Detail of David Wilkie's The Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch (1822). Image: Apsley House/The Wellington Museum/Bridgeman Images
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What the Battle of Waterloo teaches us about Europe today

The centenary of the First World War has reopened old wounds. Yet Germany and Britain once enjoyed a special relationship – as when they defeated Napoleon at Waterloo – and they could do so again.

The past few years have not been good for Anglo-German relations. The two countries have clashed repeatedly over the future of the European Union. A more robust London and a cautious – even appeasing – Berlin remain far apart on how to deal with threats as diverse as Islamic State/Isis in the Middle East and a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin. At the popular level, the start of a sequence of First World War anniversaries which will last until 2018 has reopened some of the old wounds. The question of responsibility for the conflict, which historians had long attributed largely to Germany, now rages anew with the publication of important and persuasive works on both sides of the Channel, including Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers, which spread the res­ponsibility more widely. And, of course, the Second World War remains omnipresent in British culture and popular memory.

However, the deadly “Anglo-German antagonism” – in Paul Kennedy’s resonant phrase – that so shaped the 20th century is of relatively recent provenance. For hundreds of years the British and the Germans enjoyed a special relationship.

The fate of central European Protestants was an important preoccupation for 16th- and 17th-century Englishmen and it played a decisive role in the downfall of the Stuarts. When Britons before the late 18th century spoke of “the empire”, they meant the Holy Roman empire – Germany – rather than their own overseas possessions. In the 19th century, British and German liberals were united in their opposition to tsarist autocracy and their belief in progress. Respect for German scholarship and music was more or less universal in Britain. Until shortly before the First World War, the two peoples thought of each other as kindred; the British often spoke of the Germans as “cousins”.

But the greatest symbol of the Anglo-German special relationship was the Personal Union of 1714. This brought George Louis, elector of the north German principality of Hanover, to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland, in order to provide a suitable Protestant, and non-Stuart, successor to Queen Anne, who had died without a surviving male heir. The 300th anniversary of this event has been somewhat eclipsed by the centenary of the First World War, but it was marked on 20 October with a service at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, organised by the British-German Association. The royal family was represented by the Duke of Kent and members of the British and German governments attended.

After 1714 Britain’s geopolitical horizons were delineated by two German rivers, the Elbe and the Weser, as much as by the English Channel, the Ohio River in North America, or any other more obvious natural boundary. The Union flag – scarcely seven years old – remained unchanged, but the White Horse of Hanover became a distinctive feature of 18th-century political polemic and iconography. By virtue of the Hanoverian succession, Great Britain – or Britain-Hanover, as she might better be called – lay, whether she liked it or not, at the heart of Europe. For the next 120 years or so, Britain became indisputably a German power, reigned over by Germans.

The Hanoverians were well suited to their new role. They were not, as critics claimed, despotic rulers in Hanover, where they collaborated closely with the local nobility. As princes of the Holy Roman empire, with its panoply of imperial law courts, the imperial Diet and the at least notional supremacy of the emperor, the Georges were quite used to irksome constraints on their power. In Britain, they worked with and through ministers responsible to parliament. The Civil List paid only for the rudimentary civil service, the royal household, the diplomatic service and the secret service. Most other important expenditure, especially on the army and navy, had to be approved by parliament. There was plenty of political controversy under the Georges, but their rule was not marked by the destructive confrontations with parliament that had characterised the Stuart era. No bill that had passed both houses of parliament was refused royal assent after 1714.

The Hanoverian succession was also a big step in the development of a British national identity. This was originally moulded by the 16th-century struggles against Spain and forged again during the wars with Louis XIV. As Linda Colley has shown in her book Britons, fear of universal monarchy and anti-Catholicism were important factors in welding the English to the Scots, as was – increasingly – imperial expansion. The German connection reshaped this identity after 1714. To a significant minority, the allegedly “despotic” and “boorish” Hanoverians became a rallying point for nationalist display. To most, however, the Hanoverian connection reaffirmed the sense of a common European project to defend their own freedoms and the “liberties of Europe”. They saw George, who had served with distinction against France in the War of the Spanish Succession, as a British warrior king, the vindicator of European Protestantism, and thus the defender of the balance of power.

