Napoleon was clever

Napoleon's comeback and end: Waterloo, mother of all battles

Because of Waterloo, Napoleon did not necessarily have to abdicate. But the arrogant player was unable to distance himself from sole rule over France. The game was lost two months before Waterloo. News from the mother of all failures.

It is not good to wake a man at six o'clock in the morning who, after the hard day-to-day office life, still spends the night with wild dances and demanding women. Nevertheless, the valet of the Austrian State Chancellor Metternich took his liberty on the morning of March 7th, 1815, namely a telegram with the note "Urgent" had arrived from the Consulate General in Genoa. Metternich put the letter unopened on the bedside table and tried to go back to sleep. That didn't work out, a good Austrian official doesn't ignore a dispatch, so he picked up the letter: It came from the English inspector Campbell, who was tasked with monitoring Napoleon, who was exiled to Elba. But: This one had disappeared.

Three days later it was learned that the wanted man had disembarked in France. The news hit the pleasure-seeking city of Vienna like a bomb. The great peace congress, which had taken on the task of rebuilding Europe after the devastating Napoleonic wars, had been meeting here for six months. From now on there were no more festivities in Vienna: “The waltz is interrupted, the orchestra continues to play in vain, you look at each other, you ask questions. Everything hurries, you stand still. ”Napoleon's compulsory vacation in his miniature empire Elba had only lasted ten months. The island, which could be traversed in a single day, was a humiliation for the former lord of Europe, who felt like a modern Prometheus forged on the rock had to. With grim satisfaction he followed the disunity of his opponents and the displeasure of the French with the restorative Bourbon regime.

The fact that Napoleon could seemingly easily regain the reins of power and build an army out of the ground frightened everyone who had celebrated his downfall in Vienna. Although you had to realize with a clear mind that your chances were slim, the fear of him was so deep that paranoia spread among the assembled congress participants, it seemed that you were back at the starting point of 1813. Napoleon also endeavored to portray his return to power as an internal French affair that did not concern the other powers. But this was not accepted by the sovereigns assembled in Vienna: "For the first time in international relations, a group of states de facto assumed the right to interfere in the internal affairs of another country for the benefit of the greater good of Europe" (Zamoyski).

The feeling of solidarity, which had recently been so lacking among the Allies, returned to the political stage. It turned out to be a stroke of luck that they had wasted so much time in Vienna and that the congress was still in session. If the monarchs had already been scattered in the winds, one would have had to exchange information by means of couriers, the arduous diplomatic communication between the capitals would have meant a loss of time and could have caused misunderstandings. But so they forgot the deep quarrel because of the division of Poland and Saxony and strengthened the fragile Entente: the European concert of powers reorganized itself to ward off the common enemy.

It was the Easter week of 1815, and they had ample opportunity in the churches to implore the Almighty to deliver them from evil. Then the troops were mobilized. France's representative at the Congress, Talleyrand, who knew how to reintegrate the ostracized nation into the ranks of the great states, was visibly nervous: It was clear to him that the knives were now being sharpened in order to redistribute the cake. It was to be feared that France would be bothered this time.

The now following Cent Jours, the hundred days between Napoleon's landing on the French coast and his final defeat in the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815 against a united British-Dutch and Prussian armies under the commanders Wellington and Blücher is fascinating material for historically interested.

Since Florian Illies' review through the pre-war year with the simple book title "1913", the year numbers on the book cover seem to be booming. Adam Zamoyski achieved a great success with his exciting bestseller "1812" about Napoleon's Russian campaign, no wonder that Zamoyski's German publisher is now trying to continue the success with "1815" and ignores the title of the original English edition, "Rites of Peace" . In 1815 the book only arrives after 500 pages, until then it provides a broad history of the Congress of Vienna with all its fascinating actors who have celebrated their grandiose poker for states and peoples over many months.

The great narrative art of the British historian finds grateful material in the many turns of fortune of 1814 and 1815: How the cunning French diplomat Talleyrand uses his networks, how the gifted string puller Metternich still finds time for glowing love letters even on days of greatest tension, like the Russian tsar, Alexander, sees himself called by God in a religious delusion to save the world, like the constant fear of being ripped off by others, which repeatedly drives diplomats and monarchs into war psychosis. Because the Austro-Russian-Prussian-English alliance, which Napoleon defeated and banished to Elba, threatens to break several times due to its atavistic greed for prey.

The population of whole regions is pushed back and forth on the conference tables like cattle. Zamoyski treats his protagonists very harshly, in the end he judges the consequences of the Congress of Vienna critically: He created an illusion of stability, enforced a political worldview that denied many nations a political existence and preserved a particularly grotesque form of monarchical rule . Entire classes and nations were deprived of their share of social prosperity, socialism and aggressive nationalism had begun to proliferate until the “European concert” was destroyed by fighting in the First World War. In the final sentences of his book, Zamoyski finally rejects the causal link between the agreements of 1815 and the terrible devastation of the 20th century.

The German historian Volker Hunecke focuses on the 100 days that followed the “invasion of a single man” on French soil, on his gamble of turning the wheel of history back a year, even at the risk of another war against the rest of Europe to have to lead. But how did Napoleon want to restore his empire? Here Hunecke spreads the exciting constitutional revision to the reader, which Napoleon wanted to make palatable to the French in order to give his rule legitimacy, but he reached the limits of his political assertiveness: the majority of the French mistrusted the refinement of the liberal constitutionalist propagated by him. Although he had the army behind him. But: “You can do anything with bayonets except sit on them” (Talleyrand).

He was known too well and it was assumed that he wanted to seamlessly join the years of imperial rule without curtailing his power. At the end of his life he will blurt out: "The liberals, this rabble, made me waste a lot of time talking about the constitution." Military dictator to pull quickly against the Allies. Hunecke deduces from this: Since the stubborn and arrogant player Napoleon was unable to distance himself from his eleven years of empire, but rather wanted to rise again to sole ruler over France, he had already lost the game two months before Waterloo. His abdication on June 22, 1815 finally took place after a parliamentary coup d'état; Waterloo alone would not have made it mandatory.

It is impossible to tell the story of a battle. The sentence comes from someone called, the Waterloo winner Wellington. There are too many stories that are interwoven in a great battle that no one can untie the individual threads. But on the German book market alone there are three new publications that have the ambition to make the battle clear, including the book by the British journalist Bernard Cornwell ("Waterloo", Wunderlich Verlag), which is beautifully illustrated and spreads out the entire inventory of the existing soldiers' reports, but leaves aside all the pre- and post-battle history.

The afterlife of Waterloo

The study by the German military historian Klaus-Jürgen Bremm (“Die Schlacht”, Theiss Verlag), who knows everything about military details up to the arming of soldiers, only appeals to specialists with its attention to detail. This leaves Johannes Willms as an unqualified recommendation - once again - who, despite the misleading title “Waterloo - Napoleon's Last Battle”, treats the political and military aspects as roughly equal on 250 pages. The author's level is already known from his biography of Napoleon and the recently published story of the French Revolution, and he combines it with good legibility. A few linguistic mistakes show that this is an anniversary snapshot, but to accommodate as many topics as Willms on 250 pages is evidence of great skill. His story of the aftermath of Waterloo in the participating nations is particularly exciting.

As if the great Corsican himself had dictated the events to the historian Klio: Hardly anyone today associates the victors with the monstrous battle, but the subject is always only he, the vanquished: Napoleon, his climaxes, periphery and ultimately tragedy, nothing of fascination seem to have forfeited. You have to look for the winners, Wellington and Blücher, in the museum shops. The Corsican won the battle for memory. His admirer Chateaubriand has been confirmed for 200 years: “The world belongs to Bonaparte. What the destroyer was no longer able to conquer captured his reputation. "

The reviewer failed in his plan to also read Sabine Ebert's 1080-page novel epic “1815 - Blood Peace” (Knaur Verlag) to the end. He asks for forgiveness. Everyone has their own Waterloo. ■

The books discussed:

Adam Zamoyski: 1815 Napoleon's fall and the Congress of Vienna, C.H. Beck Publishing House
Volker Hunecke: Napoleon's return, Klett-Cotta Verlag
Johannes Willms: Waterloo Napoleon's Last Battle, C.H. Beck Publishing House.

("Die Presse", print edition, May 23, 2015)