File this under incompetent leaders of great states, right next to George W. Bush:
The Paris of today that everyone dreams about was given to us in the 1860s and 70s by this man, Napoleon III, and his civil servant, Baron Haussmann. His reign began in liberal democratic enthusiasm, progressed to despotism by way of coup d’état, and ended in dismal, utter, spectacular, and mind bogglingly stupid failure.
He was manipulated into provoking a war with Prussia, convinced he would win in a walkover. Bismarck, Prussia’s leader, couldn’t have asked for a more pliable victim. The military catastrophe is chronicled in the first part of Zola’s book, The Debacle. thousands of desparately hungry, exhausted soldiers marching to and fro over the French landscape, despondent and demoralized as they realize that they are being led by a gang of complete idiots.
Think of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 without the wild hilarity, and you’ll have a notion of what I’m reading now. In the film, The Life of Émile Zola, there is a scene early on in which the general staff is incensed at Zola about this book – they are out to get him.
After the disaster came the Paris Commune, with its murder, insurrection, and brutal suppression. Then, as time heals all wounds, socialist, communist, and liberal came together across their political differences to slake their thirst for revenge (la revanche!) against Germany. Much to the consternation of some leftists, dreaming of international solidarity, the worker’s parties supported France’s lunge into WWI – the time to regain lost territory had come at last. More lambs to the slaughter.