Napoleon and the Verdict of Biography: A Conversation with Historian Adam Zamoyski

Albert Mohler: This is Thinking In Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Adam Zamoyski was born in New York in 1949, but was raised and educated in England where he currently lives. Behind all of that is a fascinating story. He was born in 1949 to aristocratic Polish parents. His father, Count Stefan Zamoyski, and his mother, the Princess Elizabeth. They came to the United States and largely lived in Britain because they had to flee Poland during World War II and in its aftermath. Their son, Adam Zamoyski, would later become the author of the bestselling history of that native land, of Poland. But Adam Zamoyski has also become a historian of note, writing across the field, especially of European history.

Today we’re going to be talking about his new monumental biography of Napoleon, simply entitled Napoleon: A Life. Zamoyski was educated at the Downside School, and later he received his degrees from Queens College at Oxford University. He received the master of arts in honors in 1974. Thereafter he set about the task of being a writing historian, and that is exactly what he has done, writing well over a dozen influential books about European history and the figures behind that history. But he’s also looked at the big ideas and the big themes. He has sought to integrate, to understand, to make connections as you look at civilization, culture, and history. And at least in my mind, to understand history as Adam Zamoyski approaches it, is to understand that he is also Count Zamoyski. He is the son of a very aristocratic Polish family. He has walked the history that he writes about, and his family has been very much involved. Most of us do not have a similar kind of story, not written large on the canvas of history. But in our own way, we cannot remove ourselves from the story.

I’m looking forward to this conversation with historian Adam Zamoyski. Adam Zamoyski was kind to speak to us today from his home in London. Adam Zamoyski, welcome to Thinking In Public.

Albert Mohler: I guess in one sense, anyone who writes a major biography of Napoleon has to explain why. So I’ll just start there. Why this massive almost 700 page biography of Napoleon published in the year 2018, 2019?

Adam Zamoyski:  Well, you may well ask why. At first when it was suggested to me I balked at the idea, and I had no wish to write it at all. But I was persuaded to do it. And as usually happens with these subjects which you think have been covered by thousands of people before, you pick up a few biographies that have been written about him and you realize, or books that have been written on the subject, and you realize that they miss a lot of the point. And suddenly I find I get this urge to say, “Well hang on, look, I’ve got to get this. This is nonsense. I’ve got to put this straight. Or at least get to the bottom of this.” And actually, by the way, mine, they say it’s massive. It’s a great deal shorter than most.

Albert Mohler:  Well in that sense it is. But on the other hand, it is a major biography. The title indeed is Napoleon: A Life. And I really was struck by the way you began in your preface when you said, “A Polish home, English schools, and holidays with French cousins exposed me from an early age to violently conflicting visions of Napoleon as godlike genius, romantic avatar, evil monster, or just nasty little dictator.” Then you said, “In this crossfire of fantasy and prejudice I developed an empathy with each of these views without being able to agree with any of them.” By the time I read your entire book I felt like I was in the same place. I had empathy for every one of those descriptions, and was convinced of none of them.

Adam Zamoyski:  I’m very pleased to hear that, because that is what every historian would like to hear. A historian should never take sides. I don’t think it’s a historian’s duty to be a polemicist. But I think that a good historian should be able to empathize and make his reader empathize in the sense that whoever you’re reading about, whether it’s a wonderful man or a monster, even if you’re reading about Hitler or Stalin, the only reason to read about them is to try and find out what on Earth made these people tick. What were they trying to do? Why did these do these things? Because just saying they did it because they were nasty brutes is not good enough. Because human beings all have the capacity, we all have the capacity to be nasty brutes and monsters. But we also an infinite capacity for good. And a biography must try and explore and make things understandable. And that means putting yourself and the reader in the man or the woman’s, the protagonist’s shoes. And if that’s what you felt at the end of it, then I hope I was successful.

Albert Mohler:  Well I will credit you for being so in this case. And I want to tell you that the thing I appreciated most about your biography was what it told me about Napoleon that I didn’t know before, given even more massive biographies. And I do think you tried to get into the inner man. But before getting to that for just a moment, I wanted to say that I think a pattern in the histories of great men throughout history is that the effort is made to present their lives before that moment of greatness as a series of pointers towards inevitability. By the time I was about a third of the way through your biography, I was convinced that Napoleon could have turned out to be a great and powerful man, or he could have turned out to have been someone of whom there would be virtually no memory. There was no inevitability in the narrative as I read it.

