English history English radicalism german history


18 June isn’t a well-known date, for all the efforts of Britain’s Francophobe press, which is celebrating the bicentenary of Waterloo in true apolitical style. Occasionally reality breaks through: it has, for example, emerged that the casualty rate in the battle surpassed the first day of the Somme. Will there be similar same flag-waving on 1 July next year I wonder? Certainly Wellington’s victory was a triumph for combined command not to be repeated until the last half of 1918. Whether this gifted general’s final win puts him in the same league as Napoleon (victor at Toulon, Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, Borodino) I leave to the military historians, but squeezing Waterloo into the dreary narrative of ‘our island story’ should not obscure its politics.

Back to the Bourbons

Waterloo was greeted with relief by every crowned head in Europe (bar one) and rightly so. Once confirmed by the Congress of Vienna, it meant the Continental restoration of the ancien regime. These restored (or imposed) tyrants could not of course occupy their thrones with the same confidence as before 1789, but they could still combine to frustrate and suppress popular expression.

A foretaste had come in Spain, theatre of Wellington’s earlier triumphs, where the ludicrous Ferdinand VII had been restored, returning the country to its trajectory of decline: within two decades it sank into civil war. But at least in Spain the monarchy (however undeservedly) truly focused national feeling against the Napoleonic invasion. Elsewhere this was true only of Prussia, and perhaps Russia. Generally Waterloo and Vienna meant that national self-expression and bourgeois right – the political expressions of the Enlightenment – would be subordinated to Order and Legitimacy.

Bernadotte, King of Sweden, was rewarded for betraying Napoleon with the gift of Norway, whose people had to wait a century for independence. When the Belgians were subordinated to the Dutch in an artificially united province the arrangement lasted just 15 years. Poland, dismembered in the 18th century but given cause for hope by Napleon, was redistributed between the restored great powers. Italian self-determination was not even considered: the north (excepting Piemonte) went to Hapsburg Austria, the middle to the Pope and the south to the restored Bourbon monarchy, notable only for its cruelty and stupidity.

Distorting Germany

Prussia which had experienced powerful national renewal under French occupation now had to play second fiddle to a bloated Austrian Empire which, under the preposterous Hapsburgs, spread its ample bottom over most of central Europe. Hapsburg supremacy brought Metternich’s police state and national division. Within three decades this produced the revolutions of 1848, drowned in blood in every country. The flawed liberals of the Frankfurt Parliament might have fashioned an all-German republic; this path blocked, a deformed united Germany emerged in the ugly shape of a greater Prussia with its strutting military caste. This new Germany now excluded Hapsburg Austria, which strove the harder to retain its other territories, suppressing national minorities from Bohemia to the Ukraine. Its final expansionist clutch precipitated World War One.

In France, the restored Bourbons lasted just 15 years, swept away by popular revolution in 1830. It took two more huge revolutions – and several experimental regimes – to restore the republic, France’s proper form of government. In Russia Tsar Alexander, who had once presumed to treat Napoleon as an equal, soon relapsed into mere reaction. The serfs who had saved his throne were not emancipated and he ceased to dally with the Enlightenment. In 1825 he was succeeded by his brother, the noted brute Nicholas I, the very essence of unapologetic reaction.

Britain no exception

And what of Britain? Its huge army was rapidly demobilised with no provision made for their homecoming. Excess labour at home drove down wages sparking successive revolts in the years following Wellington’s triumph. The restoration of the Corn Laws fattened landlords and starved the people into demanding bread and reform. At Peterloo the terrified militia emulated the Tsar’s Cossacks when they freely sabred a peaceful assembly, women and children not excepted. Wellington drifted into Tory administrations, even becoming prime minister during 1828-30. From this position he opposed all change. Only with his removal did the British state begin a process of gradual reform, the very thing it had denied to all the other countries of Europe on 18 June 1815.

President Hollande is unavailable for today’s Waterloo jamboree. He will attend events marking De Gaulle’s defiant speech of June 18 1940. Now that’s an anniversary worth celebrating.