Aleksander Mikaberidze - interview
Napoleon.org.pl: The first question is quite obvious: Why is a Georgian interested in Napoleon and its era? Where does the idea of founding a Napoleonic Society of Georgia come from ?
Alexander Mikaberidze: I do not have a good answer to this question. I have always loved history and as a child I read history books and historical fiction everyday. For example one of my favorite books as a kid was Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel Krzyżacy which I read several times; novels by Alexander Dumas and Maurice Druon introduced to French history which I came to love more than any other.
Like most people, I learned about Napoleon in childhood. This initial interest turned into a genuine passion at the age of ten when, during a regular visit to a bookstore in my hometown of Tbilisi, I discovered a dusty volume of the French emperor’s biography. I was so mesmerized by Napoleon’s exploits that I searched high and low for more books, not an easy task amidst political and economic turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. I also wanted to see if there were other people who shared by passion for the history of the Napoleonic Era. Eventually this led me to establish the Napoleonic Society of Georgia.
Since then I have devoted over two decades to studying Napoleon, which has become one of the defining experiences of my life. It is because of this fascination with the Emperor that I was able to leave my war-ravaged homeland to pursue a new academic career, traveled widely around the world, met my wife and pursued an “American Dream.” In so many ways, Napoleon had changed my life.
Napoleon.org.pl: Which of the historians of the Napoleonic era is your greatest authority and why?
Alexander Mikaberidze: There are many of them and I have benefitted from knowing some of them personally.
Napoleon.org.pl: What troubles you the most in works dedicated to the Napoleonic era from the professional point of view?
Alexander Mikaberidze: Speaking broadly, I think there are two major issues. One is the tendency to focus on the British and French perspectives more than those of other participants. Both English and French language historiography suffers from the lack of Polish, Italian, Spanish, Russian (and other) perspectives. So we need more of transnational and comparative history that would incorporate a wider range of sources and interpretations. Another is the lack of archival research, especially evident in the popular publications that tend to retell and reinforce existing narratives without challenging them.
Napoleon.org.pl: The so-called "Anglo-Saxon" point of view on Napoleon and his era is very unpopular in Poland. It is a source of mistakes, misrepresentations, prejudices and even calumnies. What is your view of on such a perception of history?
Alexander Mikaberidze: I think we should distinguish between academic works and trade titles. There is much to admire in the former but much to complain about in the latter. In general, the Anglo-Saxon point of view is the weakest when dealing with issues that require specific linguistic knowledge and research.
Napoleon.org.pl: Do you know any Polish historians dealing with the Napoleonic era, either today or in the past? Do you have a favourite work written by a Pole?
Alexander Mikaberidze: I do not know Polish historians personally but I do follow their research and have been occasionally asked by the Nationbal Science Center of Poland to review projects by Polish historians. My introduction to the Polish historiography was through the works of Marian Kukiel and I still enjoy reading his works. I have also read works by Robert Bielecki, Stanislaw Kirkor, Dariusz Nawrot, M. Lukasiewicz, J. Czubaty and others. I admired Andrzej Nieuważny and was heartbroken about his untimely passing.
Napoleon.org.pl: How would you rate Eugene Tarle's book "Napoleon"?
Alexander Mikaberidze: I have mixed feelings about this book. It was the second (after A. Manfred’s) biography of Napoleon that I read as a child and it played a major role in nurturing my interested in the Napoleonic history. I probably read it at least a dozen times - it is well written, accessible and fun to read, just what anyone new to the Napoleonic history needs. But from a professional point of view, it is not Tarle’s best book and, in its interpretations and arguments, have become dated so there is also ground for criticism.
Napoleon.org.pl: What is your greatest "Napoleonic" discovery?
Alexander Mikaberidze: I am still searching for it. Instead of one big discovery, my hope is to add to the larger body of historical knowledge through many small “discoveries” and new interpretations. That is the goal, for example, of my book, The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History (published by Oxford University Press two months ago), which breaks with the traditional Euro-centric narrative of the Napoleonic Wars and takes a global view of the war.
Napoleon.org.pl: After years spent reading correspondences and memories, you have certainly come across an issue which cannot be fully explained through any available sources. If you had a chance to meet someone contemporary to the Napoleonic era, and by that means, to uncover a secret striking you, such a secret would be ...?
Alexander Mikaberidze: Ah, there are many puzzles that I would like to solve. One of them, for example, is the mission of Theodore Lascaris de Ventimille, a former Maltese knight and the descendant of the Byzantine emperors, who claimed that Napoleon sent him on a mission to instigate Arab tribes to rebel against the Ottomans. Think "Lawrence of Arabia" set during the Napoleonic Wars, but this time it would have been "Lascaris of Arabia".
