From The American Historical Review, Vol. 109, Issue 2 (April 2004)
Review by Leigh Whaley, Acadia University
Despite the enormous number of studies on every conceivable aspect of the life and impact of Napoleon Bonaparte, new books and new editions of older works are continually being published. Some of these include a new edition of Geoffrey Ellis's The Napoleonic Empire (2003), which analyzes the impact of Napoleonic rule in Europe; J. David Markham's Napoleon's Road to Glory: Triumphs, Defeats and Immortality (2003); Philip J. Haythornthwaite's In the Words of Napoleon: The Emperor Day by Day (2003), a work based on Bonaparte's correspondence and speeches; and the book under review. What distinguishes Wayne Hanley's study from the others is that it is an electronic book, which means that it has its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages due to its format. It must be accessed on-line after keying in a username and password for which the reader pays a fee. On the positive side, the book has a search engine that allows the reader to look up concepts of interest and to email portions of text. A "links" function allows one to click into relevant French and English websites. The extensive use of on-line scanned images and contemporary texts is another positive feature. On the negative side, do people really want to read books from a computer screen?
Hanley's justification for yet another book on Bonaparte is that many aspects of the emperor's life remain a mystery to scholars. One of these is Napoleonic propaganda before 1799. As Hanley points out, Robert Holtman's classic Napoleonic Propaganda (1950) and other less specialized works do not deal with the earlier period. This book is based on the author's doctoral dissertation, which was a recipient of the AHA Gutenberg e-prize for theses on the subject of "Europe before 1800" in 2000. It is unclear what changes Hanley has made in transforming his thesis into an electronic book. He argues that Bonaparte learned to be a propagandist during his formative years, long before he became ruler of France. Using different types of media, from newspapers to bulletins, Hanley demonstrates that Bonaparte did not invent them, "but he did understand the potential these pre-existing forms of propaganda offered, manipulating each to promote the precise image he desired" (p. 1). Hanley concludes that Bonaparte had a deep understanding of the art of propaganda, especially the press, and that he was most successful in this endeavor. Not only did he author his own bulletins and proclamations, but he even wrote his own articles for the official press. Hanley successfully illuminates the factors and techniques that make a successful propagandist: vocabulary, style of writing, use of the first person singular, placing a positive spin on events. He also correctly states that Bonaparte was aided by the growth of the popular press after 1789, increased literacy rates among French males in particular, and the appeal of military victories to a French reading public.
The book consists of seven chapters, including an introduction and an afterword. The substantive chapters are entitled: "News from the Front," "Newspapers," "Art as Propaganda," "Medals," and "Passive Propaganda." There is no real conclusion. The afterword retells the story of the Eighteenth Brumaire based primarily on accounts by experts such as Jean Tulard, Felix Markham, J. M. Thompson, and Martyn Lyons. It does not seem to fit well with the rest of the book. An appendix includes translated correspondence relevant to the subject at hand.
What is both interesting and revealing is Hanley's investigation into nonwritten forms of propaganda such as art and medals. In the chapter dealing with "Art as Propaganda," he examines Bonaparte's confiscation of Italian art and his treaties with Italians such as the duke of Parma. He examines Bonaparte's personal role in the selection of confiscated art and his skill in prolonging the media coverage of his military accomplishments and artistic levies. Hanley's discussion of Bonaparte's manipulation of medals is particularly illuminating. He correctly points out that Bonaparte's use of medals as propagandistic devices during the Italian campaign is not common knowledge.
The author could have more clearly explained what he means by "passive propaganda," which is defined as "secondary sources of media exposure initiated by others who sought to 'cash in' on Napoleon's growing popularity" (chapter six, par. 1). This definition, although interesting, does not appear to fit the argument put forth at the start of the book, which states that Bonaparte was the great manipulator and propagandist.
This book is a thoroughly researched, fully referenced, interesting, and informative study. It is generally well written and highly recommended for all interested in the subject matter, from undergraduates to researchers.