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His history, his place in history

  • Jun 28, 2002
Paul Johnson is the author of so many sweeping, multi-generational histories that it must have come as a pleasant change for him to write a brief life of one individual human being. But while Johnson's focus has shifted, he nevertheless retains his eye for the big picture. And although the portrait he paints apparently outrages centralizers, collectivists, "reformers," nationalists, and other acolytes of state power, there's no question Johnson has got the image just right.

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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More Napoleon (Penguin Lives) reviews
review by . September 23, 2008
Short biography of Napoleon is a good introduction to the man who nearly united and nearly wrecked Europe in stage-setting fashion 100 years before German geopolitical descendants came even closer. Johnson treats Napoleon with respect and at the same time faint distaste for his most extreme actions and amorality.     In the end, while drawing pictures that show Napoleon's smallness of character and stature, Johnson never belittles or pities his charge.
review by . October 25, 2002
This is one of several volumes in the Penguin Lives Series, each of which written by a distinguished author in her or his own right. Each provides a concise but remarkably comprehensive biography of its subject in combination with a penetrating analysis of the significance of that subject's life and career. I think this is a brilliant concept. Those who wish to learn more about the given subject are directed to other sources.While preparing to comment on various volumes in this series, I have struggled …
review by . May 25, 2002
Paul Johnson has always been a writer of prodigious knowledge and scanty insight. Still, if you can gnaw through the 800-plus pages of a typical Johnson book, you may find yourself forced to think clearly and carefully in order to refute his surly ultra-conservatism. The current biography of Napoleon, a mere 186 pages, is part of the "Penguin Lives" series, intended for mass readership. No one who has read Johnson before would expect a temperate approach to anyone associated with revolution, but …
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Andrew S. Rogers ()
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About this book


The career of a different kind of celebrity hound is examined in historian Paul Johnson's Napoleon. Johnson (A History of the American People) contends that Bonaparte sowed the seeds of the devastating warfare and totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Stressing that the Corsican general was motivated by opportunism alone, Johnson traces his rise to power and expansionist bids, arguing that the most important legacies of his rule were the eclipse of France as the leading European power and the introduction of such enduring institutions as the secret police and government propaganda operations. ( on sale May 13)
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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ISBN-10: 0670030783
ISBN-13: 978-0670030781
Author: Paul Johnson
Genre: History
Publisher: Viking Adult
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