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  • Image: Napoleon’s Lost Sword February 2, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    This image is unfortunately not a photograph, but German text-book fodder from the early part of the nineteenth century. Yet it captures perfectly one of the most painful encounters in modern history. 2 September 1870 the French army, goaded foolishly into a war with little Prussia, surrendered at Sedan and the balance of power on the Continent changed decisively. It fell to Napoleon III – looking like a tramp here – to surrender his sword to Otto von Bismarck who is preening himself in cocky triumph. How Beachcombing would like to pull on that white moustache…

    Within a matter of weeks Strasburg would be lost, the French monarchy would be liquidated, Germany would have been created and a trail of powder lit that would lead to the Somme, the Marne and from there the road winds down to Vichy and Stalingrad with dizzy inevitability.

    Napoleon III, one of the most enigmatic figures in modern history, would spend the rest of his days – only three years – in England brooding over the unexpected defeat. When he had given up his sword – something the Prussians had had the decency to allow him to do in private – tears had streamed down his face. Then, on his death bed, he would ask his doctor: ‘Were you at Sedan?’ Etiez-vous à Sedan?’, his last thoughts returning to the field of his undoing. The man who had crippled the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and created Italy could never accept that an upstart northern German state had humbled la France.

    Nor, indeed, could his old subjects. The French started planning from that day for their revanche. French officers used to lead their recruits illegally across the border at night to stare down at the gas lights of Strasburg, swearing in the moonlight to repair the wrong that had been done to them. The Germans were, meanwhile, fantasising about der Tag when they would once more bring France down into the dust. Poor France! German identity was founded on her humiliation and, as De Gaulle once memorably said ‘All French wars with Germany must end in Verdun or Auschwitz.’

    The unity of Germany would bring about an awful demographic fact, summed up many years ago by the British historian A.J.P. Taylor: ‘the problem with the Germans is that there are too many of them’. What sounds at first like a crass racist jibe, touches on a fundamental truth of nineteenth- and, indeed, twentieth-century history. There was no other Continental European country – not Italy, not France, not Spain, not later Poland – that could balance out the German behemoth, even the Kleindeutschland of Prussia, let alone Hitler’s Reich.

    A great deal of blood is running down Napoleon III’s spotless steel blade.

    Beachcombing is always on the look out for memorable pictures: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com