In 1810 Lascaris, who by the way was married to a Georgian woman, traveled to Aleppo and contacted one of the local guides, Fathallah al-Sayegh, with a request for help in exploring trade routes, stations and water wells in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts. The two adventurers embarked on this dangerous venture in February 1810 and spent three years criss-crossing the Syrian and Iraqi deserts, venturing as far as eastern Iran; all the while, they visited and interacted with various tribes. The mission, as Sayegh described it in his memoirs, was successful and Arab tribal chiefs expressed readiness to challenge Ottoman power and ally themselves with Napoleon. Yet, as Lascaris reached Istanbul for his journey back to France in 1813, he learned about Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia and understood its ramifications. He decided to travel to Egypt to see his old friend, French consul in Alexandria, but died of dysentery shortly after his arrival.
The strange story of Lascaris, as told by Sayegh who wrote a lengthy memoir, contains many inconsistencies and contradictions. During my last visit to the French diplomatic archives, I tried locating French consular or other official documents to confirm it but found none about Lascaris’ mission. Interestingly, the Bodleian Library has a letter of the British consul ion Aleppo, John Barker, which expresses concern for Lascaris "plan for the conquest of Syria" and reveals that Barker had managed to get a copy of Lascaris' journal and conveyed it to Admiral Sidney Smith. I have searched for it but so far no success; a large part of Smith's personal papers was destroyed in a fire so the journal might have been lost then.
I find it difficult to imagine that Lascaris, whom Napoleon had previously entrusted other secret missions, would have just spent three years in deserts on a whim. There is plenty of evidence that Napoleon had expressed his interest in returning to the East and threatening British interests in the Indian Ocean. In September 1810, just Lascaris traveled to Aleppo, Napoleon envisioned a general attack against Britain, which included an expedition to the Levant. A month later he instructed one of his agents to visit Syria and Egypt to examine fortresses of Saint-Jean-d’Acre, Jaffa, Rosette, Alexandria and Cairo and to report on local conditions; the same day, Napoleon also ordered French consults in Syria and Egypt to submit regular memorandums on political, military and financial conditions of both these regions. These instructions seem to have been intended to lay the grounds for an expedition that was to embark to the East after the successful outcome of the Russian campaign. Lascaris’ mission would have fit well Napoleon’s ongoing efforts to explore condition in the Levant but further research is needed to make a definite conclusion about it. So if I could time-travel back to 1810-1812, I would have loved to talk to Lascaris about his mission.
Napoleon.org.pl: Do you expect any unusual discoveries in the future related to the Napoleonic era subject matter?
Alexander Mikaberidze: Of course! The amount of previously un-consulted material in the archives is simply staggering and there is always something new to discover. These discoveries may not be earthshattering, but they will allow us to sharpen our understanding of the past.
Napoleon.org.pl: As we know, in response to Alexander's outrage at the death of the duc d'Enghien, Talleyrand reminded the tsar of his role in, or at least awareness of, the murder of Paul I. How do you assess the impact of this letter on Alexander's attitude towards France in the following years?
Alexander Mikaberidze: We know that Alexander was infuriated by the letter’s tone and suggestions, which was indeed the French intentions. The letter strengthened the Russian emperor’s resolve to confront Napoleon but it was not the decisive factor in Russian decision to join the Coalition.
Napoleon.org.pl: In 1809 Napoleon left Spain and never returned. Why did he refuse to intervene personally in the historical events of 1810-1812? Assuming that he did intervene, would he succeeded in defeating Wellington or rather end up like he did in Russia?
Alexander Mikaberidze: That’s one of the puzzles that I would like to time-travel for, if your offer still stands. In my new book, I contemplate a “what if” scenario of what would have happened if, instead of leading the invasion of Russia, Napoleon had chosen to return to Spain in 1812 and, utilizing his vast resources from across the entire continent (just as he did in Russia), confronted the peninsular problems before dealing with his Russian adversaries. I am certain that Napoleon would have reclaimed positions in the Peninsula though it would have interesting to see how he would have dealt with the British lines at Torres Vedras - I do not think they would have held against him and I think Wellington would have been forced to leave just as Moore was in 1809.
Napoleon.org.pl: You are an author of a book about the officers' corps of the Imperial Russian Army and Bagration's biography. Would you also like to write about foreigners in the Russian army during the Napoleonic era? Many such works refer to the French Army. However, as it comes to the Imperial Russian Army, descriptions of foreign matters mostly refer to unsuccessful campaigns. How would you assess the participation of Poles and Lithuanians (people from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) in the Imperial Russian Army? What are the most interesting or significant moments during their Napoleonic battles on the Russian side?
Alexander Mikaberidze: This is a very broad and complex question. I am indeed interested in the foreigners serving in the Russian army, especially those who left memoirs and letters that can be explored. In this regards, Alexander Langeron is one of my favorites and I am working on publishing his biography and memoirs which are among the best Napoleonic memoirs covering several campaigns.
Napoleon.org.pl: In your book about Berezina, you were critical of the role of Kutuzov. How do the Russian historians currently assess this figure? Did your views face any criticism ?
