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Henningsen: The Waterloo Debate

From my college days, I vividly recall a professor of modern European history chastising students for seeking universal truths in the study of the past. “History is an endless debate,” he proclaimed, “Our understanding of the past is always changing. Nothing stands still.”“But,” he relented, “there are two universal truths of European history since 1648: The middle class always rises. Spain always declines.” Well, since even those two have gone by the board, it’s not surprising that, as we mark the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at the battle of Waterloo, long-held understandings of its significance are under attack.

One overall point still holds. In bringing Napoleon’s reign to a close, Waterloo ended a second Hundred Years War between Britain and France and ushered in a century of relative peace and prosperity – at least in Europe – that lasted until 1914.

But there agreement pretty much stops and argument takes over. It was a great British victory. No, Wellington commanded a multi-national force and wasn’t victorious until the Prussian army arrived late in the day. It was necessary to bring peace and security to Europe. No, Napoleon sought only harmony with his neighbors while rebuilding France. And so on...

Perhaps the most striking challenge to the conventional wisdom comes from historians who argue the battle was unnecessary. They contend that peaceful co-existence in Europe was distinctly possible, but that aristocratic Britain and the autocracies of Russia, Prussia, and Austria feared Napoleon’s loyalty to the ideals of the French Revolution.

Yes, he had declared himself emperor, but his devotion to meritocracy in government and education, to a new code of laws based on fundamental fairness and eliminating feudal privilege, to low direct taxation, and to eliminating an established church, all threatened the conservative status quo. Far from marking the defeat of tyranny, this argument goes, Waterloo ensured its triumph. It guaranteed that in England as well as in mainland Europe conservative forces of reaction would remain in the saddle, delaying and sometimes crushing liberal constitutional efforts until the First World War changed everything.

The important point here isn’t who’s right, but that history remains – as it should – an endless debate. Just because it’s past, doesn’t mean it’s over.