Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803–1815, by Charles Esdaile (Viking, 656 pp., $35)

For all his renown, Napoleon Bonaparte remains an elusive figure with a contested legacy. Admirers view him as a latter-day Julius Caesar who enacted reforms only imagined during the Enlightenment. Critics denounce him as the Corsican ogre whose ambitions made war a seemingly permanent state. At the center of the debate stand the prolonged wars from 1803 to 1815 that, according to historian John Holland Rose, made Napoleon’s story the history of mankind. In his new book, Charles Esdaile avoids so sweeping a conclusion; through the prism of Napoleon’s wars he nevertheless seeks to dispel competing myths and understand both the man and his impact on Europe.

All history raises the question of which actions follow by necessity from their context and to what degree individual choices establish or shape that context. But a period dominated by a single person puts a sharper focus on the role of human agency. Did Napoleon vindicate the “great man” theory of history or merely ride patterns beyond his control? While noting that “Napoleon’s own aggression, egomania, and lust for power” were the prime mover behind the long wars, Esdaile also concedes the importance of external factors like international politics. Following historian Paul Schroeder, he points to structural failures within the international system that promoted not peace and security but instead a competition for advantage that made compromise synonymous with defeat. Contingent political crises thus had the potential to shatter the diplomatic order and start wars that proved hard to end.

While war stood at the center of Napoleonic iconography, Esdaile reminds us that Napoleon gained power as a peacemaker, appealing to a French public weary of conflict. After 1800, he seemed to combine aspirations for peace with protecting the revolutionary settlement within France. Neither Britain nor Austria—France’s two main adversaries—put ideology before practical calculations of the national interest, and their leaders had no wish to fight a war simply to overthrow the French Revolution. Some in Britain thought Napoleon an adventurer no more worthy of trust than his revolutionary predecessors, but peace still seemed an experiment worth trying. Austria, meanwhile, believed that if the Revolution could be contained within France, destroying it would be unnecessary. Exhaustion and stalemate thus made peace an appealing option by 1800.

But peace proved short-lived. Once Napoleon had seized power in France, nothing would constrain his ambition. In 1799, Germaine de Staël shrewdly described Napoleon as “the man who was going to take the place of everyone else and render the human race anonymous.” He quickly reneged on pledges made to Britain in the Treaty of Amiens, which he clearly regarded as an opening gambit in the struggle to consolidate French gains from the 1790s. Napoleonic France held a strong enough position that it could be contained only by a general alliance among other powers, but mutual rivalry and conflicting ambitions prevented such cooperation at first.

Military glory consolidated Napoleon’s political hold in France. Rewarding the army and shifting economic burdens onto conquered territories won him still greater popularity. But Napoleon always sensed the fragility of his position as French emperor, by contrast with rulers of ancient lineage who had inherited their thrones. Unlike them, he constantly had to prove his claim to power on the battlefield, invading Spain, Portugal, and eventually Russia.

If, as Napoleon said, madness was the disproportion of aims to available means, then invading Russia was truly a mad act. Despite his ability to mobilize resources, Napoleon seemed to have lost his edge with encroaching middle age and a taste for soft living. Geography denied him the chance for a decisive confrontation, and war with Russia became subsumed into the wider European conflict. Tsar Alexander’s pivotal decision to continue westward and avenge his earlier humiliations at Napoleon’s hands marked a key step toward a final coalition to defeat Napoleon and restore peace.

Even defeat in Russia need not have brought about Napoleon’s downfall. Austria’s Emperor Francis, who had married his daughter to Napoleon, remained open to a compromise. But Napoleon rejected anything short of hegemony, ranting in a famous interview with Austrian Chancellor Metternich that he would never degrade himself with compromise and instead would reprise his earlier victories. Fighting stronger opponents with dwindling manpower and resources made defeat nearly certain for Napoleon, and France soon turned against him.

Napoleon’s wars ended when his opponents put their differences aside at last and worked together against him. Allied sovereigns—along with Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh—accompanied the armies to coordinate efforts. By 1814, the allies shifted their emphasis from the immediate task of victory to resolving the structural deficiencies that had divided them and fueled conflict. Rulers now equated war with revolution as a threat to public order, acknowledging the frightening levels of social and political change it had wrought. Indeed, since competition had made war a constant threat, with destruction as the price of defeat, the French Revolution had become a general struggle. So leaders submerged their rivalries to end a system that had made conflict more likely than compromise. The embryonic form of crisis management and collective security that replaced the old order helped contain disputes right up to the catastrophe of August 1914.

Esdaile notes the similarity of Napoleon’s wars with Germany’s later bid to establish a colonial empire within Europe; the Germans were defeated by roughly the same means. As for Napoleon, his legacy became the nineteenth-century decline of a France exhausted by war—another chapter in the old story of defeated hubris. Esdaile tells that story with verve and insight, drawing together a complex struggle that transfixed Europe for a generation into a comprehensive narrative that shows how much misery the thirst for glory brought. That misery, as Esdaile concludes, made Napoleon a bogeyman for Europe rather than a hero.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next