venerdì, Maggio 20

Europe: Two Centuries Later, Waterloo Is Still Not Over field_506ffbaa4a8d4

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Last summer, as Europe was celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, a business conference call was held between two partner companies, far from Europe. Both companies were represented by executives from a variety of nationalities. On one end, a British executive made to a French executive on the other end an ungentlemanly comment regarding Waterloo, sarcastically wishing the Frenchman a happy Waterloo anniversary. The Frenchman responded by praising Napoleon. Of course we are here in the midst of typical office sarcasm, with its mix of irony, meanness, incivility, and bullying – mild bullying in the present case. What seemed like a harmless sarcastic comment carried, in reality, more than a harmless joke would carry. One can only grasp the magnitude of this provocation and its significance by both understanding the context of this celebration and comprehending what happened two centuries ago at Waterloo; for Waterloo was not a mere battle lost by one major European power, France, to another, England. Far from being an ordinary event, the Battle of Waterloo changed the order of Europe durably.

In his infamous poem “L’expiation”, which translates in English into “The Penitence¹”, French poet and writer Victor Hugo described the Battle of Waterloo with great lucidity, citing important historical factors that still remain meaningful today²:

  • “On one side there was France, on the other Europe”
  • “And this plain where, alas, one dreams today/saw as they fled those from whom the universe had run away”
  • “He [Napoleon] fell, and God changed the outlook of Europe”

Waterloo was the final confrontation between Napoleon’s France and the rest of Europe. It ended with a narrow defeat that transformed Europe for centuries to come; affecting its balance of power, and derooting the seeds of a deep cultural transformation. And although it may seem as if Waterloo were a battle that opposed only Napoleon and his army to Europe, a battle won by England, reality is much more complex.

First, the battle was not a primarily English victory. It was won by both Blücher’s Prussian Army and Wellington’s English army, which were fighting Napoleon’s army together. Both parties needed each other. Without Blücher’s surprise arrival at Waterloo, and without French Marshal Grouchy’s failure to arrive at the battlefield in time, Napoleon would have defeated Wellington. Second, Napoleon was not fighting Europe alone, and his motives were far from a simple quest for power.

When the 1789 French Revolution erupted, Europe was shaken to the bone and at its core. The entire order of the continent was put into question. Europe was then ruled by dynasties such as the Habsburgs and the Bourbons. Despite their differences, the monarchs of Europe agreed on the order ruling the continent back then: monarchy, aristocracy, theocracy and the remnants of feudalism. The French Revolution did not just give more power to the people. It brought down a monarch who ruled under that very order. In addition, the French revolutionaries vehemently opposed the Vatican’s involvement in politics, an undisputed given of European politics back then. And they were fairly anti-clerical. Louis XVI who was toppled by the Revolution was sentenced to death following an accusation of conspiracy with the powers of Europe against France, as the European monarchs were at war with France to restore him back into his full powers and authority, after the Revolution had completely limited them.

Victor Hugo’s reference to France being on one side and Europe on the other may also be seen as the depiction of the outlook of Europe between 1789 and the year 1815, which saw both Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna, which brought the political and diplomatic expression of the changes following the war.

European monarchs were fighting France when the young and talented military leader Napoleon Bonaparte first became known. As a young general, he led a successful campaign in Italy, before he was made commander of the Army of Egypt which invaded the land of the pharos. Napoleon’s work in Italy and in Egypt is very informative as to the significance of his defeat at Waterloo.

More than a simple project, Napoleon had a vision. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his heroes, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. He had a clear picture of the best outlook of a successful progressive society. In Italy he went on to build a new political system that was deeply inspired by French republicanism. He even created the Cisalpine Republic. In Egypt, he abolished feudalism and created the Institut d’Egypte to promote knowledge, in addition to having set out to reorganize the political and administrative life of the country, hoping to bring it up to a level worthy of its great history.

In France, having taken power by the coup of 18 Brumaire, Napoleon put into application the principles of the Revolution by organizing the state in a thoroughly defined and highly democratic manner. He gave to the French the Code Napoléon (Civil Code), the Code du Commerce (a Business Code aiming at giving an equal chance to all), and the Code Pénal (Penal Code). The three gave to the citizens equal rights. He also created civil marriage, a cornerstone of the separation between church and state.

Besides Napoleon’s expansionary policies, Napoleon’s France was at odds with the rest of Europe. Equal to the threat of invasion, the European monarchs feared the threat of uprisings inspired by Napoleon’s ideas, which were, themselves, built on the philosophy of the 1789 Revolution and deeply rooted in his Greek and Roman inspirations, common among the French revolutionaries of these times.

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