Today some celebrated the gentle anachronism that Waterloo has become. Indeed, until 1914 Waterloo was the battle that defined Europe. But things have changed. There were weeks in WWI and II were more folks died than during all of Napoleonic wars. Still, I suppose that I should meditate about it, least some accuse my French side to ignore the whole issue as a cowardice of sort.
When I was very young, but not that young not to have discovered precociously the joys of history I was in France for the summer of Napoleon's bicentennial celebrations. I remember clearly in spite of the distance, that he was still quite the hero and that you could collect at gas stations commemorative medals. I have lost mine long ago but that is not the point. The thing is that by the time I went to college the effect of May 68 had finally sunk in and Napoleon was seen for what he also was, not only the glorious victor over Europe but also a dictator.
Still, the pendulum kept swinging as the era of political correctness even reached sarcastic France. Some went as far as seeing in him a precursor of totalitarianism, a bloody murderer. Bloody he was, murderer I am less certain if we judge him by the parameters of the times that would rank him only primus inter pares.
Of course I do not subscribe to such nincompooperies. It is true that Napoleon was a dictator and I have long advocated that position which brought me on occasion some trouble. But this is not discussed anymore in France and there would not be anymore commemorations like there were for the bicentennial of his birth. As such, today in Waterloo they tried to have some kind of ceremony which rallied the victors of the day (Belgium, Netherlands, England and others) while some idiot anchors (more than one!) wondered about the abscence of France and Germany! Germany is in no position to commemorate any military victory whatsoever, not even the one against the Romans at Teutoburg forest. As for the French it is tacky, not only because IT IS tacky but as far as we are concerned Napoleon was defeated in Russia and done with at Leipzig two years before. Anything else after were madmen adventures that cost us dearly and that the enlightened French of the time, even supporters, knew were follies (Talleyrand anyone?). Why would president Hollande send even an emissary to Waterloo today when Paris is still littered with Napoleonic high names (rue de Rivoli, Gare d'Austerlitz, Pont d'Iena, Champs Elysees, Arc de Triomphe....)? Imagine journalists asking questions...
The fact of the matter is that it may be time for the pendulum to swing back a little bit. Napoleon was indeed a dictator but the French state as we know it today owes more to him than to any other political leader I can think of. And I mean this positively. In addition to the urban changes he did to Paris, what all dictators tend to do in their hometowns, his work went way further, from systematically setting numbers to every address in France, to create a civilian code that regulated by law all civilian activities from birth to marriage, commerce, death and inheritance. Such things have been so successful in allowing for the establishment of the rule of law in societies that most civilized societies do follow now similar systems. Certainly Napoleon imposed this in the countries he conquered but some were wise enough to keep the good parts of the conquest.
Was Napoleon a totalitarian precursor? The times were other. I do not think he was one, nor he intended to be one, nor he was inclined to anyway. He was ruthless in eliminating what was in his way but murder was not his weapon of choice even if he used it on occasion, like the infamous case of Duc d'Enghein. But Napoleon was a military in the good sense of it: efficient in that the ends justify the means, but no more than what is necessary. Where he conquered he pillaged to pay for his armies but he also brought freedom of religion, freed the jews, eliminated anachronic aristocratic privileges, established meritocracy, simplified administration, watered down church privileges. After Waterloo reaction came back to Europe but in Western Europe Napoleon is the one that seeded the freedom that was implied in the French Revolution, and that was going to slowly but surely grow through the XIX century. Eastern Europe remained laggard I am tempted to say because Napoleon did not have the time to have his presence felt long enough.
All of this to let you know that like most frenchmen I remain divided about Napoleon. None of us can condemn him in full but none of us can admire him in full either. The extreme right prefers to pick more mythological figures like Joan of Arc which speak of Fatherland and submission as she never had time to think much about the consequences of what she did. The hard left prefers the iconoclastic Jacobins (you cannot root outright for Robespierre, he was after all the first totalitarian). Napoleon cannot be of use for neither as he was an autocrat with a clear meritocratic bent (democrat?), no fatherland for him as all could join in if they wanted to (and were forced to as needed, with full rights by the way). So we just ignore him while we retain the streets and monuments named for his feats until one day, when his crimes look so ridiculous compared to the others, we can name further boulevards to his name.
Finally a little comment on time span. Napoleon ruled from 1799 to 1814 effectively. That is barely 15 years. In that time he may have built and lost an empire, but he also built modern France and influenced what would become modern Europe, allowing England to become its enlightened leader for a while (like in slavery abolition or industrial revolution). That is quite an achievement no matter what side of the Waterloo fence you sit. Compare that decade and a half with Chavez's who almost got as much time as Napoleon did, and much more money and no nasty Brits around sinking his ships. What will be the legacy of Chavez? I dare to say, though I will not be here to check it out, that in 50 years from now Napoleon's influence will still be greater than Chavez over the world. Because Chavez will be forgotten or remembered as one of the world criminals while Napoleon, Waterloo and all, will still be for better or for worse one of the builders of Western Civilization.
At least the lone worthy poetry about Waterloo worth anything is written by a Frenchman, Victor Hugo. It is actually a ringing epic "l'Expiation" from which this is my favorite excerpt.
Waterloo ! Waterloo ! Waterloo ! morne plaine !
Comme une onde qui bout dans une urne trop pleine,
Dans ton cirque de bois, de coteaux, de vallons,
La pâle mort mêlait les sombres bataillons.
D'un côté c'est l'Europe et de l'autre la France.
Choc sanglant ! des héros Dieu trompait l'espérance ;
Tu désertais, victoire, et le sort était las.
O Waterloo ! je pleure et je m'arrête, hélas !
Car ces derniers soldats de la dernière guerre
Furent grands ; ils avaient vaincu toute la terre,
Chassé vingt rois, passé les Alpes et le Rhin,
Et leur âme chantait dans les clairons d'airain !