My dad and I love watching history documentaries. He sent me one the other day about Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propaganda minister.

I learned that, in addition to things like making newsreels and staging rallies and so on, Goebbels also served as a producer on German movies. Think Cecil B. DeMille but a Nazi, and you get a pretty good idea of his cinematic style.

The documentary showed a few clips from a film called Kolberg, an epic war film set in the early 1800s, depicting the German town of–you guessed it–Kolberg withstanding a siege laid by Napoleon’s forces.

I have to say, some of the clips I’ve seen from the film look surprisingly good, from a technical standpoint. Look at this:

Kolberg (1945) represented an attempt by the Nazi film industry to get ordinary Germans fired up to defend the Fatherland.

The film was intended to boost German morale–it’s supposed to be an Alamo or Thermopylae-like story of a small group of fighters defying overwhelming odds. Goebbels apparently was so hell-bent on making it that he required tens of thousands of German soldiers to serve as extras.

That’s right: between 1943 and 1944, the Nazi-controlled film industry was using military assets to make epic war propaganda films.  In case you needed any more evidence that these people were insane.

When the Kolberg was finally released in January 1945, it was a box office disappointment, owing possibly to the weather (winter ’44-’45 was extremely cold) or possibly to the fact that MOST OF THE MOVIE THEATERS HAD BEEN BLOWN UP BECAUSE GERMANY WAS IN THE PROCESS OF LOSING A WORLD WAR!

Anyway, Goebbels was apparently pleased with this thing. Supposedly he gushed after seeing it that the die-hard Nazis who fought to the end would be remembered like the city leaders of 19th-century Kolberg.

I assume a lot of Goebbels’s subordinates knew he was nuts, but just didn’t say anything.

What’s most interesting–disturbing, actually–about this is how much the Nazis thought about how they would be remembered. Hitler and his architect, Albert Speer, wanted buildings that would leave impressive ruins and endure into the future, like the Colosseum in Rome or the Parthenon in Greece.

Architecturally, their plan mostly failed since nearly all Nazi-era buildings were destroyed. But it bothers me sometimes how much Nazi iconography persists in modern media. Granted, it is inevitably used as a shorthand for evil, but I fear that sometimes the symbols trump the larger message. SS uniforms, for example, were designed to convey darkness and power, and those things are alluring to some people.

It’s no coincidence that lots of internet trolls use Nazi symbols as avatars, logos etc. Partly this is just because trolls like to be ham-handedly shocking in order to get attention–that’s almost the definition of a troll. But I think there’s also something inherent in the design that strikes a chord–and not a good chord either, but a chord of power and aggression.

I’d never heard of the story of Kolberg before, and, while I’m no expert, I’ve studied the Napoleonic wars more than most. There’s clearly good material here for a drama–indeed, a German writer named Paul Heyse wrote a play based on it in 1865. Heyse was apparently pretty well-respected in his time, because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910. The film is based on the play to a degree, although they didn’t give Heyse proper credit because he was Jewish.

I have a feeling I’d rather see Heyse’s version of the story than Goebbels’s. But this is exactly the problem I mean–the pages of History are filled with the words and deeds and icons of psychopaths who wanted to be remembered at any cost, not those of normal people who just tried to do good work.

Kolberg is available online, by the way, but I’m not going to link to it, because ownership of the rights is unclear, and I’m not sure if these are legal.


DelarocheNapoleonMost histories of Napoleon’s downfall begin with his disastrous invasion of Russia, and at first glance, this seems appropriate. Napoleon suffered huge losses, failed to gain much of anything, and never won a campaign again after the invasion. It seems like the obvious point where his fortunes turned for the worse.

But the truth is, Napoleon’s downfall started much earlier. And it wasn’t due to any “nearest-run-thing-you-ever-saw” kind of bad luck that happens in battle, either. It was due to the fact that Napoleon didn’t understand economics nearly as well as warfare.

In 1806, the British Empire began a naval blockade against France. In retaliation, Napoleon–who at this point controlled most of continental Europe–enacted an embargo against trade with Britain, forbidding all French-controlled nations from importing British goods.

By all accounts, it didn’t work. Even the Empress Josephine herself purchased smuggled British products.¹ And Britain simply made up the losses in revenue from Europe in other parts of the world.

