A French Warning for Today's America

What could George W. Bush learn from Napoleon and French history?

January 30, 2003

What could George W. Bush learn from Napoleon and French history?

In the 1790s, the radical ideas bubbling out of revolutionary France spilled all across Europe. Idealists and intellectuals were fascinated by this political application of what was soon called the Enlightenment.

It featured novel ideas such as equality, democracy, anti-clericalism, emancipation from serfdom, full rights for women and Jews — and the general rule of reason.

For advocating all of these ideas, the French were heroes — even to the Americans. Activists everywhere embraced the new Gallic ways, setting up "liberty trees," dreaming of their own republics.

Indeed, they imitated not only French politics, but also French styles. This wasn't yet "globalization" — but it definitely was a case of "continentalization."

But then came the anti-Gallic backlash. Not everything the French did, astride Europe, was beloved by their subject peoples. And the French changed, too.

Once republican, they became imperial in 1804, when Napoleon crowned himself emperor. He thus brought to an end any pretense that the French were out to help Europe.

Meanwhile, his armies kept traversing and defeating Mitteleuropa. And that was especially disappointing for German speakers, who had hoped that Napoleon would achieve full "regime change" in their many smallish capitals.

Instead, French rule just added a layer of French autocracy atop German autocracy. Small wonder that affection for Parisian ideas rapidly turned into a resentment of anything French.

Take Beethoven, for example. Living in Vienna, he had originally wanted to dedicate his Third Symphony to Bonaparte, but angrily tore up the dedication of "Eroica" in 1804.

Less than a decade later, completely converted from Francophilia to Francophobia, he wrote a celebratory piece entitled "Wellington's Victory."

Another German who was severely affected was Johann Gottlieb Fichte. He was a witness to the Enlightenment — and both the American and French Revolutions. As such, he could have been swept up in the Francophile universalism of the era.

Spurred on by his experience with the imperious French, he started thinking about what made Germany different from France — and the rest of the world. From his new post as rector of the University of Berlin, he began celebrating the Volksgeist, the spirit of the German people.

In 1807-1808, he delivered a series of lectures to students. They were immediately published as a book, “Appeal to the German Nation.” And it was that book which galvanized one-nation sentiment in a land that was still divided into scores of jurisdictions. In other words, the actions of French militarism found their reaction in German nationalism.

Of course, not everyone noticed this new spirit all at once. History rarely reveals its secrets in a thunderclap. Most likely, Napoleon went to his grave in 1821 never much thinking about what he had helped to provoke across the Rhine.

But even as he still festered in his exile in St. Helena, Germany was pulling inward. And it did so around the most militaristic Teutonic state of all — Prussia.

Before long, in 1871, came the defeat of Napoleon's country in the Franco-Prussian War. That victory was sweet revenge, German nationalists proclaimed, for the humiliations of the past. But of course, that conflict really led to another seven decades of war.

That chain of events illustrates why history is so important. It's not just a source for windy speechifying. It's a treasury of useful lessons and cautionary tales, about those who have walked down similar roads before.

Today, President Bush, confident in his moral clarity, confident in his Americanism, declares that there is a "single sustainable system" for the world. Much, maybe most, of what he says is appealing to the peoples of the world — tired as they are of poverty and oppression.

But as Bonaparte's French learned, eventually action begets reaction — and even the best of intentions can lead to the worst of calamities.

Somewhere, out there, is another Fichte. In other words, a well-intentioned person who — out of frustration with a formerly inspiring power turned imperialist focuses on his own national identity.

And he entices his entire nation to follow suit onto the road of virulent nationalism.

Napoleon's designs, in the end, triggered 100 years of German detours, with pain inflicted well beyond Germany's borders. Who will be the next Germany, triggered by George W. Bush?