Bicentenaries: a rather pale «Sun of Austerlitz»

Author(s) : GOURGAUD Baron
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“There are several school of commemoration. But there are two which seem to be dominant in France today: one which prefers the politically profitable; and one which prefers self-mortification for a specific painful moment from French history. It is not in the least surprising therefore that the French state has handled (and continues to handle) the Napoleonic bicentenaries with a barge pole, leaving it up to the national institutions created by Napoleon or private institutions to lead the way.

Whilst if pushed, I could just about understand why the Republic sidelined the proclamation of the Empire and the coronation and consecration of Napoleon, but I am mystified and disappointed that nothing official has been organised for the bicentenary of the Battle of Austerlitz (2 December, 1805), one of the French army's greatest victories and whose name appears on many regimental colours. The current Prime Minister, whose interest in all things Napoleonic is known, has not received any dossiers on this subject. Why? They sometimes say that the President of the Republic is not particularly « Napoleonic ». In corridors, they mutter that no money could be found, for example, for the Musée de l'Armée, an institution eminently qualified to celebrate such an event. They even say that we didn't want to celebrate a victory won against the armies of countries now our European friends, Austria and Russia. I don't know if this is true, but if it were, I would be very worried about the way in which the government saw the teaching of French history and the encouragement of interest in history in general.

On the other hand, I see that the British authorities have not had such difficulties in celebrating with pomp the bicentenary of the Trafalgar, a naval victory over France and Spain, both card-carrying members of the EU. We have even seen prestigious French warships participating in a parade organised for that event, and a Franco-British evening, under the patronage of the President of the French Republic and the Queen of England, organised for the evening of 21 October, on the very bicentenary day of Trafalgar. In the same vein, the British National Maritime Museum is currently showing the wonderful «Nelson and Napoléon» exhibition, with real historical treasures on view… a good number of which were loaned by French museums. And not once has the Entente Cordiale been called into question. The subject is purely historical and neutral, but nevertheless a celebration of the event. French museums could have done the same for the remarkable victory of 2 December 1805, in cooperation with Russian, Austrian and Czech museums, institutions which would, we know, have been delighted to take part!

If we set to one side the scant attention paid to French military tradition in France, it seems to me that absence of a commemoration of the bicentenary of Austerlitz reveals two fundamental errors on the part of those who decide these things:
First error: to believe that in Europe Napoleon is unanimously perceived with hostility. At the Fondation Napoléon, in our work of historical research, we are well placed to say that there is no such a feeling and that if such a «syndrome» existed, it belongs to the past. The Napoleonic episode is everywhere considered as an integral part of our common European roots – not forgetting of course the national sensitivities, which do not impede but rather enrich the debate. Napoleon has become a historical object, one to be studied with rigor and openness of spirit, not an object of polemic.
Second error: not to have understood that a commemoration – which is not a celebration – can only be performed in a European context, by both the victors and vanquished of the time, with imagination (so as to get beyond the simple military exploit) and desire to consider the event together. This is particularly true for a historical exhibition… and it was this which has been so clearly understood by our British friends.

It is now too late for any significant, intelligent event to be organised for the bicentenary of the battle of Austerlitz. We in France must make do with intimate conferences, the trooping of regimental colours, and a few speeches which will either be drowned out in the media barrage or, worse still, be ridiculed by those who think that you have to be «for» or «against» Napoleon. Nothing will have been presented to a wider public with the aim of trying to get a better understanding of this fundamental piece of our military but also political history, because war is also the confrontation of different ideas of Europe and society.

The official silence surrounding this bicentenary will reveal all too clearly, I fear, the way in which the French government sees France and the French today.”
Baron Gourgaud
President of the Fondation Napoléon

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