Thanks to Germany’s Salic law, which stipulated that only men could succeed to the Hanoverian throne, the accession of Queen Victoria in Britain in 1837 brought the Personal Union to an end. Relations between Britain and the German lands remained vibrant, not least because the queen married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The close strategic link with central Europe was broken, however, thus changing the history of both Britain and Germany. Indeed, one of history’s more intriguing counterfactuals, which a BBC radio programme explored ten years ago, is how things would have turned out if Victoria had been a man. A “King Victor” of Britain and Hanover would almost certainly have brought London into the wars of unification, or deterred Bismarck from launching them in the first place.

The Personal Union left a substantial legacy. Streets in the capital city and across the country are named after German towns, provinces and figures. In the heart of New Town in Edinburgh lies Hanover Street, linking Princes, George and Queen Streets, the three main avenues on the grid plan. In London to this day, Hanover Square, Mecklenburgh Street, Brunswick Place and many other addresses testify to the strength of the German connection long before Victoria set her eye on Albert. Across the Atlantic, the Hanoverian link was reflected in the naming of towns, counties and provinces, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes by state action. There, too, the Hanoverian succession was widely welcomed as a defence against popery, absolutism and French or Spanish aggression. By the mid-18th century, there were Hanover or New Hanover Counties in Virginia and North Carolina. Hanover townships could be found in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. After all, George I ruled three kingdoms, 12 colonies and an electorate.

Bigger still was the strategic culture bequeathed by the Hanoverian connection. It was often contentious, with the 18th-century debates between blue-water Tory colonialists opposed to European “entanglements” and Whig continentalists, who supported alliances on the mainland, prefiguring the arguments of Eurosceptics and Europhiles today. The balance of the ledger was overwhelmingly positive. Hanover served as the cornerstone of the British alliance system in defence of the European balance of power, which in turn underpinned the Royal Navy’s dominance on the high seas. The electorate was also an invaluable source of troops, some of whom were used for home defence. There was scarcely a British conflict before 1815 which did not involve either German troops or a campaign in Germany.

During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars this relationship reached a new level of intensity. France represented an existential strategic and ideological threat to both parts of George III’s patrimony. Napoleon’s ambitions on the Continent were incompatible with the independence of Britain and the integrity of the electorate. His domestic programme struck at the heart of the old order in Germany and at parliamentary liberties in Britain. The battle against “French tyranny” thus became a common rallying cry.

The King’s German Legion epitomised this joint Anglo-German project. It was es­tablished in 1803 when Hanover was overrun by Napoleon. The War Office laid down that the legion should recruit “none but such are Natives of Germany and speak, or at least understand German, including all German countries”. Unlike most of the foreign formations that fought in the coalitions against Napoleon, the King’s German Legion was part of the British regular army. Some of its officers were British. The language of command was generally English and so was the rank structure; the men of its 2nd Light Battalion were equipped with standard-issue Baker rifles and wore the same distinctive green jackets as the British light infantrymen.

A hybrid Anglo-German identity developed in the legion. It adopted the English enthusiasm for physical exercises, such as rowing, wrestling, stick-fencing and boxing, and team sports such as football and cricket. Senior figures, including the commander of the British Light Division, Sir Charles von Alten, affected the manners of an English gentleman. Officers commonly switched between the two languages in conversation and correspondence. This acculturation extended to the rank and file. It was not unusual for enlisted men to adopt English first names.

The Legionnaires had a distinctive ethos. Far from mere Continental mercenaries in the king of England’s pay, they perceived themselves as ideological warriors against Napoleon and French domination in general. When enlisting, Lieutenant Emanuel Biedermann spoke of the need to “drive out the French who had no respect for any international law” and he looked forward to “we Germans and Swiss [having] an active role in the wars of liberation on the soil of the Fatherland”. The legion expressed none of the grudging admiration for “Boney” one often found in British ranks, nor the ideological sympathies for the Napoleonic project frequently expressed by other Germans. Friedrich Heinecke, who served as a recruiting officer for the legion in northern Germany, spoke of the men’s “patriotic sentiment”, their “mighty bitterness” against the hereditary enemy, and their determination to “fight against Napoleon and to cast off the yoke of French tyranny”. Such sentiments were shared by ordinary soldiers such as Rifleman Friedrich Lindau of the 2nd Light Battalion, who wrote a lengthy account of his experiences.

In 1815, the King’s German Legion came into its own. Early that year, Napoleon escaped from exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba and once more threatened the peace of Europe. The legion made up a substantial proportion of the allied army sent to Belgium under the Duke of Wellington to deal with him. As veteran troops, they were allotted critical roles in the resulting Battle of Waterloo, at which the campaign was decided. The greatest feat that day was the defence of the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte, in the centre of the allied line. For a whole afternoon, fewer than 400 riflemen of the 2nd Light Battalion under Major George Baring, together with their reinforcements, held off a vastly superior French force. When they finally gave way in the early evening it was too late for Napoleon to finish off Wellington before Field Marshal Blücher’s Prussians arrived in strength. Without this epic defence – a kind of German Rorke’s Drift – Napoleon would surely have prevailed.

The centenary of the battle in 1915 caused embarrassment to the French, British and Germans alike because the global conflagration united Britain to her former enemy France against her erstwhile ally Prussia-Germany. “Our ally of that time,” the Hannoverscher Courier noted sadly in June 1915, “is today our sworn enemy.” When later generations of Britons “compare the accomplishments of the auxiliary peoples whom they are employing against Germany in this war with the services that German armies rendered them a hundred years ago”, the paper predicted bitterly, echoing the words attributed to the Roman emperor on hearing of the loss of his commander Varus’s men in the Teutoburg Forest in northern Germany, “it is only to be expected that they will one day send the baleful cry across the Channel: Germany, Germany, give me back your Legions!”.

Instead, the 20th-century Anglo-German relationship was to be dominated by the Second World War, in which the British empire and Hitler’s Germany were locked in a life-and-death struggle. Even after the creation of a new and democratic Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 and its accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation six years later, the unifying experience of the Personal Union failed to regain traction. This was not least because the Anglo-German relationship took second place to the growing Franco-German partnership. For instance, in 1965, on the 150th anniversary of the battle, a British attempt to send the Queen to place a wreath at the Waterloo column in Hanover during her acclaimed state visit to the Federal Republic was thwarted by the German government, anxious not to offend Paris.

Against this background, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in 2015 represents both a challenge and an opportunity. The British government, mindful of the sensibilities of Paris, was initially reluctant to support the commemorations. Though it has since reversed course – as witnessed by George Osborne’s most welcome donation in the 2013 spending review to restore the Château d’Hougoumont, so courageously defended by Coldstream, Scots and Grenadier Guards and others – it is still not doing enough. This has caused widespread outrage. David Green, the director of the think tank Civitas, condemned the reticence, “especially if the reason is not to insult the French because celebrating the victory would be seen as triumphalist”. He added that “Britain was fighting a tyrant who had conquered Europe. It was a momentous moment that should be commemorated.” By contrast, Richard J Evans, the former regius professor of history at Cambridge, cautions against British triumphalism, partly out of respect for Napoleon’s progressive qualities, and partly because he stresses the “pivotal role” of Britain’s allies, which made the battle “more of a German victory than a British one”. The ambivalent nature of Bonaparte’s legacy is also a feature of Andrew Roberts’s monumental biography, published at the start of this month.

There is something in these reservations. The claim that Waterloo was a “German victory” was first made by the Prussian historian Julius Pflugk-Hartung before and during the First World War. He argued that the campaign was “a victory of Germanic strength over French rascality, in particular a success of the German people”.

