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« Upscale Book Jackets | Main | Fab Faux Forties Food »

April 08, 2006

Trivia for the Day

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A not-bad A&E documentary about Napoleon left me with a flicker of curiosity, so I've spent some recent commuting hours going through Paul Johnson's very short 2002 biography of Napoleon. (Ah, the wonders of audiobooks!) It's a little lazy, but it's also rowdy and informative fun in that sonorous and entertaining way that Johnson has made his own. My hyper-informed and scholarly main impression: Good lord, but 19th-century Europe spent an awful lot of time at war with itself, didn't it? Gollygosh!

A&E presented Napoleon in a "balanced" way -- as a terrifying warrior but also quite a marvelous phenomenon, perhaps even an admirable one. Johnson's take on his subject is far harsher. In Johnson's view, Napoleon was -- however brilliant, driven, and lucky -- a megalomaniac opportunist who cared about nothing but his own advancement. Johnson doesn't shy from calling Napoleon a precursor of Hitler and Stalin. I'm having no trouble going along with this judgment. Bonaparte was evidently so short-tempered that he all but wore a t-shirt spelling out "sociopath." When displeased with how orders were being carried out, for example, he often slapped his own generals. When one girl was brought to his room to service his sexual appetites, Napoleon raged at the terrified teenager until she fainted. Then he raped her.

The human cost of Napoleon's adventures was of course appalling. Napoleon's own troops averaged 50,000 dead per year during his era. Now that's drive and ruthlessness! Meanwhile Wellington averaged 5000 a year dead.

But the cost on other creatures was just as awful. One of the characteristics that made Napoleon such a battle-winner was the speed at which he steered his armies about. Hmm: No engines or autos means that .... That's right: Napoleon was hell on horses. Millions of horses died in combat, as you might imagine. But it turns out that a ton of them died simply from being driven too hard. That's right: Napoleon (a notorious horse-whipper himself) and his troops literally rode hundreds of thousands of horses to death. Late in the day this became a substantial problem for the French army, which simply didn't have many top-quality horses left.

I'm a serious non-history buff, so I have little context for judging Johnson's take on Napoleon. Buffs: Do you think Johnson's Hitler-Stalin view of Napoleon is plausible?

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at April 8, 2006




Comments

No. Napoleon was a much better general and administrator/governor than either Hitler or Stalin. More like Octavian than Julius Caesar, or Alexander or Genghis Khan. Napoleon was still a monster, but lacked the ideology that made Germany and Soviet Russia madhouses.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 8, 2006 05:06 PM



Makes an interesting comparison to Ulysses S. Grant, a died-in-the-wool animal lover who famously had a man tied to a tree for six hours for abusing a horse.

The English have always viewed Napoleon as a proto-fascist, but then they would, wouldn't they? I remember a line from the Britcom "Yes Minister" about the Napoleon Prize, which is awarded to "the statesman who's made the biggest contribution to European unity since Napoleon - that is if you don't count Hitler."

Americans, meanwhile, seem to view him as a mostly harmless comic figure, an example of Little Man Syndrome running terribly amuck. See for instance his appearances in Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits and Woody Allen's Love And Death.

But in France he's still considered a hero; Dominic de Villipain (sp?) mentions him all the time, the Abel Gance silent movie was an unabashed hagiography, etc. And the Eurocrats in Brussels seem to view him as a role model.

God help us.

BTW, Stanley Kubrick was going to do a film about Napoleon, but got pipped at the post by the Rod Steiger turkey. Kubrick's script can be found here in PDF. Read it quick, as the Kubrick estate has a way of making these things disappear.

Posted by: Brian on April 8, 2006 05:31 PM



Napoleon isn't as easy to characterize as a monster as Hitler is. The biggest population he exterminated was his own army of Frenchmen and "allies." And this happened later in his career when his military style shifted from speed and finesse to pumping up the size of his army so that it might overwhelm opponents by sheer weight.

On the other hand, the restructuring of the French legal code was under his aegis -- the "Code Napoleon." Had he not fought so many wars, he might have done France a good deal of good domestically, sort of like Louis-Napoleon did.

Nevertheless, his regime was dictatorial rather than republican -- along the lines of Prussia and the Ancien Regime, etc.

For what it's worth, I've read several biographies of Napoleon and the anecdotes you mention about cruelty weren't in any, as best I recall. Also FWIW, in the early days of their marriage, Josephine had old Nappy pretty well pussy-whipped according to what I've read.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 8, 2006 05:57 PM



I think the "Napoleon as monster" theory can't be dismissed out of hand. I recall his comment to one ambassador or other: "What are a million deaths to a man such as I?"

