Sanctimonious twaddle is what we can expect for the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death, but the man was a thug with pretensions and his empire a system of expropriation run on the back of what French critics of conscription called the “blood tax.” This contrast in perception, between those who adore the Corsican and those who deplore him, was there from the outset. Napoleon proclaimed his virtues while opponents were shot down, starting in Italy with mass executions in 1796 to suppress popular opposition to French exploitation. Napoleon’s nephew Louis Napoleon, later Napoleon III, was to claim in Des Idées Napoléoniennes (1839): “In Italy he formed a great kingdom which had its separate administration and its Italian army. . . . The name Italy, so beautiful, defunct, for so many ages, was restored to...


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Cynthia Saltzman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pages, $30.00

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