Saturday, June 20, 2015

Two hundred years after Waterloo

Napoleon born apart. That terrific pun I heard from my school master about sums up the popular perception of one of the greatest conquerors and military leaders in history. On the bicentennial of the battle of Waterloo, which put an end to Napoleon's reign once and for all, there is a spate of books and assessments of this larger-than-life figure.

There are, as is to be expected, diametrically opposite views on Napoleon. The positive view is one that sees him as a creator of modern France. One article sums up his achievements very well (and is worth reading for its analysis of the epic battle of Waterloo alone):
Yet he said he would be remembered not for his military victories, but for his domestic reforms, especially the Code Napoleon, that brilliant distillation of 42 competing and often contradictory legal codes into a single, easily comprehensible body of French law. In fact, Napoleon’s years as first consul, from 1799 to 1804, were extraordinarily peaceful and productive. He also created the educational system based on lycées and grandes écoles and the Sorbonne, which put France at the forefront of European educational achievement. He consolidated the administrative system based on departments and prefects. He initiated the Council of State, which still vets the laws of France, and the Court of Audit, which oversees its public accounts. He organized the Banque de France and the Légion d’Honneur, which thrive today. He also built or renovated much of the Parisian architecture that we still enjoy, both the useful—the quays along the Seine and four bridges over it, the sewers and reservoirs—and the beautiful, such as the Arc de Triomphe, the Rue de Rivoli and the Vendôme column.
Napoleon's big mistake, as is well known, was the invasion of Russia. It turned out to be a disaster- he lost half a million soldiers. And it brought his enemies together in an assault on France. Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to Elba. The French monarchy, represented by the Bourbons, returned to power but were unequal to the task of reconciling the divisions in French society.
Napoleon escaped from Elba and made a spectacular return to power. The Allies did not like that one bit and made plain their intention to oust him. Napoleon had disavowed plans of conquest but the Allies were unwilling to forget or forgive. More importantly, as the article I have cited argues, the aristocracy of Europe was determined to thwart the liberal ideas that Napoleon had once stood for. The Battle of Waterloo was inevitable. 
Now, for the opposite view. There's no getting away from the fact that Napoleon departed from the revolutionary ideals of Voltaire and Rousseau once he came to power. His crowning blunder, to speak, was his decision to call himself Emperor. An article in FT dissects the negatives of Napoleon's reign mercilessly:
That Napoleon, the supposed deliverer of liberty and equality, all wrapped up in the tricolour, was the mortal enemy of freedom there can be no argument. When in 1799, the 30-year-old general came to power through the coup of 18th Brumaire, there were 70 newspapers in Paris. Bonaparte said there was need for but one — the Moniteur, the official tool of his propaganda — and closed down all but a handful of lickspittle flatterers.

His police and spies were everywhere, deadening cultural life in Paris. Theatres were shut the minute they dared to perform anything that could be construed as critical of the regime. Napoleonic Paris was a showplace for grandiose architecture but the cemetery of independently conceived art and ideas. 

Ah, sigh the Napoleonomanes wringing their hands and dabbing their eyes, liberty had to die so that equality might live. Unless, that is you were black or a woman. In 1802 Napoleon reinstated slavery; two years later he liquidated one of the Revolution’s most precious achievements: divorce by mutual consent. The Civil Code made wives more the prisoners of their husbands than in the old regime. They no longer had any right to their property in marriage and had to ask their husbands’ permission to take the stand in legal proceedings.  

The writer also makes the point that, in seeking to unite Europe, Napoleon lost sight of the need for disparate nations to express their identity, one reason why modern Britain is steadfastly opposed to the EU. Perhaps, the Europeans might borrow from the Indian Constitution and give themselves a Finance Commission (although one should not be blind to the problems within the Indian federation, notably the problems in the North-East).

In the ultimately analysis, Napoleon, for all his administrative abilities, failed to recognise the need for individual freedom and cultural identity. Modern rulers must take note. And the present-day leaders of Europe need to be mindful of the seminal lesson from the titanic reverses of Napoleon and Hitler: don't mess with the Russian bear. 

No comments: