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The Second Time as Romance

Thomas Earls FitzGerald

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 nephew, on the other hand was romantic, unfailingly polite yet also cunning and pragmatic. Contemporaries found him frustratingly quiet and hard to read but always courteous.

Napoleon  was almost shabby in his style of dress next to the pomp and splendor of his retinue. Like Louis XIV, he disliked grandeur but both rulers considered it a politically useful means of communicating strength. Napoleon III, on the other hand, revelled in splendour and gleefully reintroduced the imperial regalia of his uncle. To modern audiences Napoleon I, in his long grey coat and bicorn hat, remains one of the most recognisable figures from history. Napoleon III, on the other hand, with his enormous moustache and portly figure seems slightly absurd.

Alan Strauss-Schom’s new biography is one of the few comprehensive studies of the man in the English language. The product of dutiful and painstaking research with French sources, this book is a detailed account of Napoleon III’s life and times and of the important surrounding. In an age characterised by an increasingly innovative approach to history-writing this book is a straightforward political biography. Strauss-Schom provides a detailed narrative of the life but the reader is left asking questions.

In a series of short chapters Strauss-Schom moves rapidly from one event and personality to the next. But the book never really tells us what motivated Louis Napoleon? Why did he spend most of his early life seeking not just power but specifically Bonaparte power? What type of society did he envisage? Was he a self-obsessed power seeker capitalising on the fame of his uncle or was there something more? The answer, I believe, lies in his youth and his family, and this is a weak point of this volume. Indeed there is so little on his youth and family that for a reader uninitiated in the history of the Bonaparte and Beauharnais families I would suggest looking elsewhere. Crucially, Louis Napoleon’s mother was the daughter of Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine, and his father, Louis, was Napoleon’s brother. Napoleon divorced Josephine in 1810 but afterwards remained genuinely devoted to her children Hortense and Eugène. Eugène was in fact one of his best battle commanders and administrators. Indeed, it has been suggested that in Eugène Napoleon I had the perfect heir. However, the emperor wanted a Bonaparte to follow him. 

Louis Napoleon was born in Paris in 1808. His father, Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon I’s younger brother, was a self-absorbed hypochondriac who expressed little interest in his children. Hortense and Louis could not stand one another and separated after the birth of their three sons, Napoleon Charles (who died in childhood), Napoleon Louis and Louis Napoleon, who later became Napoleon III.

Napoleon was perpetually at war in Louis’s earliest years, but during the Hundred Days prior to Waterloo he spend much of his free time with Hortense and her two sons, with whom a mutual devotion developed. After Waterloo, Hortense and her children faced the wrath of the restored monarchy and the contempt of the allied coalitions. With talent and adaptability she managed to settle in Switzerland and provide her sons with a comfortable and rather idyllic life in a chateau by a lake, though the eldest son would spend much of his time with his father in Italy.

Throughout his life Louis Napoleon expressed affection for his mother, who effectively drilled into her sons both their family history and their duty or destiny to restore Bonaparte power. While Napoleon’s brothers and sisters went into obscurity and his only son was effectively a prisoner of the Austrians, the two Louis became obsessed by this idea of Bonaptarist restoration, much to their relatives’ chagrin.

The two brothers had an adventurous spirit. Louis Napoleon even contemplated joining the Russian army, but in their twenties both became embroiled in revolutionary Italian nationalism. Napoleon Louis became ill while fleeing from Austrian and papal forces and died in his brother’s arms in 1831. In the following year Napoleon’s only son died in Vienna. From this point on Louis Napoleon effectively nominated himself as Napoleon’s successor and would spend the next sixteen years seeking power in France. During these years he went through two almost embarrassingly poorly executed attempts at coups, exile and imprisonment before the collapse of Louis Philippe’s monarchy in 1848 allowed him be elected to the national assembly. Shortly afterwards he was elected president of the republic, before finally declaring himself emperor of the French in 1851. He remained as emperor until his defeat and abdication, at the hands of allied German armies in 1870.

Strauss-Schom has limited sympathy with his subject; indeed he seems to be more interested in some of the figures around him. But one cannot help but feel that perhaps he did not seek to fully understand or contextualise Napoleon III the man. Strauss-Schom credits Napoleon III’s half brother August de Morny as being responsible for many of his political victories, and the engineer George-Eugène Haussmann with the rebuilding of Paris and much of France. Napoleon III was indeed fortunate to have talented allies and supporters around him. Indeed, his uncle was equally fortunate to have had such talented allies. It could be argued that crucial to Napoleon I’s military victories was the presence of the resourceful Louis-Alexander Berthier as chief of staff, and Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès for his role as civilian administrator. But all of these cases required collaboration or co-operation between individuals. Strauss-Schom crediting de Morny with Napoleon III’s success seems to downplay the incredible tenacity, drive and self-belief that he possessed.

Next to NASA’s moon programme no other project has been more expensive than the rebuilding of Paris. The city of Paris, as we know it today, dates from Napoleon III. The author is right to credit the mechanics of this project to Haussman but perhaps underestimates the political will of Napoleon III.

