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Is this the finest biography of Napoleon ever written?

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In his pomp: Napoleon Crossing 
the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, 1802
In his pomp: Napoleon Crossing 
the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, 1802 Credit: Hulton Fine Art Collection 

 Saul David reviews Napoleon: The Spirit of the Age by Michael Broers (Faber)

The first instalment of Michael Broers’s monumental three-part life of Napoleon Bonaparte – subtitled Soldier of Destiny – was published in 2014 and covered the 36 years that separated his subject’s birth in 1769 to the start of the war of the Third Coalition in 1805, including his coronation as Emperor of the French a year earlier. This second volume, by contrast, covers a mere five years – 1805 to 1810 – as an extraordinary run of military victories left Napoleon master of the continent but more isolated politically and emotionally than ever before. A more dramatic end point might have been the invasion of Russia in 1812. But Broers chose 1810, the year of Napoleon’s traumatic divorce and remarriage, on the sage advice of a friend: “It’s about a life, isn’t it?”

There have been countless biographies of Napoleon. But few have displayed such an acute understanding of their subject’s strengths and weaknesses as a general, politician, administrator and family man. A celebrated scholar of revolutionary France and Napoleonic Europe, Broers relies chiefly on printed sources, notably the many volumes of Napoleonic correspondence made available by the Fondation Napoléon a few years ago and used in Andrew Roberts’s 2014 biography. Yet Broers’s ability to switch seamlessly from discussing the finer points of military tactics to Napoleon’s state of mind is what raises this Life above its predecessors.

Napoleon in his coronation robes, 1804, by Francoise Gerard Credit: Universal Images Group Editorial 

The Battle of Austerlitz on Dec 2 1805 – generally thought to have been Napoleon’s greatest victory – is a case in point. Broers sets the scene by explaining that the campaign, following directly on from the decision not to invade Britain because of its naval superiority, was a huge risk, for three reasons: it was fought outside the normal campaigning season, with fewer troops than his Austrian and Russian opponents, and over much greater distances than hitherto.

Yet Napoleon prevailed because of his meticulous planning, his more battle-hardened, better-trained and fitter troops, and his willingness to devolve responsibility to a (mostly) talented corps of subordinates that included Marshals Davout, Soult and Lannes. First his lightning march to the Danube trapped an Austrian army at Ulm; then he confronted a combined Austrian and Russian army at Austerlitz, in today’s Czech Republic, and destroyed it with an imaginative battle plan that depended upon exquisite timing and no little luck. “It was,” writes Broers, “a triumph of leadership, from the apex to the front line.”

Already, however, there were signs that the key to Napoleon’s power – his meticulously trained army – was in decline, partly because of the need to replace the 10,000 or so men lost at Ulm and Austerlitz. “There were great victories to come, quite soon,” notes Broers, “but not unlike a great racehorse, or a bottle of fine red Burgundy, the Grande Armée had peaked early. It already had raw, badly trained conscripts in [its] ranks… and the numbers of such men would increase henceforth.”

Napoleon Bonaparte at the Pont d'Arcole, 1796, by Antoine-Jean Gros Credit: Universal Images Group Editorial 

It did not help that the pace of military operations was so relentless, with each victory bringing Napoleon more power, but also more challenges to his authority. Within a few months of defeating Austria and Russia, Napoleon was facing Prussia (“a clash between two bullies”). Napoleon prevailed, crushing the Prussians at Jena and, less convincingly, at Auerstadt, where Davout’s corps fought alone because his fellow marshal, Bernadotte, had refused to march to its assistance.

For Broers, this is evidence of Napoleon’s importance as a director of operations. “When released from Napoleon’s control in Spain,” for example, his marshals would make similar errors.

After Auerstadt, Napoleon was effectively master of Germany and only two countries posed a significant threat to his continental hegemony: a rejuvenated Russia and Britain, the world’s dominant maritime power. Unable to invade Britain, Napoleon chose to choke off its trade by imposing a continental blockade that would, as it turned out, sow the seeds of his own downfall by dragging him into an unwinnable war in the Iberian Peninsula and alienating Russia.

More victories followed over the Russians at Eylau and Friedland in 1807, and the Austrians at Wagram in 1809. But Eylau was a Pyrrhic victory – as the horrific French casualties of 25,000 were significantly more than the Russians suffered – while Wagram was preceded by Napoleon’s first proper defeat by the Austrians at Aspern-Essling. Napoleon’s power had never been greater – his sway extended from Portugal to the borders of Russia – yet his decision to “advance his hegemony so far east and… into Spain diluted the powerful inner core of his empire”.

Napoleon, engraving after the painting by Paul Delaroche Credit: Culture Club 

By now Napoleon knew that none of his siblings was a reliable heir and that, to safeguard his dynastic future, he would have to divorce Empress Joséphine, the love of his life, because she had not borne children. He did so reluctantly, but with characteristic ruthlessness once he had made up his mind.

His preference was for a Russian princess; but he settled for an Austrian, 18-year-old Marie Louise, when the Russian tsar rebuffed him. Having twice fled her home as French armies approached, Marie-Louise had dubbed her future husband the “Antichrist”. Now she agreed to “sacrifice herself for the sake of her dynasty”.

The author is excellent on Napoleon’s domestic policy, particularly the Jewish Crisis that was sparked by the publication in February 1807 of an anti-Semitic article in the Right-wing paper Le Mercure that claimed it had been a mistake to emancipate the Jews in the Revolution because they were exploiting their freedom to make excessive profits from usury. This struck a particular chord in the east of the country where harvests had failed and many peasants were said to be deep in debt to Jewish moneylenders (in fact, Jews held the deeds to less than 7 per cent of the value of mortgages in the affected areas).

Napoleon, a supporter of emancipation, nevertheless dubbed Jews “a nation within the nation” and said they needed correction. He eventually did so in 1808 by restricting Jewish commercial lending and the rates of interest they could charge – but only, Broers points out, in the six departments comprising Alsace itself and the west bank of the Rhine. “Effectively,” he writes, “Napoleon had cauterized the wider tide of animosity. Although this meant a return to the discriminatory laws of 1784 for the large Jewish community of the Rhineland their status as citizens and their religion did not return them to the ancien régime status quo.”

At times Broers seems in awe of Napoleon’s achievements as a general and a legislator; but he is also quick to acknowledge the emperor’s quirks and frequent errors of judgment. The end result is a very human portrait. If this book is anything to go by, Broers is well on the way to producing the finest biography of Napoleon yet written, a wonderful amalgam of deep knowledge, elegant prose and compelling argument. He concludes: “For Hegel, he was not just the spirit of the age, but the ‘spirit who commands history’. How he would command it was yet to be seen.”

Napoleon: The Spirit of the Age by Michael Broers 
560pp, Faber, 
£30, ebook £16.99. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk to order 
from the Telegraph for £24.99