Napoleon is among those few individuals in Western history who are instantly recognizable. Although a Bonaparte would again control France during the reign of his nephew, Napoleon III, the average person knows only one Napoleon, a man so famous that he needs no last name. Therefore, there is less necessity to explain who this important individual was, but rather the task is to separate fact from myth. As noted in the introductory remarks by Lord Chalfont, “Napoleon, as is often the fate of giants, has been the target of constant attack by pygmies,” but “the story of his life makes irresistible reading.”
Although his background is English, Chandler has created a balanced portrait of Napoleon. This is no mean feat when one considers that he is relating the history of a figure who attempted to invade the British Isles and who, until he was surpassed by Adolf Hitler in World War II, was often simplistically depicted as an archfiend by British nursemaids and nineteenth century historians alike.
Because military history is Chandler’s field of expertise, his choice of emphasis is readily understood, although the specifics of some of Napoleon’s less familiar battles could border on the tedious for a general reader. In addition many of the twenty-one battlefield diagrams would have no great appeal, though Waterloo would obviously be an exception.
Chandler admires Napoleon’s genius, but he neither ignores nor excuses his excessive ambition, which progressed beyond defending the...
(The entire section is 622 words.)
In his preface, Chandler describes several basic aspects of Napoleon’s greatness, both in civilian and military realms. In addition to controlling the destiny of much of Europe for nearly twenty years, his achievements in government and law surpassed all of his contemporaries. Moreover, his inception of the possibility of a united European community makes him seem at least a century ahead of his time. Militarily, he has long been acknowledged as a genius, an innovator who expanded or changed previous concepts to sweep away the formal nature of eighteenth century warfare, creating in its place a fast-moving striking force.
A leader with a capacity for greatness, however, may possess a number of serious flaws. Thus, in his preface, Chandler can also legitimately indict Napoleon for his tyrannical behavior, his inability to trust his closest associates, his increasing contempt for the opposition (especially in Spain and in Russia), and perhaps most serious in a military leader, an unwillingness to change his strategies so as to continue to outwit his enemies.
In summary, the understanding of one great individual’s success, and the events that led to his downfall, can offer many valuable lessons. This fact is surely among the reasons that Napoleon’s career continues to attract young readers, filmmakers, and historians. His life resembles a morality play in which all can see something of themselves. Chandler provides a good basis for such understanding.