Alan Forrest on Napoleon

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On a cold December day in 1840 Parisians turned out in force to watch as the body of Napoleon was solemnly carried on a riverboat from Courbevoie on its final journey to Les Invalides. It may seem curious to begin a biography by focusing on an event twenty years after the protagonist's death, but that is just what Alan Forrest, professor of Modern History at the University of York, has done. Having written extensively on the impact of war on a country's citizens and civilians during the Napoleonic period, Alan has now turned his attention to Napoleon Bonaparte himself. In this short interview, he explains this new direction and what he set out to accomplish with this biography. (February 2012)
Alan Forrest on Napoleon

You say that new research on Napoleon is best when it comes from a transnational viewpoint. In what way is your Napoleon transnational?

Alan Forrest: It is sometimes quite difficult to maintain an emphasis on the global or transnational aspects of the subject when writing a book that is essentially a biography, following a career that inevitably had France at its core, and I cannot claim to have done so to any systematic degree. But I have tried, I think, to avoid making the history of the period too exclusively focused on France. Some of the best recent work on the Empire has sought to explain its impact on other countries and to see the period – as Napoleon himself saw it – as one dominated by a European rather than a French vision. Historians have increasingly written the history of the Empire from a Europe-wide perspective, viewing it not only from Paris but from Piedmont, Naples, Amsterdam or Hamburg, emphasizing the degree to which the polity was affected by the traditions and cultures of the different states and nations where it was implanted.

Of course France remained of primary importance here; it was French institutions, French administrative structures and the French Code that were exported across Europe. But their implementation was not exclusively French. It relied on collaborators, as Isser Woloch and others have stressed, and the success of the imperial experiment depended mightily on the capacity of the Empire to find such collaborators among the local elites of Europe. And I have tried where possible to show awareness of these differences, of the two-way processes that were involved in establishing habits of governance and the structure of courts and justice across Europe. But the history of these years is not all about Europe. There is also an extra-European dimension, one where Napoleon showed himself less visionary – in the Caribbean, and especially in Haiti, which only recently has begun to force itself back into the master narrative of these years. The recent emphasis on the wars beyond Europe in turn remind us that the Napoleonic Wars were world wars, and that Napoleon, with his eyes fixed on a European land empire, was right to identify Britain, with its commercial superiority and extra-European colonial interests, as France's main adversary in the new world that was taking shape.

What was your approach to the ‘legend of Napoleon’? Embrace or rejection?

<i>© Quercus</i>” /><STRONG>AF</STRONG>: I found myself increasingly fascinated by the legend and by the quite calculated ways in which it was created and spun, by the Emperor himself and by those around him. It was a salutary reminder that his was a singularly modern form of politics. Public relations and propaganda often seem very modern devices in government; we in Britain often think of 'spin politics' as being the monopoly of the last few decades, associated in particular with the government of Tony Blair and the huge expansion in the employment of special political advisers. But Napoleon was already establishing his legend as he fought in Italy and Egypt and as he distributed his famous bulletins. I admit that I find the process fascinating, and the degree to which the legend became embedded in popular culture even more so. It is an important element in the popular memory of the period, and as a cultural historian I find that interesting.<!-- /paragraph3 --></p>
<p><!-- paragraph4 --><!-- paragraphimage4 -->Do I embrace it or reject it? I do not believe it is true, if 'embracing' it implies an uncritical acceptance of its content. Napoleon was not superhuman on the battlefield; nor had he been the 'petit caporal' of 1815 throughout his career; and he undoubtedly caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of troops, to say nothing of civilians, in the pursuit of his dream. One should not blind oneself to that reality. But the dream has a fascination of its own – the sense of an empire that was built on efficient administration and justice, the insistence on equality before the law, the embrace of meritocracy and careers open to talent, the image of the emperor as a man of the people, risen from the ranks of the people. The Napoleonic myth appeals to the egalitarian in all of us. But that is only one part of the appeal. The other – the constant quest for military glory, for conquest, for an almost colonial grip on the peoples of Europe (and Michael Broers has quite specifically equated the spirit of the First Empire with European colonial expansion in the nineteenth century) – is less easy to empathize with. For the Napoleonic legend was also, of course, a military one, and it would be especially powerful among Napoleon's old soldiers once they were – however unsatisfactorily – reintegrated into civilian life. It was a legend built on nostalgia, on the regrets felt for a past youth, 'a world we have lost'. The fact that that legend lived on so relentlessly in the France of the nineteenth century is itself an eloquent commentary on the politics of the regimes that replaced the Empire.<!-- /paragraph4 --></p>
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<h2>Did you find the genre of biography frustrating or a positive challenge? Were there questions regarding what to put in and what to leave out?</h2>
<p><!-- paragraphimage5 --><STRONG>AF</STRONG>: You have, I think, detected my Achilles' heal. I am not a natural biographer in that I don't think that history organizes itself neatly around the life-cycle of individuals, and in everything else that I have written there is a problem, a research question, at its core. And of course there is something constraining about biography, in that it makes you prioritize the career of an individual over everything else, to follow events through his eyes, to start and finish with his birth and death as though these were the things that shaped the history of the period (though, perversely, I have preferred to liberate myself from those dates where possible, to begin the book in 1840 with the “Return of the Ashes”, and to intertwine history and legend, politics and legacy, since with Napoleon the two are so enmeshed, so entangled). Not all the initiatives, the decisions, the policies can be the work of one man, however ambitious and inspired, and I have repeatedly tried to remind readers of that fact across this book. Any man is the product of his times. Napoleon was young, ambitious and talented and extraordinarily farsighted in many ways, but he was also a product of his times, an integral part of his generation, the generation of the French Revolution, with all the challenges and opportunities which that moment provided. At another time, in another generation, such opportunities would have been denied him and he could neither have risen in the army nor imposed his rule. And he would not have thought as he did.<BR> <BR>Yet I felt I wanted to write this biography, to try to tease out the many twists and turns of his career and try to fit that career into the era in which he lived. Nothing can disguise the fact that this was a momentous period for both France and the European continent, nor that for a generation it was Napoleon who dictated Europe's agenda. I suppose I came to this project from two different historical stances – from an interest in war and its effects on society at large (and I still believe that the war, with its high and continuous demands in conscripts and requisitions, was the dominant memory of most ordinary people who lived through these years), and from the history of the French Revolution which has been my the main focus of my writing and my historical interest. Napoleon famously, and not unambiguously, claimed that he believed the Revolution to be 'over'. For me one of the fascinating aspects of his life and political career is the degree to which he remained loyal to the principles of the Revolution and the extent to which he was prepared to abandon them. And there we have to form our own judgment, often in the face of the propagandist accounts he left behind.<!-- /paragraph5 --></p>
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