June 18 will mark the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Over 130,000 spectator tickets have been sold for four days of reenactments, speeches, and commemorations being held on the actual site in Belgium where 200,000 French, British, Prussian and Dutch troops once fought to decide the future of Europe.
Think of a 19th century version of D-Day and you basically get the idea, though comparing Napoleon Bonaparte to Hitler is enough to raise eyebrows or even fists in many a French bistro.
The posters for the Waterloo 2015 extravaganza feature a large Napoleon flanked by much smaller images of his victors the Duke of Wellington and Prussian General Blucher. Wait a minute, wasn’t Napoleon the loser in this flesh and blood version of the 1960s Risk board game? Why does Napoleon Bonaparte get the lion’s share of space and recognition while the two generals who finally forced him into permanent exile in St. Helena are given second billing?
Well, that’s because Napoleon is still the superstar when it comes to history, particularly in France. I hate to say his native France since the Little Corporal as he was sometimes derisively referred to was actually a Corsican, and therefore in many ways more Italian then French. It is estimated over 80,000 books have been published on Napoleon and this year’s bicentennial has seen a new flood of publications particularly in Great Britain and France.
I once spent three years on and off working on a Napoleon in exile screenplay for a film producer based upon the book The Emperor’s Last Island by English writer Julia Blackburn which required a good deal of additional research. So I am one American who has more than just the most rudimentary knowledge of Napoleon and his place in world history. No less than legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was so fascinated with Napoleon that his greatest unrealized project was an epic film biography of Bonaparte that he could never obtain financing for.
Visualize a Steve Jobs in a 19th century military uniform and you start to get an idea of the incredible impact that Napoleon had on France and the rest of Europe, even on the United States. What Jobs was to the high-tech revolution, Napoleon was to war, politics, and the greater glory of France from 1796 until 1815. Both men were decisive and brilliant, yet dictatorial and manipulative. But Napoleon also exuded an immense amount of charm that he could turn on and off on a whim. His arch nemesis Wellington once said of him, “Napoleon’s mere presence on a battlefield was worth another 40,000 troops.”
In the early 19th century, England and France were the two reigning world powers, but once Wellington crushed Napoleon at Waterloo the French never quite recovered. Yet Napoleon’s positive accomplishments live on quite spectacularly. He was the first European leader to emancipate the Jews, though anti-Semitism still held on in France for many years. Napoleon almost single handily created what became France’s modern educational system, ironically an institution that no longer teaches much about him. He also created the Napoleonic code of law that France still practices today, somewhat an anathema to Americans and the English since the accused is assumed to be guilty until proven innocent, though it has seemed to work well for the French for the past 200 years.
Napoleon established a Civil Code, the Bank of France, a National Audit office, a workable administrative system, chambers of commerce, a meritocracy system for promotion and established freedom of religion. For many French people he was the savior of France. If Napoleon had not existed the French Republic would not have survived. Today with economic instability worldwide, the rise of radical Islamic terrorism, and rapid and sweeping social and technological changes many people long for a strong leader. For the French, Napoleon of course fits the bill.
Yet at least a million Europeans died in the wars he was at the center of. He was one of the most, some say the most brilliant strategist in military history. Nevertheless, he too had his failures, and they were as spectacular as his triumphs. Before Waterloo there was his disastrous invasion of Russia where the Russian Father Winter virtually destroyed the French Army, thus setting up Napoleon’s first abdication and eventually his final defeat at Waterloo.
That in part is key to the continued fascination with Napoleon, particularly amongst his own countrymen. He did everything big from his ill-advised self-coronation as Emperor, where he single-handily and publicly neutered the power of the Pope and the Catholic Church, to his invasion of Egypt. Besides the French Army, he also brought along a squadron of scientists and archeologists to the Middle East who eventually unearthed the Rosetta stone – the key to helping decipher the secrets of ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphics. He loved, fought, created, conquered, and manipulated countries and their emissaries on a grand scale not seen since Caesar and Alexander.
Americans should thank our lucky stars that he sold Thomas Jefferson the Louisiana Purchase that included most of the Plains west of the Mississippi River. The nomadic Indian tribes that wandered the vast area had no concept of actually owning the land, yet fought each other for control the best hunting grounds. Once French-claimed territory that France lost to Spain during the Seven Years’ War, Napoleon wrestled it back from Spanish control then turned around and sold it to the United States. It was a brilliant move with consequences he foresaw far beyond the hard cash he needed to finance another spectacular failure – his aborted attempt to invade England. Napoleon saw the United States as a future ally and spoiler to British ambitions to control most of North America. The United States as we know it today would not exist had it not been for Napoleon.
Today Napoleon’s popularity in France can often vary by political affiliation. Despite the fact that the current Socialist French President Francois Hollende’s floundering far-left government has gone out of its way not to acknowledge or celebrate any of the various bicentennial Napoleon events of the last few years, the Little Corporal may still get the last laugh. Hollande’s party has openly criticized and outright ignored Napoleon while former, and more conservative by French standards, UMP President Nicholas Sarkozy’s newly renamed Republican Party has basically extolled Bonaparte’s virtues — even backing a possible Napoleon theme park 40 miles outside of Paris. Sarkozy was once even described by a political rival as Bonaparte in a suit. Remember that in France all citizens are considered Republicans because of their unique heritage of liberty, equality, and fraternity – minus the bloody excesses of the guillotine during the French revolution.
While the theme park idea still is struggling for investors, French historian Jean Tulard recently told The Economist, “There is a nationalist reflex to return to the time when France was the strongest nation in Europe.”
Interest in the history oriented park has gathered much steam with the French tourism board and appears to have also captured a number of other influential Frenchmen’s hearts and minds including former Sarkozy minister and MP, Yves Jego. While some question just how a Disney-like rendering of Bonaparte would further a positive image of France, or if Frenchmen would even want a positive representation of Napoleon as a tourist attraction. Jego was measured and thoughtful in his response to the press two years ago: “In a world in crisis a better understanding of history is part of the remedies that gives nations and people the strength and the cohesion to face an ever uncertain world. People without history do not weather storms.”