We mark several important historical anniversaries in 2015. It is the 200th anniversary of the end of the War of 1812, the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Each of these events was commemorated by appropriate remembrances during this year. One crucial event that we Americans will not solemnize is the Battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18, 2015, just south of Brussels in Belgium. Much to the consternation of the French, the Belgian government just issued a 2.5 Euro coin to commemorate the Allied victory over the Napoleon. Needless to say, it is not legal tender in France.
While each of these events is quite significant in and of itself, perhaps none had such a lasting impact upon the Jewish people as did the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon’s final defeat spelled the end of equality for Jews in Europe for another 60 years. What would have happened to us if Napoleon defeated the Allied armies at Waterloo and re-established the French Empire throughout Europe? The “What ifs” will occupy us for the next few minutes as I offer you three competing scenarios for what might have been our alternative future. Before that, however, I must give you a little background.
The French Revolution of 1789 soon spawned Napoleon’s dictatorship. As Napoleon’s victories over France’s enemies increased, he was proclaimed Emperor. Napoleon abolished the old aristocracy and created an aristocracy of merit. Anyone, even a Jew, could become a leader in the new French Empire. The franchise of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity was extended to all French Jews in 1792. Where ever French armies marched, the doors to the ghettos were opened and Jews were made citizens of the respective nation-states. It is no wonder that Jewish men flocked to the French colors to fight for their emancipation and civic equality. Napoleon was eventually defeated by the Russian winter and exiled in 1814 to Elba, from which he escaped in March, 1815. He made his way to Paris where he reunited the veterans of his Grand Armee, who had been earlier repatriated to France. Napoleon had the complete support of his soldiers as he attempted to free France from the Allied yoke and to re-establish his empire.
His army of 74,000 men and 250 guns marched to Waterloo where, on June 18, 2015, they faced 77,000 British, Belgian, Dutch, German, and Prussian soldiers under the command of the Duke of Wellington. In a day long, horrific battle, the French were defeated and Napoleon was forced from the field, only to be hunted down, re-arrested and sent to exile in St. Helena, a tiny island in the South Atlantic. The Allies abolished all the republics Napoleon created, re-established the French monarchy, and rescinded equality for Jews outside of France. Jews of Germany, Italy, Austria and Poland would now have to wait three generations to become citizens of their countries.
So what might have happened to the Jewish people if Napoleon defeated the Allies and re-established his Empire? In the first scenario, Jewish citizenship is restored. Jews no longer must observe Jewish law and are obligated to observe the laws of the state. Rabbis no longer have legal authority over the community. Hundreds of thousands of Jews imbibe from the well of secular culture, shedding their Jewish identities and becoming French, German, Dutch, and Polish citizens, speaking the language of their country and completely assimilating, becoming nominal Christians in the process. Stunned by this rampant abandonment of Judaism, Jewish leaders adopt massive changes to the liturgy and theology of Judaism to make it more attractive to modern European Jews. Thus, Reform Judaism has its beginnings. The largest ethnically Jewish population, the Jews of the Pale of Settlement in the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic countries also rush through the gates of freedom. No longer constrained by the Russian Bear, they educate their children in secular studies, close yeshivot, and even stop speaking Yiddish to their children. The wellspring of Jews who formed the American Jewish community had no reason to leave Europe. The Jews of America remained a small minority which eventually dissipated through intermarriage and assimilation without the replenishment of two million Eastern European Jews. Only a tiny Reform Jewish community ultimately exists in Europe, saving the remnant of the Jewish people from oblivion.
In a second scenario, Napoleon re-conquers Egypt and Palestine from the Ottoman Turks. This is necessary so that France can threaten England’s grip on India. Napoleon needs help in holding Palestine for France, so he invites the Rothschilds to visit him. Napoleon, understanding the Jewish people’s love for the land of Israel, orders the Rothschilds to lead, and fund, the Jewish people’s return to Zion. Thousands upon thousands of young Jews make aliyah from all over the French Empire, drawing especially upon the Jews of the Pale of Settlement. They are given economic incentives to move to Israel as well as exemption from serving in the French military. They move to Israel where they create farming settlements and a local militia in order to protect themselves. They employ local Arabs and teach those around them the most modern practices of French agriculture. Israel once again becomes self-sufficient as a food producer. Its vineyards become celebrated all over the world for the quality of their wine. The Jewish homeland in Palestine under French protection prospers and continues to grow through the twentieth and twenty first centuries, never having to endure constant warfare with the Arabs to secure its existence. Since Jews and Arabs live under French protection in the Middle East, French troops put down any and all Arab rebellions.
The third scenario is perhaps the most realistic and depressing. Recognizing that nationalism is the most potent force in the world next to religion, the reconstituted French Empire would have eventually come apart at the seams, split by competing German, Polish, Russian, Italian and other European nationalisms. A new Germany, recently united under the banner of Der Volk, would exclude from citizenship all those who were not part of the ancestral Germanic nation. Jews, cosmopolitan and European to the core, were certainly not part of the Volk and immediately lost their German citizenship. Similar processes occurred throughout Russia, Poland, and the smaller Eastern European countries which excluded Jews from their midst. Loss of citizenship eventually led to statelessness. Not being able to immigrate to the United States which closed its borders to refugees, Jews became expendable. In the inevitable wars of expansion that followed, Jews were enslaved by the various powers, using their labor for the benefit of their militaries. Decimated by hunger, disease, and overwork, the Jewish population of Europe dwindled to a microcosm of its previous self. The remainder of Europe’s Jews attempted to enter France or flee the continent. Except for the land of Napoleon, there was not a safe place in Europe to live as a Jew.
So, in retrospect, perhaps it was better for Napoleon to have been defeated at Waterloo. Yet the alternative futures are fascinating, Ne serait-il pas?
Amen and Shabbat shalom