Historical Parallels

Politicians' use of history always comes back to bite them, much like the Continental System.
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Historical Parallels

I like it when current affairs start ringing historical bells, and the former French ambassador to the UK Sylvie Bermann came up with a real clanger recently when she averred that the consequence of Brexit was to bring together 27 countries in a Continental bloc which threatened the UK just as Napoleon’s Continental system had in its day.

Her grasp of history is sadly lacking. In an article the the Daily Telegraph, Robert Tombs was quick to point out that the Continental System had been a disastrous policy which had helped ruin France and bring down Napoleon. It had placed such strain on the states he had tied into it that they were eventually forced to defy him. His ill-fated involvement in the Iberian Peninsula was dictated by the necessity of denying Britain access to the Continent and its markets. And the motive behind his invasion of Russia, whose catastrophic outcome not only destroyed the finest army ever seen but also irrevocably undermined his power and credibility, was to force Tsar Alexander to re-impose the blockade against Britain.

It is not only Ms Bermann who lacks a sense of history. The noises coming out of President Macron and the French President of the European Council Charles Michel with regard to the AstraZeneca vaccine have a similarly Napoleonic ring to them. Napoleon was acutely aware of the fact that Britain and France had been locked in a more or less aggressive trade war for decades before he came to power. The industrial revolution had transformed England into a manufacturing power-house and its command of the seas gave unrestricted access to raw materials. It was therefore in a position to flood Europe with manufactured goods which were better made and cheaper than those produced by the nascent local industries. This enshrined in French political thinking the need for tariff barriers to protect theirs. Napoleon went further. He tried to deny Britain access to its largest market in the hope of bankrupting it. But trade wars are notoriously counter-productive, and while it did bring Britain to the brink of financial and political melt-down, it carried France and him over the edge.

If the EU’s reaction to Brexit is to seek inspiration in Napoleon it will give historians many more occasions to comment.

More Historical Parallels

While on the subject of Napoleon, I cannot resist calling on his sense of history and wisdom to dampen the enthusiasm of those who have voiced hopes that the fall-out of Oprah Winfrey’s interview of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will bring down the monarchy.

Apart from healthy doses of ambition, vanity and snobbery, what impelled Napoleon to take the imperial crown and initiate a dynasty by marrying the daughter of the last Holy Roman Emperor was the desire to guarantee the stability and future of the political structure he had put in place. His youthful studies of the state of Europe under the ancien régime and of Enlightenment literature had made him a firm republican on the basis that ‘there are very few kings who have not deserved to be dethroned’. But subsequent experience as he rebuilt France out of the warring mess left by the Revolution and his encounters with incompetent and often corrupt but much-loved monarchs had convinced him otherwise. The power of a monarchy, he had come to appreciate, lay principally in its being there, a solid, timeless absolute in an unpredictable world which not even the death of the king could shake.

The Retreat from Moscow

Possibly the greatest disappointment of his career, which unsettled him far more than the disastrous campaign of 1812, and could be said to have led inexorably to his failure to keep his throne in 1814, was provided by a piece of news that reached him during the retreat from Moscow. It was that General Malet and a handful of others had taken advantage of his absence to mount an audacious coup, announcing that he had been killed in Russia and brandishing forged documents authorising them to take power. They were quickly unmasked and shot, but Napoleon was profoundly shaken.

On hearing news of his death, those who had believed it had not reacted as they should have, by proclaiming the accession of his son. ‘Our fathers rallied to the cry The king is dead, long live the king!”, he reminded the Senators and members of the Council of State when they came to greet him on his return to Paris, adding that ‘these few words encompass the principal advantages of monarchy.’ The fact that it had not occurred to them to follow this tradition brought home to him that the monarchy he had created did not enjoy those advantages.

The consequences of that realisation were fatal, as it prevented him from making peace and saving his throne at the eleventh hour. ‘Your sovereigns, born on the throne, can afford to let themselves be beaten twenty times and still return to their capitals,’ he explained to Metternich who was trying to make him accept less than glorious terms, ‘I cannot, because I am a parvenu soldier. My authority will not survive the day when I will have ceased to be strong and therefore to be feared.’

Adam Zamoyski is the bestselling author of 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow.