Today in 1815, the curse of Napoleon was finally crushed by the allied armies of various German states, the Dutch and the British. This battle, fought a short walking distance from Brussels, involved fortune, the use of a variety of armaments and flanking manoeuvres in which the Allies won the day, showing that they had learned well the lessons their adversary, Napoleon had initiated into the terrible arts of war.
The ability of more than two European states to work together in the prosecution of a modern war against a common enemy was, in itself an innovation. Napoleon’s true weakness was that by 1815, he was reviled by all except a minority of French Imperialists.
The political fall-out of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was decided at the Congress of Vienna. Presided over by Prince Metternich, the Congress saw to it that the old royal families of Europe were largely restored to power. The Congress of Vienna was a reactionary attempt to put the genie of nationalism back into the bottle and it succeeded for a generation, until the great European nationalist revolutions in 1848.
Today also marks the famous speech given in 1940 by Winston Churchill who, following the lessons of Waterloo, was busy building a multinational alliance to fight Hitler and his Nazis. The speech bears quoting because it contains all the elements of emotion, will, contained anger and a call to allied arms that any good fighting speech must have:
“What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.”
The hour came and went and our civilization prevailed against the evils of Fascism and Nazism. Other evils threaten us now. Today we are faced with virulent fundamentalisms of both religious and secular form. The adherents and supporters of these fundamentalisms perhaps fail to see, in their crowing, grasping righteousness, that their thinking is precisely the madness and mental template that drove Napoleon to his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 and Hitler to his demise in 1945. It would seem that Jurgen Habermas, whose birthday today in 1929 we can celebrate, has made the point in his usual academic style:
In an interview in 1999 Habermas stated that,
“For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.”
The time is coming, indeed it is upon us, when we gentle and humble citizens must not merely resist the fundamentalisms of the fearful but transform our world to unchain the power of human flourishing.
– Posted by Douglas Racionzer (serendipiday.blogspot.com)