Granted, he was extremely intelligent and a very able general, although on a number of occasions a very brutal one as well, burning through huge numbers of French troops if he couldn't think of a more elegant solution. Moreover, much of his military success was due to his Republican and royal predecessors who evolved the war machine he drove with such success.

Perhaps his biggest failing was that he was an adrenaline junky, who had to keep (in von Clauswitz's words) doubling and redoubling his bets, hoping to break the bank. He had many, many places to get off the world-conquest roller coaster which would have kept himself and his family rich, powerful and famous for generations, but he refused and ended up with...nothing. One of the unexpected consequence of his continual use of military force to solve all problems was that in a decade or so he managed to educate all of his enemies, who eventually learned how to handle him.

The impact of the Napoleonic wars on young Frenchmen was nearly as dire as that of World War I. And the deaths from the former were the result of one man's choices, not the result of foreign invasion. But Napoleon was clearly, in his own mind anyway, beyond good and evil...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 8, 2006 06:51 PM



Napoleon's invasion of Egypt has to rank up there with the more poorly planned, short-sighted and disasterous misadventures of any military campaign in history. Woefully inadequately supplied, Napoleon eventually abandoned the Army to its doom, sneaking aboard a ship in the dead of night for his return to Europe.

He was a psychopathic monster. But, really, his mother was worse.

Posted by: Don McArthur on April 8, 2006 09:17 PM



Napoleon was a predecessor to Hitler and Stalin in the sense that he played an important role in engineering the creation of the centralized nation-state as we know it today. What Napoleon did for France was to genuinely create a unified French identity (before him, regional affiliations were in many ways stronger than national ones - a Frenchman would have thought of himself as Norman or Gascon first, and French second) and to create an apparatus of bureaucracy to effectively administer this centralized state. He also pioneered the idea of a mass citizen army - before him, wars were fought with smaller, professional armies supplemented with mercenaries if necessary.

However, in terms of the sheer monstrosity of Hitler and Stalin, a better predecessor would have to be Robespierre who, in his short time in power (less than a year) presided over the executions of approximately forty thousand people, attempted to abolish Christianity and set up a mass Cult of Reason to replace it, and generally indulged in the sort of secret denunciations, show trials, enforcement of revolutionary orthodoxy, and notions of constant warfare that characterized Communist Russia and Nazi Germany.

Finally, in reaction to your comment that nineteenth century Europe spent a lot of time at war with itself, it actually didn't. Yes, the first fifteen years of the century can pretty much be considered one of continual warfare. But after that things were pretty peaceful. If you discount the Crimean war (which is really better considered an Asian war than a European one, despite the participation of France and England) the only other non-civil wars on the European mainland were the three fast ones Bismarck provoked in his effort to unify Germany, the longest of which (against France) lasted a bit less than a year. That's about seventeen years of warfare all together, compared with ten in the twentieth century (ignoring, again, some Balkan conflicts).

By contrast, the eighteenth century saw the War of Spanish Succession (14 years) War of Austrian Succession (8 years), the Seven Years War (known in the US as the French and Indian Wars), and the French Revolutionary Wars, which led into the Napoleonic wars (8 years), for a total of 37 years of warfare. And that discounts a whole bunch of conflicts that were limited to minor powers, or fought mostly through colonial proxies. And the 18th Century was better than the 17th, which saw the 30 Year's War, generally estimated to have killed a third of the population of Germany.

Posted by: Amy on April 8, 2006 10:01 PM



To Amy's list of 18th century European wars between major powers, I'd add the Great Northern War, which lasted 21 years, though it overlapped the War of the Spanish Succession.

You could also arguably add the War of the Bavarian Succession, though that was only 1 year long.

After the end of the Napoleonic wars, most wars involving the Europeans were colonial, and not between European nations.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 8, 2006 11:49 PM



Napoleon's 50,000-deaths-per-year figure surely must be skewed by his extremely costly invasion of Russia. If that hadn't gone so disastrously bad Napoleon's death rate would be significantly lower.

Posted by: Peter on April 9, 2006 12:27 AM



This library online exhibition from Britain might interest you:
http://www.library.stir.ac.uk/spcoll/napoleon/exhibits.html

My high school English teacher had a wonderful test question about Napoleon: an example of how journalism reflects the mood of the people. There were actual excerpts from news accounts of the time: when Napoleon was approaching but still at a distance, he was referred to as "the Ogre"...but as he got closer and closer, the reportage grew more and more laudatory until finally it was "The Hero arrives!" So the question was something along the lines of: which of these is good journalism and why?

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 9, 2006 12:42 AM



Napoleon probably didn't care about those outside his own, but I doubt he was that much worse that most men would be given that much power (not that that excuses being a sociopath).

On the other hand, in the countries Napoleon subdued he did leave a strong legacy of improved unification of law, equality before it, and careers and advancement open to merit, which was a big improvement over aristocratic privledge. How it all balances out, I have no idea.

Posted by: Zetjintsu on April 9, 2006 12:44 AM



when it comes to the campaigns against england and russia one can't to overview the similarities between napoleon and hitler. but the political project is different: napoleon was one of the undertakers of the restauratio imperii (i am not a sympathetiser of napoleon, but i understand goethe's admiration toward him), while hitler was a brutal exponent of extremist ideologies. the difference in education between napoleon and the pair hitler-stalin may be an indicator of the differences between their domestic policies.
the insensitivity toward human losses is the main evidence of cynicism in politics and can be traced even to pacific politicians, who stage through unwise measures a "cold" war against their own nation.

Posted by: acrv on April 9, 2006 07:34 AM



sorry for misspelling: sympathizer

Posted by: acrv on April 9, 2006 07:40 AM



FWIW, Johnson argues that Napoleon, Stalin and Hitler -- none of them actually cared about their ideologies at all. They were all brutally self-interested, and cared only about their own power. In Johnson's view, Napoleon took advantage of the situation he found himself in (promoting revolutionary reforms, etc) not because he stood for anything or gave a fig about people, but because it helped him win. Presumably, had "fascism" been the political vogue of the day, he'd have pushed fascism.

Do y'all buy this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 9, 2006 09:35 AM



There isn't much I can add to the comments above, as several have already stolen my thunder. The one thought I'd like to enlarge upon is the situation that prevailed just prior to Napoleon's era, the so-called "Age of Enlightenment." That it was enlightened and did indeed push civilization some steps forward is undeniable. Our own constitution is eloquent testimony to its effectiveness. But in Europe, the 18th century was marked by a corruption which has few precedents in history. Someone referred to the priviledge of aristocracy, but this was only the tip of the iceberg. To gain a true understanding of this corrosive century, read "Europe Under the Old Regime" by Albert Sorel. I've recorded it if you prefer a narrative version. This book will give you a wonderful run-up to the French Revolution and Napoleon. Without an understanding of the Ancién Régime, you can forget any attempt to fathom Napoleon.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 9, 2006 09:39 AM



Someone said:

"What Napoleon did for France was to genuinely create a unified French identity (before him, regional affiliations were in many ways stronger than national ones - a Frenchman would have thought of himself as Norman or Gascon first, and French second)..."

That's true, though it's hard to say how much of this psychological unification took place in the period 1789-99 and how much in 1799-1812. And someone (Arthur Marwick, maybe, in The Deluge?) claims that on the eve of the First World War some Pyrrenean peasants still didn't know whether they lived in France or Spain.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on April 9, 2006 02:28 PM



Micheal: I like and read Johnson because he writes well and is conservative, but always while keeping in mind how biased he is, especially toward individuals he doesn't like, and the English don't like Napolean. And why should they? He cost them dearly for decades, and the legal benefits he brought to the continent where those the English had taken for granted for centuries.

"Johnson argues that Napoleon, Stalin and Hitler -- none of them actually cared about their ideologies at all. They were all brutally self-interested, and cared only about their own power."

This is a common simplistic argument you hear, that person X doesn't actually believe in what they're saying; it's just all part of their sneaky sinister scheme to gain power. And the argument is almost always bullshit. It comes from the conceit that what I believe is obviously the truth, and since it's so obviously true anyone who is saying something different must know they're wrong, and since they're delibertly lying it must be part of some evil masterplan.

I treat all such arguments with the same heavy dose of skeptism reserved for conspiracy theories. It seems to me that most people really do believe the stupid political shit they espouse. Evolution has made us master at decieving ourselves, because it's easier to decieve others if you really believe your own lies. Hitler was a romantic, and like all romantics he passionantly believed in his ideaology.

Napolean on the other hand didn't have an ideologies, and IIRC never made any serious pretensions toward them, which is why i think the comparison is bogus.