Adam Zamoyski:  Absolutely. And I think, again, this is terribly important. Unfortunately, people write with hindsight. And very often people write what they were taught at school. Very few people can really step back and get themselves out of … As it were, get up onto a cloud and look down dispassionately at things. And here, as I’ve made clear in my preface, I was incredibly fortunate. And that’s been my greatest asset, I think, as a historian, is that I come from a mixture of cultures. And I can see both sides of the coin. And the fact is that at any point, as you say, Napoleon could have just got nowhere. And indeed he could have … If the British after Waterloo had allowed him to settle in a cottage in the English countryside, as he asked them to, he would have finished his days as what we call in this country a pub boar. Somebody who sits around endlessly telling everybody how wonderful he is, and expanding his own views on everything. And he would have been forgotten. The fact that they turned his imprisonment into a kind of martyrdom glorified him and elevated him to a position way above it. So nothing is inevitable. And if he had been killed at Waterloo, if it had been different, if he had died five years earlier or eight years earlier, he’d be remembered as a remarkable general and as the restorer of France, but nothing much more. And the other thing about biographers is that people like fairy tales. And there was a review of my book in the London Times by a gentleman who said how wonderful that at least somebody stripped off all the stuff about Napoleon and shown what an average man he was. And the French are going to hate this book because it’s honest and all this. And it points out that he’s not very good at this, and he wasn’t that good at that. And then at the end of the review he says, “But you know what? I actually rather missed the whole sense of his greatness.” And as an honest historian, you can’t win.

Albert Mohler:  No, I understand that. But it is also a quandary that we’re stuck with, so to speak, where you have a man who you convince the reader is in many ways just an ordinary man. But you did write a 700 page biography of him. Andrew Roberts wrote another massive biography just a couple of years earlier entitled Napoleon The Great. We speak of the Napoleonic age. The code Napoleon is still a constant reference point in French law, and also for that matter, in the state of Louisiana here in the United States. And so there’s more to the man, and that means we have to look at his age as well.

Albert Mohler:  But one of the things I appreciate about the way you tell the story is that I think you really do help to point to the family dynamic in a way that many others have not. And it’s really a rather sad tale, but Napoleon was driven by a quest for glory. And you’ve convinced me that a part of that came to him quite young because he wanted to overcome basically the reputation of his own father there in Corsica.

Adam Zamoyski:  Yes. His father was a terrible social climber. And the family was always struggling, because there was never enough money around. It was a very tight little town, Ajaccio, and where he grew up, where everybody was jockeying for survival and pecking order in a very tight, smelly place. And so there was always a question of onwards and upwards, or downwards. You couldn’t stand still. Not to mention the fact that it was a society in which you were more than likely to get knifed in the back if you didn’t watch out for yourself. So there was that. And there was that whole Mediterranean cult of the family and the clan and sticking together. And that did drive him on. But again, more important than that, or equally important is the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. And for this you have to look at the literature of the times. At what these people, these young boys read. And what he read, he was a tremendous reader of both technical and historical books. But he also loved literature. And he was absolutely entranced by the great literature of the French dramas. But also by the poems of the great Scottish bard Ossian, which inspired a sense of men living moments that were like moments taken from Greek mythology. Which it was a literature that rarely equated human situations with those of the gods. And so there was always this sense of the superhuman and attaining a kind of fulfillment. I suppose it was the secular version of the old Christian concept of human sacrifice and sanctification, and ultimately giving one’s self and achieving sanctity through practice of the faith. And we’re clear it was achieving a sort of higher state of achievement, of fulfillment through great action. And it wasn’t just Napoleon who was inspired by this. So many young people of his age were. They thought they were creating a new world. It was a sort of pseudo Christianity they were implementing.

Albert Mohler:  I want to follow through on that thought more in just a moment. But looking just at the early Napoleon, I’m struck by the fact that as a basically nine-year-old boy he ends up by his father’s political ingenuity in a prominent military school that will eventually train the French military elite. And Napoleon really takes to it. That’s something that I really felt from reading your narrative. Napoleon really takes to it. He takes to the mathematics. He takes to the military science. He takes to it all. And so even in a nine-year-old it appears that he begins to think of himself as the general. And eventually he makes himself into one.

