Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Battle of Waterloo

Everything that has happened in Europe in the past two centuries has been because of this battle near a small town in present-day Belgium that took place two hundred years ago today.
The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo brought an end to his grand ambitions to remake Europe and establish a pan-Europeanism that would enshrine the reforms of the Enlightenment, abolish privilege, protect minority rights, and centralize power at the expense of religious and feudal elites.  Accompanying Napoleon's efforts at reform, alas, had been a megalomaniacal lust for power and an insatiable desire to impose a grand hegemony of his own over much of Western civilization.
The British-led coalition of Dutch and Prussian armies under the direction of the Duke of Wellington that crushed Napoleon for good after his brief return to power from exile on the island of Elba brought about a desire for a balance of power in Europe to keep various countries in check and prevent a formation of alliances that would be pitted against each other.  The efforts at decentralizing Europe brought about a rise of nationalism and the unification of Germany and Italy in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  The 1815 Congress of Vienna set about putting Europe back together more or less as it was before Napoleon.  It restored the Bourbon dynasty in France, allowed Russia, Prussia and Austria to expand their borders, reorganized the Italian states, and created a confederation out of the disparate German states - an effort to make Europe work politically.  The delicate balances would be tested throughout the nineteenth century with the shifting of alliances and the nationalistic interests of leaders such as Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck . . . all of which would lead to two world wars, which in turn encourage the formation of the European Union.
Napoleon's attempt at remaking Europe based on French democratic romanticism, though, was undermined by his misunderstanding of how to use power and when to relinquish it, as George Washington had proved in establishing the United States as a nation of laws rather than as a nation ruled by men.  Napoleon's grandiosity had led to several needless wars that caused millions of deaths and bankrupted France, all in the name of his own, fleeting glory.  Napoleon himself, on his deathbed on the British island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, seemed to get it when he said, "They wanted me to be another Washington."      

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