"Presumably, had "fascism" been the political vogue of the day, he'd have pushed fascism."

The fashion of the day in France was more toward democracy and freedom, so by establishing himself as dictator you could argue that Napolean was going _against_ the ideological grain, making Johnson's argument a 180 degree misrepresentation. That Napolean wasn't fighting for an ideology is one of the things that makes him so much better than lowly romantic and bueracratic worms like Hitler and Stalin.

"Do y'all buy this?[Johnson's comparison]"

No:) Johnson is a good read, but not objective. At least that's my two cents.

Posted by: Zetjintsu on April 9, 2006 05:43 PM



Unlike Hitler and Stalin, Napoleon did not persecute Jews, and indeed was regarded as a liberator by Jews in some of the areas that he conquered. On balance I think he was a very bad man, because I can't see how his wars and conquests with all of their suffering were justified, but he was not all bad.

Posted by: Jonathan on April 9, 2006 08:20 PM



I'm more on Johnson's side here than not. Napoleon was, I think, a bit more like Hitler in liking to take extreme chances and risk everything - invading Russia, in both cases, although you could argue that neither one of them understood just how risky that action really was.

That's how I'd make the split between them - give Hitler more of a craving for constant thrills, and you have someone more like Napoleon. Give someone like Napoleon a huge and horrible idological framework for his actions, and you have someone more like Hitler. What a crew.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on April 9, 2006 09:05 PM



I've always wondered if the ambivalence with which we tend to view the Napoleons and the Julius Caesars and the Alexander the Greats (all narcissists of extraordinary abilities who set history on radically different paths but were, in the process, responsible for a huge number of unnecessary deaths) wasn't most pithily put by some Englishman who described Cromwell as a "great, bad man."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 9, 2006 10:16 PM



re: ideology, hitler, and stalin

I'd recommend Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism as a pretty compelling and exhaustively documented explanation of the totalitarian regimes as explicitly non-ideological. Hers is an interesting argument worth a look. The uniqueness of the totalitarian movements in her view would also make Napoleon quite a different type of authority as a despot, not the 'Leader' of a movement.

Posted by: some guy on April 10, 2006 12:43 AM



Hitler, Stalin and Napoleon did have in common that they believed in Destiny, and that it was on their side. This may be the factor that led them to risk others' lives and fortunes, secure in the belief that all would come out well for them in the end. Of course they share this irrationality with Alexander, Julius Caesar, Mao, Castro, Saddam, et cetera, so it hardly makes them unique. And the Islamic absolutists have this unwarranted belief in their own importance in spades.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on April 10, 2006 10:20 AM



I don't know, Robert. What nation has not at some period also had a belief in its Destiny? Certainly the 17th century Puritans did. So did the French catholics of the same period. The Spanish were pursuing their destiny when they were rooting out the Muslims in the 15th century. I think most of us, particualarly Americans, believe in destiny, manifest or not. The question is one of zealotry, and who is a zealot and who is not. I think of persons like Mao, Stalin and Bin Laden as zealots. As someone pointed out earlier, they carry the baggage of a particular ideology with them, a utopianism which they believe in so sincerely that they are willing to commit murder to achieve their ends. I don't think of Charlemagne and Caesar in the same light. Military campaigns and gas chambers are radically different notions. (Napoleon double crossed the revolutionaries soon after he attained power. No zealot, he.) Napoleon was an individual who believed that long term peace could be achieved in Europe if only it could be united under French leadership and civilization, a la the Romans. Who can say he was wrong in thinking this? We know that the lack of unity has been ruinous to Europeans in the 20th century. Applying post mortem morality checks to historical events gets trickier the further away from the events we get.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 10, 2006 11:24 AM



From what I've read Napoleon's downfall - the invasion of Russia - was unnecessary. He invaded because the Czar wasn't showing him enough "respect." A little less of a megalomaniac and Napoleon might have had a much longer run.

Posted by: ricpic on April 10, 2006 11:43 AM



What fun to eavesdrop in on the conversations of people who actually know a few things about history! Sure beats going to school.

I'd be curious about what you buffs think of another thing too: opinion in history-writing. As Zetjintsu points out, Paul Johnson is relentlessly opinionated, and is never shy about writing from his own very pronounced point of view.

Is this a good or a bad thing from a buff's standpoint?

