Napoleon’s Greatest Victory Sets Citizen Against Citizen

Hugh Schofield, Sunday Herald (Scotland), Dec. 4. 2005

Exactly 200 years after Napoleon’s epoch-making victory at Austerlitz in central Europe, the French government has been accused of political correctness for failing to join commemorations for perhaps the most glorious battle in the country’s military history.

President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin both chose to boycott Friday’s evening’s small parade to honour the anniversary at the Place Vendome in central Paris. And at yesterday’s mass re-enactment of the battle in the modern-day Czech Republic, the only French representative was defence minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who made it clear she was there purely in a private capacity.

By contrast, critics pointed ironically to France’s enthusiastic participation in joint ceremonies with Britain earlier this year to mark the bicentenary of the naval battle of Trafalgar—which was one of the nation’s most crushing defeats.

Historians, editorialists and right-wing politicians have chastised the government for bowing to the fashion for “self-flagellation” and refusing to grant Napoleon’s stunning defeat of the Austro-Russian alliance on December 2, 1805, its due place in history.

“Is the duty of memory supposed to be selective?” asked columnist Jean des Cars in the conservative Le Figaro. “One can only wonder when the commemorations for Napoleon’s most famous victory are marked with such painful discretion.”

And France-Soir lamented: “The truth is that it is not the done thing today to celebrate the victories of Napoleon, but Austerlitz does not just belong to its general-in-chief . . . The 9000 French soldiers who fell there died for their homeland, and did so while crushing a coalition of aristocrat nations bent on subjugating France and restoring the old order.”

For Lionnel Luca, of Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, “the worst of it is this modern trend for repentance at all costs”, while his colleague Andre Santini said the absence of an official commemoration was “a sign of a France in decline, a France which forgets its past”.

Austerlitz is today recognised as the highpoint of Napoleon’s military genius. Tricking the Austrian and Russian generals into thinking they had the strategic advantage, he brought his highly-disciplined grande armée up against superior numbers and inflicted a stunning defeat—dealing a death blow to the Holy Roman Empire and hastening the genesis of modern Germany.

France’s government—which includes in Villepin a leading Napoleon enthusiast—might have been expected to mark the battle if not as a feat of arms then at least as a key moment in the fashioning of modern Europe. Its reluctance to do so appears to be a response to growing sensitivity over the country’s past, and to accusations from the left and anti-racist groups that negative aspects of both the Napoleonic and colonial periods have been airbrushed from the history books.

Given added spice by last month’s rioting in France’s immigrant-heavy suburbs, the row centres partly on a law passed by the National Assembly in February enjoining history teachers to stress the “positive role of the French presence overseas, especially in north Africa”. This has been attacked by the left as a blatant attempt to rewrite the past at the expense of black and Arab indigenous populations.

But at the same time a controversial book has put Napoleon himself in the firing line by charging him with racism . In The Crime Of Napoleon, Claude Ribbe says the emperor was a genocidal dictator who exterminated blacks in the Caribbean and even used rudimentary gas chambers in the holds of ships.

“All the facts contained [in the book] are known to historians but are wilfully overlooked,” writes Ribbe, a black academic who sits on a government panel on human rights.

According to black pressure group the Collective of Overseas French, Napoleon was also guilty of laws banning blacks from mainland France and inter-racial marriages. And by his 1802 order re-authorising the “triangular” trade in slaves after it was outlawed in the revolution, he consigned “200,000 Africans to slavery and more than a million to death”.

Angry at what it says is official complaisance in the myth of Napoleonic glory, the collective staged a protest demonstration in Paris yesterday—even as thousands of enthusiasts were re-enacting Austerlitz at the battlefield hundreds of miles to the east.

But many historians are concerned that obsessions of the moment are obscuring the task of objective analysis, and accuse the government of weakly bending to the political wind.

“Two and a half centuries of French history have just been consigned to the rubbish-bin,” wrote the internationally-renowned academic Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.

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