Finally, it was in an attempt to impose his ban on British goods that Napoleon invaded Russia to begin with! If he hadn’t been trying to enforce the embargo, he would never have had to make such a risky move at all.

At the time, France had a very strong military tradition. Nowadays we tend to stereotype Germany as the most militaristic European nation, but German militarism is heavily rooted in reforms introduced in Prussia following their losses to Napoleon. So in the early 19th century, it was French militarism vs. British capitalism.

Napoleon was a great military strategist and leader, but he seems to have been pretty ignorant when it came to economics and trade. Napoleon fell into the error of regulators everywhere, in that he assumed he could end demand for goods by making them illegal. In fact, all he did was create a lucrative black market for the British and punish his own people simultaneously.

It would have been different if Napoleon had been able to defeat the British Navy. Then he maybe could have enforced the embargo more effectively. But then, if he could defeat the British Navy, the whole problem of Britain would have been solved anyway.

Napoleon was seeing everything in military terms–that was what he was trained to do, after all. British policy was designed more in economic terms, and the military (mainly the Navy) was just a tool used by Britain to secure their material wealth. The results of the differing philosophies speak for themselves: Napoleon got to be in a lot of famous battles, sure; but eventually lost his Empire and died alone on St. Helena. Britain became the dominant superpower in the world for the next century.

Napoleon should have been patient. Yes, the British were constantly financing uprisings against him, but they weren’t working out very well, and they couldn’t keep it up forever.

There are a couple lessons here. First, you can’t ignore the laws of economics, even if you are the greatest military strategist of your time. And second, though it may be more dramatic to depict Napoleon’s downfall with a retreat from a burning Moscow or a failed charge at Waterloo, he sealed his own fate much earlier with a serious error of his own design.

Study Economic policy, or this could be you. (“Fire of Moscow” by Viktor Mazurovsky. Image via Wikipedia)

It’s easy to point to one battle or one bit of bad luck as being “Where It All Went Wrong”, but oftentimes, such events are really just the culmination of a less dramatic, more systematic bad decision made much earlier.

So instead of saying “So-and-so met their Waterloo when…”, look instead for when So-and-so made their Continental System.

UPDATE 5/22/2018: See Patrick Prescott’s post on this subject for more info–he has a lot more expertise on this than I do.


  1. See Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts. p. 429

Possibly the worst movie poster in history.
Poster for “Waterloo”

In the days before CGI, epic war films were massive and costly undertakings. You wanted a shot of 10,000 guys marching across a field in full battle uniform? Well, you had to get them! You couldn’t just have Johnny the Computer Whiz draw them in after the fact.

As in actual warfare, there are innumerable logistical difficulties with re-creating these battles. You’ve got to have men in position, knowing how to use their equipment, and then film them as they maneuver in the field.

All that’s quite hard enough.  But when you are making a film for wide release, you have to have all that plus a story the audience can follow, structured so as to play out in a coherent and satisfying way over the course of two hours.

It’s this last bit that’s really tricky, because while history offers plenty of incredible and compelling stories, they rarely fit into neat three-act schemes that can be concisely portrayed in a couple of hours.

Waterloo starts out well, showing Napoleon’s abdication to Elba in 1814 and subsequent return in 1815.  Especially memorable is the moment when the Emperor walks alone to face his former soldiers, now under orders to kill him, and through sheer bravery and charisma wins them back over to his side. This is one part of the Napoleonic legend that seems made for the movies, and it certainly is a high point of the film.

After that, however, problems arise in this dramatization of the final chapter of Bonaparte’s career.  There are unnecessary voice-overs in which Napoleon (Rod Steiger) thinks in exposition for the benefit of the audience.  Many lines of dialogue uttered by officers on both sides seem like they were lifted from history books and changed to the present tense.

An inordinate amount of time is spent on Wellington’s staff at the Ball hosted by the Duchess of Richmond.   This scene also includes the introduction of a totally fictional and pointless love story that goes nowhere.  The only upside is the chemistry between Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and the Duchess (Virginia McKenna).

Wellington and the Duchess
“Old Boney’s advancing on Quatre-Bras… IF you know what I mean.”

The film dwells on things like this, Napoleon’s illness, and some peculiar episode involving a British soldier stealing a pig, and yet glosses over incidents like the Battles of Quatre-Bras and Ligny with a couple lines of dialogue.

