Napoleon: The decline and fall of an empire, 1811-1821 Michael Broers


Napoleon: the decline and fall of an empire is the compelling, if partial, closing volume of Michael Broers’ Napoleon trilogy. It marks the end of more than a decade of Napoleon-centred writing for Broers, Professor of Western European History at the University of Oxford. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the period or person.

After Napoleon: soldier of destiny, narrating origins and first power grabs, and Napoleon: the spirit of the age, covering the exercise of European domination, this third volume takes us through the horrors of the 1812 invasion of Russia, the ruthless repression of Napoleon’s ability to fight by ever more united allies, the first exile to Elba, the Hundred Days, Waterloo, and the withering epilogue of St Helena.

Overall, the trilogy exemplifies traditional historiography, taking its subject from birth to death and covering colourful detail in between, setting itself apart by incorporating as much new material as possible (in Broers’ case, readings of newly published Napoleonic correspondence at the Fondation Napoléon in Paris). Judged against its own agenda, each part and the whole of Broers’ Napoleon is a rich, satisfying read, albeit with a few blind spots. 

And yet, from another point of view, the work is oddly thin. Broers shows little interest, for example, in exactly how the Russians beat Napoleon: Tsar Alexander I, his military entourage and commanders, the soldiers and the Russian people are virtually unknowable in Broers’ account, with only a few Russian sources cited. Closer to home, even better-known figures like Wellington and Blücher are minimised, with no new takes on what they did or how they came to do it. Much, in short, remains off stage that could have made for fascinating enhancements to a well-known story.

Broadly speaking, Broers bases his account of Napoleon in the years 1811-1821 on two pillars: the personality and its flaws, and the battles and their strategic shortcomings. In terms of personality, we are presented with a perfectionist Napoleon in the third volume, driven to bend the Russians to his will, despite the enormous risks and eventual, unfolding costs.

Broers is perfectly attuned to Napoleon’s immense self-belief and ambition, rightly seeing it as based on his military genius and past successes, while describing the numerous ways in which he overestimated his diplomatic skills (‘skills’ being an overstatement for the hectoring methods on which the emperor relied). 

The book repeatedly shows us Napoleon’s wilful blindness in failing to recognise that the Russians simply did not play by the rules, right up to the point of their desertion and destruction of Moscow. A thing like that just wasn’t done, even by someone as unconventional as Napoleon; and Broers justly notes this as one of the most significant of his fatal errors.

Perfectionism of this unbending, self-limiting kind also set in with Napoleon’s family and all those he had raised up to positions of power and prestige. Those who disappointed the emperor were branded as ungrateful, even traitorous. The later Napoleon divided his acquaintances on an increasingly cynical basis: those who showed their love and appreciation for him, and all those who failed him. 

However, his judgments could be too harsh, or even plain wrong. There is a cruel irony in Napoleon’s belief in his sister Caroline, Queen of Naples, who repaid his faith by betraying him to the Austrians when she thought he was down and out in the wake of the Russian retreat and 1813 campaign.

Broers gives us mixed aspects to Napoleon’s character, as played out by events, but sidesteps analysis of what made him behave as he did in these years. We follow outbursts of incomprehension and anger in Napoleon’s letters, orders, and diplomatic wrangling, but we don’t get a ‘human’ view of the ‘whys and hows’ behind the rage. 

Napoleon and his army watch the burning of Moscow, as depicted in this painting by Albrecht Adam. After the failure of the Russian campaign, the emperor’s European enemies were determined to defeat him for good. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Simply put, there is too little probing, too little of a novelistic touch, and the hot-then-cold Napoleon stays at one remove, somehow too fantastical, too ‘other’ to understand.

Borodino to Waterloo

In terms of the military story, these are the years of the Battle of Borodino (1812), Leipzig (the ‘Battle of the Nations’, 1813), the campaign of France (1814), and Waterloo (1815). Here we get the author’s more varied register, combining a solid understanding of the battles as they unfolded, step-by-step, without losing the reader, and a direct portrayal of the brutality of slaughter, often at close quarters. Broers doesn’t glamorise events, and I have read little about Napoleonic warfare that brings home so well how physically revolting the business could be.

The book is splendid at pointing out Napoleon’s failing statecraft, as he came to equate military prowess with day-to-day rule and, most incorrectly of all, the longevity of his empire. The enemies facing him across the Russian plains in 1812, the German fields and forests in 1813, and the rolling hills of France in 1814 were not the same, politically or psychologically, as those of the early years.

Nor was Napoleon as statesman always, or even at all, equal to the manoeuvring of European diplomacy that was hellbent, after it had witnessed his Russian disaster, on getting rid of him once and for all.

There was a new determination afoot, matched by enhanced military skills that Napoleon’s wars had helped to create and shape, that found its apotheosis at Waterloo and the subsequent no-nonsense way in which Napoleon was sent off to St Helena – a fate worse for a man of the energy and capacity of Napoleon, Broers comments coldly, than execution.

Stylistically, the third volume is consistent with the first two in the trilogy. Broers deploys crisp commentary on a series of clear events; goes into detail without fussiness or gratuitousness to describe skirmishes and battles; relies (often too many times) on a series of repeated phrases to make the same point (for example, ‘he lied like a bulletin’, to describe Napoleon’s falsehoods); and he is not afraid to call Napoleon a genius, even if he then explains the terms by which this is to be understood.

Napoleon: the decline and fall of an empire is detailed, exact, and rational – filled with events and words that can be measured – while lacking a capacity to capture murkier intentions and speculations, dreams and nightmares, the mysticism of Alexander I just as much as the Jacobin passions and Romantic self-fashioning of Napoleon. 

Broers has given us an eventful, if often one-sided account of Napoleon in his trilogy, while inadvertently showing how much is missed by a merely rational retelling of the story.

Napoleon: The decline and fall of an empire, 1811-1821
Michael Broers
Pegasus Books, hbk (£30)
ISBN 978-1639361779