Surely you must know this? Napoleon was one of the greatest men in history, while the Duke of Wellington was a ‘frightful nobody’.
That explains why Napoleon was the true victor in the Battle of Waterloo, at least “in terms of public relations, in terms of his historical importance.”
This peculiar take on history came from Frank Samson, the French lawyer who’ll play Napoleon in the re-enactment to be staged in commemoration of the bicentenary of the famous battle.
Now an inability to come to terms with reality has been widely covered in psychiatric literature, usually under the rubric SCHIZOPHRENIA. This condition is of much interest, but mostly to specialists, of whom I’m emphatically not one.
The only reason I’m commenting on Mr Samson’s apparent illness, whatever its diagnosis, is that it afflicts enough Frenchmen to be regarded as a national characteristic.
Many French people have a compulsion to insist that la France is not only Belle but also Grande. This it definitely is, but repeating this demonstrable fact non-stop betokens a morbid sense of national inferiority, of recent provenance but already deeply entrenched.
One of the milder symptoms is the urge to keep telling all and sundry that everything French is sans pareil simply because it’s French. Much more severe is another symptom: failure to understand what it is that makes a country great.
France’s greatness is inscribed in history by her great Gothic cathedrals, which the country generously exported to England.
By the ineffable beauty of her towns and villages, each adorned with a perfect Romanesque or Gothic church (or at least so it seems in our part of Burgundy).
By the medieval University of Paris shining onto the world the light emanating from Abélard, Peter Lombard, Albert the Great and Aquinas.
By the satirical genius of Rabelais and Molière, and the dramatic genius of Racine and Corneille.
By the mathematics of Fermat, Descartes and Poincaré.
By the religious thinker Pascal and political thinker Montesquieu (with some reservations). By Chardin and Baudelaire, Debussy and Ravel, Stendhal and Pasteur…
This name-dropping could go on and on, and the longer it gets the more indisputable will France’s claim to true greatness become.
However, true greatness often co-exists with the faux variety: equating this aspirational quality with physical might. Suddenly we find ourselves face to face with the symptomatic picture of the disease I mentioned earlier.
Might doesn’t make right; in any significant sense it’s the other way around. Martial glory is virtuous only in defence of a virtuous cause – unjust war, no matter how cleverly and heroically fought, can never add to a country’s glory. It can only subtract.
It ought to be evident that Napoleon, undoubtedly a gifted military leader, fought unjust wars against the rest of Europe. Hence, for all those Marengos, Austerlitzes and Ulms, he reduced rather than increased the glory of France.
Napoleon was a blood-thirsty tyrant who sought to impose France’s, or rather his own, domination on much of the civilised world. Millions of people, including almost two million Frenchmen, had to die before this infamy was stopped.
Bonaparte’s behaviour in some of the wars was shameful enough to reveal his monumental egocentricity. Whenever the going got tough, as it did in red-hot Egypt and ice-cold Russia, he’d abandon his troops and rush off to Paris to mitigate the political fallout threatening to end his career.
Any commander who didn’t boast dictatorial powers would have been court-martialled for that sort of thing, but Napoleon lived to fight the battle of Waterloo in which he was soundly thrashed by the Duke of Wellington.
It takes stratospheric ignorance to describe Wellington as a ‘frightful nobody’. Unlike Napoleon, he won every battle he ever fought, and most of those were fought against French armies.
In the Peninsular War Wellington not only wiped Napoleon’s generals all over Iberia but he also revolutionised tactics and training.
Like his naval counterpart Nelson (another nobody?), he developed new ways of maximising fire power in battle: a Wellington infantryman could fire three shots a minute, as opposed to a Napoleonic soldier who could only manage two.
Above all, his cause was just: the Iron Duke fought to liberate Europe from a tyrant. Hence he contributed to the greatness of France by saving the country from herself. Wellington prevented France from perpetrating even more evil, which she would have done had Napoleon stayed in power.
The French ought to remember that for a country to be great, it has to be good. Goodness by itself is enough to give it a shot at greatness, even if its physical bulk or economic strength can’t compete with some other lands.
This isn’t just a moral statement or a comment on remote French history. It’s also a clue to understanding much of France’s politics over the last 150 years.
For the French have always responded to setbacks, military or economic, with morbid sensitivity. For example, having been defeated by the Prussians with contemptuous ease in 1870-1871, the French allowed their wounded pride to become fire-eating revanchism.
That was a significant contributing factor of the First World War, and therefore the Second. In the latter one it took Nazi Germany 40 days to bring France to her knees, and she has been desperately trying to get up ever since.
This manifested itself in a national version of Stockholm syndrome, with the vanquished falling in love with the victor. Somehow, working hand in hand with their Nazi colleagues for four years convinced French bureaucrats that clutching Germany’s coattails was the only way France could recover her greatness.
The two got in bed together and, by acting as the active partner in this congress, the Germans fertilised France’s wounded pride. Thus the European Union was born.
The marriage was never a union of equals, and the disparity between the two has grown to a point where it takes acrobatic mental gymnastics for the French to persuade themselves that they are still the top European dog.
Meanwhile, they play their little games, trying to glorify Napoleon and to turn his defeats into victories ex post facto. That only exacerbates the original error of judgement, turning this truly great country into a bit of a laughingstock.