24th Mar 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.

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  • 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.


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