One of France’s most famous historians compares and contrasts the two most famous French exemplars of political and military leadership of the past two-hundred and fifty years to make the case that individuals, for better and worse, matter in history.
Historians have tried to teach us that the historical past is not just a narrative of heroes and wars. The anonymous millions they like to argue also matter and are active agents of change. But in erroneously democratizing history, we – they have lost track of the outsized, indeed stupendous role that individuals can and play in shaping world historical events. In his new book Napoleon and de Gaulle: Heroes and History
(Harvard University Press, 2020), Professor Patrice Gueniffey provides us with a compelling reminder of the importance of heroes in history, in this powerful dual biography of two transformative leaders, Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle.
Both became national figures at times of crisis and war. They were hailed as saviors and were eager to embrace the label. They were also animated by quests for personal and national greatness, by the desire to raise France above itself and lead it on a mission to enlighten the world. Both united an embattled nation, returned it to dignity, and left a permanent political legacy—in Napoleon’s case, a form of administration and a body of civil law; in de Gaulle’s case, new political institutions. Professor Gueniffey compares Napoleon’s and de Gaulle’s journeys to power; their methods; their ideas and writings, notably about war; and their postmortem reputations. He also contrasts their weaknesses: Napoleon’s limitless ambitions and appetite for war and de Gaulle’s capacity for cruelty and cynicism, manifested most clearly in relations to the end of the war in Algeria.
They were men of genuine talent and achievement, with flaws almost as pronounced as their strengths. As many nations, not least France, struggle to find their soul in a rapidly changing world, Gueniffey shows us what a difference an extraordinary leader can make. Patrice Gueniffey is Director of the Raymond Aron Center for Political Research at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales
in Paris. One of France’s leading historians of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic ages, he is the author of Bonaparte
, the monumental first volume of the definitive modern French biography of Napoleon.
Charles Coutinho Ph. D. of the Royal Historical Society, received his doctorate from New York University. His area of specialization is 19th and 20th-century European, American diplomatic and political history. He has written recently for Chatham House’s