1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow was an immediate success when it came out in 2004, and a Sunday Times bestseller. Were you surprised by the extent of the success of the book? After all, the British experience of the Napoleonic Wars was in the Peninsular and at Waterloo. 1812 also became a bestseller in Germany. Is the German audience, along with the British, split in its view towards Napoleon?
When I embarked on the subject I thought it would just be another military and diplomatic history. But when I got stuck into the research I became aware of the epic, and at the same time absurd, nature of the stand-off Napoleon and Alexander had got themselves into. And when I delved into the detail of the military operations and the physical aspects of living with or dying of, the extremes of heat and cold, of hunger and thirst, of cruelty and compassion, I knew this was a potential winner. Although there was no British involvement and the story was only known to the average person in this country through Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I knew that if people began reading they would be gripped, if only by the almost lurid physical details.
I’m not sure whether most of the readers actually picked up the extraordinary ironies implicit in the causes of the war; here were two men seemingly all-powerful emperors ruling over multitudes and vast resources, both inexorably forced to make war by their psychological insecurities. The book’s even greater success in Germany I cannot explain, as I do not really know the readership there. But I suspect part of the reason was that although the struggle between Napoleon and Alexander was largely about who would dominate Central Europe, and therefore Germany, and although vast numbers of Germans fought and died in the campaign, it had not been properly written about before.
As for attitudes to Napoleon, they are highly complicated and often irrational. There are definitely more open admirers of Napoleon in Britain than in France, and as far as I can tell he arouses mixed emotions in Germany, probably affected by which part of Germany one is talking about. He did do much for areas of southern Germany, but treated Prussia abominably and humiliated it repeatedly.
The invasion of Russia in 1812 was an epic clash – Emperor Napoleon and Tsar Alexander, France and her empire v. Russia and its own, West vs. East. Was this fundamental clash – of cultures, personalities and arms – central in relation to why you wrote the book?
To be honest, I didn’t really have much of an idea of what the war was really about when I began working on the book. I suppose I must have nurtured the widespread assumption that it was the ultimate expression of Napoleon’s megalomania. And after researching and writing the book I don’t think it was either inevitable or that it was some kind of clash of cultures. Quite the contrary, in fact. Leaving aside the loss of life and misery it cost, the real tragedy lies in what it did to Russian society, and, in consequence, to Russia’s relationship with the rest of Europe ever since.
The war of the Second coalition drew Russia into the heart of European affairs and her armies into Italy and Switzerland, whence they were humiliatingly expelled. Russia’s participation in the Third Coalition once again involved it in the affairs of Europe, and humiliated her thoroughly with the crushing defeats of Austerlitz and Friedland. Russian society, which had in the previous decades been growing more integrated into European culture (the nobility spoke French, was drawn to the ideas of the Enlightenment and was even drifting away from the Orthodox church), felt these humiliations keenly. Napoleon’s invasion was the final insult, and I think it elicited something of a psychological retreat into what for lack of a better word one might term an Asiatic tactic, allowing the French to take Moscow rather than stoop to parley with the enemy. Stung in its most sensitive spot, psychologically speaking, Russian society closed in on itself and has from then on viewed the West as the eternal enemy. Had these wars not taken place, it seems highly likely that the Russian world would have fused gradually with the rest of Europe. I am not saying there would not have been wars, but they might not have been dominated by the fierce sense of victimhood which has bred in the Russian psyche a default aggression.
You drew on a huge number of first-hand accounts, in a variety of languages. It is a great advertisement as to why historians should be versed in more than one language. What advice would you give a young historian, as to learning different languages and researching European history?
This is a very good question, and in my case very much of the essence. I went up to Oxford to read History, but found the curriculum and the way it was taught profoundly uninspiring, and above all parochial. We were studying the Chartists, with, I might add, a very left-wing slant. There was no mention of what was going on elsewhere in Europe. I assumed that as we came closer to 1848 there might be some reference to Lamartine, Mazzini and other revolutionaries, not to mention Karl Marx, but the great pan-European wave of revolutions was totally ignored. This was halfway through my second term, and on leaving the seminar in question I decided to switch to Modern Languages – which I chose partly out of laziness, since I had spoken French from the cradle and I knew Russian well enough to pass an A level in (if I remember correctly, in those days the only languages on offer at Oxford were French, German, Spanish and Russian). This turned out to be one of the best decisions I have taken. I spent the rest of my days at Oxford essentially reading the literatures of France and Russia.
Since all literature was interconnected and educated people in those days kept abreast of what was written in other parts of Europe, this covered pretty much the whole canon of Enlightenment thought, the Romantic movement and early capitalism and socialism. And it taught me a good deal more about history than any history tutorials or seminars. First, by studying the works which formed their patterns of rational or irrational thought, stirred their emotions and inflamed their imaginations, I learnt what and how people thought, how they behaved and how they saw the world. Second, I was able to read sources as they were meant to be read: on the one hand, languages change and words come to mean more or less subtly different things with the passage of time, and on the other, people in those days often expressed themselves through literary references – none more so than Napoleon, who was always referring to the works of Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, Rousseau and so on. I cannot imagine how anyone who has not read La Nouvelle Héloïse, Paul et Virginie, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and all the plays of Corneille and Racine, along with the James Macpherson’s Ossianic fantasies, could begin to get into the mind of Napoleon.
How important was the Continental System as the driver to war, and in limiting the resources available to the Grand Armée once it had crossed the Niemen?
The Continental System was absolutely key to what took place from the Berlin Decrees of 1807 onwards. Napoleon had placed himself in a trap of his own making; he had to impose on all his allies a ruinous blockade which in the end left them no choice but to smuggle or defy him. This was what lay behind his involvement in Spain as well as Germany and Russia. And of course it undermined the French economy it was supposed to protect. It is true that it did bring Britain to the brink of serious civil unrest by 1812 and had he been able to keep it up for another year it might well have brought her to the negotiating table. Trade wars tend to be self-defeating
Prior to the invasion, Poland seemed to be involved in a tug of war between Napoleon and Alexander over whether the Duchy of Poland was to remain in existence. Ultimately, Napoleon chose honour and protecting the Duchy. Does that mean we should look on the invasion with sympathy? After all, Poland contributed 95,000 men to the invasion force.
Poland was caught between the hammer and the anvil. It had been wiped off the map in 1795 by Russia, Prussia and Austria, and after defeating Prussia and Russia in 1807 Napoleon created the Grand Duchy of Warsaw out of the part Prussia had helped itself to. Then, during the war with Austria in 1809 the Poles had liberated the part of their country Austria had taken, but Napoleon did not want to antagonise Russia too much at that stage, so he would not let them keep all of it.
Polish society was split. There were those who thought a Polish state allied to Russia was a surer bet, since Russia still ruled most of the former Polish lands and Tsar Alexander was well disposed to them. Others believed that Napoleon would be a more reliable liberator and protector. But Alexander was not free to do as he wished since Russian public opinion would not tolerate the restoration of a credible Polish state, while Napoleon would not commit himself since he was prepared to trade Poland in return for Alexander enforcing the Continental System. The problem at the heart of the events of 1812 is that Napoleon did not have a clear war aim or a long-term strategy, and he wanted to keep all options open. That was his undoing.
The Battle of Borodino was a pivotal moment. Had Napoleon delivered a final coup de grace, in the form of the Guard, how significant would that have been to the result of the invasion?
Napoleon botched Borodino. Not only did he allow what was left of his cavalry to stand on horseback for hours within easy range of the Russian guns, thereby denying himself a vital asset, he failed to clinch what would have been a devastating victory by sending in the Guard. Had he done so, even the skeleton of the Russian army would have been torn apart, making it impossible for Kutuzov to rebuild a fighting force within a year. That would have made it well-nigh impossible for Alexander to field the army which was vital to the campaigns of 1813 and 1814.
Did Napoleon spend two weeks too long in Moscow, as he himself said later?
Definitely. People who left even one week earlier were able to travel back to France without much difficulty. And even if he had stayed on but sent back cavalrymen who had lost their horses, the lightly wounded, and some of his artillery a week or two earlier he would have saved thousands of lives, including those of the thousands of cavalrymen he would so sorely miss in the campaigns of 1813 and 1814. While he was able to scrape together a new army in the spring of 1813, he did not have time to train up horsemen, and his shortage of these saved the Russians and Prussians from total defeat at Lutzen and Bautzen.
The retreat was an absolutely tragic tale, and you give a vivid account of the horrors involved. Was this the beginning of the end for Napoleon?
It was a terrible business and it seriously dented his reputation as an unvanquished general. Although no other general could have saved as much as he did from disaster, or managed to inspire such feats as the crossing of the Berezina, it did dispel some of the magic which made the enemy quake. But it need not have spelt the end for him. He had plenty of opportunities in the course of 1813 to make peace on condition he gave up his grip over Germany and various other areas, such as the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Metternich begged him to do so as he hoped to keep him on the throne of France. Even Prince Joseph Poniatowski, the commander of his Polish contingent, urged him to make peace and give himself a breather so he could sally forth and defeat his enemies later.
But Napoleon was haunted by the conviction that if he made peace from apposition of weakness and gave up any of his conquests his reputation would be so dented that his claim to the throne would be fatally undermined. If he had been prepared in 1813 to accept a great deal more than he was prepared to in 1815, he would have kept his throne.
In 2018 you wrote an acclaimed biography of Napoleon (Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth), but if you were to issue a new edition of 1812, is there anything you would amend or add?
I don’t think so. My further studies of the man did yield more insights, but they would not have added anything to 1812, which was essentially about the campaign itself; more political context than I absolutely had to include would have made it top-heavy and too dense.
Finally, can you tell us a bit about what you are currently working on?
I have two books on contract at the moment. One is on Napoleon’s intervention in Spain. One aspect of that is the Peninsular War, which is worth a good fresh look at in my opinion, as there are a numbers of myths here that need to be challenged. The idea of an idealistic guerrilla by patriotic Spaniards against the godless French invader most certainly needs to be qualified, as motivations were very mixed. A significant number of Spaniards supported French rule and fought against the British and Spanish troops. The British legend of a brilliant Wellington gallantly helping to liberate the oppressed Spanish people also needs a second look. The actual war, which was fought by as many different nationalities as that of 1812 (except for the Russians) was a nasty, dirty war which has many of the same elements as 1812, combining extraordinary savagery with appalling conditions.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect is Napoleon’s attitude: whether consciously or not, he did everything he possibly could have to undermine his brother Joseph’s rule, to hamper the military operations of his own armies and to turn the whole venture into a disaster that would contribute to his own downfall. I believe this subject contains many of the epic qualities that made 1812 so fascinating.
The other is a shorter book, a life of an ancestor of mine, a Polish girl who lived the most extraordinarily life from 1745 to 1835. It is a story of personal liberation, emotional turmoil, tragedy and triumph, of a woman who saw her world torn apart by the Partitions of Poland and the Napoleonic Wars. It is difficult to encapsulate in a couple of sentences, as it ranges widely, touches on many historical events, and the cast of characters includes Rousseau, Frederick the Great, Marie-Antoinette, Joseph II, Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, Tsar Alexander, and many more.
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