A Political Life
by Steven Englund
Scribner, $35, 543 pp.
In 1840, Napoleon’s body was brought back to Paris from St. Helena, the island where he died nineteen years earlier. Eventually the emperor’s remains were covered with a massive slab of red porphyry and displayed under the dome of the Invalides, one of the grandest royal tombs in Europe. His legacy has not been so easy to contain. In 1851, his nephew, calling himself Napoleon III, established a second empire that collapsed after its defeat by Prussia in 1870. For several decades, Bonapartists lurked on the right wing of French politics hoping for another chance; gradually the Napoleonic legacy became more diffuse and protean, extending across the political spectrum and well beyond the boundaries of France. Most recently, he has been assigned a place among the forefathers of the European integration; two years ago, for example, the cover of the French monthly Historia showed a picture of the emperor crossing the Alps with the European Union’s insignia prominently displayed on his hat. “In life,” Napoleon’s contemporary and critic Chateaubriand wrote, “he missed having the whole world; in death he had it. After suffering the despotism of his person, we are now subjected to the despotism of his memory.”
Napoleon fascinated almost everyone who crossed his path, from those, like Chateaubriand, who knew him all too well, to the German poet Goethe, who met him once, to the philosopher Hegel, who saw him ride by in the...