Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Gritting my teeth makes my jaw hurt

I've been slowly listening to the Napoleon 101 podcast and have reached episode 24 of the 50-something episodes that Cameron Reilly and J. David Markham have produced so far. I say slowly because I find I can't listen for any extended period without shouting at them (if I'm alone) or at least gritting my teeth (if I'm on the tram, say).

I like the fact that they are two enthusiasts who love to talk about their chosen subject like a couple of blokes in the pub would with lots of banter as well as telling the story of Napoleon's career in a linear style.

What I don't like, that sets my teeth on edge and causes bursts of shouting, is their complete bias to all things Napoleon. I don't understand why they have him on such a pedestal and are blind to all his faults, or have excuses for them when they do recognise fault. It's not unreasonable to admire a historical figure, but to do so so one one-sidedly makes me hot under the collar. The fact that they refer to the Peninsula campaign as 'the bad stuff' to be dealt with in an episode or two never to be referred to again ("do we have to talk about this?") made me wince; any historian worth their salt should be willing to examine a subject from all sides with the minimum of partisanship. I like revisionist histories because they usually come up with different ways of looking at old subjects, often using primary sources not before used, or at least digging deeper using existing sources. Reilly and Markham (but Reilly, especially) use cherry picked sources without a lot of analysis or context to support their contentions.

They also don't seem to put Napoleon's and his enemies' actions into historical context, looking at history from 200 years on and from modern sensibilities. St. Napoleon has no faults and everyone else, especially the British (boo-hiss!), just want to pull him down. No mention of how Revolutionary and especially Napoleonic France had turned the old established diplomatic and military world on its head and how this threatened the ruling houses of Europe immeasurably. No mention of the threats to entrenched national interests, such as domination over the Low Countries, domination of Germany, domination over Poland which threatened respectively British; Austrian and Prussian; and Russian and Prussian interests. Not to mention the horror of upsetting ruling thrones and replacing the crowns on his relatives' heads. This tidal wave of interference in political affairs throughout Europe was way above the limit of what the arch-conservative ruling houses of Europe could put up with. The fact that he was tolerated for so long, especially in the period between 1809-1812 was mainly because Napoleon had beaten all comers and had no enemies besides Britain. That didn't necessarily mean that all was sweetness and light and that everyone now loved Boney; the major powers were hedging their bets or biding their time, or any number of cliches, but mainly they didn't want to challenge French power, at least not until their own power had been regenerated. Notice how I am not putting value judgements on my argument, just stating the obvious?

They emphasise his codification of laws and his bringing liberty and justice to the areas he ruled, but they don't mention the crippling taxes or the burdensome conscription enforced on ally or conquered foe alike. The average European, whether he be Polish, Bavarian, Westphalian, Dutch, Italian etc., etc. probably didn't care too much who ruled, but certainly did care about steadily increasing taxes and requisitions as well as the distinct possiblity that he might be stuck in a uniform and given a musket and sent to the farthest extremities of Europe to fight in Napoleon's battles and suffer extreme deprivation, disease and possibly death.

They don't even cover the negative side to Napoleon's personality; the man who had to win so badly, he cheated at cards; the man who blamed Marshal Berthier when he (Napoleon) accidentally shot Marshal Massena in the face, blinding him in one eye, during a hunt; the man who could not compromise when offered peace by the Austrians in 1813.

So far the podcast hasn't covered any of this, or if it has, it has been excused with justifications for their own biases.

One of my favourite personalities of the period is the Duke of Wellington. I admire his military acumen; his eye for terrain; his diplomatic skill; the way didn't uselessly throw his mens' lives away; the way he carefully ensured his army's logitical support.

However, that doesn't blind me to his faults. He was a product of the British establishment and as such had no interest in political reform or meritocratic promotion in the army; he was an arch-Tory; he was dismissive of anyone not from his social class; he didn't give praise easily, but was quick to damn shortcomings; he remained aloof from his troops who admired him for his victories, while using their lives sparingly. There are probably more faults that don't spring to mind right now.

I just wish that the presenters were a bit more open to admitting their hero's faults and looking at history in the context of the time, not with a would-a, could-a, should-a revisionist yearning for a time that never was.

Episode 22 introduced me to another podcast called History According to Bob by Prof. Bob Packett who has a more eclectic historical show covering everything from Ancient Greece to the Cold War and everything in between. He has quite a few episodes on Napoleonics, too. I haven't yet listened to them so I can't offer an opinion, but will once I have.


  1. Hello Monsieur le Rosbif,
    I made it a little further, episode 30 I think, before giving up. I must admit to being a rabid Francophile and a great admirer of Napoleon but Mr Markham's all too obviouse bias was very hard to listen to after a while. Perhaps if young Mr Reilly has taken the converse and they'd had a lively debate about their views this could have been a very entertaining podcast, but alas it was not.

    Cheers Robin

  2. I haven't quite given up on them yet, but it may not be long before I do. I still enjoy it when they stick to history rather than just editorialising. I'll let you know how I go.

    I notice that they've done a few more episodes relating to aspects they didn't cover in their linear coverage of Napoleon's biography eg. the Haiti expedition. I suppose I'd be foolish to hope that they have changed their ways, but I live in hope!


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