Adam Zamoyski:  Yeah. So of course originally there had been talk of him going into the Navy. And that held out great allure, because if you were a soldier in peacetime, all you did was sit around in a garrison town doing a bit of drill. Whereas in the Navy in peacetime you sailed around the world, and you did things, and you discovered things, and you learned things. And it required mathematical skills and calculation. So he was very interested in that. I’m not sure that at that age he wanted to be the great leader of men. I think he wanted to get on and do things. I think he wanted to find out about things. He read about military campaigns and military history, but he also read about lots of other kinds of nonfiction books. He read about the governments of different countries. He read about philosophy. He read very, very widely about different cultures, about geography. So he was about the stage where I think not determined to become a great leader of men. I think he wanted to do things. He was inquisitive, he was intellectually inquisitive and intellectually ambitious and wanted to do things. And it was gradually the more he came into contact with other people he realized that actually he was a lot cleverer that most of them. And that spurred him on, because he began to really despise an awful lot of people who were supposedly his elders and betters.

Albert Mohler:  I want to talk about Napoleon as military leader, because that’s where there is so much interest, even amongst our contemporaries. And you convince the reader that Napoleon had a certain kind of military genius. He lacked another kind of military genius, and that becomes a part of the timeline of the story. He appears of be invincible, or almost so, for decades. And then he turns out not to be invincible at all. If I could summarize your argument it’s that early on Napoleon earned the loyalty of his troops, and eventually the loyalty of others, by winning these decisive victories. And he did so with a very keen mind on military strategy, making sure his forces were in just the right place at just the right time with just the right strategy. And that worked until it didn’t. But if I could summarize, I want to test this with you, it appears that one of your major arguments is that he was rather tremendous at conquering territory, but not very good at defending it.

Adam Zamoyski:  I’m not sure that’s true, because actually in 1814, when he hardly had any troops left, and defending France, he was absolutely brilliant. And had he had another 20,000, 30,000 more men, he would probably have defeated the allies. But no, I think that the fundamental thing is I think that the real problem is that he wasn’t a great strategist, he was a great tactician. And there’s a fundamental difference between tactics and strategy. And what he was very good at … Well first of all, he studied the terrain and the conditions. So he had a very clear idea of where his armies were, where his men were, and where the enemy was. And he also knew where he could retreat and where he could advance. IE where there were roads, where there were bridges, where you could cross a river, ford it, or whatever. Which passes you could get guns over and which you couldn’t. And so on. But at the same time, he also had a clear idea of where the enemy could advance and where the enemy could retreat. And so he would very quickly spot that his adversary, the enemy, had suddenly got themselves up a valley with an exposed rear. And he would move incredibly quickly, rearranging his own forces, to go and hit them right in that exposed place, and trap them and completely destroy them. And he was always looking out for the enemy’s mistakes, and very quick to take advantage. And that served him extremely well when essentially his greatest victories, the spectacular ones, were when he was actually being attacked. In Italy in 1796 he was continually being … Okay, he moved into Italy and knocked the enemy back. But then having cleared the Austrians out of Italy, five times they sent armies in to defeat him. And they were always superior to him. And he would punch right and left and outmaneuver them brilliantly. And possibly his greatest military victory at Austerlitz. Again, he was outnumbered. And what he did was he pulled back and he led the enemy on, making them believe that he had an exposed wing. And he made them attack him, and then he destroyed them. So he was very good at those sorts of tactics. But what was his undoing was strategy, or lack of, because in the end he never had one single ally. He kept changing alliances, and he would push people, even allies, into impossible positions, which inevitably turned them into enemies. And in the end he ran out of allies. Everybody was against him. And wherever he looked, everybody turned against him. So his downfall was because he didn’t have a longterm political strategy. And indeed, in 1815, if he had stayed in Paris and allowed the allies to invade again, he might well have managed to bloody their nose to the extent that they would then be forced to allow him to remain on the throne. But by marching out again, that was a strategic mistake, although it was tactically sensible. Also, and with age he got lazy. And he had huge armies, and he just thought that his fame and his reputation would do the rest. And that stopped being the case.

