The Shadow Emperor: A Biography of Napoleon III

Written by Alan Straiss-Schom
Review by Jeanne Greene

It may be more accurate to say the life of Napoleon III (1808-1873) encompassed the Second French Empire (1852-1870) rather than the reverse, in other words, Louis-Napoleon modernized the country he inherited from his uncle and left it a different place. The author is blunt: “Louis-Napoleon achieved vastly much more in the long run for France than did the brilliant, swaggering soldier Napoleon I.” The author provides a meticulous accounting of how the Emperor changed French society, politics, and economy, and drove the middle class to catch up with the 19th century. He remade Paris top to bottom, as is evident today, while colonialism, perhaps the worst of his enduring legacies, turned tragic.

Although the author’s proof is exhaustive, the number of pages isn’t exhausting, and the clarity of his prose is a pleasure. The first American to write a life of Napoleon III, Straiss-Schom should top the 2018 list of biographers to read for praising the second Emperor’s lasting achievements without deifying the man.