Monday, 24 January 2011

New books: War and war

The revolutionary and Napoleonic age was certainly a defining moment in the development of the Nordic region; the events of the years 1792-1815 caused the map of the region to be entirely redrawn.
At the outset there were two conglomerate states, of which one consisted of the Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway, the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, the Norwegian dependencies Iceland, Greenland and the Faeroes, and colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean; the other of Sweden including Finland, which had been an integrated part of the realm for centuries, and Swedish Pomerania. At the end of the epoch Sweden had been reduced to its present borders, Finland had become a partly autonomous Grand Duchy under the Russian Emperor, Denmark had lost Norway but gained the small Duchy of Lauenburg, and Norway had become an independent kingdom in a union of crowns with Sweden.
In his new book Omvälvningarnas tid – Norden och Europa under revolutions- och Napoleonkrigen, published by Norstedts, the Swedish historian Martin Hårdstedt sets himself the ambitious zeal of telling the story of that momentous era both from the Nordic perspective and from the greater European perspective while at the same time stressing how Nordic and continental events interlocked. It is an ambition which he only partially succeeds in fulfilling.
For while the book begins well with the author drawing up the background for the events that were to follow he soon narrows his tale down to the military aspects. This is mostly well-told and informative and the author makes some interesting points and analyses, but he presents the wars too isolated and not in the political and diplomatic context of which they were results and on which they depended. Hårdstedt himself implicitly points the finger at this fact when he writes, following Waterloo, that “[w]hat was determining in the end was that Napoléon did not have any political support”.
The book starts out well, but I became less enthusiastic as I read on and was treated to detailed analyses of battle formations, military strategies and army logistics. Without the larger context the wars do not really make any sense and the reader is left with only one aspect of a many-faceted story.
It is perhaps symptomatic for how military matters are allowed almost entirely to eclipse their political and diplomatic context that a man like Talleyrand makes his first appearance only on pages 165-166, when the story has reached the summit at Tilsit in 1807 and we are informed that Talleyrand thereafter lost much of his influence.
Unfortunately it is also rather obvious that although the author knows his way around the battlefield, he has a weaker grasp on non-military aspects of the story, such as political and constitutional issues.
For instance he writes that “[w]hen Napoléon reached Paris on 20 March [1815] it was again dictatorship that awaited [France]”, without writing a word on Napoléon’s unsuccessful attempt at introducing a “liberal empire” during the Hundred Days. And when it comes to the union of crowns between Sweden and Norway it is not correct that the King of Sweden was the commander-in-chief of the Norwegian army (the King of Sweden and the King of Norway were the same man, but in his capacity as King of Sweden he had no powers over the Norwegian army), nor is it correct that the King according to the Norwegian Constitution shared the legislative power with Parliament.
Further, the Norwegian rebellion of 1814 did not “lay […] a foundation for its future independence”. It is unclear when Hårdstedt thinks Norway did actually become independent, but that was in fact what happened in 1814. Perhaps this might be considered a result of the historical mythology nurtured by many Swedes that Norway was subject to Sweden rather than its equal in the union.
There are also far too many factual mistakes. Friedrich Wilhelm II was not the son of Friedrich the Great and Queen Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotta was not her husband’s aunt. Both Franz II, Napoléon I and Gustaf IV Adolf are referred to as “future” emperor or king well after they had succeeded to their respective thrones, while we learn that Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria had just been deposed when he had on the contrary been promoted from elector to king. Viscounts become counts and counts become dukes, while princes are demoted to dukes, and “the Mecklenburgian Princess Fredrika of Baden” is obviously an impossibility. When it comes to the arts it was not the empire style in itself which was called Biedermeier in Germany.
And then there are some rather far-fetched simplifications and exaggerations. I very much doubt Queen Marie-Antoinette could “determine people’s lives” simply by “a shrug of her shoulder” and mentioning Désirée Bernadotte together with Madame de Staël as an example of “women […] who did not simply live in the shadows of various men” borders on the ludicrous.
In my opinion Martin Hårdstedt would have done better if he had decided to write a book on the military history of the era between 1792 and 1815. That is a story he seems to master and know how to tell. But when this is presented as a history of the entire era, the attempt falls short because the military aspects are seen almost isolated and without the political and diplomatic context which determined the question of war and peace.

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