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The Second Time as Romance

The Shadow Emperor: A Biography of Napoleon III, by Alan Strauss-Schom, Amberley Publishing, 512 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1445684192 Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was, by any measure, a remarkable man. Growing up in exile in Switzerland, under the constant watch of both the combined powers who defeated his uncle and a fearful restored monarchy in France, he rose from obscurity and the embarrassment of two failed coups d’état to become emperor of France. He skilfully adopted modern means of communication to increase his popularity. Under his reign France underwent a cultural and infrastructural renaissance, his government improved the lives of the poorest, he was a major figure in the unification of Italy, and with the exception of Italy and Crimea he helped keep the peace of Europe. To posterity though, he is, for all that, a strange hybrid, somewhere between failure and mystery. Otto von Bismarck, who had the biggest hand in his demise, unkindly referred to him as the “sphinx without a riddle”, implying guile, and perhaps subtlety, but no substance. But even Bismarck’s Germany, with its authoritarian rule blended with a form of partial democracy and considerable concessions to the working class, took considerable inspiration from the France of Napoleon III. Perhaps Napoleon’s curse was that his life was perpetually overshadowed by seemingly greater men: at the end of his life by Bismarck, in the middle by Garibaldi, and in his earliest years by his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte. Indeed this is reflected in the title of the book, The Shadow Emperor. The concept of Bonapartism is essentially foreign or even repugnant to most modern western audiences, that is not to say it is an idea that has lost all currency. Putin could be described as a Bonapartist, but so also could the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk. History has often been unkind to the two Napoleons. Some see Napoleon III and indeed the whole Bonaparte family as small-town opportunists, interested only in power and monopolising it among a small cadre of friends and relatives, or as vainglorious warmongers. Curiously both the left and the right hold the two Napoleons in derision. But both the left and the right, indeed most people regardless of the political spectrum, would agree in seeing Napoleon III as a pale imitation of his uncle. Both men abounded with contradictions. Napoleon I could be moody, at times blunt, sometimes loquacious yet if required also succinct and decisive. His…



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