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Reviews

Dilution of Heroes

Napoleon and de Gaulle: Heroes and History; By Patrice Gueniffey; Belknap Press; 416 pp., $35.00

 


Both Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle rose in a time of turmoil and war to restore order. Napoleon’s service to France lay in ending revolutionary violence, while de Gaulle led free France in the struggle to overcome Nazi dominated Europe. The demerits on their balance sheets matter little, as under the direction of these men France became greater.

Quintessentially French, de Gaulle was born in Lille, France in 1890. During World War II, he became the embodiment of the French nation, which his very name now evokes.

Conversely, the man born Napoleone di Buonaparte was not a native Frenchman. Born in Corsica in 1769, he spoke French with an Italian accent, and changed his name to sound more French. Summarizing his background to a journalist, Bonaparte proclaimed himself to be “Corsican by birth, French by adoption, and emperor by achievement.”

Both men found themselves surrounded by chaos, and both “represented a solution, a way out, at a time when no one could still imagine one.” Author Patrice Gueniffey argues that both men forced otherwise irreconcilable parties to coexist, building lasting achievements atop a series of political failures. In so doing their successors inherited from Napoleon an administration...

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