Notes From Emil Reich’s “Foundations of Modern Europe” Part XII

This is the second part of the first chapter on Napoleon picking up after, “In the case of Napoleon, however, we can do more than merely state the interesting fact that the first Emperor of the French in modern times came from Corsica.”


The Corsicans, although their history has generally been ignored, were in reality one of the most remarkable nations in the Mediterranean. Unlike the people of the island of Sardinia who have at no time in history played an important rôle, the Corsicans had been waging a secular war against the mighty republic of Genoa, and forty years before the birth of Napoleon the Corsicans fought that war of national resistance not only against the Genoese but frequently against mighty French armies too. So great was their military capacity and genius that they repeatedly defeated both the French and Genoese armies; it was only at the end of forty years’ uninterrupted fighting that the French were enabled to take possession of the island to some extent. During these great national fights, Arrigo de la Rocca, the Paolis, and numerous other Corsicans showed the greatest genius for military and political work, and Napoleon Bonaparte may be said to be only the climax of a long series of heroes who, trained in the most unequal war, had naturally acquired gifts of perspicacity such as at that time no other European nation had the opportunity of developing. At any rate, we cannot, in an estimate of Napoleon’s military genius, omit the fact that he lived in one of those border countries attacked by neighbouring and mighty empires in which at times the constant habit of fighting against great odds has brought to light the Themistocles, the Robert Bruces, the Shamyls, etc., and Napoleon.

However, to point out only the Corsican antecedents of Napoleon would be manifestly unfair to the connection of Napoleon with France proper. It cannot be denied that Napoleon was the embodiment and final culminating development of the French Revolution. That that great event would ultimately lead to some towering personality was, long before the advent of Napoleon, the common belief of most Frenchmen, and of most thinking persons outside France. Napoleon himself, at St. Helena, repeatedly expressed his conviction that had he not been the Emperor of the French, somebody else would have played his rôle. The French, after trying every possible party, could not but see that the salvation of the country was neither in the moderates not in the radicals; neither in the return to the laws of the ancien régime, nor in the maintenance of an absolutely democratic republic. Under these circumstances it was evident that only one powerful will and mind was able to steer France through the maze of wars and policies that had ever since 1795 completely changed and displaced the old political life of Europe. It is, moreover, a usual phenomenon in history that vast and deeply agitated movements, whether of a political or a mental character, are terminated by the appearance of a personality which combines their various elements and thus controls them. Thus arose the great founders of religions at the end of long, sometimes secular religious revolutions; so came Henry IV. to France, Cromwell to England, Bismarck to Germany.

The relation of these great personalities to their time is that of the blossom to the leaf and stem. They can neither be said to have created their time, nor to be nothing but the creation thereof – they are both. Napoleon is unthinkable without the French Revolution, and the French Revolution without Napoleon would represent only wild and bootless anarchy. The French Revolution and Napoleon form the most important event in modern history.

In person this extraordinary man was small, well-knit, with classical features, of robust health, and most temperate in his habits. He ate very little and drank less; his usual beverage being a little Sauterne. In youth he was very thin and pale; after his thirty-eighth year he became rather bloated and heavy. He required little sleep and took it at odd times during the day or the night. His power of work was immense; he frequently tired out a number of secretaries without in the least feeling fatigued himself, and could turn from one subject to another without the least effort. He used to say that all the subjects and persons interesting him were put away into so many “drawers,” and when he wanted subject “A,” he only pulled out its respective “drawer.” His love and sense of detail were just as remarkable as his power of grasping great dominating traits covering an immense array of details. He delighted in reading military reports of the minutest kind, and his memory had stored away all the numberless details of his armies, his ships, his fortresses and his officials, of all of which he had the most accurate and ready knowledge. He frequently corrected reports, sent to him by his governors or agents, about far-off provinces from memory without consulting any reference book or minutes. In fact, it is quite correct to say that his mind was essentially “topographical,” that is, on his mind was impressed a huge map of Europe in which every physical feature, such as mountains, rivers, lakes, brooks, ravines, passes, gorges, were carefully entered together with all the political and social information of each country. For great as his genius was, his successes were undoubtedly due to superior information in the first place.

Like Richelieu, who through his agents was the best informed man in France about the actual state of his country, so Napoleon, trusting nobody, invariably had the most accurate personal information about the country he was going to contend with; and although he mostly fought in countries of which very detailed maps had long been made, yet he constantly demanded fresh and better maps. He despatched his best-trained officers to survey anew even such a well-known country as Bavaria, and he was constantly studying all the maps he could secure. In addition to that he had the real “objective” temper which enables the man of genius to see things not in the light of his desire or personal “bias,” but in their own light.

Nobody was more just to the capacity or resources of his enemies, or less conceited with regard to his own genius than Napoleon. As a rule he neither overrated nor underrated his enemies. His strategical classical victory at Ulm in 1805 was due mainly to his correct appreciation of the Austrian general, Mack, who was then generally held to be a strategist of the first order, whom Napoleon, however, rightly judged to be a muddle-headed dilettante.

On the other hand, Napoleon fully appreciated the gifts of Archduke Charles, his great opponent. And as with individuals, so with nations; whatever judgment he passed in public for political purposes (such as the famous words spoken of the English that they were “une nation de boutiquiers” – a nation of shopkeepers), in his correspondence with his friends and officials we note that he had a very just appreciation of the great qualities of the English, and even of those of the Portuguese and Spanish. His successes, therefore, were based on the best attainable information and on incessant work; we need, therefore, not be astounded that his unprecedented military victories have always been considered to follow rather from a systematic strategy – or, as he used to say, des règles de l’art (“the rules of the art”) – than from mere luck or fortunate incident.