Tombs and Coffee Cups

A recent flap at the University of Texas at Austin about whether the monuments to Confederate soldiers and officials should be removed from their place of honor on campus reminded me a question/comment made by a fellow student when I was an undergraduate in the 1960s. My colleague was not necessarily offended because the statues and plaques supposedly honored or commemorated slaveholders and their defenders, or that they arguably committed treason against the United States. His question was “Why have monuments to losers?”

Why, indeed? Whatever the merits of their cause—defense of slavery, or rights of states to be free of interference by the general government, whatever the honor and bravery with which they fought—the end result was: the Southerners were unsuccessful; they failed; they lost.

Today, the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo when the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte met his final defeat caused me to contemplate the same question again. Why erect monuments to losers?

Napoleon led France as a dictator for nearly two decades. In 1804, he styled himself Emperor of the French. During that time he and his army fought and defeated coalition after coalition of other European states that had vowed to destroy him. By 1812, Napoleon ruled, directly or through surrogates, nearly all of western and central Europe. The only European powers remaining not subdued or cowed were Great Britain and Russia.

That year the emperor’s Grande Armee of around 420,000 men began the ill-fated invasion of Russia. Like Adolf Hitler 130 years later, Napoleon was to meet his match—General Winter. The vast land area and frigid climate of Russia defeated him and his troops. Nearly three-fourths of his army never made it back to France. The Russians, together with the other Europeans powers, allied with the British, defeated Napoleon and forced his abdication and exile in early 1814. Not to be so easily vanquished, Napoleon returned from exile the next year and regained his throne, only to be defeated once and for all by a seventh coalition of Britain, the Netherlands, Prussia, and several other German states (Germany was not a united nation then and would not be until much later in the century). He died in exile on the remote island St. Helena in 1821.

There is no question that Napoleon was a despotic and autocratic ruler, as well as a threat to European peace. He did institute reforms that continued some of the ideals of the French Revolution, such as the Code Napoleon, the civil code that still forms the basis of French law (and in this country, Louisiana’s civil code). His military adventures, however, cost the lives of perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives—French as well as inhabitants of countries he conquered. Worst of all, despite stunning victories early on, ultimately, he lost.

Yet Napoleon continued to capture the imagination of the French. So much so that his nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, restored the empire in 1852, styling himself Napoleon III (Napoleon II was the former emperor’s son, who reigned nominally for a few weeks after Waterloo, and died at age 21 in 1932). Napoleon III, also an autocrat, was also deposed after an ignominious defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1870. Thereafter, France remained a republic, albeit with varying degrees of liberté, égalité, fraternité according to the national mood at any particular time.

Nevertheless, even today Napoleon I has a fond place in the hearts of many French. He is magnificently entombed in L’Hôtel des Invalides, shrine of the French military in Paris. His image is even displayed on coffee mugs for sale at various museums and souvenir shops in France—perhaps the ultimate honor.

All this for a loser?

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