Again Strauss-Schom gives considerable and fascinating insights into the emperor’s wife, Eugénie. It could be argued that the book lacks insights into the role various women, whether his mother, his long-time English mistress and financier in his days in exile, Lizzie Howard, and then his wife played in shaping his personality, his coming to power, and finally his reign.

In his conclusions Strauss-Schom credits Napoleon III with having transformed France in terms of economic development, the introduction of the railway system, sanitation and proto-electrification and also with an important role in the foundation of the Italian state. Having previously published a book on Napoleon I, he concludes that his nephew was a far more positive and constructive figure. He characterises the first as a destructive war-obsessed tyrant, and while he never warms to Napoleon III he considers him a more positive influence for France and Europe. But as to what drove the emperor, Strauss-Schom sadly does not address this important question. And the simple fact is that his inspiration and drive came from an almost religious devotion to, as he saw it, continuing the work of his uncle.

Strauss-Schom characterises Napoleon I as having brought destruction and chaos to Europe. Presumably putting an end to feudalism, curtailing church power, ending serfdom and slavery, creating more efficient forms of both the legal system and local government and encouraging the flourishing of the arts and sciences across Europe ‑ all these constitute chaos. As for the level of conflict, this should be seen in context. It cannot be stated often enough that from the Revolution up to 1815 the combined forces of Prussia, Britain, Russia, and Austria (and at times Sweden, the papacy, the Ottoman empire and various German states) were perpetually trying to dismantle France’s republican and then imperial administrations. Napoleon was often needlessly aggressive and expansionist, his invasion of Russia in 1812 being a case in point, but his opponents bear equal responsibility for both causing and prolonging the wars.

Many of Napoleon’s wars were forced on him, and before his final defeat at Waterloo he desperately sought to reign in peace. It is perhaps telling that it was during this short window in 1815 that Louis Napoleon would have got to know his uncle. Napoleon III’s mixture of populism, semi-democracy, investment in public works were for him simply the society that his uncle was striving to create if he could reign in peace.

That is not to say that Napoleon III was somehow a man of peace, and here he again differs from his uncle. Essential to understanding Napoleon I’s career, particularly in his earlier years, with the remarkable series of victories across Italy and eastern and central Europe, is the fact that military success was followed by the arrival of administrators introducing much needed reforms over the lands he conquered. Napoleon I, the ever-resourceful pragmatist, saw war as a means of spreading good government.

And perhaps this is the crucial difference between the two: while Napoleon I was practical and pragmatic his nephew was romantic. His war against the Russians in the 1850s was carried out to enhance his prestige, legitimise his regime and avenge his uncle’s defeat in 1812. The Crimean War increased Napoleon III’s prestige but France gained nothing from it in the long term. His invasion of Mexico can best be described as a ridiculous and pointless fiasco. If Napoleon can be regarded as a child of late eighteenth century Enlightenment his nephew was the child of nineteenth century Romanticism.

It is perhaps sadly ironic then that his defeat during the Franco-Prussian war has the almost theatrically tragic tinge of practicality vs. romanticism. The other great irony is that although the Prussians won the battle of Waterloo, throughout the Napoleonic Wars Prussia was a minor player in the allied coalitions next to Britain, Russia and Austria. Indeed, perhaps before the Russian defeat in 1812 no allied power had been so repeatedly militarily humiliated by Napoleon.

When France declared war on Prussia in the summer of 1870 the outcome was by no means a foregone conclusion. In 1870 Prussia had an army of young conscripts, while France’s army was one of battle-hardened career soldiers. The French army had recently adopted the Chassepot breech-loading rifle, making French firepower work to devastating effect; on the other hand Prussian rifles were smokeless, giving their troops the advantage of being able to conceal their position.

Tolstoy said leaders and plans are meaningless in war, Napoleon I said it all came down to the man in charge. Nowhere is Napoleon’s axiom more correct ‑ yet ironic ‑ than in the Franco-Prussian war. France had talented commanders, like Bazaine and MacMahon, but the French general staff had not even drawn up any kind of battle plan, despite being the aggressors. On the flipside Moltke had been planning a war with France for years. Through the use of railways his troops were deployed quickly in an enormous yet fast-moving invasion. France decided on a rushed defensive policy, but French troops could rarely stand for long against wave after wave of Prussian (and to a lesser extent Bavarian) infantry and artillery assaults. After a series of defeats, within weeks Napoleon III’s armies were surrounded at Sedan, and after a ferocious battle he surrendered not only his army but also his title. He died two years later in exile in England. If Napoleon III had put more time and thought into military planning this outcome could have been very different.

Perhaps his legacy comes from his almost total defeat. Not only militarily but also politically ‑ Bonapartism was a spent force in subsequent French elections. On the other hand his uncle’s exile in Saint Helena was a testament to his power – his enemies feared him so much that he was sent to one of the most isolated sites on earth. By taking on the role of martyr he ensured his legacy was secure. Napoleon III was not so lucky, and history has not been kind to him. Strauss-Schom believes his influence and importance to be more than he has been credited with, but he frames this judgment in the context of considering his legacy next to that of his uncle. Perhaps Napoleon III’s tragedy is that in his life and to posterity he is always thus placed. But he brought this on himself.