June 15, 2015 / 1:38 PM / 2 years ago

Europe unites for bicentenary of battle that made Napoleon history

6 Min Read

WATERLOO, Belgium (Reuters) - Kings and commoners gather at Waterloo this week to mark the battle's bicentenary in a show of European unity not seen for a major anniversary at the site since history changed course there on June 18, 1815.

Days of official ceremony, a music-and-fireworks spectacular and re-enactments of the bloody summer day that finally ended Napoleon's French domination of the continent have been heralded by a flurry of academic reassessment of the conflict and renewed debate, and discomfort, over its meaning for Europe today.

At the site, 20 km (12 miles) south of the headquarters of the European Union in the Belgian capital Brussels, descendants of the British, Dutch, Belgian, German and French combatants will gather alongside state representatives in a spirit of unity.

It is a contrast not just to the 1915 centenary, under World War One German occupation, but also to 1965, when France snubbed British events for the 150th anniversary. Its president, Charles de Gaulle was busy keeping Britain out of the Brussels club while, deep in the Cold War, West Germany and Belgium muted celebrations for fear of alienating France, a key NATO ally against the Soviet Union.

Now, as the EU faces new struggles to keep Britain (and Greece) in and a resurgent Russia out, part of the exercise lies in reviving the name of Waterloo.

Some 40,000 men may have been killed or wounded in a battle that brought a century of fitful peace, but these days to many people the word means little more than a 1974 Eurohit for Swedish popsters ABBA.

"Remembering sacrifices made is only the start," said the British ambassador to Belgium, Alison Rose. "We must put at least as much effort into making a difference today -- in promoting respect, justice and reconciliation."

United Presence

France, still ambivalent toward the gore and glory of the Napoleonic dictatorship that followed a revolution in the name of liberty, will send its ambassador to a ceremony on Thursday featuring the monarchs of Belgium and the Netherlands.

Queen Elizabeth will be represented by by her cousin the Duke of Kent, and senior officials from the EU are expected, though none from Russia or Austria, the other allies against Napoleonic France.

Germany, too, will send its envoy. Its people fought for Britain's Hanoverian king and in Marshal Bluecher's Prussian army, whose arrival saved the day for the Duke of Wellington and his Dutch allies.

For all the official harmony, sensitivities run deep. Paris used its rights in the EU currency system to block Belgium from issuing a commemorative euro coin for the battle -- only to be outflanked when the Brussels mint last week issued Waterloo coins anyway, albeit as mere souvenirs.

Major General Evelyn Webb-Carter, an organizer of British bicentenary events, said Waterloo not only ushered in an age of British prosperity, but that "its consequence was the building of the Europe that we know and recognize today".

But King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, speaking to Reuters, stressed Waterloo's role in establishing his own throne, but saw no lessons to inspire cooperation today.

David Bell, a historian of France at Princeton University said the importance of the battle itself was "often overstated".

Frenchman Frank Samson (C) takes part in the re-enactment of the battle of Ligny, as French Emperor Napoleon, during the bicentennial celebrations for the Battle of Waterloo, in Ligny, Belgium, June 14, 2015.Yves Herman

He said Napoleon, exiled the previous year, could not have regained his hegemony, although he might have made the 19th century a less stable one if he had won.

Tourists and Descendants

For locals in the Brussels commuter belt, the anniversary is about tourism. They expect 200,000 visitors this week, who will be able to see a new visitor center as well as Wellington and Bonaparte's bicorn hats, reunited at the town museum.

"Of course, for us it was a defeat," French tourist Marylin Jacquin said on a recent visit to the battlefield. "But this is bringing people together. It's a history we all share, and close to Brussels, where now we're trying to work together in Europe."

Among those promoting tourism around the battle is Charles Bonaparte, who calls his forebear the second most Googled person after Jesus. "People come to Europe to see Napoleon," he said.

Slideshow (3 Images)

But there will be descendants of less famous people too.

Christine Dabbs was one of hundreds who answered calls to share their family stories, and recently visited Hougoumont farm, the British stronghold that her ancestor Private Matthew Clay helped to defend against overwhelming odds.

"I felt a very close personal connection," she said.

Dabbs will return later this week after a memorial on Thursday at London's St. Paul's Cathedral with the current Duke of Wellington.

With the British government planning a referendum soon on quitting the EU, Eurosceptic commentators have evoked Napoleon, and later Nazi German efforts to unite Europe by force, as symbols of what they see as a new continental tyranny emerging from Brussels.

Yet notable among new studies by British historians are some that give Germany as much credit for the victory as Britain, and a BBC primetime documentary that portrays Bonaparte as an enlightened lawgiver and genius, far from the "19th-century Hitler" of popular legend.

In France, there is less enthusiasm for the anniversary.

"The French have a problem with their history, a permanent discomfort," explained Napoleon biographer Patrice Gueniffey in the newspaper Le Monde. "There's no consensus ... They fail to face up to their past, something the British have no problem with."

Germans take a more positive view. "If anniversaries help people better understand the idea of Europe, that's great," argued Kurt Kister, editor of Munich's Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

"Despite the euro crisis, the far-right and EU-fatigue, the old continent is in a better, more peaceful state than ever. It's a while since French, Germans and English have shot each other."

Additional reporting by Alexander Saeedy in Brussels, Jack Hodsoll, Miranda Alexander-Walker and Christian Levaux in Waterloo, Andreas Rinke in Berlin and Toby Sterling in The Hague; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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