Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What if Wednesday: Napoleon is Victorious at Waterloo

With tomorrow marking the 200th year anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, expect to see a lot of content this week regarding Napoleon from many sources, including counterfactuals about what would happen if he was victorious. In fact the speculation has already begun. For example, Phillipp Saure posted an article on Yahoo! where historian Helmut Stubbe da Luz suggested that if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo, he would have reconquered Europe and extended his empire to China. This massive French Empire would be an enlightened dictatorship that would prevent the worlds wars or the rise of Nazism.

Now I freely admit there are many people out there who are brighter and know a lot more about Napoleonic history than me, but Helmut's scenario sounds amazingly optimistic. I find it hard to believe that the rest of Europe would after being defeated in a single battle just shrug their shoulders and say: "Well I guess we all have to speak French now". Remember this battle was fought not when Napoleon was at his height, but when he had just returned from his exile and was trying to regain what he had lost. Even if he had been victorious at Waterloo, there would still be a long campaign through Germany and the rest of Europe, giving his enemies time to recover from their defeat and try again. Plus the Royal Navy wouldn't disappear if Wellington was defeated and I am sure they will have something to say if Napoleon tried to conquer China.

At best a victory at Waterloo would hurt the resolve of the Seventh Coalition to continue the war. A negotiated peace recognizes Napoleon as the ruler of France and gives him some influence over neighboring countries. It is foreseeable he would build up his forces to try and conquer Europe again, but with his OTL death just a few years away, it is unlikely that would ever happen. Napoleon II would thus succeed his father and while it is difficult to speculate on what he would be like as a ruler, it is possible he wouldn't immediately set off to bring all of Europe under the French heel, especially when there are easier and more valuable targets in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

As time goes by it would become increasingly difficult to imagine how European history would change. What would future Bonaparte rulers be like? Would France evolve into a constitutional monarchy like Britain or would the Bonapartes be overthrown in a violent revolution like what happened in Russia? At this point it is pretty much open to your imagination. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

The great thing about Napoleon is that there are a lot of potential PODs out there besides a victory at Waterloo. For example, maybe he adopted steam technology for his navy and created a steampunk alternate history where everyone spoke French instead of English. Here at The Update, we have featured a lot of alternate Napoleon histories including Napoleon conquering England with zombies, veterans of the Grand Army carving out an independent state in Louisiana, Napoleon fleeing from his exile on St. Helena and settling in America and Napoleon using the knowledge gained from his adventure while time travelling to finally conquer Europe once and for all. Go check them out and tell us what you think.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. I am leery of any prognosticating that claims "x would have prevented the Nazis!" It's painfully easy to prevent the specific Nazi party as well know it from coming to power; it's a LOT harder to get rid of the many forces that propelled such a movement forward, including centuries of anti-Semitism, national conflicts, geographic factors, economic pressure, etc. Claiming one simple move on anyone's part would have prevented the atrocities of the 20th century is ignorant and, frankly, offensive.

    But enough beating that dead horse: as you state, Napoleon winning at Waterloo is not the same as a much more plausible means of the Emperor gaining access to China (vis a vis a victory in Russia, at the height of his power). The real question is not how he wins but at what cost: a low body count for Napoleon gives him the propaganda tools necessary to recruit more to his cause, dividing the French military and possibly other members of the coalition. The war then becomes a "civil war" of Europe, with goverments having to not only fight on the battle field but also stamp out rebels in their own ranks, or prevent men from going over to the other side at a key moment in battle.

    But Napoleon still needs good supply lines and resources to wage a war (again, see Russia). The Brits are going to do everything in their power to keep him isolated and landlocked (like you said, their navy's not going anywhere). So the best hope for Napoleon is to take a wealthy territory with access to open shipping lanes. Italy's probably out since his brother didn't do so well there. The Germanic/Nordic states are good for goods, but not for getting past a British blockade. Russia is most definitely out of the question. So, as I see it, he could try his hand in Spain or even farther south in Africa, an area just being explored for colonization at this time. A successful conquest of the Iberian penisula, with access to its many holdings in the New World, and further work along the African coast (possibly "liberating" colonies, arming tribes against English slave traders, etc.) could really shake things up, even if he dies at the same time. Maybe it's not so much Napoleon and what he wanted that takes root, but his work and ideals translated into a galvanized (and armed/trained) native African movement that creates new problems for Europe.

    Of course, all this is moot if he suffers high casualties at Waterloo, discouraging men from rejoining him. What's that saying: when the battle, lose the war?

    1. "I am leery of any prognosticating that claims 'x would have prevented the Nazis!'"

      I completely agree. You see that formula often in mainstream alternate history speculation. I'm not sure of the exact reason. Is it because that is the one historical reference everyone will recognize? Probably, but the fact that you see professional historians do it as well makes you wonder why they are being so lazy.

    2. And this is why you should always check your facts: I remembered his brother wasn't popular in one of the conquered kingdoms, but it was Spain and not Italy (or Naples, rather) that he had to flee from. Takes the wind out of my theory, though I still think a strike into Africa might still give Napoleon some much needed heft on the international stage moving forward.

    3. Re: Mitro: when your knowledge of WWII is shaped mostly by Indiana Jones, Captain America, and a narrative pitting righteous allies against evil monsters, it's no wonder you get simplistic solutions. It plays nicely into the mythology surrounding the war. Don't get me wrong: I enjoy those movies a lot, but the truth (as usual) is a lot more complicated.

      Actually, I've always thought those "kill Hitler" alt history narratives were short-sighted. Depending on when it happened, killing Hitler could make Nazi Germany more stable, possibly giving absolute power over to Goebbels or Himmler (now that's a scary thought).

      As for pro historians, I'd suggest it has something to do with the fact that Nazis make headlines while dry tomes about the interwar period do not.

    4. "Actually, I've always thought those "kill Hitler" alt history narratives were short-sighted."

      Agreed. Too many variables to consider if you are trying to make a positive difference to history. Plus it relies too much on the Great Man Theory of history. Also, a tad cliche these days.