Although he certainly cannot compete with the estimated 300,000 books written about his rival Napoléon I, Carl XIV Johan has certainly been the subject of more biographies than most Scandinavian monarchies – possibly Carl XII is the only exception.
But few of the many biographies of Carl Johan are entirely satisfactory, which to a certain extent can probably be explained by the fact that his life was so rich and full of changes that it is nearly impossible to get it all into a book.
Several biographers have chosen to focus entirely or almost exclusively on the French part of Carl Johan’s life and his military career and to this day Torvald T:son Höjer’s three volumes published between 1939 and 1960 remain the most complete biography.
In this bicentenary year the German historian Jörg-Peter Findeisen has joined the ranks of Carl Johan’s biographers with the book Jean Baptiste Bernadotte. Revolutionsgeneral, Marschall Napoleons, König von Schweden und Norwegen, published by Casimir Katz Verlag in May.
Findeisen does not have particularly many new things to say, but this should perhaps not really be expected. Nevertheless his book has the potential for becoming a standard work as he succeeds in what has eluded many previous authors – to write a good and rather complete biography of Carl XIV Johan in one volume.
Findeisen, who formerly taught modern history at the University of Jena and is a honorary professor of the University of Sundsvall, bases most of his book on Höjer’s monumental work and the German translation of the Frenchman Gabriel Girod de l’Ain’s biography of Carl Johan. This seems a safe choice as Höjer and Girod de l’Ain are among Carl Johan’s most reliable biographers.
Findeisen has even adopted Höjer’s disposition of the chapters and there is hardly a page without at least one reference to Höjer or Girod de l’Ain. This and the fact that Findeisen has not done any original research make the book appear somewhat un-independent and it is occasionally unclear what are his own views and interpretations and what are those of others.
It is also a bit odd that someone who has made so much use of Gabriel Girod de l’Ain’s biography of Carl Johan states that there is no serious biography of Queen Desideria and thereby shows himself to be unaware of the fact that there is such a biography by none other than Gabriel Girod de l’Ain (who was a great-great-grandson of one of the Queen’s sisters).
There are some factual mistakes, such as Severin Løvenskiold becoming Prime Minister “in Christiania” rather than in Stockholm in 1828 and the odd claim that Stockholm was the capital of “the double monarchy” (there was no such thing as both Norway and Sweden were independent states with their own capital). Findeisen also gives the wrong date of death for Carl Johan, but all in all he seems to be on safe ground and avoids most of the oft-repeated (by both Swedish, Norwegian and foreign writers) misconceptions about the Swedish-Norwegian union.
The result is one of the most reliable and complete biographies of Carl XIV Johan in one volume and one could be tempted to suggest that Bonniers and Schibsted, the publishers who have published the tabloid journalist Herman Lindqvist’s sad excuse for a book on Carl Johan in Sweden and Norway, should have this book translated and published as some sort of atonement.