BOOK REVIEW / An imperial lather: Tim Blanning on two books that shed light on the grandeur and littleness of Napoleon

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FRANCE conquered Germany not once but several times between 1792 and 1812. By 1809 nothing was done in German-speaking Europe (vastly more extensive than it is today) without Napoleon's consent. To set the seal on his hegemony, he divorced Josephine and married a daughter of the Habsburg emperor, a sexual humiliation of the old order without precedent - rather as if a victorious Adolf Hitler had claimed the hand of Princess Margaret.

Yet this came at a time when the Germans were rapidly establishing a decisive lead over their neighbours in every sphere: they were more numerous, more literate, more enterprising and, generally speaking, more prosperous. As David Hume had observed back in 1748, when on a trip through the Rhineland: 'Germany is undoubtedly a very fine country, full of industrious, honest people, and were it united it would be the greatest power that ever was in the world.'

So how did the French do it? The liberation of the state by the reforms of the Revolution provides part of the answer, and room must always be found in any explanation for the genius of Napoleon. The intense animosity between the two German superpowers, which led most Austrians to assume that Prussia rather than France was enemy number one (and vice versa) also played a part. Less obvious, but also crucial, is the reason revealed by John Gill's detailed narrative of the campaign of 1809 (With Eagles to Glory, Greenhill, pounds 30) The French were always able to find German princes to do their dirty work for them.

In essence, this was just another episode in a civil war which had been running in the 'Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation' for many centuries, between a centripetal emperor trying to centralise authority and the centrifugal princes trying not only to stop him but to set up in business themselves as independent states. The French had often exploited this rivalry in the past, but Napoleon introduced a radical new twist. He selected certain favoured princes, allowing them to gobble up their neighbours and giving them fancy new titles. So the Elector of Bavaria, for example, increased his territory and population by 50 per cent and became a king into the bargain. But there was price to pay: Napoleon expected large numbers of men and large amounts of money to keep his war machine going.

This strategy had the signal advantage of keeping the more populous Germans divided and using them to fight French wars. As Gill shows, in considerable detail, Napoleon could not have done what he did in 1809 if he had not been able to incorporate the German contingents in his 'Grand Army'. Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Baden, Hessen, Saxony, together with Napoleon's brand-new creations of Westphalia and Berg, were all obliged to send their troops to fight the Austrians.

The war of 1809 was more exciting than previous Napoleonic campaigns because there was an element of uncertainty. For the first time the apparently invincible general actually lost a battle - at Aspern, just outside Vienna, on 21 May 1809. Fortunately for him, the Habsburgs were overcome by their success and displayed once again their traditional skill in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, losing, narrowly, the decisive battle at Wagram six weeks later. This relative failure was due more to Napoleon's own mistakes, and to an improved Austrian performance, than to any shortcomings of his German troops, who proved equal to the best French veterans.

John Gill presents this fascinating episode very much as a military historian of the most positivist kind. There is no scenesetting, no consideration of the non-military assets and problems of the combatants, not even a review of the international situation. We are plunged straight into day one of the campaign - 10 April 1809 - and are taken through to the end, day by day, unit by unit.

The great strength of the book is a sound and clearly expressed narrative. Although a serving officer, Major Gill has somehow found the time to read an enormous amount of literature, both contemporary and historical, on every last detail. He has visited every battlefield and has followed every engagement in his mind's eye on the ground. The result is a densely textured account which will appeal most to the more battle-hardened veterans of military history, and especially, to the war-gamers among them. The less initiated reader will find it heavier going, although progress is eased by the 50 excellent maps and 40 informative tables. Less helpful are the muddy little line drawings military historians seem to like so much.

The personal decline of Napoleon which became evident during the course of the 1809 campaign is revealed in all its pathetic finality in Somerset de Chair's edition of Napoleon's rambling and mawkish apologia pro vita sua dictated during his exile on St Helena (Napoleon on Napoleon, Cassell, pounds 20). A selection from an edition first published in 1945 and marred by proof-reading which is sloppy even by modern standards, it should be read by any statesman proposing to write his memoirs, as an awful warning against protesting too much. The account of Waterloo, for example, is studded with sentences beginning 'If only . . .', prefacing yet another attempt to shift the blame for defeat on to a subordinate. Napoleon on Napoleon makes him sound petty and cheap.

(Photograph omitted)