The Bonaparte legacy: The victory France forgot

Two hundred years ago, Napoleon's victory at the Battle of Austerlitz sealed his reputation as a military genius. Today, his country seems undecided as to whether he was a hero or a villain. John Lichfield reports from Paris
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The Independent Online

In period uniforms, and thermal underwear, military enthusiasts from all over the world will gather on Saturday to re-enact one of the greatest victories in French history. They will come from the United States, from Australia, from Canada, from Russia, from Britain, and even some from France. They will converge on an obscure village in the Czech Republic which was once called Austerlitz.

Two hundred years ago tomorrow, a valley and a plateau near the village were the scene of a bloody six-hour battle which, above all others, sealed the reputation of Napoleon Bonaparte as a military genius and brought the Emperor Napoleon to the apogee of his power. The part of the emperor in Saturday's re-enactment will be played by an American Napoleonophile, Mark Schneider from Virginia.

In Paris, tomorrow night, on the actual bicentenary of the battle, a discreet ceremony and son et lumiére will be organised by the French army in the Place de Vendôme. President Jacques Chirac will not be present. Neither will the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, (even though he has written poetically about Napoleon and, according to some of his colleagues, believes himself to be the direct, spiritual descendant of the Great Man).

As of yesterday, the French army could not say who would represent the French state at its Austerlitz party tomorrow. "We have been promised a minister but we don't yet know which one," a spokesman said, bravely.

Comparison is inevitable with the elaborate and joyful British commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, which began last summer and are still going on. So far the French press has been slow to make this comparison but a cannonade of media protests is expected today and tomorrow.

Of the two battles - fought within six weeks of one another - Napoleon was in no doubt which was the more important. The emperor dismissed Trafalgar as an "irrelevance".

Britain had been master of the seas; it remained master of the seas. So what? Austerlitz, Napoleon said, would change the map, and destiny, of the European continent for ever.

In truth, Austerlitz - now called Slavkov - changed the map of Europe for, at best, nine years. Its impact on the destiny of Europe was immense - but not in the way Napoleon had hoped.

British historians have always insisted that Trafalgar was the real turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. It is surprising to find the French state, seeming to agree with them, even 200 years later.

Paris has, after all, a railway station named after Austerlitz, as London has its Waterloo. The French capital is dotted with avenues named after Napoleonic victories and generals. Why the shyness about commemorating the bicentenary of the emperor's greatest victory?

Napoleonophiles believe that a decision was taken to downplay the bicentenary so as not to upset the "losers" of Austerlitz - Russia and Austria. They believe that the French government decided that an elaborate Austerlitz celebration would give the wrong impression of a France still obsessed with its past glories. (Tony Blair's Cool Britannia, it seems, has no similar hang-ups).

Thierry Lentz, director of the Fondation Napoleon, an academic think-tank devoted to the serious study of the period, said: "It is a little of many things. It is partly the fact that France has never made up its mind, officially, whether Napoleon was a great hero or a great villain.

"But it is, above all, a great failure of imagination, and a great admission of ignorance, on the part of our politicians. There is enormous, popular interest in history at present. Perhaps our politicians don't read but the French public does. Their greatest appetite is for books on history.

"A commemoration of Austerlitz did not have to be a jingoistic celebration. It could have been something intelligent which explored the history of the times and the many connections with the politics of Europe today. The wonderful exhibition on Nelson and Napoleon showing at present at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich is a model of how it should have been done."

A mammoth Austerlitz exhibition, drawing on historical scholarship from all over the world, had, in fact, been planned at the national army museum in the Invalides in Paris. Several years of work was put into the planning and research. Organisers cancelled the exhibition 18 months ago citing " lack of funds".

The core problem is that, in France, history is politics. Both the left and right sides of the French political classes remain divided on the key question of whether the emperor was "a Good Thing".

Was Napoleone di Buonaparte - a Corsican of Italian extraction who became emperor of the French and briefly the master of Europe - a wicked despot or a tragic hero? Was he an impostor who led hundreds of thousands to their deaths by charging down a historical cul-de-sac? Or was he the father of the modern French state? A genius? An insignificant nonentity? A monster and a butcher? Or a man of peace and a pan-European idealist?

Two centuries on, the French buy part of the myth but remain doubtful about the man. Paris may be littered with avenues and streets which commemorate Napoleon's generals, armies, victories and treaties but there is no grand avenue or square named after the emperor (only a street on the Left Bank, called the Rue Bonaparte).

Even this week a book has been published in France accusing Napoleon of being a genocidal racist and forerunner of Hitler. In Le Crime de Napoleon the historian Claude Ribbe recalls that the emperor brought back slavery in the French empire in 1802, a decade after it had been abolished by the Revolution. The decision led to brutal fighting in France's Caribbean colonies in which thousands died. Less well known, according to the book, is his imposition of racial laws in metropolitan France, which led to the internment of blacks and the forced break-up of inter-racial marriages.

