​​It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. So, infamously, begins ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, Dickens’ novel about the French Revolution. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.

The epoch of belief began on the 14th of July, 1789, when an amalgamation of peasants and a Parisian militia stormed the Bastille. It came to an incredulous end, 26 years later, when Napoleon was defeated on the fields of Waterloo on the 18th June, 1815.

For 26 years, France was in flux: from Robespierre and the Jacobins, to the Reign of Terror; from Napoleon and his Consulate, to Louis XVIII and the reinstatement of Feudalism. Before Waterloo, Napoleon had been defeated once before by the Russian Army in Moscow (ah, War and Peace, the best novel of all time) and sent to exile on the Mediterranean island of Elbe. But he had returned and it would be Waterloo which would be his final defeat, the epoch ending battle.

After Waterloo, Louis XVIII (who had been living in exile in Prussia and the UK) retook his throne and the Ancien Regime was restored. The Congress of Vienna returned Europe to its pre-Napoleonic, pre-revolutionary order of authority, aristocracy and monarchy. The establishment was reestablished.

The French Revolution gave way to the Industrial Revolution, and -- for almost exactly a century -- Europe was nearly at peace (Bismarck's Prussia took bits of France). Industrialisation forced European powers to search for global markets, and the rush to empire and colonisation took precedence over the balance of power on the continent.

This weekend is the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, but are we any further to answering Dickens’ questions? Was it the spring of hope, or the winter of despair? Did they have everything before them, or nothing before them? Were they all going direct to Heaven, or direct the other way? What has Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo meant for today’s Europe?

For France, the main legacy of the Napoleonic era has been a huge demographic problem. Geographically, France is by far the largest country in Europe, and for centuries this was reflected in its population. At no point before the 19th century did the UK (or England) have a population anything close to France’s; since the 19th century, they’ve been about the same. 200 years later, though, there are signs that France is finally recovering: the vast majority of all non-immigration population growth in Europe (all of it in 2006!) has been French.


Waterloo Bicentenary
Waterloo Bicentenary