To consider how different the world would be if Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes had not ended in farce in 1791, is to recognise how a chance encounter can send human affairs careering off in one direction or the other. The only thing which stood between the king’s triumphant return and the humiliating failure which in fact ensued, was a postman who happened to recognise him on the way. The postman is the true saviour of the French revolution-but what if he had been short-sighted? What if he had simply not been there?
Similarly, if Louis XV had not bought Corsica from the Genoese republic in 1767-just two years before the birth of Napolione Buonaparte in Ajaccio-then the man who was to throw Europe into the convulsions of the 19th and 20th centuries would have entered the Habsburg army, rising swiftly through its ranks to become a field marshal and a prince. His German would have been as fluent as his Italian; the Palais Bonaparte, near the Hofburg, would have been one of Vienna’s grandest.
That, at least, is the contention of French academician Jean Dutourd in his magnificent essay, Le Field-mar?chal von Bonaparte: Consid?rations sur les causes de la grandeur des Fran?ais et de leur d?cadence (Flammarion, Paris, 180 pages, 99 FF). In Austria, Napoleon’s genius would have been channelled into the safe task of preserving something, rather than into his megalomaniac adventures of creation and destruction. A Gulliver tied down by the constraints of institutions and tradition, Field Marshal Napoleon would have improved the European equilibrium by rejuvenating an otherwise moribund Austria.
Instead of this, Napoleon destroyed the Holy Roman empire in 1805 and “rationalised” its 112 states into 18, an act which accelerated German unification. The Congress of Vienna subsequently set up the German confederation in order to contain a France which, because of Napoleon, was believed to be inherently aggressive. Without Napoleon, Germany might have taken centuries to unify. Instead, like a mad biologist, post-revolutionary and imperial France created an artificial monster which, having grown strong, turned on its unfortunate maker and attacked it twice before eventually devouring it in a mere six weeks in the summer of 1940. Without Napoleon, in other words, the French revolution and the empire could not have killed a million people; the entire history of the 19th and 20th centuries would be different; and hundreds of millions would not…