MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History


Napoleon: A Life

By Adam Zamoyski.

784 pages.

Basic Books, 2018. $40.

Reviewed by Michael Leggiere

“Opportunity often comes disguised in the form of misfortune, or temporary defeat,” Napoleon wrote. Not Napoleon Bonaparte; Napoleon Hill, the American self-help author who vaulted to fame in 1927 with The Law of Success. In Adam Zamoyski’s new biography Napoleon Bonaparte is the embodiment of Hill’s aphorism—a self-made man who seizes opportunity from misfortunes and setbacks. And despite his various grandiose titles—Emperor of the French, Protector of the Germans, King of the Italians, Mediator of the Swiss—ultimately, as the author shows, Napoleon was a mere human.

For Napoleon, the beginning of the end came when he lost the ability to find opportunity in the misfortunes and defeats he suffered between 1812 and 1815. Zamoyski’s interpretation of Napoleon’s life may strike many readers as unusual. Although he avoids the hard psychoanalysis employed by historian Philip Dwyer in his mammoth two-volume biography of Napoleon, Zamoyski nevertheless argues that many of the great man’s successes and failures can be attributed to his insecurities. Another surprising aspect of the book is Zamoyski’s portrayal of the fragility of Napoleon’s rule. It’s remarkable, one may conclude, that his empire lasted as long as it did (from 1799 to 1815). Lastly, Zamoyski analyzes the many options facing

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