The noted Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield once observed that, ‘history is all things to all men’. This axiom encapsulates perfectly the attitude of European governments towards the Waterloo bicentenary this month says Dr Jasper Heinzen.
The official commemorations have been an odd mélange of international cooperation, national parochialism and indifference, which underlines how contentious Europe’s warlike past still is, or – perhaps more accurately – has become so once again due to the prevailing climate of crisis in the EU.
Unlike the near-universal consensus in Europe that the First World War was a tragedy for all nations involved, the meaning of the Napoleonic Wars remains subject to controversy. To take the example of Britain’s Tories, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2011 ruled out official celebrations on the Waterloo bicentenary for fear of offending French sensibilities.
Yet in response to public pressure, notably from the political right, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne pledged £1 million in the 2013 Spending Review for the restoration of Hougoumont so as to make this important British site of memory the ‘centrepiece of the 2015 celebrations’ on the battlefield.
The ascendancy of UKIP has served to hasten the appropriation of Waterloo by Tory eurosceptics. Not unreasonably some commentators saw the Wellington exhibition at the UK Representation to the European Union in January 2015 as a symbolic affirmation of Cameron’s mission to wrest back powers from the EU. By way of rejoinder the French ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, stated that European integration was something Napoleon had always dreamed of, a theme reprised on 18 June by the Parisian newspaper Le Monde with a poignant editorial warning Cameron that, ‘Brexit could be your Waterloo’.
The subtle politicisation of Waterloo in the last couple of years has not been restricted to Britain and France, of course – only recently Belgium issued commemorative euro coins despite France’s explicit objections.
Two hundred years on Europe stands at another crossroads
At a superficial level the partisan appropriation of Waterloo might seem like a storm in a teacup compared to the other problems European governments are currently facing, but the way official commemorations have unfolded raises larger questions about the EU’s vision for the future.
The dominance of the victory and defeat binary in mainstream thinking about Waterloo has served to obscure more pertinent issues. The fact, for one, that the battle did not only mark the end of Napoleon’s imperial ambitions but also concluded a period of revolutionary experimentation with new ideals of citizenship and governance has garnered surprisingly little attention.
The lessons of the past are worth pondering because two hundred years on Europe stands at another crossroads: are the political rights we enjoy as a result of the French Revolution an exclusive privilege of the inhabitants of ‘fortress Europe’ or are our institutions flexible enough to assimilate Mediterranean migrants and other ‘unwanted’ non-citizens? The anniversary year may yet inspire fruitful debate on this as well as other difficult questions because, after all, Waterloo marked the culmination of a global war.
Dr Jasper Heinzen is a lecturer in modern history. He specialises in the history of modern European nationalism, the Napoleonic Wars and prisoners of war and is in the process of finishing a monograph which investigates the impact of civil war on German nation-building in the Kaiserreich. This and other research has been funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council and the European Commission’s Marie Curie Actions. Before joining University of York in September 2014, Dr Heinzen taught as an Intra-European Fellow at the University of Bern in Switzerland.