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Friday, May 25, 2012

“Napoleon III and His Carnival Empire”, by John Bierman


439 pages, St Martin’s Press, ISBN-13: 978-0312018276

This is history as sheer entertainment, and if it hadn’t really happened would be well-nigh unbelievable. This is the story of how a used-car-salesman-of-a-man became the Emperor of France, against all odds and even common sense, with shameless optimism, populist appeal, administrative incompetence, and relentless sexual predation, protected and tolerated by virtue of a booming economy. Louis Napoleon came to power in an unlikely set of scenarios filled with irony and hilarity in the middle of 19th Century France.

The first elected populist-turned-Dictator, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte preceded Hitler by 90 years. More Clinton than Hitler, however, this story of a harmless flirt turned into a desultory despot is a marvelous parody of the banal ambitions of all politicians. This man is rather like Clinton in shamelessness, ambition, optimism, sexual opportunism and gross administrative incompetence as to form the most unlikely story in all history. With so many cunning men greedy for power, how is it that such a man should come to power? Not only did he achieve power but the charlatan Napoleon III out lasted the original Napoleon by ruling France for 22 years (the first four as a legally elected President; the last 18 years as Emperor). His reign gave stamp to an age and a style referred to as “Second Empire”. Napoleon III's rule (again, like Clinton’s) was sustained by a period of unprecedented Economic Growth – preceding over the initial stages of Industrialization in 19th Century France.

All but forgotten now, Napoleon’s greatest legacy to the present is modern Paris, to which he gets very little credit. Of course none of this would be worthwhile if not exploited properly. Fortunately John Bierman is more than equal to the task. Well written, both insightful and humorous, Bierman's sophisticated repartee never fails to exploit an opportunity for irony or the humor in his subject. Reading this book was more like eating a box of candy – I could not put it down – and was sad when it came to an end. It has been said great men are produced by times of dire circumstances. Bierman proves this postulate by pointing out how great times produced, in 19th Century France, a man of small stature. Despite the shallow glamour of the Second Empire, it was ultimately destroyed it was when confronted by the politics of real consequence of Bismarck’s Prussia and his Realpolitik of Blood & Iron. For the next hundred years, beginning with the tragedy of the Paris Commune, France had to struggle to cope with Napoleon III’s other great legacy: a unified Germany on its eastern border.

Napoleon III stands as an important history of the dangerous consequences that self-serving populist charlatans pose for all history.

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