The Return of the King

Why Europe needs another Napoleon.


Nearly 200 years after his death, Napoleon Bonaparte is finally getting the greatest honor our age can bestow: his own theme park. Napoleonland — stop laughing — was concocted by a former French minister to rival Disneyland in its immersive fun and totemic cultural status. Shopping! Dining! Re-enactments of the Battle of Austerlitz! Not a bad rehabilitation for an all-conquering megalomaniacal exiled emperor.

Truth be told, there’s a serious lesson to be found in the fact that Europe will soon have a Napoleonland — but never, for instance, a Hitlerworld. Unfortunately, Anglo-Americans are apt to unfavorably compare the head of the First French Empire to the leader of the Third German Reich. "A country which can still partly revere such a man surely has a problem," says British journalist Stephen Glover of France and Bonaparte. "We would probably be wrong to equate Napoleon with 20th century totalitarian monsters such as Hitler and Stalin, but he was nonetheless a new sort of terrifying leader" with what Glover calls a "destructive will." Historian Victor Davis Hanson does come close to equating the two, associating "the nightmarish spread of Napoleon’s Continental System and the Third Reich" with the longing of "self-described European ‘visionaries’" to unite Europe’s peoples "under one grand — and undemocratic — system, willingly or not." And Claude Ribbe, a member of France’s own human rights commission, even blasts Napoleon as genocidal.

But while both Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler possessed hegemonic ambitions and left ruin in their wake, the contrasts between the two are rich with significance for Europe’s future. Hitler, a plebian and civilian, sought to absorb Europe into a political party, not extend it with an empire. Bonaparte, a professional soldier born to Genovese nobles, spread his armies across the continent in a quest for political unity, not racial Lebensraum.

We’d do well to contemplate why the closest modern Europe has ever been to such unity is when it was Napoleonland. As the European Union’s paltry political authority heads for the funeral pyre, German economic strength is still no match for the unifying power of historically French ideals and the relative legitimacy of French political leadership.

Yet influential Western commentators are holding fast to the idea that a veritable Fourth Reich of German efficiency is the only way to save Europe. Pro-German prognostications hold sway. In Niall Ferguson’s imagining of Europe in 2021, the United States of Europe, which has replaced the EU, is dominated by Germany from a Viennese headquarters. "German officials talk excitedly about a future Treaty of Yalta, dividing Eastern Europe anew into Russian and European spheres of influence," Ferguson writes. Critics call new Europe the "Wholly German Empire." It’s Deutschland über alles again, only economics is king.

Hanson, for his part, proclaims that the German national character will guarantee its future dominance. "Germany’s new European order is clear: If you wish to live like a German, then you must work and save like a German," he writes. "Take it or leave it."

The prospect of Europe’s German future is not only an Anglo-American dream come true — it reassures all Westerners that their economic system isn’t fundamentally broken. Those sturdy Germans show that if you play by the rules of prudence, you can sidestep financial apocalypse.

But that’s a dangerously optimistic view, as Walter Russell Mead has cautioned. "The German political establishment," he warns, "seems willing to destroy Europe to avoid telling German voters the truth about how stupid it has been. Germany’s leaders are doing everything possible to conceal the ugly truth that the mistakes that the German banking and regulatory establishments made in underwriting Club Med debts are as much a cause of Europe’s woes as spendthrift Greeks."

Sweeping these embarrassing facts under the rug does more than reinforce the lie that there are merely economic solutions to what are deeply political problems. It misleads us into believing that the German regime created by the Allies after World War II has the future of Europe safely in hand. A few institutional tweaks to the European Union’s treaty system cannot forge the legitimacy needed to get Europe’s house — or head space — back in order.

The fact is, it will take more than economic arrangements to rebuild a shared political identity from the rubble of the EU. As Clifford Orwin rightly observes in his pessimistic take on the EU’s future, "Europe remains a meddlesome abstraction embodied in an all-too-concrete bureaucracy."