As for me, the combo of his great writing talents, huge appetite for storytelling and facts, and his strong p-o-v makes for a very exciting, almost irresistable reading experience. Nothing dry about a Paul Johnson book! I know it's biased. But that's OK. He isn't concealing his bias. And I appreciate how his bias synchs up with his vigor (he couldn't be so vigorous if he weren't indulging his biases). And his vigor is a big part of why I find him so much more readable than most writers of history, especially those who are much more careful and (yawn) balanced.

Yet I'm not a history buff, eager though I am to fill in a few of the enormous info-blanks that are in me. I long ago lost the ability to plow through big fat books that are also dry and boring, no matter how interested I am in their subject matter. Wait a minute: who am I fooling, I *never* had that ability. First a book has to be an enjoyable read. Then I can make my way through it.

So I'm hyper-appreciative of the "good read" side of someone like Paul Johnson. But I'm also not a history buff. I assume real buffs plow through all kinds of big, fat, dusty volumes without being as reliant on the whole "reading excitement" thing as I am. After all, you love history per se. How do you real buffs see this question? Do you value "balance" to the point where you're willing to sacrifice a lot of readability?

Come to think of it, in a general way I'm a little suspicious of "balance" as an ideal, or at least as a frozen and constant one. I can't completely argue the point (I think it's mostly a taste). But I'm one of those people who generally thinks people oughta just let fly with what they really think and let others sort the final "objective truth" thing out for themselves. I'd have no trouble with the NYTimes, for instance, if it didn't pretend so augustly to be objective and balanced. I mean, why doesn't it just peddle itself as the voice of NYCity Upper-West-Side opinion? I wish Fox would quit it with the "no point of view, just the raw unvarnished facts, free of media-bias" baloney, and just peddle themselves as the right-wing news source. Everyone trying to climb up on the "I'm more objective than you are" pedestal is a spectacle that annoys me, to a probably unreasonable extent. So I'm maybe more willing than most to put up with and even enjoy history written from a strong (and even hilariously prejudiced) p-o-v ...

Real history buffs, though ... I dunno. What's your own pref?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 10, 2006 11:47 AM



"...never shy about writing from his own very pronounced point of view.

"Is this a good or a bad thing from a buff's standpoint?"

If it's a period I know well, I like opinionated writing. I already know the "received version" of the history, and can test the opinion against the standard version.

OTOH, when I'm new to a period, I'd like as disinterested an account as possible. I need a framework to hang stuff on, and I'd like that to be similar to the common framework. At the least, that will allow me to understand what's controversial and what's not.

None of this is to say that history needs to be dry to be disinterested. Nearly every historical subject can be enlivened with interesting anecdotes. Good writing need not be opinionated.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 10, 2006 12:12 PM



I suppose the only truly "objective" history would be little more than a list of dates -- Battle of Hastings, 1066; French Revolution, 1789; Confederates fire on Fort Sumter, 1861 -- and even some dates might be disputed.

My filtering technique, if I'm not familiar with the book's writer, is to blurb-check. Blurbs are richer for trade paperbacks because the publicists can tap actual reviews of the hardcover version (the hardcover blurbs either refer to previous books or are from pals of the writer).

Anyhow, if the blurbs are from Eric Hobsbawm (hope I spelled it right) and the New York Review of Books, that tells me something about the POV of the writer. Blubs from Victor Davis Hanson and the Wall Street Journal also are revealing.

This blurb-thing becomes increasingly effective as the distance from the events reported decreases. When the history deals with the Roman republic, say, it becomes more difficult to impose modern ideologies on the subject matter and, if done, is probably easier to detect ("The Masses were not happy with Caesar's...")

