18th Oct 2018


Napoleon's shadow still falls on Europe

  • Statue of Napoleon in Cherbourg (France). The Emperor who lost at Waterloo "has become the property of all Europeans".

His name, two-horned hat, and tired silhouette will be on the minds of the thousands of people gathering on a small patch of Belgian countryside this week.

At the battle of Waterloo, exactly 200 years ago on 18 June 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte lost his army, his Empire, and even his freedom when he was sent to the tiny South Atlantic island of Saint Helena.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • Waterloo and the Napoleonic era are still divisive events (Photo:

Yet it is he, not Britain's Duke of Wellington and Prussia's Prince von Bluecher, the winners of Waterloo, whose image will be everywhere when the battle is commemorated and re-enacted.

Two centuries on, the French Emperor remains a towering figure in Europe's history, and one of the most controversial.

Napoleon is still able to stir seemingly irrational reactions.

When Belgium minted a €2 coin in March to commemorate Waterloo, France filed an official complaint. Belgium retreated, temporarily. But then it produced a limited-edition €2.50 coin instead.

By contrast, British prime minister David Cameron faced a public outcry in 2013 when it emerged that his government did not plan to mark the anniversary of the battle.

On Wednesday (17 June), Prince Charles and his wife visited the battlefield and unveiled a memorial to the British soldiers who died there.

Dictator or hero?

Napoleon's last battle was followed by several decades of stability on the European continent, at least until the 1870 Franco-Prussian war or even until World War I.

Yet, contrary to commemorations of WWI and WWII, in which defeated Germany and Italy now regularly take part in, Waterloo and the Napoleonic era are still divisive events.

"It is difficult to transform Waterloo into a European episode, because unfortunately France still considers it as a defeat", Dutch historian and philosopher Luuk van Middelaar told EUobserver.

"Whereas Germany, for instance, built its national storytelling on the idea that the German people was also liberated from Nazism in 1945, France's relationship with Napoleon is more ambiguous," said Van Middelaar, who was also speechwriter for former EU Council president Herman van Rompuy.

As a consequence, "one cannot imagine Cameron and French president Francois Hollande holding hands on the Waterloo battlefield" like Germany's Helmut Kohl and France's Francois Mitterrand did in Verdun in 1984.

The historical jury on Napoleon himself is still out.

For some, his 16-year reign is "the birth of modern dictatorship", as Germany's Der Spiegel wrote in 2013.

For others, he is the "absolute hero", as France's L'Express put it last year.

Another Charlemagne

One thing is sure: He is part of many countries' history.

"Napoleon has become the property of all Europeans. He concerns all of them for better and for worse", French historian Thierry Lentz told this website.

"In 200 years from now, he will be like Charlemagne. We will not know anymore if he was only French or the sovereign of the European Empire he ruled," said Lentz, who is director of the Paris-based Fondation Napoleon.

In this case, history would come full circle, because, as Van Middelaar noted, Napoleon considered himself as a successor of Charlemagne and not of Louis XIV, the French Sun King.

Napoleon appears to be the historical product of Europe's dramatic history, with both its dark and bright strands alongside one another.

His imperial designs brought war from Portugal to Russia, but also political and administrative progress which laid the foundations for modern Europe.

"Napoleon is not a model, of course. But he arrives at a time when Europe is made through war," said Lentz.

In the conquered lands, the Emperor imposed the rule of law instead of feudal rules and exported French concepts of equality and social rights, as well as a pyramidal organisation of power, said the French historian.

"The administrative organisation of European centralised states seems natural today, but it is because everybody copied the Napoleonic model."

From Vienna to the EU

Napoleon also helped shape European power by his fall.

After his first defeat and exile in 1814, the Congress of Vienna redrew the map of Europe and established what came to be known as the "concert of nations".

For decades, European powers sat at the same table to settle the issues of the time in a manner that prefigures today's G7 or EU summits.

"The Congress of Vienna is the first supranational body, where decisions are taken that impose on nations" on issues such as the abolition of slavery or rules on river circulation, Lentz said.

After two world wars Europe tried a new model of political development but the Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic eras are still there as a background.

"The European Council is both in the logic of the Congress of Vienna and in the post-1945 institutional logic," said Luuk Van Middelaar, who wrote about it in his book: The Passage to Europe.

When Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman launched the European project, "it was to start something new, without the marks of the old interstate diplomatic games".

But even the post-modern and supranational EU could not put aside "the diplomatic irreducibility," Van Middelaar said.

"A part of the political game is made of negotiations and ratio of power which we cannot completely make disappear".

Europeans still sometimes replay the old rivalries, at EU summit tables or at the Waterloo commemorations. But at least they don't wage war against each other anymore.


The real Waterloo

The mayor of Braine-l'Alleud has been campaigning for more recognition of the fact that the 'battle of Waterloo' did not take place in Waterloo.

Asylum reforms derailed, as EU looks to north Africa

EU leaders at the summit in Brussels want partnerships with north African states that go beyond migration. But internal EU reforms on asylum, especially sharing of migrants and refugees between member states, remain stuck.

EU leaders worried about Italy's budget

Some EU leaders warned that Italy's plan to boost its budget spending despite the second largest debt in the eurozone, could hamper efforts to reform the single currency's framework.

Russian activist warning on 'fake news' as EU backs action

In 2015, internet activist Lyudmila Savchuk went under cover to expose a troll factory in St Petersburg. As the EU summit endorses anti-disinformation action, she told EUobserver the Russian government is bankrolling many more.

News in Brief

  1. Rutte: summit was 'not the moment' for higher climate ambition
  2. Legal text for Brexit relocation EU agencies agreed
  3. Greek foreign minister resigns over Macedonia deal
  4. No Brexit backstop means no approval, says EU parliament
  5. Poland questions supremacy of EU court
  6. Medvedev to meet Juncker and Merkel in Brussels
  7. Italians and Czechs least favourable to remaining in EU
  8. Facebook hack set to be first major test of EU data rules

Russian activist warning on 'fake news' as EU backs action

In 2015, internet activist Lyudmila Savchuk went under cover to expose a troll factory in St Petersburg. As the EU summit endorses anti-disinformation action, she told EUobserver the Russian government is bankrolling many more.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  3. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  4. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  5. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  6. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  7. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  8. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  9. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  11. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  12. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All

Latest News

  1. Asylum reforms derailed, as EU looks to north Africa
  2. EU leaders worried about Italy's budget
  3. Russian activist warning on 'fake news' as EU backs action
  4. Kaczynski: No question of Polish EU exit
  5. EU summit to accept urgency of climate action – but no measures planned
  6. MEPs demand more from EU on human rights in Asia
  7. EU migration solutions are on the table - let's adopt them
  8. No progress at Brexit summit, talks continue

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  2. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  4. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  6. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  8. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  9. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  11. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  12. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us