Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Shadow Emperor: A Biography of Napoleon III by Alan Strauss-Schom

"The Shadow Emperor" by Alan Strauss-Schom aims to offer a readable historical account of the life and times of Napoleon III, one of Napoleon Bonaparte's nephews.  From his early life and childhood, including his relationship with his mother, father, extended family and brother, to his early ideas and failed attempts to take power in France and his eventual assumption of power after the 1848 revolutions.  Finding himself in the role of ruler of France, Napoleon III initially surrounded himself with a few trustworthy and reliable personalities who helped him see through numerous reforms, wars, and institutional challenges that modernized and revitalized France among Europe's major powers.

While Napoleon's time in power is best remembered for the numerous campaigns and coalitions that allied to defeat and depose the tyrant of Europe, Napoleon III spent most of his time and energy looking inward.  He helped usher in the design and restructuring of Paris, with the help of Baron Haussmann, he supported the sciences and research, the arts and agricultural initiatives that helped France's wheat, corn, and wine production.  Napoleon III was regularly consumed by thoughts about the common French man and woman, something his uncle seemingly spent little time on.  Unfortunately, Napoleon III's rule was not always peaceful and prosperous.  His attempts at colonial conquest in Algeria made sure that thousands of French soldiers suffered death and injury on a monthly basis while the local population died in massive numbers.  His help in waging war against the Russian Empire during the Crimean War made sure Russia's attitude toward France was antagonistic, at best, and his sponsoring of a campaign against Mexico made for an enemy out of Austria when the emperor's brother perished overseas.  Additionally, his support for Italy's attempts at unification against Austrian occupation was viewed poorly by many European powers.  Finally, his ill-advised antagonizing of Prussia on the eve of the Franco-Prussian war sealed the fate of his reign as the head of the Second Empire.  Napoleon III's achievements in modernizing the country seemingly came at the expense of the army, which after numerous overseas campaigns was not ready to challenge a modern European army like that of Prussia.  Schom does an excellent job of analyzing and describing the numerous deficiencies that plagued the French army as they attempted to engage in battle with a Prussian army that recently defeated two European powers (Denmark and Austria).

Schom does an admirable job of portraying Napoleon III and the men and women who found themselves a part of his life.  As a biography, this is an excellent account of Napoleon III and his major contributions to France during his time in power.  The only major weakness that I found was at times a lack of needed context to figure out why Napoleon III initially failed to gain power in France yet nonetheless eventually succeeded.  How the revolutions of 1848 facilitated his eventual rise to power remains a mystery, including their impact on French society.  Otherwise, I found this volume quite enlightening, especially for a period and ruler who are often overlooked.

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