Albert Mohler: You do begin to feel at one point the morale, the esprit de corps, of the French troops beginning to dissipate. And so long as Napoleon was seen as the great conqueror, seen as almost invincible or eventually invincible, he had that great loyalty. But you do begin, especially after 1812, to see that begin to dissipate. But Napoleon is famous for so many things other than war. And you give much of this due in the book. And I want to go back to a comment you made earlier. And I’ll have to make reference to my favorite of your books, and that is Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots, and Revolutionaries 1776-1871.

Adam Zamoyski:  That’s my favorite too.

Albert Mohler:  Well I will tell you that as a theologian, and historical theologian, I found it the most fascinating of your works. You begin by looking at the Romantic age, and speaking to the extent to which in the French Revolution there was a secularization that took place, dramatically addressed it, replacing the doctrine of original sin with a very different understanding of humanity. I think your first chapter was entitled Our Lord Mankind. This arrival of enlightenment man. And you convinced me in your biography Napoleon that Napoleon was very much himself a son of the Enlightenment and self-consciously so. And I think that’s something new that you bring to this biography that’s a very important part of the picture.

Adam Zamoyski:  Yes. He was undoubtedly a child of the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment spoke to him because he was above all a very pragmatic and sensible man, a very practical man. And that’s why he was such a great nation builder, state builder, because he picked up the mess left behind by the Revolution. And instead of being dogmatic and too theoretical, he had this attitude, “People like this, and therefore they must have this.” Forget about the theory and that side. For instance, the Revolution had swept away, as you know, swept the practice of religion, in this case Catholicism, out of public life. And he realized that actually most of the population of France, the simple people in France, were attached to their old religion. Very often not for spiritual reasons, but it was the cultural landscape in which they had grown up. They believed in a God, they believed in going to church, they lived by the calendar of the church and the calendar of the saints. And so he brought all that back against, to the fury, of almost all the other revolutionaries for whom it was an article of faith of the Revolution to have swept aside all that. And most of his generals were furious with him. But he realized that no, most of the people it and therefore must have it. Although he wasn’t a believer himself. So he was a tremendously practical man. And everything he did, there was a logic to it. At the same time, he was also a child of the first ripples of Romanticism, of the Romantic movement. And he loved the early Romantic novels, such as Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther or Bernardin de Saint Pierre’s Paul et Virginie which he kept rereading. So he was quite sentimental, and he had a romantic side to him, and of course Ossian as well, which is an early text. So he was curious mixture. But this allowed him to achieve what was his greatest achievement, which was to rebuild out of the mess left by France, rebuild an intelligent, functioning, rational French state, which incorporated a great deal of traditional French law and institutions going back over the centuries. Which also included the reinstatement of the Catholic Church. But which also included all the best things that had come out of the Revolution. And so it was a tremendously pragmatic thing, and that’s why it has survived. And that’s why the code Napoleon is still there. And indeed France and a great many western states still function along those lines.

Albert Mohler:  One of the interesting realizations in reading about Napoleon is that virtually everyone seems to have a piece of him, every biographer seems to have an approach. But his life and his legacy are such huge historical questions that the books actually begin to argue with one another. But as we see even in this book, arguments emerge within the books. That’s because I guess you’d have to say arguments emerge within the man. In your book Holy Madness you go to tremendous pains, detail, to demonstrate the extent to which the Enlightenment philosophers, and more than that, the people who had to run the governments and shape the civilizations, actually just went back to the Christian symbolism and took out the Christianity, and put in a new secular meaning. But Napoleon seems to have gone beyond that. At one point, it’s on page 299 of your biography, he asked the question, “How can one have order in a state without religion?” And you also, as a subtext in your book, make clear that Napoleon was horribly offended by the licentiousness, the sexual licentiousness, that followed the terror. And he really did see apparently Christian morality as necessary for France, if not the supernatural claims of Christianity itself.

Adam Zamoyski:  Yes, that’s perfectly true. I think there are a number of things here. First of all, he was a prig. And I wonder whether he wasn’t sexually quite complicated. He wasn’t very good in bed, so to speak. And he found women as a problem, because on the one hand he had been dominated by a strong mother, and he valued the role of women as most Mediterranean Europeans value the great southern idea of woman as the nurturer and the life giver. At the same time, he felt that they were a nuisance and that they complicated life. And the other aspect to him is that it’s most important to realize he was a bit of a control freak. He liked everything to be just so and kept in order. And he was always trying to … He’d get very cross if things were out of place, or if too much money had been spent on candles or coffee at the Tuileries palace. And what he didn’t like about sexual license was that it was disorderly and it might lead to all sorts of … It just upset potential for being disturbing the social order. He had the same feelings about homosexuality, although he turned a blind eye to it with time. One of his greatest collaborators, the Arch Chancellor Cambacérès, was openly gay, and always had been. But Napoleon at one stage forced him to go and visit a prominent female prostitute rather publicly at least once a week to try and make people think that he wasn’t gay. There was this extraordinary sense that order was terribly important to keep society together. And that was partly because he had seen terrible disorder as a young man during the Revolution. He had seen mobs baying for blood. And the near collapse of civilized society. So he did value the church, the law, the institutions, and the family, and what he saw as the proper ordering of society as the building blocks of that.

Albert Mohler:  Well you present Napoleon as such a complicated figure. He definitely abhors atheism and believes that a proper religion, as he defined it, would be a vaccine for the imagination. It would give legitimacy to the authorities and to hierarchy. And then you went on just now to talk about the family. In the code Napoleon he very clearly establishes the family as the most basic unit of French society. I think this is something that’s often overlooked, but frankly it’s showing up in the headlines right now in some of the civil debates in France with the distinction between urban France and rural France right now in 2019. And it points to the fact that Napoleon’s longest legacy might well be this code and the culture that it produced.

Adam Zamoyski:  Yes, yes. I think again, his idea that religion was a vaccine, it’s the equivalent of there’s the British saying is when people stop believing in God they start believing in something a great deal worse. And so he firmly believed that the Christian faith was the most satisfactory for human organization. If only from a purely practical point of view. And absolutely the family, he saw that as central, partly because he came, as I keep stressing, this very family based Mediterranean culture. But partly because he saw that as the fundamental unit of society, and the fundamental unit of control. And on the one hand, in code Napoleon, he very much puts women in the second place. And the man of the family has to be in charge of the money, and he decides whom his wife can see and whom she can’t see, and so on. And that’s partly because of his own experience of having been cheated on by Josephine. But also he’s very actually understanding of women. For instance, he does facilitate divorce if marriages have broken down irretrievably. But also there’s this very interesting thing that he turns adoption into a sort of a sacrament. So the idea was that if somebody adopted a child, it wasn’t just, “Okay, I’m going to look after them and bring them up as my own.” There was a whole process that turned this child into … It was a bit like a wedding. It had to be a semi-religious act so this child could really feel that they had become part of the family. So it’s quite interesting, he also, in the educational system, in the university, which was to govern the entire educational system in France, he originally saw teachers as sort of lay monks who should remain unmarried for a number of years while being teachers. And only marry once they had reached a certain maturity, and then they should marry. So as to give them the gravitas, and prevent them from then seducing their charges or whatever. So his sense of the religious as part, as useful in constructive, cement for social organization, did reach very, very far.

Albert Mohler:  And his system of public education did as well. And it was basically secular, as you say. But as you have made the argument in your previous works, secular infused with basically a sacred authority by symbolism and by the almost monastic role of the teachers. In your book you point out that Napoleon actually said, “Public education can and must be a very powerful motor in our political system.” And he said that, “The Department of Public Education is nothing less than the direction of minds by intelligence.” There’s a sense in which he sought to think through the entire culture. That’s still a surprise to me. When you talk about Napoleon you’re not just talking about a general or an overly ambitious monomaniac. You’re looking at someone who really was concerned with almost every dimension of society.

Adam Zamoyski:  Yes. But you’re also looking at someone who turned up at the right moment when a very, very significant proportion of the national elite knew that it wanted to create a sensible and orderly state, but just couldn’t get their act together. And these people just needed somebody who could galvanize the thing and just get on with it. One of the directors whom he overthrew, Sieyes, famously he wanted to lead a coup. But he said he needed a saber, he needed a general, somebody who’d have the determination to carry things through. So in a sense, almost everything Napoleon did, yes, he did it, but he did it almost as somebody surfing a wave. And he was creating things that the French nation, you could say, or certainly the outstanding elites of the French nation wanted to create but just couldn’t stop discussing. And in the sessions of his council of state in which he forged all these institutions he almost banged heads together. He’d sit there saying, “Come on, tell me what you think.” And he’d question people. And they’d all discuss and discuss and then he would pick out the salient points that everybody had made, evaluate them and say, “Well look, these are the arguments. You’ve put this argument, you’ve put this argument, but I think this is the way through. Does everybody agree?” And they’d suddenly say, “Hey, that’s quite good.” And they’d say, “Right.” And off it went. So he was a catalyst. So yes, he achieved great things, but it wasn’t like he turned up and just achieved them himself. Everything from the code Napoleon onwards was he was the editor in a way. He was the catalyst and the editor.

