Written with great wit and panache, this biography also has a serious purpose: to make us face up to the moral bankruptcy of Napoleon's dictatorship. Johnson tells the whole story: his astonishing gift for figures and calculation, his mastery of cannon; his audacious, hyperactive and aggressive generalship and his simple battle tactics; his complete control of propaganda and the success of the cultural presentation of the Empire; the Code Napoleon; his failure as an international statesman, as Europe grew to hate him; his marshals and ministers; his wives, mistresses, personal style and working methods; the British blockade and the Continental System; the mistakes in Spain and Russia. The escape from Elba, the events leading up to Waterloo and the battle itself, which gets a full treatment, is particularly riveting.
The glory of France and the erstwhile Whig hero comes up short in this biography by a historian of decidedly Tory bent. It seems a rarity these days to find a biography of Napoleon that does not glorify the Corsican revolutionary. Johnson (The Renaissance, 2000, etc.) surely does not. Instead, he writes, the defeat of Napoleon and the subsequent Congress of Vienna are to be counted among the great accomplishments of modern history, ushering in an era of peace that would not end for nearly a century with the outbreak of WWI-when, he asserts, the modern cult of Napoleon began. Had Napoleon committed his campaigns of conquest today, Johnson further asserts, he "would have been obliged to face a war crimes tribunal, with an inevitable verdict of 'guilty' and a sentence of death or life imprisonment." Reckoning that Napoleon's dream of empire cost four or five million lives and incalculable destruction of property, Johnson lays at his door blame for a number of sins, including the "deification of force and war, the all-powerful centralized state, the use of cultural propaganda to apotheosize the autocrat, the marshaling of entire peoples in the pursuit of personal and ideological power." In brief, Johnson charges, Napoleon was less a liberator of Europe than a dictator of the sort that would follow in the century afterward-a Hitler or Mussolini for his day. The author recognizes Napoleon's talents as a commander and bravery-throughout his career, he reckons, Napoleon had 19 horses shot out from under him in battle-but still has little use for the fellow, unlike more enthusiastic recent biographers such as Frank McLynn (see below) and Robert Asprey. Despite an evident distaste for his subject, Johnson's sharp-edged view of Napoleon is well supported, and well worth considering. (Kirkus Reviews)