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 10, 2006 12:33 PM



History is like a giant mosaic. Parts of it are brilliantly illuminated and parts are enfolded in shadow. But as you move, the vast canvas glitters and changes, so that the images change as you move. Suddenly, that piece in the shadows begins to be more colorful...those formerly bright ones, now losing their sheen. When historians take a look at this vast "work in progress", they have to decide at the outset what kind of detail they are going to include, or else they will merely get sucked into meaningless (and endless) details. They are like physicists who move back and forth between the micro and macro realities of our universe. Also, historians have to decide whether or not to use a political model or one that is more heavily weighted toward sociological concerns. Others try to work with an economic model. Some, like Will Durant, attempted all three - the so called "integrated" approach. But there is no such thing as true objectivity, unless you merely end up with a table of dates and names – though even here someone has to choose which dates and which names to include. History really is a subjective concept. We carry our prejudices in our genes and whether we are even concious of it, our historical perspective is affected. Think about the very first piece of evidence: what the historian chooses as his subject matter. If a historian is focused on a particular epoc or a particular historical mechanism, you know what his interests are from the start. The best of the ancient historians, like Thucydides and Tacitus, were generally trying to be objective. (Thucydides succeeds at objectivity better than any other writer I know of.) But others, like Livy, conciously attempted to raise the patriotic fervor of their countrymen. As a result, Thucydides is more accurate, and Livy is more entertaining. But down the long perspective of time, these histories change. We read them to get an idea of how people thought, of what civilization was like in those days. No doubt Johnson will be read by future generations for the same purpose. At the moment, we debate his skill vs. his accuracy. Do his prejudices obscure historical truths that would be more "salutary"? Maybe. But the fact that he is entertaining does encourage many to try a history book, where previously they would have preferred torture on the rack to tackling Thucydides. Reading Johnson is like getting a Boxter as your first sports car. It's nice and fun, but it's not a Carrera Turbo. And Johnson is no Thucydides, either.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 10, 2006 03:53 PM



I frequently bring up "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" to ask why Napoleon and Genghis Khan can romp around 1980s SoCal being silly and even endearing (and, apparently, not recognized and loathed by Lincoln or Freud or Beethoven!), and what the response would have been had Hitler been included.

Posted by: J. Goard on April 10, 2006 04:19 PM



But you could probably find a little bit of Hitler in every great military leader -- because that's what Napoleon was all about. The same comparison works pretty well with Alexander the Great; with the exception that Alexander wanted his Hellenic empire to bring all sorts of ethnicities under the same rule. Like Kerry during the presidential campaign, "I'm a uniter, not a divider". His motives were identical to those of Hitler and Napoleon: I know what's best for humanity -- or Europe, France, Germany, etc --, and I'll conquer them and force upon them my beliefs.

Posted by: Mark S. on April 10, 2006 09:32 PM



Alexander was an avenger, Mark. Greece had suffered two devastating invasions from the Persian Empire the century before. All Hellas knew that if Philip, Alexander's father, managed to subdue the Greeks, he was intending to move east to remove the Persian threat permanently. Alexander picked up this mantle on the death of his father and he embued it with a quasi-religious intensity. (Funny thing was, the Ionian Greeks didn't really want to be "liberated.") One of the reasons the Persian Empire fell to Alexander so rapidly was because of Alexander's leniency and kindness to the various constituent groups. Except for the Phoenicians, they all hated the Persians and welcomed the Greeks as liberators, especially the Egyptians. Alexander as conqueror compares quite well with most similar types in human history. Once a province was subdued and pledged fealty, he simply left the place with the same people in charge as before. It was the recalcitrant who felt his might. The megalomania in him came out then, but he never sought cruel vengeance after an opponent was defeated. Compare that to well known tyrants of modern times.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 10, 2006 11:06 PM



Sorry, no, you definitely can dismiss out of hand any serious comparison between Napoleon and Hitler. At least in terms of their levels of evil. Napoleon was in many ways an effective reformer, and showed absolutely no tendency to mass slaughter of harmless civilians for ideological reasons. Overall he was a rather decent and honorable fellow as military dictators go. The Code Napoleon is a great human creation for its time, and it was almost all his work.

Of course, from the British perspective Napoleon and Hitler are both examples of the thing they traditionally hated and feared most -- an ambitious military leader who threatened to unite the continent of Europe against them and thus threaten their supremacy. Hence, they were the same. This is probably what's driving Johnson. Morally, Napoleon appears no more "monstrous" than the British did over the 19th century, with their many instances of butchery and tyranny overseas in the service of their empire.

The argument against Napoleon is that (as FB says above) who was an adrenaline junkie and a war-monger who pushed it too far, with terrible consequences eventually whether he intended them or not. But there is an excellent argument that Napoleon *did* want to get off his imperial roller coaster ride, but could not because the British systematically refused to compromise with him and pushed him into war after war hoping he would overplay his hand, which he eventually did. Looked at from Napoleon's perspective, the constant British war against him left him in a position of vulnerability and he was very motivated to try to force the British to genuine negotiations. Again from his perspective, he was forced into the invasion of Russia because the Russians were allying with the British and were only biding their time for another alliance against him.

