Soldier of Destiny

Michael Broers

Pegasus Books, New York, 2015, 608 pages

Book Review published on: May 5, 2017

It is fair to ask, “what more is there to be said about Napoleon Bonaparte?” After all, there are endless volumes about his life, and he is one of the most famous figures in Western history, as well as the man Carl von Clausewitz called “the God of War.” Michael Broers answers that question in his recent biography Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny. In this highly readable account of Napoleon’s life and career through 1805, Broers gives us a textured picture of a man who goes far beyond the scheming social climber and despot that many portray. Broers has excellent credentials for this project. He is a professor of Western European history at Oxford University, specializing in Italian and French history. He has written a number of books on Napoleon and Europe during Napoleon’s time. In spite of his obvious affection for his subject, he is no apologist. His tone remains neutral and scholarly throughout.

As anyone who has enjoyed David McCullough’s lauded (and laudable) biography of John Adams can attest that a subject’s personal correspondence is the key to taking their story to the next level—raising it above the mere recitation of facts to a compelling narrative. This is a resource that was long denied to Bonaparte’s biographers. As the Fondation Napoléon notes on its website:

Since the end of the French Empire, there have been numerous collections of Napoleon’s letters, which has made any study of them a lengthy and tedious process. The Correspondence published during the Second Empire, owing to its political and hagiographical nature, was in fact only a very partial synthesis, and of a corpus which was itself already very scattered. Furthermore, the selection of letters and interference with the texts by the Commission Historique rendered this a biased work, provoking a considerable volume of criticism from the moment it was published. From the 1880s onwards and throughout the 20th century, historians and archivists have laboured to complete and correct the work published during the Second Empire.

In 2002, the Fondation Napoléon undertook a project to centralize and publish all of his correspondence. Taking advantage of this new resource, Broers gives us a clear view of not only his subject’s actions, but also his thinking as well. Moving chronologically, the narrative takes the reader from the history of Napoleon’s family in Corsica through his accelerated rise to power in the tumult that was revolutionary and post-revolutionary France.

Of particular interest to politically minded readers are Broers’s accounts of Napoleon’s first forays into nation building. The deftness with which Napoleon created a de facto monarchy and royal court in Mombello under the guise of creating the Cisalpine Republic is impressive in and of itself, but even more so in that he did it beneath the notice of the Directory in Paris. Broers’s raises the interesting question of why and how the young Corsican recreated in his home the structures and forms of a royal court without ever having experienced such a court himself.

Broers’s account of the failure of Napoleon to successfully govern Egypt stands in stark contrast to his success in the Cisalpine Republic. In many ways, Napoleon’s attempts to impose European customs on a non-European people, and his ham fisted and ill-conceived efforts to cloak his actions in terms of Islamic tradition mirror the difficulties still faced today by Western powers attempting to pacify parts of the region.

While the work is obviously useful for the serious scholar, it is not ponderous. It is well within reach of any educated reader and is compelling enough to hold one’s interest. Those willing to invest a modicum of time and thought, will find it rewarding.

Book Review written by: Andrew B. Mitchell, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas