“Essentially an Evil Thing”Roundup
tags: war, French history, Napoleon, Nuremberg trials, Emmanuel Macron
Jonathan Wilson is a freelance history and humanities instructor with a PhD in American History.
In the last few days, several European conversations converged for me in a troubling way.
Historic anniversaries played a role. This Saturday was the anniversary of V-E Day for most western nations. And the next day, which was Victory Day in Russia, Vladimir Putin delivered a speech that western media found threatening. In some pockets of social media, I found scattered debates about how to remember the Soviet Union’s outsized role in Nazi Germany’s defeat. Last Wednesday, meanwhile, had been the bicentenary of Napoléon Bonaparte’s death. Marking that day, Emmanuel Macron laid a wreath at the dictator’s grave, delivering a speech that lightly acknowledged some of Napoléon’s crimes yet also celebrated his “political will” and “taste for the possible”—as if murdering people on a continental scale were a self-actualization exercise.
In the Guardian yesterday, the columnist Kenan Malik—with one eye on recent British debates about how to remember the imperialist-but-antifascist Winston Churchill—brought together various conversations when he implicitly praised Macron’s speech as a refusal “to paint heroes and villains in black and white, to simplify the past as a means of feeding the needs of the present.”
Reading the text of Macron’s speech myself, though, I find that simplifying the past to feed the needs of the present is precisely what the French president was doing.
In commemorating Napoléon as he did, Macron praised him with faint damns to gratify the pride of his own state today. The speech was brined in gross platitudes about how, for example, “one man can change the course of history”—the sort of things older students write about the past in order to create a mood of appreciation while avoiding any expression actual ideas for which they might be held responsible.
Anyway, watching these various conversations converge this weekend, thinking about their resonances and silences, I was inspired to revisit some specific language from the judgment issued on October 1, 1946, by the Nuremberg Tribunal.
My sense is that when many people today—including many historians and history teachers—think about the past, they tend to fence off certain forms of mass violence (notably genocide and sometimes enslavement) as morally noteworthy, but treat warfare in general as something inherent to the human condition and therefore—after a certain amount of time passes—morally neutral.