The thing I feel about unbalanced historians is that if you are going to read one from one side it is *very* important to read one from the opposite side. Just like you shouldn't get all your news from one slanted newspaper, but reading two from different sides can get you close to the truth. If you are going to read someone like Johnson you should read a sympathetic French biographer of Napoleon as well. Believe me, you will get a *very* different perspective on the constraints Napoleon was operating under.

Posted by: MQ on April 10, 2006 11:12 PM



To sum up again: from Napoleon's perspective: there was no way out of his constant wars, because the British would never stop fighting him no matter what he did. Since he believed that the best defense is a good offense, he was always on the offensive. The rap on him would then be that he should have fought a cautious decades-long defensive war to wait the British out, a kind of cold war avant la lettre. But he was tempermentally unsuited to that, he wanted to knock out his enemies with a dramatic offensive. But what one needs to understand is that with the British attitude real peace was never an option for him. There is nothing he could have done that would have bought him anything more than a temporary truce which they would have used to rearm against him.

This is the pro-Napoleon position and one can argue with it, but I would say it is just as legitimate a perspective on his situation as the traditional pro-British one we english-speakers are usually exposed to. You will often get a good defense of this perspective by reading French writers on Napoleon.

Posted by: MQ on April 10, 2006 11:18 PM



Napoleon wasn't on the same level as Hitler and Stalin but there's no doubt he was a tyrant and a warmonger. My take is hardly original: great general, lousy statesman. He had a tendency to antagonise people unneccessarily. One of his biggest errors was imprisoning the Pope in 1809, thus turning the entire body of the world's devout Catholics against him. He followed it up with a pointless invasion of Spain, which led to the bloodbath documented in Goya's "Miseries of War". He also humiliated the Germans when they posed no threat to him, eventually provoking the National Uprising of 1813. This ensured a dominant strain of German nationalism in the 19th century would be virulently anti-French and anti- everything France was believed to represent (i.e. liberalism). The long-term consequences are only too well-known. So Napoleon could have remoulded Europe into something better, but he didn't. He was also no friend of freedom. The leading French writers of the day - Chateaubriand, Constant and Madame de Stael - who were all libertarians of a kind, turned against him. He had Chateaubriand sent into internal exile and had every copy of de Stael's "On Germany" his secret police could find burnt. His cold-blooded murder of the Duc d'Enghien revealed he had a Macbeth side to his personality too. I'm with Beethoven on Napoleon, not Dominique de Villepin.

Posted by: J.Cassian on April 11, 2006 04:17 AM



Napoleon was brutal in Spain, but honestly no more brutal than numerous other countries have been when faced with a direct guerilla uprising. His behavior was comparable to the British in Kenya (and numerous other places), the U.S. in Vietnam/Iraq, France in Algeria in the 50s, etc. Believe me, put Goya in Iraq today and you'd get some nasty stuff.

As for his internal repressions, they are absolutely peanuts compared to the 20th century. As far as I know, the Duc d'Enghien is the just about the only case during his entire reign of almost 20 years where he executed an innocent civilian for political reasons. And that was started because he honestly believe the Duc had been involved in a very real assasination plot against him. (Napoleon did have plenty of real enemies). Frankly in the political massacre area Napoleon looks very good compared to both the 20th century and to the reign of terror (Robespierre etc.) that preceded him.

Yeah, he was a dictator, he controlled speech and expression, but his level of internal repression seems to have been equal to or less than the Bourbon regime that the rest of Europe wanted to restore. The war monger charge is harder to refute, but then again he never even would have come to power if the rest of Europe hadn't started war after war against revolutionary France.

Posted by: MQ on April 11, 2006 12:57 PM



he never even would have come to power if the rest of Europe hadn't started war after war against revolutionary France.

It was France which started the Revolutionary Wars by declaring war on Austria and Prussia on April 20, 1792, and then attempting to invade the Austrian Netherlands. Napoleon alone can take the credit for disastrously interfering in Spain and trying to place his brother on the throne there. He can also take credit for the catastrophic attack on Russia. Whichever way you look at it, the guy was a megalomaniac who cared nothing for the lives of the soldiers who adored him. Pointing out, for example, that there have been other megalomaniacs in history who cared little for human life does nothing to alter this.

Posted by: J.Cassian on April 11, 2006 02:46 PM



Every one of the wars you mention admits of multiple interpretations of "who started it". This is to a certain degree true of all wars, but less so of extreme cases like e.g. Hitler and WWII than it is of Napoleon's wars. Spain is probably the clearest instance of Napoleon's aggression -- but in that case there was clearly an upcoming power vacuum because of conflicts over royal succession, Napoleon tried to take advantage by putting his family member on the throne. In this he was acting as European dynasts had for centuries -- the wars over the Italian boot, Spain in the Netherlands, etc. Was he worse than Louis XIV?

