Thursday, June 18, 2015

Waterloo, morne plaine.

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 !


  1. Anonymous3:09 AM

    From what we were told at school, Venezuela suffered under influence of the Napoleons while we were still a colony of Spain. Perhaps Chavez is in part a product of Napoleon's expansion in Europe. Arguably, it was thanks to Napoleon that we became acquainted with dictatorship and bureaucracy. Thankfully this didn't happen in Anglo-Saxon Europe as a result of the outcome of the Waterloo battle, 200 years ago yesterday

    1. "Anglo saxon" country have not been exempt from their share of violence and power abuse. Be they colonial masters o suffer horrendous civil wars. What we ca say best is that the political rivalry of France and England is what led to the West, starting with the king of France support for the US revolution.

    2. Joseph Bonaparte, aka Pepe Botella because he like to drink, usurped the throne of Spain in the early 1800's and generally commanded little support, to the extent that during his tenuous leadership, it became easier for Venezuela to declare independence from Spain. So chalk one up for at least one of the Bonaparte's for prompting revolts that may not have been as successful as they became. Also, we thank Joe for certain words in the Venezuelan lexicon that survived for over a century, words like "musiú" for any foreigner and "papel toalé" for toilet paper -- two creole attempts to camouflage a level of French refinement.

  2. Boludo Tejano9:52 AM

    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.

    Which reminds me of a childhood experience of mine with the Napoleon legend: Waterloo, sung by Stonewall Jackson.

  3. "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"

    Reminds me of Perez Jimenez, who didn't invade Europe, but built about 80% of Cubazuela's current infrastructure in just 5 years, without killing 25,000 people per year as Chavistas do.


  5. "Arguably, it was thanks to Napoleon that we became acquainted with dictatorship and bureaucracy"

    Yeah, and thanks to the Romans, we learned how to run a bloody Circus.

    The Dicatorships in Vzla, date back to before Bolivar, the Sifrino back-stabber, but they all did something for the country, built something, except for Chavismo, which does absolutely nothing but Steal. And, mon cher camarade, we owe to the Adecos/Copeyanos who also stole for 4 decades and completely ignored the poor masses. They got finally pissed, and now they're getting triple-screwed, that's all.

    1. Anonymous4:44 PM

      Are we comparing Napoleon to Maduro or Chavez? There is no comparison. First of all, if Napoleon, indeed, had a flaw, it wasn't out of ignorance or ineptitude! It probably should be the psychological complex that is named after him. That is, the "Napoleon Complex", a condition among small people with excessive ambition that drives them until they inevitably fail. They reach their own Waterloo's of sorts. There was no flawed ideology.
      This Venezuelan dictatorship is very different. I see this regime as an example that demonstrates an observation made by Mark Twain:
      "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
      Mark Twain

    2. Charly9:04 PM

      Yes Anon, comparing a race horse with a donkey. And yet, forgetting about Chavez and his "secuaces" who should be forgotten forever as soon as they get out of power, I am still ambivalent about this towering figure not only as a Frenchman but also a half Corsican.I personally settle for a lower figure, yet so interesting, Talleyrand, prince de Bénévent. I just bought a biography of the man in FNAC, Montparnasse a couple of weeks ago. Fantastic! The man who said that, with all his treachery, not only to Napoleon, but many other monarchs, he still had been loyal to one king, the brie, king of cheeses. Could apply here too, when this gang of thieves and robbers go down the drain, we can still be loyal to pabellon, the king of Venezuelan gastronomy (at least in my opinion, I am still debating if reina pepiada should not get first place).

  6. Anonymous1:01 PM

    with my limited french and the fact that I am not too much into poetry,..... it is a nice reading :)

  7. Anonymous1:27 PM

    It normally comes down to the British to sort out the worst excesses of the European continent - from King Philip of Spain's armada to Adolf Hitler with Napoleon inbetween.

    1. Unfortunately British excesses didn't go punished. But we forgive them because they invented football.

    2. Anonymous2:14 PM

      Napoleon was truly defeated at the Battle of Nations and the campaign afterward (along with his inability to accept a peace settlement that was probably fair, both during the Truce of Plaswitz and after Leipzig).

      His 100 days was a reckless adventure that had no real chance of success. Even if he had won at Waterloo, he still would have faced close to a million in arms from Russia/Prussia/Austria/Britain/Saxony/other german states with a mostly raw army seriously lacking in cavalry, all the while with a tenuous grip on France.

      Waterloo is important in that it was the end of an era, but beyond that it's importance is vastly least in english language history books until recently.


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