Albert Mohler:  So what does it say that when we refer to this era in Europe, especially in France, we can’t do so without calling it Napoleonic. How does it come to this, that Napoleon is such a dominant figure in our imagination today? You really explain that in the closing paragraph of your book when you talk about Napoleon’s final victory. And I’ll let you put it in your own words, but it’s a quite convincing argument.

Adam Zamoyski:  Yes. Well the point about Napoleon was that he was an arch propagandist. He needed propaganda originally to cover his back. He then found that he needed it to keep himself in power. And both through word and image he created such a grand construct in people’s imaginations, the whole state with which he was bound up, the style, the uniforms, the whole thing, he had created something absolutely astonishing. But a lot of the time he was still insecure. He was driven by insecurities, and he never really knew when to stop because he was afraid that if he stopped people would stop respecting him. And it was really only after he fell and he was a prisoner that he started actually creating his ultimate image, which was no longer designed so much to cover his back as to project his image for the future. To turn himself into a kind of almost superhuman, indeed superhuman genius. And to do it in such a way that when it was taken up by the Romantic movement …

Albert Mohler:  Yes, in your words you said he came to this vision of himself as, “Napoleon the godlike genius who misunderstood, betrayed, and martyred by lesser men would triumph over death and live on to haunt the imagination and inspire future generations. He had begun a new life as a myth.”

Adam Zamoyski:  Yes. And that is what the English title, the title of the English edition of my book is Napoleon: The Man Behind The Myth. Because that was exactly what I was trying to find. How this extraordinary man, who in many ways was very ordinary, but did have some great talents. But as I point out, none of those talents on its own permitted him to achieve what he achieved. But how he managed partly through manipulation of men, images, and facts to A, create an extraordinary epoch, and B, to then turn that into a myth which haunts us. And which everybody loves, because I come back to this thing, it is like a huge fairy tale. People love reading about Napoleon. People love looking at Napoleonic uniforms. People just do find the glory of it, or the imagined glory of it, absolutely spellbinding. And he knew how to do that. He was a very, very able and careful manipulator.

Albert Mohler:  I wonder if I might ask you a more personal question. You come from an aristocratic Polish family. You were born in the United States, but educated in Britain. And I think of you as British. And yet you’re connected to so many of these stories yourself. And given Napoleon and Poland, how much of this was a matter of personal interest to you? And how does that play out in your work as a historian?

Adam Zamoyski:  In the case of Napoleon and Poland, of course it’s another perfect thing is the Poles have traditionally since the beginning of the 19th century, they love Napoleon. They still do. They refuse to believe, they don’t want to believe in the truth, which was that he had absolutely no plans for them. He just used them as cannon fodder. The Poles loved to convince themselves that Napoleon loved them and was going to recreate a free Poland, which is a complete and utter nonsense. But this is a perfect example how Napoleon is a vehicle for wishful thinking, and for … In the 19th century, Napoleon was a wonderful myth for defeated causes, because Poland had been defeated and taken apart. And the greatest of all men had been brought down by lesser people, by a combination of English shopkeepers and Russians and Austrians. And Poland had been taken apart by the nasty Russians, Prussians, and Austrians. And so there was a great comfort zone there that the Poles had also shared in his martyrdom and his glory. And again, Poland would rise again just as he would, and so on. These things, semi-religious feelings, get mixed in with these. And I was brought up quite sensibly on this thing. But it was that kind of mythology was there in the background. And there were Prince Poniatowski’s death, and just Polish lancers doing heroic things and so on. So I grew up with this thing. But at the same time I can see the ridiculous aspect of it. And that’s why indeed I open the book with a scene which is frankly almost farcical.

Albert Mohler:  Yes, yes. And probably even more to your eyes than to the imaginations of your readers. I want to ask you a forward focused question. What’s the next project? Or what interest is driving you now? Once you conclude this massive project on Napoleon, what would be the next historical interest?