That’s where Napoleon and France come in. Orwin also argues that Europeans have no sense of shared identity: "Nothing in their modern history supported the elevation of their political allegiances to a continental plane." But Bonaparte proposed, and many accepted, just such an elevation of Europe’s political allegiances to a continental plane. Even after he fell, the Germans opted not to expunge the Napoleonic Code he left behind. Just last year, Poles restored a commemorative monument to Bonaparte in Warsaw that reminds us — along with another statue that still stands in the courtyard of Milan’s city art gallery at the Palace of Brera — of the Emperor’s enduring reach. His conquests came and went, but Bonaparte’s ability to focus the explosive popular power unleashed by the French Revolution and express it as something grandly European has left an indelible mark.

The French Empire fell not because Europe’s peoples rose against him, but because Napoleon chose to march on Moscow instead of allowing Europe’s new and greater unity to sink in. He gambled the continent and lost. And now, as a very different kind of gamble has Europeans fearing that all, yet again, will be lost, the importance of shared values that are more than platitudes grows.

Today, if Europeans wish to find concrete support for the values that unite them, it’s France or bust. The usual alternative, Britain, is retreating from European politics — reducing its military profile and leaning heavily on France in the process. Both liberal interventionists like U.S. President Barack Obama and wary conservatives gaining influence on the right are ready to shift America’s military center of gravity decisively away from Europe. The limited U.S. intervention in Kosovo was controversial when America’s strength and world domination were unquestioned. Today, there is no stomach for the deeper, more difficult interventions that will have to come in any European country where anti-austerity unrest spirals out of control.

Disillusionment with democracy-promoting interventions has led many Americans to warm to views associated with foreign-policy realism, such as relying on hard power sparingly applied. The concept of soft power, however, remains relevant with Europe, where many long for a political authority able to support the force of arms with something more reassuring than realpolitik. If disorder spreads across the continent, will struggling Europeans look to German history, German ideals, and German heroes? Nein. Any German claim to soft-power political leadership over Europe is not just too soon — it’s too thin. That’s unlikely to change for ages. As Hitler and Bonaparte both demonstrated posthumously, collective memory stubbornly endures.

France’s claims to soft-power preeminence, by contrast, are crystal clear and deeply intertwined. At a time when centuries-old monarchies and feudal aristocracies ruled the continent, the French revolutionary motto was a strange and frightening war cry. Today, it is better described as the common sense of the European people. Instead of a militant abstraction, it’s a statement of the peaceable principles Europeans largely live out in real life (especially relative to their neighbors). Europe today is more a product of France’s political creed than of any other nation’s. In Europe, there is no closer cognate to America’s "We the People" than "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" — a phrase that captures France’s attitude not only toward the French, but toward Europe and the world.

Uniquely, France has maintained this deep reservoir of soft power without having run short of hard power. It’s the only nuclear-armed state east of Britain and west of Russia. It has more aircraft carriers than Britain, which is working to redesign its own to mimic the systems used by the French. And it’s willing and able to intervene quickly in its near abroad, as in Ivory Coast, and take the lead in international military operations, such as in Libya. An internal high-level 2008 review of French military policy led to NATO reintegration on the one hand and a grand strategy devoted to "freedom of action" on the other. Today, Paris is at once more focused on the continent and more attentive to meeting the challenge of global threats. Intentionally or not, this strategic turn toward a non-isolationist Eurocentrism reflects a growing authority behind France’s power position.

The precarious weakness of the EU now makes plain that European unity is to be found not in abstractions or bureaucracies but in the leadership of particular, flesh-and-blood human beings. When the alternatives to French leadership are either nowhere men dispatched from Brussels or bean-counters in Berlin, does French pride — relatively more generous, powerful, and legitimate — seem so outrageous?

If Europeans answer that question seriously, they just might be inspired to make more of Napoleon’s legacy than a tourist trap.

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