Alexander Mikaberidze: There are two Russian schools of thought about Kutuzov: one is critical of him and Nikolai Troitsky’s book is a good example of it. The other one is far more favorable to the Fieldmarshal, oftentimes ignoring his mistakes and focusing on his achievements alone. There is a long historiography of such works, and the recent books by L. Ivchenko and A. Shishov are good examples of it. I have not seen any Russian reviews of my books so if there are critical comments about my interpretation, I am unaware of them.
Napoleon.org.pl: Do you think that there was a chance for an ending of the conflict with Russia which would also be beneficial for Napoleon ?
Alexander Mikaberidze: Depends on what you mean by beneficial. Overall, I think this entire campaign should not have happened and instead Napoleon should have committed his resources to the Iberian Peninsula and dealt with Russian diplomatically. He knew well that invasion of Russia would be a difficult enterprise but still went on with it. Once the invasion was underway, I think he should have stopped at Smolensk and offered to negotiate with the Russians, and pledged to withdraw from Russia in exchange for Russian commitments. Whether Russians accepted them or not, he should have claimed a victory and returned back to the Polish-Lithuanian regions to regroup.
Napoleon.org.pl: What influence did the bankers in London and Paris have on the wars of 1789-1815?
Alexander Mikaberidze: That is one of the less research aspects of the Napoleonic Wars, though this has been somewhat remedied by Niall Ferguson’s study of the House of Rothschild (volume 1 covers the revolutionary period), Pierre Branda’s research on Napoleon’s finance (his Le prix de la Gloire is superb) and Carlos Marichal’s Bankruptcy of Empire: Mexican Silver and the Wars Between Spain, Britain, and France, 1760–1810. There is also interesting scholarship on the relations between the British and Dutch banks, namely the Hope and Baring banks.
Money of course is one of the sinews of war and ability of raising and sustaining war funding was crucial to conflicts that raged between 1792 and 1815. In my book I highlight for example the importance of the Spanish silver that was mined in the Americas. It had averaged more than 20 million piasters between 1792 and 1806 before rapidly declining to just 16 million in 1807–1813, 11 million in 1814, and less than 9 million in later years. The shortage of Mexican silver had consequences for global trade. One of the interesting moments of the Napoleonic wars (at least for me) is Napoleon’s efforts to secure Mexican silver with the help of French merchant par excellence Gabriel Julian Ouvrard, who acted in a dual capacity: as war profiteer and as agent of the French Treasury. In a remarkable example of commercial collaboration in the midst of major military conflict, Ouvrard helped organize a mercantile network involving French, Dutch, and British merchant bankers and traders who engaged in an extraordinary endeavor to carry Mexican treasure in neutral ships (even, on several occasions, on British warships) from the New World on behalf of the Spanish king—but, in practice, for Napoleon.
Napoleon.org.pl: Let's assume there is no Marmont's treason - was it at all possible in 1814 that Alexander would support the succession of the King of Rome?
Alexander Mikaberidze: I hate to quibble about the details but the treason was, technically, committed by Joseph Souham. Marmont did make a mistake when he negotiated a secret agreement on April 3, but we also know that, upon being informed of Napoleon’s abdication, he informed Schwarzenberg that he would not follow the agreement and move his troops to Normandy (which is another important issues – Marmont did not intend to surrender his corps but rather to redeploy it to Normandy and place it under control of the French provisional government.)
I think there was a possibility of the King of Rome’s accession but I am not certain how viable this arrangement would have been in the long term.
Napoleon.org.pl: After numerous monographs, editions of sources and dictionary publications, your latest work, the monumental "A Global History", appears almost as the crowning of your career. We hope that this will not be the case and would like to ask you about your plans for the coming years? Apart from the well-deserved holidays of course!
Alexander Mikaberidze: Thank you, I appreciate your comments. I do hope the Polish readers will have an opportunity to read it soon enough. I have several projects underway – a couple of biographies, an institutional history of the Russian army and a new history of the Louisiana Purchase, one of the crucial developments of the Napoleonic era.
Napoleon.org.pl: Your books have been very well received by Polish readers. What kind of books (apart from Borodino and Berezyna) would you recommend?
Alexander Mikaberidze: There are many books to choose from since the Napoleonic scholarship has exploded in recent years. At least ten new biographies of Napoleon have been published in the last fifteen years and I enjoyed reading those by Andrew Robert and Philip Dwyer, even though they are rather different in spirit and approach. I love what Gareth Glover has done with the memoirs literature of the Waterloo Campaign – six invaluable volumes and counting. I admire Rory Muir’s scholarship, including his masterful biography of Wellington, Michael Leggiere’s histories of the 1813-1814 campaign, and Thierry Lentz’s superb four volumes on the Consulate and the Empire. I also recommend A. Popov’s reassessment of the Russian campaign in a series of stand-alone books that has appeared since 2012.
Napoleon.org.pl: Thank you very much.
Alexander Mikaberidze: I am thrilled to see my books translated into Polish and published in Poland, a country that I admire and have great memories of. I want to thank all the Polish readers for supporting my books and voting for them. It is a great honor that I will always cherish.