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January 17, 2008

Jeremy Black asks, what was Napoleon's legacy? Napoleon's Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 - Charles Esdaile

Posted by Jeremy Black

Napoleon's Wars: An International History, 1803-1815
by Charles Esdaile
London: Allen Lane, 2007
Hardback, 30

Stern fronted its issue of 10th May 2007 with a photograph of Sarkozy and the title "The New Napoleon". Such references reflected not only Sarkozy's willingness to strike that echo, as had his one-time rival Dominique de Villepin, but also an identification of determined French leadership with Napoleon. Apart, however, from on the egos of French politicians, what was Napoleon's legacy?

The Great War was a term applied to the Napoleonic wars, until the First World War, and deservedly so. Charles Esdaile, Professor at the University of Liverpool and a distinguished expert on the Peninsular War, a key aspect of the Napoleonic Wars, focuses on the international dimension of the conflicts in order to explain why the powers fought.

In doing so he throws critical light on Napoleon, clarifying the extent to which he constantly overthrew attempts to produce compromise peaces. This reflected both his own personality and the extent to which his regime rested on bellicosity. Praise for aspects of his domestic policy are therefore seen by Esdaile as a distraction from the fundamental characteristic of Napoleon's policies, his determination to wage war. Esdaile also draws attention to the propaganda dimension of the Napoleonic regime, and the extent to which the dictator deliberately spun his image.

Critical of Napoleon, the well-written and wide-ranging study is also interesting for the attention it devotes to other powers. Esdaile's theme is not original but whereas the other major scholar in the field, Paul Schroeder, concentrated on Austria's involvement, and also adopted an approach reflecting his interest in structural models of international behaviour, Esdaile is more searching on several of the other players, not least Britain, and more willing to emphasise the play of contingency and personality.

This leads to a satisfying account that follows Schroeder in underlining the extent to which the impact of war led other powers to try and settle with Napoleon (appeasement after defeat), only for Napoleon's policies in the end to produce a major coalition that by the close of 1813 included most of Europe. Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia were the key powers, an alliance that reflected the fear and hostility Napoleon inspired.

Even then, Austrian and Russian dislike of Britain as a result of their concern about her power, provided Napoleon with opportunities to divide the coalition and buy peace with frontiers that would have included the left bank of the Rhine: Belgium, including the key naval base of Antwerp, and part of modern Germany. Fortunately, his refusal to accept compromise doomed the option for a last-minute settlement on this basis and he was driven from power. An uneasy post-war collective security system in which Austria, Prussia and Russia played the key roles, then helped keep the peace, but it proved unable to cope with Napoleon III's revisionism.

The extent to which history provides food for thought for those interested in international relations will strike any perceptive reader of this book.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, 2007) and A Short History of Britain (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).

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