Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the final, decisive battle that ended Napoleon’s second, 100-day reign.
People occasionally call the Napoleonic Wars World War 0: like the two World Wars of the 20th century, this war, too, was global in scope (especially if I include the War of 1812) and millions died.
Others suggest that there were much larger conflicts in Europe’s past, such as the Seven Years’ War. Perhaps true, but I’d argue that like the two World Wars of the 20th century, the Napoleonic Wars also had a more lasting legacy: they changed the existing world order. Before the Napoleonic Wars, Europe was still a collection of medieval, mostly multi ethnic feudal empires. The Napoleonic Wars sowed the seeds of ethnic nationalism on the one hand and constitutional democracies on the other. They gave rise, for better or for worse, to the modern ethnic nation states that characterize Europe today. Meanwhile in North America, the War of 1812 established the path that led to Canada’s nationhood.
So to me, it’s World War 0. And it ended exactly 200 years ago today. Unlike World War I, it wasn’t “the war to end all wars”, although it did bring in an unprecedented era of relative peace, prosperity and enlightenment in Europe. As a result, the 19th century became the true century of science and technology, which saw the emergence of modern cities with electric lighting, streetcars, telephone and telegraph networks, proper sanitation, functioning social institutions, modern police forces, newspapers and public education. It is too bad that in the century that followed, the century that was greeted with such hope and expectations that it was once dubbed “the century of reason”, saw ethnic nationalism take center stage and lead to unspeakable horrors.