Military History: Napoleon, the First Modern Politican

I have read several Biographies on the military exploits of Napoleon, but this article explores a side of the man rarely discussed: The Political agenda. -SF


David A. Bell, Napoleon: A Concise Biography (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 152 pp., $18.95.

Michael Broers, Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny (New York: Pegasus, 2015), 608 pp., $35.00.


The most famous statement from Richard Nixon’s opening to China in the early 1970s emerged from an interaction between Chinese premier Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger. The historically minded Secretary of State asked Zhou for his views on the French Revolution. “It’s too early to tell,” replied Zhou. The answer was taken as evidence of Chinese leaders’ supposed ability to take a long-term perspective on political events and is regularly generalized to serve as a warning against swift interpretations of historical occurrences.

In fact, the diplomat who served as the interpreter for the meeting, Charles Freeman, has revealed that Zhou thought Kissinger was talking about the 1968French uprisings, which occurred just a few years before their discussion, not the events in 1789. “I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype (as usual with all stereotypes, partly perceptive) about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts,” Freeman said.

But Zhou’s remarks could only be mistaken because he was thought to be speaking about the French Revolution generally. If, instead, it had been reported that he was asked his thoughts on Napoleon Bonaparte and responded with such an ambiguous perspective, few would believe it. Nobody lacks a firm opinion on the man who his soldiers affectionately nicknamed “the little corporal.” The subtitle of one of the most respected books on Napoleon, written by the Dutch scholar Pieter Geyl and translated into English in 1949, isFor And Against—Geyl surveyed a century and a half of opinion on Bonaparte and showed that historians usually lined up like lawyers, either prosecuting or defending the French general-turned-leader. Neutrality and ambivalence were unpopular paths. “Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they mostly fell, all too simplistically, into two camps: supporters and opponents,” writes the Princeton historian David A. Bell in his new book,Napoleon: A Concise Biography. “Despite uncovering great masses of source material, most of the historical works generally spent too much time refighting old battles to provide much genuine illumination.” Those works are astonishingly numerous: it has been said that no other human being has had more books written about him or her, except for Jesus Christ—more than 220,000 books and articles as of 1980 alone. Historian Charles Esdaile has claimed that Napoleon is second only to Christ in appearances in cinema, as well, a testament to his popularity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Read the Remainder at National Interest