Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591

The book presents no reinterpretation of Napoleon’s motives or any aspect of his rulership. Komroff writes clearly and directly, and the narrative moves quickly and dramatically, with few dates to slow down the tale. Napoleon is portrayed as a tragic hero, destined to fall because of his pride and ambition. Komroff makes Napoleon out to be a tyrant who brutalized France, and indeed most of Europe, simply because he wanted to impose his will on the maximum number of people.

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Napoleon revolves around a series of military campaigns: Egypt, northern Italy, Austria and Prussia, Spain, and Russia. Priority is given to the French quagmire in Spain and Napoleon’s relationship with Czar Alexander. Napoleon eventually turned against the czar because of the latter’s ambitions in Poland and the Ottoman Empire. Because the book contains no maps or battle diagrams, the unfolding of the major military encounters is not always clear. Even Napoleon’s administrative, educational, judicial, and economic reforms are interpreted as cynical ploys to gain popularity.

Strangely, Komroff gives little attention to England and the Continental System. The important place England had after 1805 is unknowledged, except for the military assistance that England gave to Spain following Napoleon’s intervention in 1808. The Continental System of 18061812 would help to explain many of Napoleon’s diffi-culties with Spain, Prussia, and Russia. Indeed, Napoleon’s treatment of the Spanish monarchy and the czar of Russia was a direct result of his decision to keep British goods from Continental ports. Napoleon’s reluctance to give up the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, the control of Europe waterways, and the ports of the eastern Mediterranean were simply logical extensions of his economic policy toward England. Napoleon’s blockade of French, Belgian, and Dutch ports alienated the middle classes, which accused Napoleon of reducing their standard of living. Above all, it was Napoleon’s frustration with the czar—who refused to close Baltic ports and also to give his younger sister’s hand in marriage to Napoleon—which finally compelled Napoleon to force the czar to comply with the Continental System. By ignoring Napoleon’s obsession with England, Komroff presents his foreign policy ventures as a series of disconnected actions, which in fact can be viewed as guided by a few basic objectives.

Komroff relies mainly on secondary sources, but his occasional references to personal memoirs from the period, including Napoleon’s, add sparkle to the story. He makes the period come alive with his re-creation of the more salient events in Napoleon’s spectacular career. Although he only alludes to other figures of the time, Josephine and Marie Louise receive considerable treatment. For example, the book explains how Napoleon picked Maria Louise only as a second choice following his rebuff from the czar. Komroff enlivens the narration with incidents of intrigue and deceit and with Napoleonic maxims. The author wisely avoids sensational anecdotes and digressions; his no-nonsense, direct approach sticks to the historical topic.

After reading this book, young readers will have a better sense of why the Napoleonic era is often considered the beginning of modern Europe and a feel for the great changes wrought by the French Revolution and Napoleon’s wars. While it may be simplistic to concentrate on the personality of a single individual, this approach is a valid way to stimulate interest for further inquiry into this important span of history. While Komroff does not discuss the historical results of the Napoleonic period for subsequent European history, the reader is left with the impression that the after-effects were indeed significant.

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Critical Context