Tuesday, May 19, 2015

WATERLOO Revisited

Napoleon's defeat in Waterloo is 200 years old.  This event will be commemorated later this year in a series of events which will span the distance separating the ridicule from the historical.  

The French emperor was a extraordinary man, transforming Europe, the judicial system, strategic thinking, nation building, education and the cult of personality.  He was both a shameless parvenu and an irresistible diplomatic flirt who mesmerized those he met and who mustered awe which survives today.

The latest Andrew Roberts biography reads almost like a Byronic ode to love. Despite his terrible mistakes, principally in Spain and Russia, Napoleon remains the ruler of an epic wherein the infamous Berezina crossing or the Goya's Disasters of War are overshadowed by the legend of this singular man.  Even today he remains a moralistic and disturbing tale which is strangely familiar to all. His opponents, from Frances II (his eventual father-in-law) to Tsar Alexander I, are almost forgotten. Wellington was mostly a bitter aftermath.

Napoleon created out of his Saint Helena exile a shadow which continues to cast its spell. Jean Paul Kauffmann wrote a heartbreaking book about the emperor's humiliation, captivity and almost grotesque loneliness disguised in the left-overs of an absurd ceremonial.

The hype around the man is surprising, given the more than mixed record of the Eylau cemetery, weighted against the modern push Napoleon gave in all directions. I believe there is a hint of nostalgia in this ambiguous going back in time. The question remains if the extraordinary foresight of the man was worth the sacrifices. Still the adulation remains probably the lasting emotion, making it even to Wellington's Apsley House, where Canova's Napoleon the Peacemaker marble statue dwarfs all.  Hudson Lowe, Napoleon's nemesis in Saint Helena, has joined the rank of Judas & Co. in the popular imagination. Historical veracity takes second place.

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