The Napoleonic Wars

Joshua Treviño, Austin

“The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History,” by Alexander Mikaberidze

Alexander Mikaberidze’s The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History is not perfect — but it is very, very good, and deserves to be read. Should it be your first book on Napoleon and his wars? Probably not. If you have to begin somewhere, begin with Andrew Robert’s outstanding 2014 biography, which is an essential and (to my mind) unsurpassed English-language apologia for the Emperor. Then delve into David Chandler’s definitive 1973 The Campaigns of Napoleon, not for a narrative read, but for in-depth illumination of the operational genius and tragedy on exposition in Roberts’s work.

Mikaberidze may come third, and the ranking does not diminish the work. His aim is to show how Napoleon remade the world—albeit mostly in the opposite direction the Emperor intended, with the key exception of European law and practice. The work done in this vein is excellent, as Mikaberidze sets forth the Napoleonic wars’ transformation of the Islamic world—the chapters devoted to the Ottoman and Qajar realms are packed with (to me) new information—and his decisive effect on the Americas. The author notes that the wars and their outcomes removed Latin America from the world stage, after a brief and brilliant presence there for the preceding three centuries: a harsh but accurate assessment. His talent for unearthing nearly unknown episodes is immense: for example, I never knew that an 1808 British attack on Nagasaki, Japan, set in motion a series of events in that country culminating in the Meiji Restoration. Nor did I realize that the British war leadership briefly contemplated an epic, globe-spanning invasion of Mexico(!) in the aftermath of Austerlitz:

Throughout the fall of 1806 the British cabinet drew up plans for the takeover of South America. One expedition was designed to navigate Cape Horn, seize the port of Valparaiso in Chile, and, after crossing the Andes, establish a chain of forts before conquering the whole southern half of the continent. Another envisioned separate attacks on Peru and Panama. Even Grenville, usually reserved when it came to overseas overtures, fell prey to this ‘imperial fever.’ In October he considered probably the most audacious of these plans: detaching several thousand men from the British force at Buenos Aires, transporting them across the Atlantic, and collecting 1,000 men from the garrison of the Cape of Good Hope; continuing to India, where they would be joined by 4,000 sepoys; invading the Philippines; and, finally, sailing across the Pacific to attack Mexico from the west. Another British expedition, from the West Indies, was to attack it at that precise moment from the east! The plan was presented to Wellington, who, fortunately, brought much-needed common sense to the discussion and pointed to the obvious impossibility of launching and coordinating such a global operation.

Mikaberidze’s two major theses are well developed and, I think, nearly irrefutable: the first, that Napoleon ended up transforming Britain, not France, into the dominant world power for the next century; and the second, that the reaction to Napoleon laid the foundations of modern autocracy and the state-bureaucratic system under which humanity still lives. (There is a very interesting parallel to this in the opening thesis of Yang Jisheng’s 2021 The World Turned Upside Down, on what he terms the anti-democratic bureaucracy’s triumph in the Chinese Cultural Revolution: more on this later.) The close, with the Concert of Europe forming and seeking to impose order—and artificiality—upon Europe in the wake of the Emperor’s epoch, made me wish AJP Taylor’s 1954 The Struggle for Mastery in Europe began its narrative in 1815 and not 1848—else it would be a near-perfect continuation.

It’s helpful, of course, that the author is a not just a good historian but a good writer. The former gets you someone like Jürgen Osterhammel, who is manifestly brilliant and whose 2015 Transformation of the World I am still slogging through six years later. The difference with Mikaberidze is clear exposition like this, amplified by his eye for the breathtaking anecdote:

The Napoleonic system represented a sort of cultural imperialism. Its exponents—military governors and/or civilian prefects and auditors—were convinced of the superiority of the Napoleonic system, which in their minds represented the most rational and efficient (and therefore better) organization of its day. To a certain degree, they saw themselves as agents of the mission civilisatrice that entailed exporting these changes for the benefit of the peoples who had found themselves under French rule. “I have come to occupy your land,” announced a French marshal to the residents of Kassel in 1806. “You have nothing to expect but improvements.”

Any American who has been alive and conscious for the past twenty years will wince in recognition.

You should read Alexander Mikaberidze’s The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History. You should read it because the issues of those wars are still alive and vital—and the scope is still global. A question that arises here, and in any Napoleonic history, is whether those issues would have been present absent the man himself. Did the Napoleonic wars require Napoleon? Mikaberidze does not directly address it, but his book provides an answer of sorts: no, to an extent. The genius, the drama, the tragedy, the glitter of the age required Napoleon. The Sun of Austerlitz and the awfulness of the Imperial Guard’s repulse at Waterloo are unthinkable without the man so great as to lend his name to an entire era. But the underlying issues—France writhing in the power of a people’s revolution, Austria tottering, Germany awakening, Russia ascending, Britain stepping into modernity and therefore mastery—were all present without the Emperor. These convulsions across the face of the earth would not have happened in the same way without the Emperor. But they would have happened, somehow, sometime. Mikaberidze’s contribution here is not in describing the spark, but in how the tinder burned brightly across all humanity, in an age of heroes.

Postscript: after this, make sure you also read Dominic Lieven’s 2009 Russia Against Napoleon, which is the best single account of the 1812-1814 campaigns in English; and also Alistair Horne’s 1996 How Far From Austerlitz? which argues persuasively that the Emperor was, like Lee after Chancellorsville, progressively blinded by the brilliance of his own greatest feats.

Joshua Treviño is the Chief of Intelligence and Research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He writes at Armas about culture, events, and strategy, with a particular focus on Texas, Mexico, and China.

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