Yesterday I posted a flash fiction story that involves a fair amount of historical background. I think it’s better if you read the story first without knowing what inspired it, so click here to read it. (It’s really short.)
Most 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.
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.
- See Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts. p. 429
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).
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.
Despite 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.
Before we begin, here’s some irony for you:
Well, I was obviously wrong when I predicted that Clinton would win comfortably.
To be honest, I screwed this up badly. My gut instinct told me that Trump fit the model of a winning candidate, and Clinton fit the model of a losing one. Why? Because of the all-important “charisma” factor, which I have now spent nearly seven years analyzing.
But because most polls said otherwise, and because most experts thought it was impossible, and because of all the appalling things Trump has done and said, I went with the conventional wisdom and assumed the charisma theory wouldn’t apply.
Instead, it was vindicated.
I had the following exchange on Twitter with Paul Graham, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist who wrote the original essay that introduced me to the charisma theory of politics:
I know I’ve said it a million times, but read Graham’s essay. Parts of it are prescient:
The charisma theory may also explain why Democrats tend to lose presidential elections. The core of the Democrats’ ideology seems to be a belief in government. Perhaps this tends to attract people who are earnest, but dull. Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry were so similar in that respect that they might have been brothers. Good thing for the Democrats that their screen lets through an occasional Clinton, even if some scandal results.
Talking of which, this post of mine from 2010 was also rather disturbing to reread:
The blind loyalty felt by the devotees to their political messiahs is something which fundamentally alters the nature of the political conflict. And it is this, I believe, which drives the oft-bemoaned lack of “civility” and “moderation” in today’s discourse. Cults are not rational, but emotional.
What makes this all the more troubling is not that it is a corruption of the democratic system, but rather that it seems to be the logical conclusion of it. The average voter, after all, cannot really be expected to keep up with the nuances of the issues. To do so requires too much time…
…So I think we must resign ourselves to the fact that charisma–and the resultant cults of personality–are going to be the driving energy of our political system for the foreseeable future. The best we can hope for, at this point, is probably that our elected leaders will not abuse their charisma. Given the corrupting influence of power however, that seems unlikely.
The point here is that even people like me and Graham, who had devoted a lot of time and thought to how this sort of thing could happen, failed to realize it even as it was happening.
Over the years, I’ve written a lot about charisma, about rural nationalism, about political advertising–even about Vladimir Putin–and in this election, almost all of it played out like I would have expected, if I’d only trusted what I knew, rather than assuming that others knew better.
Of everything I’ve written about politics, I suppose this post was the most explicitly relevant:
The only charismatic Republican I can think of is too undisciplined and arrogant to organize an intelligent campaign. The reason they are always going on about Reagan is because even after all these years, they have never found anybody half as charismatic as him to sell their contradictory policies.
But all the same, if they do manage to scare up somebody half-way likeable, the former Senator and Secretary of State will have a hard time winning. Especially since history suggests people will be reluctant to elect another person from the same party that has controlled the White House for the previous eight years.
The Republican I was thinking of was Palin. Trump wasn’t even on the radar at that point.
And, as it turned out, being undisciplined and arrogant was no hindrance to running a successful campaign.
That said, the truly arrogant ones here were political analysts–including myself–who refused to believe in what we were seeing; who stubbornly clung to the notion that a candidate as obnoxious and scandal-plagued as Trump could not win, even after he proved us wrong once.
If I had simply been honest with myself about how Trump’s campaign corresponded to everything I knew about how politics works, maybe I would have been more vocal about the surprisingly high probability he would win. And that might have motivated more people on my side to do things differently.
Paradoxically, if more people had believed he could win, his chance of actually winning probably would have declined.
I remember when I was 15 years old reading in a book of military history about how, at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon ignored some of his own long-standing tactical rules, leading to his defeat. At the time, I made a mental note that ignoring one’s own beliefs was usually a bad idea.
The warfare analogy is pretty apt in a larger sense, too. Trump’s campaign resembled a lot of successful military campaigns throughout history, in the sense that it won by being smaller and more able to change and adapt quickly than its larger, better-funded, but also more conventional opponent. (This is also the same logic that leads to small startups defeating big corporations.)
Finally, the Trump campaign won by challenging conventional wisdom and proving it wrong. Nearly all professional political strategists took for granted that you couldn’t win by appealing to nationalist sentiments. Trump’s campaign challenged that idea, and proved it incorrect.
I’ll have much more later. This is going to require a lot of work.
“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.
- 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.
- 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.