In June, 1812, war between France and Russia begins. Historians who describe the many events leading up to the war still cannot explain its cause, Tolstoy writes. None of the reasons they cite account for the sheer vastness of the event. At best, the author says, we can only describe the numerous coincidences that combine to make up the parts of the fatal event, the course of individual human destinies linked with those of other humans. The more important the human being, the more his actions connect with the actions of others. What may seem to be a free will act of a great man, says Tolstoy, is not free at all,"but in bondage to the whole course of previous history and predestined from all eternity."
Napoleon arrives at the Niemen River, beyond which extend the vast Russian steppes, with Moscow glittering in their midst. Long grown used to the adoration of his men who shout"Vive I'Empereur" wherever he appears, Napoleon believes in his own godlike image. An ecstatic colonel of the Polish Uhlans begs his permission to ford the river; unmindful of the swift current, the officer only desires to shine in the eyes of his hero. Forty men and horses drown in the rushing waters, but each man exults in the chance to die before the emperor.
Meanwhile Alexander and his court spend a month at Vilna, readying the troops. Ellen Bezuhov, currently favored by an important official, travels with the emperor's suite and so does Boris Drubetskoy. Keeping a watchful eye on the tsar even during a lavish ball, Boris overhears Alexander's talk with a minister. He is one of the first to learn of the French invasion.
Demanding Napoleon's withdrawal from Russia, the emperor dispatches his best diplomat, Balashov, to deliver the letter. Balashov finds Napoleon in an affable mood. As the"little corporal" warms to his speech, his words become increasingly unguarded and irrational. To Balashov, the purpose of the talk seems to be to insult Alexander and to glorify himself. Napoleon invites the Russian to dine with him the next day, politely inquiring about Russia with the interest of a tourist who expects to flatter his native host. After Bonaparte refuses to turn back, no further letters are exchanged between the emperors. War has begun.
These chapters are a caricature of Napoleon. Tolstoy depicts him as a fool who is so carried away by his own importance that he is blind to reality. This fact, however, does not deny Bonaparte's qualities as a great personality, and Tolstoy provides instances of this charisma by citing the suicidal adoration of the Uhlan colonel and his men. The scene is almost a comedy, as if it is part of a puppet play, where Napoleon believes himself to be the puppeteer. Tolstoy's purpose is to show Bonaparte's illusions of free will; rather than being the puppet master, however, the"little corporal" is just another character playing out a role in history without, of course, being aware of it. Lacking this insight, Napoleon treats human beings as creatures whose purpose is either to live or die for him. This is the attitude he conveys to Balashov, who is astounded at being treated as an already devoted supporter. By depicting Napoleon's self-conceits as ridiculous, Tolstoy shows us a"great man" who, believing in his own free will, cannot recognize himself as a tool of historical necessity.