Belgians are preparing to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo when the Duke of Wellington led an alliance of forces to bring about the final defeat of Napoleon. But a story in The New York Times suggests that the battle is still not over.
It turns out that French-speaking Belgians are not all that thrilled about building a monument honoring the British victory and the British soldiers who fell at Waterloo. The French, meanwhile, are said to be cool to the idea of celebrating “British triumphalism.”
Who knew that the defeat of Napoleon was still controversial?
To the English-speaking world and much of continental Europe Napoleon was a dangerous megalomaniac who plunged Europe into years of war and betrayed the ideals of the French Revolution by elevating himself to the status of emperor. The adjective Napoleonic has come to suggest a striving little man who puffs himself up with grandiose ideas about himself.
But for a time Napoleon embodied the glory of the French empire. For the French themselves, Waterloo was not such a great moment. That Belgians, French and British must plan their historic observance with sensitivity for the feelings of the others is a reminder that history is never one story. If history is the story written by the victors, the story of the vanquished can also have a lasting effect.
Americans know something about how the competing narratives of history exist side by side. The common story accepted by most Americans is that the United States endured a great Civil War from 1861 to 1865 in order to preserve the union and to abolish slavery. Abraham Lincoln is the hero of this story. His words define our democracy; his sculpted form dwells with solemnity within the Lincoln Memorial. His assassination fixed his place in our history as the great national martyr.
And yet not everyone buys into this story, just as the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo is not universally acclaimed. The alternative narrative in America is that the South was fighting to defend its independence from an interfering federal government and to defend its way of life. The monuments of the South celebrate the heroism of the Lost Cause. It is Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee who are sculpted in stone in the South, not Lincoln, Sherman or Grant. According to the alternative narrative, the struggles of the South following its defeat were owing to carpetbagging Yankees.
It is sometimes shocking to Northerners that Southerners still believe these things. And yet history shows again and again that the vanquished seldom surrender their world view when they surrender their swords. The ancient grievances of Serbia, with memories of a 14th century military defeat, underpinned the genocide that Serbs unleashed in Bosnia during the 1990s. Japan and China still cling to memories of atrocity and defeat from the years before and during World War II as they prolong their current feud over a scattering of islands. Poles have hated Russians for centuries.
In this country the undercurrents of racism and white grievance still percolate through our politics. Part of the Southern way of life was to allow the region’s ruling elite to keep hold of power, which meant there has been a tradition of keeping the right to vote in a limited number of hands. Democracy was not to be trusted. Nor was the federal government, which occupied the region militarily till the end of Reconstruction in 1877. When President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock in 1956, he reignited these ancient enmities, as did President Kennedy when he sent troops to Alabama and Mississippi.
Southerners are in a difficult position in defending their role in the Civil War because it requires them to defend human slavery. They try to skirt that issue by talking about state’s rights or the Southern way of life. But it was the states’ right to enslave black people that was at issue, and it was a way of life sustained by forced labor. There is no skirting our racial history.
Descendants of Napoleon’s brother and of the Duke of Wellington will shake hands at Waterloo when their celebration occurs. Americans are still learning to shake hands.
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