The figure of Napoleon is bound up in a great deal of myth and legend, much of it purposefully constructed by Napoleon itself. This is what makes Napoleon: The Path to Power such a fascinating work, exploring how the Napoleonic legend was constructed, and critically examining sources, accounts, and events to look at how the figure of Napoleon was created. Certainly, there are already a tremendous abundance of books about the most famous Frenchman of all time, but Path to Power makes an effective and readable work in both giving an engaging biography of Napoleon, both in his character and actions, and analyzing how the Napoleonic legend was created.
The Path to Power starts long before Napoleon was born, in its analysis and discussion of the short-lived Corsican Republic in the 1750s and 1760s, under the figure of Paoli. Although before Napoleon's birth in 1769, this would be vital for laying the future contours of Napoleon's life, as Napoleon's father ultimately chose to collaborate with the French - which would earn Napoleon a place in the French aristocracy and military education, but also a disconnect between his strong feelings of Corsican patriotism and his presence in France.
After mostly glancing over Napoleon's early years, at home and then his education in France, the book dives into earnest with Napoleon's political activates in Corsica after the Revolution, showing a locally focused patriot fired both by genuine love for Corsica and idealism, but also intense ambition. Once this failed, the rest of Napoleon's trajectory is well known: his return to France, his role in the crushing of the counter-revolutionaries backed by the British in Toulon, his fateful participation in the destruction of a Royalist uprising in Paris with the whiff of grapeshot, and then his posting to the Army of Italy and his near miraculous victories throughout the north of the peninsula. This is also where another key theme of the book emerges, its focus on Napoleonic propaganda and public relations, which is analyzed in a variety of forms. Egypt is a further continuation of this, and then finally back in France and the Napoleonic coup of the 18th of Brumaire, before discussing how this was perceived and what sort of possibilities it laid open for the future - to be discussed in the book's second volume.
A strong point is its effort to put Napoleon in context. Napoleon especially by the end of the period covered by the book - during the Egyptian campaign - had become increasingly callous about human life, as shown by the numerous atrocities carried out by the French against the civilian populations of occupied countries. There were also atrocities against Ottoman prisoners of war, and a casual expenditure of the lives of his troops at Acre, or indeed during the campaign as a whole (largely launched and led by Napoleon for his own glory), and the culling of French wounded during the painful retreat from Syria. These are all met unflinchingly by the author - but he also notes that these were, by the standards of the day both in France and abroad, unexceptional.
This links to a key theme of the book: Napoleon certainly was a brilliant and talented general, but the creation of the Napoleonic legend, of the heroization, deification even, of Bonaparte, was purposefully and deliberately engineered by Napoleon. This is demonstrated through a good usage of contemporary sources, such as newspapers, army dispatches, paintings, engravings, and Napoleon's bulletins. The way in which Napoleon kept himself in the public spotlight, magnified his victories, created an image of himself as a Republican hero-liberator, minimized his set backs, and kept himself constantly in the public eye is masterfully shown by Dwyer. Napoleon's effective relationship to the press, and his creation of narratives - such as saving France from the Director, returning from Egypt at the call of a suffering France - as well as careful control over his public image, are other well done parts of the books. It makes for a great combination of a biography and analysis of press and communication networks and structures in the late 18th century.
Along the way, one gets a good feel for the changes of Napoleon's character, as he becomes more and more grizzled, less idealistic, more jaded, and increasingly arrogance, utterly convinced of his superiority. This is particularly clear in Egypt, where Napoleon took on pharaonic delusions of his own grandeur, mission, and destiny. Perhaps he was assimilating his own propaganda which seems to attempt to compare himself to Mohammad as another messenger.
Sometimes the book minces petty distinctions, in an attempt to analyze overly the Napoleonic myth, such as declaring that rather than luck, timing, and chance being the root of Napoleon's opportunities, it was his ability to exploit the moment - but are not these essentially the same? It is true however, that Napoleon's rise to power was nowhere near as smooth as he would attempt to portray it: he made numerous missteps during the political squabbling of Corsica and then later on during the initial years of the French Revolution, which almost saw him jailed or worse, and even the 18th of Brumaire was a near-comic affair which could have easily backfired upon him. Napoleon could have made a fatal turn easily, and the fact that he managed to rise to become the supreme leader of France is something of a miracle. Indeed, reading the pages of the book, a continuing theme is just how surprising it was that Napoleon proved to be such a military and political genius, when nothing before in his record had indicated he would be so successful: it makes one wonder how many other great men of history have either not had the opportunity to shine, or been cut down before they could.
Is Dwyer's critique of Napoleon excessive? To some extent, certainly: Napoleon writing positively about his won battles is no surprise and not a great revelation, and nor do we need much reminding that Napoleon was an ambitious man. The tendency to reject almost everything Napoleon seems to have said on St. Helena is a trope - is there anything that Napoleon said about his life that is actually true in Dwyer's eyes? But given just how much legend and myth making has grown up around Napoleon, it is good to have a book which aims to critically examine Napoleon's life.
For a man like Napoleon, reading just one biography is insufficient. Other books would be needed for Napoleon's life, particularly the military side of it, to begin to reach a full appreciation of such a remarkable figure. But the Path to Power provides an admirable study of the political side of Napoleon's life and upbringing, and a scholarly analysis of his usage of the press and propaganda to promote his successes. For this, it is a great book to form the cornerstone of a look at Napoleon's character and to provide a framework to place studies of him into.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Ryan C Thomas