This was elaborated on by Peter Hofschröer in a series of important but controversial works. It has even found popular expression in the James Bond film The Living Daylights. “I should have known that you would take refuge behind that British vulture Wellington,” the arms trader villain Brad Whitaker reproaches the hero. “You know he had to buy German mercenaries to beat Napoleon, don’t you?”

As many as 45 per cent of the men with whom Wellington started the battle spoke German of one sort or another, and the proportion increased with every Prussian formation reaching the scene. By the end, a clear majority of allied combatants were “German”; to that extent, Waterloo was indeed a “German victory”.

There are, however, no grounds for concern that the role of the allies will be neglected. The British have always been quicker to acknowledge the military contributions of foreigners than they generally give themselves credit for. Eighteenth-century heroes such as Prince Eugene of Savoy, who commanded in the War of the Spanish Succession, and Frederick the Great and Crown Prince Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, who commanded in the Seven Years War, were lionised by the British public in their own time. Sir David Wilkie’s famed Waterloo Dispatch painting (see page 22) shows a moustachioed Legionnaire alongside the usual assortment of Britons from across the United Kingdom. The Duke of Cambridge’s General Order, transferring the legion to Hanoverian service in February 1816, spoke of it having been “rendered immortal by the combined [author’s italics] exertions of British and German valour”. Foreign soldiers in British service feature prominently in the popular Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell and in their adaptations for television. The commemorative plaque recently unveiled on the wall of the farmhouse at La Haye Sainte was a British rather than a German initiative, executed by the Bexhill Hanoverian Study Group. There
is also a plaque in the Memorial Gardens, Bexhill, which was unveiled by the Wellington biographer Lady Longford.

Moreover, the Waterloo 200 campaign, which is co-ordinating the commemorations of the battle, not only rejects jingoism but also explicitly states: “Given the extensive structures which now exist within the European Union, with the profound habit of co-operation and pooling of sovereignty to defend and promote European values and common interests which has developed over the last 60 years among the European peoples, the commemorative themes of multinational co-operation, European integration and of pan-European security and stability are relevant and timely.”

We can in fact say that Waterloo was a “European” rather than a “British” or “German” victory. Thirty-six per cent of the troops in Wellington’s army were British (that is English, Irish, Welsh or Scottish), 10 per cent were King’s German Legion, 10 per cent were Nassauers, 8 per cent were Brunswickers, 17 per cent were Hanoverian regular army, 13 per cent were Dutch and 6 per cent “Belgian” (Walloons and Flemings). In the recent words of the D-Day veteran and former British chief of the defence staff Field Marshal Lord Bramall, Waterloo was truly “the first Nato operation”.

In this context, given the severe challenges the EU faces in eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the collective failure to address them by the eurozone generally and Berlin in particular, the King’s German Legion, and especially the 2nd Light Battalion, could serve as the model for a future European army. The citizens of the Federal Republic, understandably scarred by the experience of Wehrmacht crimes in the Second World War, should be comfortable with Major Baring’s achievement. The heroism of the garrison of La Haye Sainte was rational, not suicidal; they fought to the last bullet, but not the last man. Baring did not recklessly sacrifice his men on a point of honour, or in a spirit of death-defying hubris. He held on as long as he reasonably could, and then withdrew on his own initiative. He struck the right balance between completing the mission, the “honour” of the battalion and the responsibility he bore towards his men. Baring’s example is the very opposite of the “Thermopylae” or “Stalingrad” complex in German military history, where soldiers sacrifice themselves in total, whether usefully or pointlessly.

Baring’s men were a multinational unit, in a multinational army sent by an international coalition. In his final orders in February 1816, the Duke of Cambridge announced that at Waterloo, the legion had “powerfully aided the cause of Europe” as well as that of their sovereign, George III. The King’s German Legion, and especially Baring’s 2nd Light Battalion, thus represent a German military tradition on which the Federal Republic and the eurozone can draw to create a new unified military, either together with or alongside the UK. In this way, Germany will “give back its legions”, if not to Britain, then to the common project of European collective security. 

Brendan Simms’s latest book is “The Longest Afternoon: the 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo” (Allen Lane, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times