massive amounts of information and analysis. His narrative is relatively smooth, but the numerous tangents make it hard sometimes to discern the primary focus. He inserts major and complex topical themes directly into his chronological chapters, such as a discussion on the British “air of superiority” in chapter 4 and his rapid segue from Napoleon’s infamous (and disastrous) retreat from Russia to the American-British War of 1812 in chapter 10. Nevertheless, his writing is very engaging and fun to read. He commands detail and nuance very well and makes highly complex politics easy to digest. The book does not concentrate on the battles but rather the political history: he handles most of the major military events in a paragraph or less. Those looking for more detail on military exploits will likely need to look elsewhere. Where Esdaile shines is in analyzing the myriad political leaders and their interests, though I would highly recommend someone not familiar with the period to start with a more basic summary first, as this book assumes at least a general knowledge of the period. As may be predictable from the rest of this review, the book has a generally Anglo-centric approach and is especially critical of French foreign policy, but I should point out that Esdaile occasionally chastises the British. He does not shy away from criticizing Napoleon’s opponents—he just does it with far less frequency.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It took some time to get used to Esdaile’s belligerent approach and it genuinely made me think twice about continuing. But after several chapters the rants receded to the background, and I was able to learn a great deal about this era and its interesting characters, including Napoleon.