Horne's How Far From Austerlitz (Macmillan, pounds 20) is foremost a gripping narrative of Napoleon's downward spiral from Emperor to exile. He portrays his hero as a proud and complicated man whose far-reaching ambition blinded him to his challenges at close range.
He was born Nabulione Buonaparte in 1769, the second son of a minor Corsican family. Napoleon swiftly rose through the ranks of the French revolutionary army to become a general before he was 25. At 30, after successful campaigns in Italy and Egypt he mounted a coup d'etat against the Directory and proclaimed himself First Consul.
By 1807, Napoleon directly ruled more than 44 million people. The French empire stretched from Hamburg to Rome, and the rest of Europe - except Britain - was either marshalled into Kingdoms under his numerous family or yoked into his Continental System. So, asks Horne, what went wrong?
His explanation lies with Napoleon's psychology. The Emperor was so dazzled by his triumph at Austerlitz that he refused to listen to Talleyrand's counsel of moderation and imposed the harshest terms on the defeated Allies. His arrogance forced France onto a footing of continuous war with the rest of Europe and made her eventual exhaustion inevitable. By 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia, he was without friends abroad and vulnerable at home. The Russian winter decimated his 600,000 strong army and the Third Coalition easily routed the survivors.
Horne has an unrivalled ability to transform military manoeuvres into striking cinematic images. Few historians today can match the force and breadth of his vision. In so far as his book concentrates on Napoleon it is a triumph and should be required reading for anyone interested in French history.
The only quibble is with Horne's somewhat forced parallels between Napoleon and Hitler. Of course there are superficial similarities; yes, Napoleon and Hitler were both geographical outsiders to their countries, and both invaded Russia on 22 June. But Napoleon liberated; Hitler enslaved. Napoleon marched into Russia with a single army. Hitler invaded on three fronts. He also expected help from the Finns, and when his army halted outside Moscow it was to adopt a defensive position - a tactic that benefits from winter conditions.
In his epilogue, Horne directly addresses the "British Eurosceptics of the 1990s" and advises them to accept the necessity of European integration. Europe's coalitions prove that isolated powers "are usually doomed." This contention raises two issues. First, his analogy between modern European integration with old-fashioned military co-operation is a false one. Britain has participated in European military coalitions since the Crusades. It does not follow that Eurosceptics' desire to remain outside the ERM would leave Britain "doomed".
Second, it is not clear whether the anti-Bonaparte coalitions played any meaningful part in Napoleon's defeat. The First Coalition between Russia, Prussia, Austria, Spain and Britain collapsed in 1796, leaving Britain isolated. The Second Coalition lasted for three years to 1802 and again Britain was isolated, the Third was barely more than a name before 1812, and for most of the war Britain struggled on her own with almost every port in Europe closed to her. Until Russia's triumph, the only notable successes against Napoleon were achieved by the Royal Navy and by Wellington in Spain.
Gregor Dallas's 1815: The Road to Waterloo (Richard Cohen Books, pounds 25) begins with the Third Coalition meeting to discuss the dismemberment of Napoleon's empire at the Congress of Vienna. The French monarchy was restored. The map of Europe was brutally redrawn without regard to nationalities, and the eight signatories agreed on a system of co-operation. Although Dallas doesn't address the Eurosceptics of the 1990s personally, many of his remarks are clearly pointed in their direction. The Congress of Vienna was, in his opinion, akin to "a parliamentary assembly of the states of Europe", and remains one of the great achievements of the 19th century.
Dallas is not as elegant a writer as Horne, but he combines a mastery of detail with a vivid, almost racy style. He makes a technical subject - the diplomacy of Metternich, Talleyrand, Castlereagh, and Tsar Alexander I - extraordinarily compelling. But his enthusiasm for the Congress goes too far. He misrepresents Castlereagh as a proto-Euro-integrationist although the Foreign Secretary went to Vienna simply to preserve peace in Europe by maintaining the balance of power. As evidence that "within days" of arriving Castlereagh had "become a European", Dallas cites his hope that co-operation between Great Powers would give them the "efficiency and almost the simplicity of a single state".
Castlereagh never envisaged a united or integrated Europe. His concern was the defence of existing frontiers. Metternich and Alexander I on the other hand wanted to defend aristocratic institutions. In practice this meant intervention to crush independence movements in Europe and smother dissent at home. Britain's refusal to take an active part in these counter- revolutionary efforts soon isolated her. In any case, "co-operation" degenerated into rivalry and the Congress soon fell apart. Its lasting legacy to Europe was insurgent nationalism.
One of the participants at the Congress was Admiral Sir Sidney Smith. He had travelled at his own expense to lobby ministers for the total abolition of the Slave Trade. His life is the subject of an outstanding biography, A Thirst for Glory by Tom Pocock (Aurum Press, pounds 19.95). Smith - a true English eccentric who attired himself in Turkish costume and ate rats believing they were cleaner than pigs, never received the honours he desired or deserved. Nelson's victory at Trafalgar cast an ineradicable shadow over his own exploits. Yet Smith was responsible for driving the French out of the Middle East. Napoleon said of him, "that man made me miss my destiny."
Smith had many faults including vanity and a fatal tendency to melodrama. He was reckless to the point of insanity. But he was also a superb tactician and the first person to recognise the potential of Robert Fulton's designs for torpedoes and submarines. Pocock claims that Smith's reputation would be much higher today if he had not been such a difficult and unpopular colleague. At last, thanks to Pocock, rehabilitation is surely round the corner.Reuse content