Monday, June 22, 2015

So, was Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo a good thing?

The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo was Thursday, and I originally decided not to comment. As it turned out, there was a massive re-enactment (although nowhere near as large as the original battle, obviously) which sounds pretty cool:
The famous fields of Waterloo have not seen anything like it since Wellington and Napoleon faced off against one another 200 years ago. The Allied ranks alone include 50 cannons, 170 cavalry and close to 2,500 infantry. The French are a truly international cast of re-enactors, including units from Britain, Germany, Norway, Russia - and of course France itself (although they seem to be well outnumbered by the foreign enthusiasts).
Waterloo, obviously, is when Napoleon Bonaparte met his final defeat before being exiled for a second time, this time to St. Helena in the South Atlantic, bringing to an end the Napoleonic Wars.  For more than 15 years, Bonaparte's wars of conquest dominated the European continent, ending on June 18, 1815 at the Belgian village of Waterloo. My original decision not to comment on the anniversary was based in the fact that the event is pretty fucking European, although it is considered one of the most significant battles in world history. Two things changed my mind.

First, the number of re-enactors involved made for some pretty sweet sights, like these guys forming a British infantry square:

This formation ruled the world's battlefields for more than 100 years, and nobody did it better than the British Army. It was cool to see a picture of it in all its glory.

But the thing that really got me thinking was an article in Smithsonian Magazine arguing that Napoleon losing at Waterloo was a bad thing. The article argues persuasively that Napoleon did not want to fight the Allies again and had given up on dreams of empire, hoping only to continue the reforms in France that he started before his first exile. In fact, he was working toward that end upon his return from Elba when the Allies decided he couldn't be trusted to keep the peace. His defeat at Waterloo ensured his return to exile, this time to the far more distant St. Helena, bringing an end to his considerable contributions to Western civilization.. Some of the author's conclusions are a bit speculative, but certainly worth considering:
If Napoleon had remained emperor of France for the six years remaining in his natural life, European civilization would have benefited inestimably. The reactionary Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia and Austria would not have been able to crush liberal constitutionalist movements in Spain, Greece, Eastern Europe and elsewhere; pressure to join France in abolishing slavery in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean would have grown; the benefits of meritocracy over feudalism would have had time to become more widely appreciated; Jews would not have been forced back into their ghettos in the Papal States and made to wear the yellow star again; encouragement of the arts and sciences would have been better understood and copied; and the plans to rebuild Paris would have been implemented, making it the most gorgeous city in the world.
Napoleon deserved to lose Waterloo, and Wellington to win it, but the essential point in this bicentenary year is that the epic battle did not need to be fought—and the world would have been better off if it hadn’t been.
No way to say the author is right or wrong, but it is the first time I've seen Waterloo through this particular lens. An interesting viewpoint, to be sure.

No comments: