Died in Athens, Europe has come alive in Waterloo again. Even if a negative article on La Repubblica newspaper has been rash to burn down it, the extraordinary Bicentenary of the last, titanic battle of Napoleon, has actually shown a way which we are all called in.
Indeed, more than one: if the Belgian Office for Tourism Wallonia-Brussels has been skilful and far-sighted in turning the spotlight on the vital importance of the Route Napoléon en Wallonie, that fateful stretch the Emperor went through in June 1815, from Hestrud to Waterloo, the participation of last Bonaparte’s descendant at the Bicentenary still resounds in Europeans’ ears, reminding them of who they are and which stage they really should move to: all the more so today, in front of the Greek desperate attempt to oppose European Union’s humiliating economic policies.
The yearning for the values of freedom, equality and fraternity still remains vivid in the pro-pro-pro-nephew of the Emperor, Charles Napoléon Bonaparte. But it is also worrying that Italy has shilly-shallied on such an important event, that the French government has deserted the event held in Belgium between the 18th and the 21st of June, that Great Britain took the opportunity to flaunt its venerable Union Jack, in the absence of a Germany wisely worried about looking at East, but very diplomatic in being represented by the heir of the Iron General, Prince Nikolaus von Bluecher Wahlstatt (although the Bicentenary almost did not make mention of the decisive contribution to the battle of Prussian troops). His handshake with Charles Bonaparte and the last Duke of Wellington was of service to hope, rather than to establish, a new-found harmony into the European assembly, but on the Bicentenary of Waterloo historians and political scientists are of the opinion that we won’t put any solid stone of construction, except when we recognize the indispensable contribution to the balance of power of the only unbeaten, bulwark against any will of continental hegemony: Russia. Even Napoleon, effectively, was forced to open his eyes in front of his Grande Armée’s tragedy in the land of the Tsars, re-evaluating the contribution of diplomacy than the inevitability of war. It was his enlightenment on the way to Damascus, or rather his personal discovery of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, though incarnating on the bridges of the Berezina, after its illusory apparition in Louisiana’s bargaining.
He clashed on the wall of a paradoxical conservatism to realise - he, former artilleryman and revolutionary - as freedom is not an idea exportable through the roar of the cannon. He had to admit and acknowledge the other, whatever it was, to say who was really himself. And even today, the geopolitical multipolarity claimed by Russia, as well as from China and anycountry still able of looking at the world otherwise, should make it clear to Europe that there’s never universal, without particular. Their unit is always the result of a virtuous dynamic coexistence, rather than a sneaky monopoly of words, ideas and laws.
Roll on, therefore, Charles Bonaparte’s ambitious project, entitled "Destination Napoléon": combination of tourist routes certified by the Council of Europe just a few days before the celebration of the Bicentenary of Waterloo, just like other known "cultural routes" as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Via Francigena, the Route of the Vikings or the Way of the Olive Tree. A path born actually more than a decade ago, thanks to the demanding dialogue launched by the European Federation of Napoleonic Towns, decided to piece together the threads of an identity that goes beyond nationalism, without giving away the founding values of the nation: this was just the dream of the last Napoleon, the most prudent and thoughtful one, aware of the need to work towards a federal order, to prevent the hegemony of one against the other. The Belgian defeat left this dream on the paper, most likely in the mud of Walloon countryside, but fortunately the ideas instilled among European citizens have been able to slowly take root.
The result, one month from the celebrations of Waterloo and on the wave of a new Greek Thermopylae, begins to be visible to everyone: from Ajaccio to Rueil-Malmaison, from Alessandria to Austerlitz, going up to the Russian countryside of Borodino, more than 60 cities have already joined the project (but new affiliations are open), gathering at the same table as many as 12 European countries. A single house that - through the stimulus of culture and tourism as ways of peace - can join Lisbon to the Urals, drawing Europe in its homogeneous complexity, without mutilating that part that, more than once, has had to carry out the mission to save it from the hordes of the East, as well as the West ("We - just one hour, you, you had centuries - sang the poet Aleksandr Blok in "The Scythians"- We, docile and obedient servants, were the shield between the adverse races/ between Europe and the barbarous people!").
"Our countries, our Europe - said Charles Napoléon Bonaparte, beside his 29-year old son Jean Cristophe - need to strengthen awareness of their roots, in order to increase confidence in its ability to face the great challenges of today. Also our desire to understand better, to show our cultural heritage, is closely linked to our desire to move forward in the social and economic progress. The question of identity is at the centre of all the crises of our time. Behavioural changes are needed to address environmental challenges, the development of science and technology, the underdevelopment, but each of these areas can not be based on a safe ground, without enjoying peace and reconciliation with our past. As the old proverb says, there can be no future for those who do not accept their history".
What will it remain, then, about this crucial Bicentenary, which cost 10 million euro and was able to collect almost 200 thousand visitors in just four days of reconstruction?
On July 31st it will close down the exhibition "Napoleon-Wellington, Crossed Destinies", intriguing in its digging out the psychology of the two leaders through their memorabilia, from bags for secret documents to hair locks on which their many lovers sighed, and thus set to find new spaces beyond the Wellington Museum of Waterloo; same fate will involve the original exhibition "History in Lego bricks" which transformed the former stables of the city in a miniature cross-section of Napoleon’s fateful epic, with scale reproductions of Malmaison palace or hospital des Invalides, daring even a reproduction of the famous Jacques Louis David’s painting (200 hours of work for 100 thousand bricks!), among which are yellowed-head busy men, but with the inevitable hump headgear or with iron crosses on.
The fireworks, inflatable horses and the flaming torches of the show "Inferno" attempted to issue a warning with the only language that still unites different generations, the one of the rock-opera, while the 5,000 reenactors who took to the field in uniform have awakened again the terror of crossed artillery, the tremor of the ground under the attack of the cavalry, the madness of military geometries that trace lines, squares and circles, though men used as pawns.
Neither it will pass over in silence the cruel reconstruction of health operations in the small church of Braine-l'Alleud (open until September the 5th) where, between screams of cut-off limbs and dismembered guts, most of the 13 thousand wounded "Allies" died, however luckier than the defeated French counterpart, which had 18 thousand as well. More than images on amputations or rudimentary prostheses tested at the time, what is surprising here is the realism of the watercolors painted by Sir Charles Bell, one of the most important nineteenth-century anatomists and discoverer of the substantial difference between sensory nerves and motor nerves, the basis of modern neurology clinic. History fans will keep on coming to the fields of Waterloo, climbing the Lion hill to contemplate the ghosts of horror, to go down the steps for understanding the new 3D rooms of the Memorial 1815, or focusing their gaze on the damned farm of Hougoumont that, thanks to the abundant English funds for its restoration, can still be said the real key of the fateful battle. We will drink beer of Waterloo and relish its balls of chocolate, instead of lead. We will not believe the small size of Napoleon’s bed in the station of Le Caillou, as well as the bold elegance of imperial uniforms, but once the hype will be gone out, when the horses will have turned away, when the clouds will come back to veil the sun, it will befit to crouch down on the fields of carnage. To stroke the wrinkled rye or the delicate flower of flax. To listen to the sovereign, untouched beauty, that still speaks so well of Wallonia and its lush rolling hills. Of its quiet villages where the perfumes of stew are mixed with the pungent smell of malt. Where bicycles appear and disappear along sinuous randonelles, while the black powder of coal mines writes memoirs on the lost innocence of any revolution.
At Waterloo we all lost. At Waterloo we can still win. Because here, every year, it will stage an ending that is just waiting to be changed. And in Waterloo, due to this, we will continue to return. Merci Belgique, petite maison de la Grande Europe!
Further info: Tourism Wallonia-Brussels