Many reviewers have been horrified by Johnson's argument that Bonaparte, in style and substance, was precursor to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, as well as countless smaller demons. And yet, as Johnson shows, the lineage is incontrovertible. Bonaparte's opportunism and determination to carve for himself a place in history (an ambition that so often costs the blood of innocents) ... the cult of personality built around the Leader, co-opting intellectuals, artists, and the church ... the *levée-en-masse,* and "people's armies" marching to spread revolution and "modernism" ... the mania to abolish local customs, traditions, and identities, and impose one centralized "national" authority ... secular rites modeled on religious ones (Johnson tells how Bonaparte's sister Pauline had servants ritually wash her feet before appreciative crowds of VIPs, a clear [if unconscious?] echo of Christ bathing the feet of His disciples) ... in all of these things and more, Bonaparte blazed the bloody trail followed later by so many others. Bonaparte's era was a monarchical one, and so he called himself Emperor. But he could just as easily have been Führer, Duce, Great Leader, Comrade Chairman, El Caudillo, or simply "the President."
These Penguin Lives books are meant to be brief surveys of their subjects, and so serious students of Napoleonic history will no doubt find this book lacking in a lot of detail (for example, Johnson himself said he chose to skim over most of the tactical details of Bonaparte's battles). But what it lacks in specific detail, it more than makes up for in context and interpretation. If you don't object to that in your history-reading, I think you'll find this title takes a fairly short time to read, but gives you quite a lot to think about.
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