It’s not that the film is inaccurate–indeed, they seem to have gone to some lengths to describe things in historically correct fashion. (Except for the romance and a reminiscence about Major-General Ponsonby’s father) The problem is that the film depicts these events in a strange and sometimes incoherent manner.

The biggest technical flaw is probably the mud.  The battle was famously delayed by wet ground after a rainy night, and indeed the film states this correctly. Where it falls down is the fact that the ground we see on screen is demonstrably dry, as evidenced by the huge clouds of dust kicked up by the columns of cavalry and infantry.

The end result is the comical visual of a frustrated Napoleon sinking in an obviously artificial mud puddle while all around him is a vast expanse of dry land. The fundamental historical fact is correctly depicted, but not in a dramatically effective way.

There are lots of issues like this.  After Marshal Ney’s ill-fated cavalry charge against the famous infantry squares, Napoleon rushes back to the field from his sickbed, crying, “What is he doing?  Everyone knows not to make a cavalry charge without infantry support!”

While completely factually accurate, this seems unlikely to be what Napoleon actually said at the time. It comes across as a line delivered for the benefit of audience members who aren’t familiar with the battle of Waterloo.

And this is the other difficult thing about making historical movies: balancing the history lesson aspect with the need to depict real characters, as opposed to instructional puppets designed to illustrate a historical lecture.

Chances are, if someone is watching the movie Waterloo, they are already a Napoleonic history fan. Sure, there might be the occasional viewer who is an ardent follower of Rod Steiger or Christopher Plummer, but if I were overseeing the production, I would make the executive decision that any viewer who doesn’t already know how the battle went is just going to have to piece it together as best they can–no reason the script should go out of its way to help them out.

Waterloo_1970_06Despite all of that, the movie isn’t horrible.  As an instructional device, it is not bad, and there is something inherently impressive about seeing huge lines of soldiers and horses advancing across a smoky field.  It gives you some vague hint of what it might have felt like to be in the battle.

It’s just that the film lacks a dramatic narrative.  Napoleon and Wellington don’t “come alive”; they just repeat their famous quotes and stoically watch the battle.  Because of this, it feels more like a recording of an elaborate re-enactment rather than a truly epic historical drama.

“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”–Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech. July 21, 2016

The Democrats, including President Obama himself, went after Trump for this quote at their convention. In her acceptance speech, Clinton retorted that Americans fix things by working together.

It made me think of the philosopher Thomas Carlyle and the “Great Man Theory of History“.  Carlyle stated that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”.

This theory was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After that, it fell out of favor, with most philosophers and historians preferring theories that emphasized societies and cultures as a whole.  What Carlyle would call “Great Men” were products of their times and places.  Often, they just happen to be overseeing the culmination of events that were many years in the making.

“If Napoleon did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” in other words.

But though it has long been out of favor with most historians, the Great Man theory has never totally disappeared among nationalistic elements of society.  I’m not sure why, but believers in what is usually called “Right-Wing Authoritarianism” seem predisposed to favor this theory.  Maybe because it complements the strong patriarchal nature of such movements.

Whatever the reason, Trump’s claim and Clinton’s reply underscore a profound philosophical difference between the two parties.  (Not that Trump is aware of it–it came across as more of his usual bragging–but it spoke to something deeper in the political divide.)

I watched two history documentaries yesterday. One was about Ancient Greece, and the other one was about Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow.

  1. In the Ancient Greek one, as the Persians were invading, the Greeks evacuated Athens and lured the Persians into it.  It was a bold and self-sacrificing move, but it ultimately enabled the Greeks to win and brought defeat and disgrace to the invaders.
  2. In the Napoleon one, the Russians evacuated Moscow (and burned most of the city and countryside around it) and lured the French into it. It was a bold and self-sacrificing move, but it ultimately enabled the Russians to win and brought defeat and disgrace to the invaders.

Now, I’m not saying the situations were identical.  The Greeks’ triumph was a Naval one, whereas the Russians just let nature take its course on the French army in an abandoned city with no food in wintertime. I’m just saying that you start to see the same things happening again and again in history.

You may find my blog posts boring, but when your Capital city is being invaded by the army of a Foreign Emperor, you’ll thank me.