Even Napoleon's military genius is doubted by some historians. Was Austerlitz won through a great stroke of tactical ingenuity? Or because fog blanketed the battlefield at an awkward moment, leaving the Austrian and Russian armies blundering around in the mist? Napoleon was certainly lucky on the battlefield of Austerlitz but the campaign leading there demonstrated all the brutal, decisive qualities which made him - for 15 years - the supreme figure in Europe.

Napoleon transformed late 18th-century warfare by abandoning the dilettant, aristocratic, almost sporting approach to battles which had gone before. He marched troops rapidly from one place to another over huge distances; he attacked enemies from the rear; he fought battles to destroy the strength of the enemy, not just to win the day.

Thus the Austerlitz campaign, which ended 60 miles east of Vienna in early December, began in Boulogne-sur-Mer, on the Channel in early August.

Napoleon was vaguely planning to invade Britain but could not do so while Nelson ruled the waves. As soon as Britain signed a three-way alliance with Austria and Russia against France, Napoleon ordered the 200,000 troops of the Grand Army to march east to make a pre-emptive attack on the Austrians. A little later, he ordered the French navy out of port in the Mediterranean, more as a diversion than anything else.

By turning his army east, he, in effect, abandoned his plans to invade Britain - hence his judgement that Trafalgar on 21 October, 1805 was an "irrelevance". (In truth, had Nelson lost the battle as well as his life, Britain would have been vulnerable to a post-Austerlitz invasion and 19th-century history would have been rather different).

After a number of skirmishes and smaller battles, Napoleon, with 70,000 men, took on 90,000 Russians and Austrians on the morning of 2 December, 1805.

Within six hours, although they held the best ground, the Russians and Austrians were not only defeated but crushed. More than 20,000 Russian and Austrian soldiers died; another 20,000 were captured. The French lost 9,000 men, killed and wounded.

Napoleon was one of the first masters of PR and propaganda. He wrote the history of the battle himself soon afterwards, insisting he had pre-planned every move.

In truth, the victory at Austerlitz was won partly through the fog of war - in this case, literal fog. Napoleon feinted to retreat, encouraging the Austrians to leave their high ground and try to cut off the French route to Vienna. Heavy mist descended. The Austrians poured down from the plateau they held and French troops poured on to it. By the time the mist lifted, the French dominated the battlefield and chopped up the enemy at will.

Napoleon fought a brilliant battle, adapting to events more rapidly than his enemies. But would his tactics have worked without the fog? His account fails to mention the weather.

The victory placed Napoleon in an utterly dominant position on the European continent. It also went to his head and hastened his end.

The positive, but intelligent, French view of Napoleon is that he turned into a brutal dictator but that the French Revolution, and its Napoleonic aftermath, were, at least, the Beginning of Modern Times.

British historians argue that the Revolution and Napoleon - far from speeding the "modernisation" of France - delayed for many decades the political, economic and industrial developments which were already starting under the ancien régime. The real "beginning of Modern Times" occurred, not at the Bastille or Austerlitz, but in the factories of Lancashire and the West Midlands.

The French see this as a smugly British view of history. By introducing basic property and legal rights - and by the very fact of being a meritocratic upstart, rather than an aristocrat - they say Napoleon hastened the end of feudalism all over Europe and laid the foundations for modern economics and politics.

There is also a suggestion - first made by Napoleon himself over a glass of wine, and possibly arsenic, in exile in Saint Helena - that the emperor was the first "European"; that his intention, all along, was to create a Europe without borders and without "civil wars". To do that he had to defeat Albion by imposing a single European market - "the continental system" - from which the incorrigible and un-European British would be excluded. This theory may be attractive to French romantics, and British Eurosceptics, but it makes little sense.

After Austerlitz, Napoleon was advised by his foreign minister, Talleyrand, to treat the Austrians magnanimously, encouraging a kind of exhausted peace in Europe in which France would be the dominant but not the overwhelming, imperial power. The British, without a serious army, would be powerless to intervene. Instead, Napoleon imposed humiliating conditions on Austria, consolidated his control of Italy and broke up what remained of the Holy Roman Empire.

In doing so he awakened national hatreds which brought about his downfall, nine - and then 10 - years later. He also, accidentally, helped to create the antagonistic, European nation states which dominated the next 150 years and generated two world wars. So much for Napoleon as the "father of the European dream".

None of these conflicting, and confusing, interpretations justify the failure of the French government to mark the battle of Austerlitz properly. As Thierry Lentz of the Fondation Napoleon points out: Austerlitz is not just French history, it is European history. It was not just a military event but a political one.

Commemorated sensibly, and intelligently, as on the whole Trafalgar has been, it could have been an occasion, not for flag-waving, but for contemplating the tangled roots of our common European past. And present.

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