A senseless Empire; Philip Mansel argues that the Corsican ogre defeated himself
As we approach the 200th anniversaries of Napoleon's victories and reign, a Grande Armee of books is being assembled. Frank McLynn has written the latest popular English biography. His strength lies in the scepticism with which he treats Napoleon's achievements, even the Emperor's claims to military genius. "He won Marengo only because of Desaix and achieved a great victory at Jena-Auerstadt only through Davout. He scraped through Wagram by the barest of margins, was fought to a standstill by the Russians at Eylau and Borodino and lost badly at Leipzig and Waterloo." McLynn thinks Napoleon was better at commanding smaller armies, for example in Italy in 1796-7 or Egypt in 1798-9, than leading juggernauts.

Napoleon's urge to elevate his pitiful dynasty was self-destructive. It led him, for example, to choose his brother Joseph, rather than the servile Bourbon Ferdinand VII, as puppet King of Spain - thereby starting the Peninsular War. Before and during the invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon "made virtually every mistake in the book". In 1814 he failed to summon to his palace his Habsburg wife - the Empress Marie Louise, then a vital political and dynastic asset - possibly because he was suffering from a bout of venereal disease.

Despite the panache with which he tells the story, McLynn's way with truth is often as reckless as the Emperor's. Napoleon was not "Emperor of Italy", nor was the King of Prussia a Kaiser. Marie Louise did not bear her first child by her Austrian lover Neipperg in 1815. Nor did Austria and England collude in Napoleon's escape from Elba.

McLynn also uses the Emperor's tactic of argument by denigration, and like Napoleon himself constantly underrates the opposition. Talleyrand and Bernadotte are dismissed as traitors when these two far-sighted politicians had good reasons for following their own instincts rather than the Emperor's orders - not least the desire to serve their country and save life. It is absurd to call Francis I of Austria, one of the best loved rulers of his day, a "pathetic figure", or Tsar Alexander I of Russia, who made Russia more powerful than at any time before 1945, "both fool and knave". They, and Napoleon's Bourbon rival Louis XVIII, were far from being "mindless reactionary fanatics".

McLynn concludes that Napoleon used the revolution to achieve power, but "at bottom Napoleon's heart was with the ancien regime". Power was his goal. He wrote to his brother Joseph, while still a general of the Republic: "there is only one thing to do in this world and that is to acquire money and more money, power and more power." The monarchy he established after 1804 was in some ways more reactionary, with greater emphasis on dynasty, court and army, than that of the Bourbons who followed him.

Napoleon's career suggests that genius and ruthlessness are not the most important qualities in politics. None of his political institutions (as opposed to administrative reforms), constitutions or frontier changes lasted. He prepared many of the disasters of the following 150 years, weakening France, strengthening German nationalism in general and the power of Prussia in particular.

When his ashes were brought back from Saint Helena in 1840, they were buried in the Invalides in Paris in an extravaganza of nationalistic self- glorification. It is, however, hard to disagree with Queen Marie-Amelie, whose husband Louis-Philippe presided over the ceremony. Her sole comment was that, whatever his talents, nobody had caused more tears to flow than Napoleon I.

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