Waterloo might have had much less impact than is often claimed on the history of 19th century Europe, but the repercussions of Napoleon’s reign and the way it ended have rolled on down the centuries.
It is often said that the First World War was the result of complex treaties and alliances that meant that a military response to the shooting of an Austrian Grand Duke in Sarajevo was to plunge the world into four years of war. The suggestion is that the diplomatic arrangements that created this situation had arisen by some sort of historical mischance and that their outcome was an unpredictable horror. In fact, the Treaty of Vienna was specifically designed to set up such a pattern of alliances, creating a ‘Balance of Power’ that by-and-large, kept the peace in Europe for 100 years. The logic of the system was that any serious conflict between the Great Powers would draw in so many other countries and any resulting conflagration would be so unthinkable that matters would be settled by negotiation rather than war. It was, if you like, an early version of the strategy that developed in the late 20th century, which we called Mutually Assured Destruction.
The Second World War is generally acknowledged as an almost inevitable coda to the First World War. The end of the Second World War saw Europe divided between East and West, with the building of the Berlin Wall and its eventual destruction in 1989. It is fair to say that the fall of the Berlin Wall was presaged by the treaty that marked the fall of Napoleon.
But what about Waterloo? After all, the Treaty of Vienna would have wound the mechanism that ended with the apparent triumph of the West whether or not Napoleon had won the battle to hang on as the Emperor of a very much reduced France.
The long-term significance of the outcome of Waterloo was mainly the effect it had on Britain and Britain’s relationship with the continental powers. Britain was the only European country to remain at war with Napoleon for the whole of his reign. (We were not technically at war during the peace of Amiens 1802 – 1803, but then neither was the rest of Europe.) Britain’s military efforts were confined mainly to naval blockade, and fighting in the Iberian peninsula, but the country was extremely important diplomatically and it was British money that bankrolled many of the armies fighting Napoleon. The “British” victory at Waterloo set the seal on the notion that Britain alone had saved Europe from Napoleon. The result was a belief that Britain was somehow ‘better’ than the continental countries, a belief that carries on to today, bolstered by the idea that Britain stood ‘alone’ in World War II as well.
Britain was certainly ‘different’ from the rest of Europe. Never having been part of the Napoleonic project it retained its Imperial system of measurement and its old system of Common Law when other countries switched to metric measures and codified legal systems owing more or less to the Code Napoleon.
The sense that Britain is both ‘better’ and ‘different’ meant relationships with other European countries were often uncomfortable and probably contributed to Britain’s Atlanticist leanings of the 20th century. The sense of history repeating itself in the Second World War did not help. In view of this, Britain’s reluctance to join the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 or the European Economic Community in 1957 is more easily understood. Even when the arguments for joining the EEC became overwhelming there was always an emotional reluctance to be part of a supra-national European body from many British voters. In 2017 this sense of British exceptionalism was one of the emotional forces underpinning the vote to leave the European Union. The referendum result was, in part, a consequence of Wellington’s triumph at Waterloo.
Napoleon never really believed that he had been defeated at Waterloo. Like a football manager claiming that the final score was not a fair reflection of the strength of the teams, he insisted that Wellington had won by stubbornness, luck and the help of the Prussians, rather than by any superior strategy. Ironically, more than two centuries later, the French may argue that, in the long term, it was Britain that lost at Waterloo after all.