Adam Zamoyski:  I really don’t know. At the moment I’m feeling quite tired by Napoleon because I had to do it to a deadline. And so I had to really concentrate very much on the book all the time. And I now feel I need a period of reflection. I would like to go back to a subject that’s maybe more universal, or at least wider ranging. I don’t like covering subjects that other people have written. As I said, my favorite book was Holy Madness. I loved researching that and writing that. And I also loved my other book Phantom Terror. Which again spans cultures. You see, the trouble is that most historians write their little history of their own little backyard, and they don’t look over the fence. And life isn’t like that, and history isn’t like that. Everybody’s interconnected. And I love those connections, because they make history live and they make … It’s much more interesting because you find then that art, literature, and everything is much more interconnected around the world. And so I would like to go back to a subject that spans. And I like books that deal with ideas.

Albert Mohler:  And that’s why I enthusiastically recommend your book Holy Madness, as well as your new biography on Napoleon. And by the way, I really enjoyed your Intelligence Squared debate with Andrew Roberts, with whom I’ve also had a couple of these conversations about Napoleon. Once again, it’s fascinating and very pleasing to me that an argument amongst historians about a man long dead would draw a major crowd in London even today. There’s something still satisfying about that.

Adam Zamoyski:  Yes, yes, it was rather amazing I’ll say. And Andrew of course is a friend of mine, and is a very, very good man. I don’t agree with his … I think he over eggs the whole thing of Napoleon, and I don’t think he really understands it. I think he is very much … He loves all the military stuff. And is in awe of Napoleon the Great. That says it all, his title. But he’s a good historian. He’s a very dear man. So our debate was we agreed to have a bit of a go at each other because that’s what debate is about.

Albert Mohler:  And it made it fun to watch. It was a genuine exchange of ideas, and clearly among friends. Or at least friendly historians in a lively debate. And who could ask for something better than that? As we think about the relevance of history and lives today. Adam Zamoyski, thank you so much for joining me today for Thinking In Public.

Adam Zamoyski:  It was a pleasure.

Albert Mohler:  I really did enjoy that conversation with Adam Zamoyski. When you think about contemporary historical debates, over the course of the last several decades there has been an ideological retreat from the so called great man theory of history. The fact that history is basically told through the stories of the great men and increasingly great women who helped shape that story. But even as the academy tells us the great man theory of history is over, the book sale charts tell us a very different story. When you have a major biography of someone like Napoleon, or for that matter, at least two massive biographies in just the course of the last two to three years, and you see that both of them become bestsellers, well that tells you something about the fact that the great man theory of history simply won’t die. And that is because these individuals seize our imagination. And that is certainly the case of Napoleon. But it’s a case different for Americans than those who were in either the United Kingdom or on the European continent. For Americans, Napoleon’s an interesting figure way over there, across an ocean. His relationship with the United States was not nonexistent. After all, we’re talking about the Louisiana Purchase, and we’re talking about at one point in Napoleon’s reign the emperor Napoleon having to make a decision about exactly how important he understood French territories and potential French colonies to be in North America. But the fact is that if you are European, and especially if you are British or you are Russian, the very name Napoleon brings a visceral response. Approaching that as a historian in a more analytical way requires a certain kind of emotional discipline. But at the same time, there is no way a story with the drama and the importance of Napoleon can be told without emotion. But the mark of a truly great biography is that by reading it, a couple of things happen. One is you come to understand not only the man but the world in a better and more thoughtful way.

And the second development is like unto the first. You begin to enter into an argument, sometimes an argument with other books and other authors, other interpretations of the very same events and individuals. Sometimes it turns out to be an argument within itself. Sometimes that is also somewhat emotional. Do I like this individual or do I find him repulsive? In reality, it’s the Christian worldview that explains why in a figure so complicated as Napoleon at turns we respond with admiration and then with revulsion. Our emotional response, that moral reading that is inevitably personal, it changes sometimes page by page. And that’s what makes the turning of the page so fascinating. One thing’s for certain, by the time you reach the end of a biography like this, you come to understand that this was a very important life. In its own way, every life is important, but not every life gets covered in a biography so significant as this.

Many thanks again to my guest Adam Zamoyski for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today’s episode of Thinking In Public, you will find more than a hundred of these conversations at under Thinking In Public. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.