As for Russia, the fear of a Russian alliance with Britain was quite well founded, as was the belief that Russia was violating agreements with France by supplying Britain. I think Napoleon was quite prepared to live in peace with Russia had Russia cooperated whole-heartedly with the French continental system.

Look, the question when you compare people to Hitler is not whether the person in question is a power-hungry megalomaniac who is willing to sacrifice the lives of his soldiers for his imperial ambitions. What percentage of kings, princes, and emperors in world history could you say that of? But Hitler was bad on a whole other level. I am not a big fan of Napoleon, as I am not a big fan of kings/princes/emperors in general. But I think a lot of our perspective on him is shaped by British propaganda.

Posted by: MQ on April 11, 2006 02:59 PM



And by the way: I'm with Beethoven on Napoleon too. To the degree that one hoped Napoleon would be something more than a more competent version of the run of emperors and kings who had long governed Europe then he was a severe disappointment. He was a long way from being a genuinely great revolutionary leader like George Washington. But that's a long way from being Hitler too.

Posted by: MQ on April 11, 2006 03:04 PM



Hitler = Napoleon + Spengler?

Posted by: Mark S. on April 11, 2006 03:44 PM



First, I should make clear I never compared Napoleon to Hitler or Stalin. He was not on their, ahem, level of "achievement". Nevertheless, I suspect he did have some influence on their thinking, although not as much as on countless Third World dictators from Henri Christophe to "Central African Emperor" Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who learnt that humble military men could seize ultimate power. His example was a disastrous one, as was his effect on Franco-German relations (he must bear some responsibility for the Franco-Prussian War, World War One and World War Two).

Every one of the wars you mention admits of multiple interpretations of "who started it".

But it's hard to make Napoleon out to be a victim of foreign aggression. As Friedrich says, he was an adrenaline junkie, addicted to war. He actually managed to arrange peace with the rest of Europe with the Treaty of Amiens, but he couldn't leave well alone. He was still annexing territory in Italy, sending an expedition to Haiti to reimpose slavery there and making plans to intervene in Egypt and India. Later still, he tried to bully the rest of Europe into enforcing his Continental Blockade against Britain ("Hey, why don't you help me out and ruin your own economies?"), including Russia. Finally, when he was losing, in November 1813, the Allies offered him France's "natural boundaries" - the Rhine, the Alps, the Pyrenees - but he turned them down. So it was obvious there would be no lasting peace in Europe while Napoleon was on the throne.

What percentage of kings, princes, and emperors in world history could you say that of?

What percentage left four million dead in their wake? Napoleon might not have been a Hitler, but his opponents weren't Napoleons either.

He was a long way from being a genuinely great revolutionary leader like George Washington

You're right to bring him in. The parallel between Washington and Napoleon was one made at the time, by Chateaubriand, for instance, and by Byron in his sneering obituary for Bonaparte's career, "Ode to Napoleon". Obviously, the comparison was greatly to the Corsican's disadvantage.

Posted by: J.Cassian on April 11, 2006 04:14 PM



I have no way of knowing if Stalin and Hitler were genuine monsters: all I know is their deeds were monstrous. Stalin, who trained to become a priest and virtually completed the seminary course, ought to have had an idea of good and evil. Hitler may have been so self-deluded that his moral notions turned rather different from the common man's, but he might have been acting in agreement with his, let's say unorthodox conscience. Napoleon... hard to say anything since he did not seem to enjoy his enemies being tortured or races wiped out. No coward like Stalin but not tough enough for a WWI soldier. A few nasty episodes such as the murder of d'Enghien. A poor strategist though a brilliant general -- as Egypt, Spain and above all Russia proved. And the total body count, of course, mostly to his credit. Neither Britain nor Russia had an ambition to conquer Europe, after all.

On the other hand, excellent law codes, civil rights for all, and protection for the property of the Revolution's beneficiaries, the new middle class. If it hadn't been for the wars, life under Napoleon would have been the best ever for the petty and not so petty bourgeois.

Ah, last and perhaps the most important. All three were born in mountainous areas outside the mainland. While I know nothing about Carinthians, Corsicans and highland Georgians used to have lots in common -- clans, in-marriage, a hypersense of honor and belonging.

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