The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014 M06 3 - 432 pages
“A mesmerizing account that illuminates not just the Napoleonic wars but all of modern history . . . It reads like a novel” (Lynn Hunt, Eugen Weber Professor of modern European history, UCLA).
The twentieth century is usually seen as “the century of total war.” But as the historian David A. Bell argues in this landmark work, the phenomenon actually began much earlier, in the era of muskets, cannons, and sailing ships—in the age of Napoleon.
In a sweeping, evocative narrative, Bell takes us from campaigns of “extermination” in the blood-soaked fields of western France to savage street fighting in ruined Spanish cities to central European battlefields where tens of thousands died in a single day. Between 1792 and 1815, Europe plunged into an abyss of destruction.
It was during this time, Bell argues, that our modern attitudes toward war were born. Ever since, the dream of perpetual peace and the nightmare of total war have been bound tightly together in the Western world—right down to the present day, in which the hopes for an “end to history” after the cold war quickly gave way to renewed fears of full-scale slaughter.
With a historian’s keen insight and a journalist’s flair for detail, Bell exposes the surprising parallels between Napoleon’s day and our own—including the way that ambitious “wars of liberation,” such as the one in Iraq, can degenerate into a gruesome guerrilla conflict. The result is a book that is as timely and important as it is unforgettable.
“Thoughtful and original . . . Bell has mapped what is a virtually new field of inquiry: the culture of war.” —Steven L. Kaplan, Goldwin Smith Professor of European history, Cornell University

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The first total war: Napoleon's Europe and the birth of warfare as we know it

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Napoleon is widely credited with changing both the perception and the waging of war. Bell (history, Johns Hopkins Univ.;The Cult of the Nation in France ) makes a convincing case that this ... Read full review


1 Officers Gentlemen and Poets
2 Conscience Commerce and History
3 Declaring Peace DeclaringWar
4 The Last Crusade
5 The Exterminating Angels
6 The Lure of the Eagle
7 Days of Glory
8 Wars Red Altar
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About the author (2014)

David A. Bell is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins and a contributing editor for the New Republic. A graduate of Harvard College, he completed his Ph.D. at Princeton and taught for several years at Yale. Bell has written for the New York Times, Slate, and Time, and was featured on the History Channel’s program on the French Revolution.

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