Napoleon Not Blownapart – It Happened Today, January 14, 2017… or didn’t

Can we just get back to assassinating politicians for a moment here? As a theoretical exercise, I hasten to add. For instance Napoleon III, the "French Emperor" in a rather comic opera sense from December 2, 1852 to September 4, 1870 after having been President from December 20, 1848 until he build himself a throne in a coup.

He was eventually overthrown in the aftermath of the humiliating French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in which the Emperor himself was captured. D’oh. But years earlier, he was not blown up on January 14, 1858, unlike eight members of his escort and bystanders when would-be assassins threw three bombs at the royal carriage on its way to the opera. It was a pretty serious effort; over 100 people were also injured.

I have repeatedly quoted Disraeli’s dictum that "Assassination has never changed the history of the world." But for purposes of discussion not dogmatism because I’m far from certain that he is still right even if he was then. I’m not even convinced that assassination changed history on June 28, 1914, because Germany was bent on launching World War I anyway so the shooting of Franz Ferdinand was in many ways just a convenient occasion for doing so. But what about the people who were not assassinated but might have been?

Napoleon III was a vainglorious nit whose meddling in the conduct of the Crimean War by telegraph helped prolong that conflict. But assassinating him in 1858 wouldn’t have helped in that regard because it ended in 1856. And I don’t think history changed much because that war took longer than it might have; its major impact was its unsettling impact on Russia due to this unexpected defeat, at least unexpected in the eyes of the Tsarist regime, right in their breadbasket.

What, though, of the Franco-Prussian War? Might a better-led France, a less absurdly led France, either have avoided the war or fought it better, perhaps even with allies? And if they had, might the subsequent course of European history and the lessons drawn from the brief 1870-71 war have been sufficiently different to avoid or dramatically alter the course of World War I?

I’m not endorsing assassination even of people who put themselves outside the law by staging coups. And to give him as much credit as possible, at the possible expense of the French themselves, Napoleon III subsequently legitimized his seizure of power in a reasonably fair referendum. But if those bomb-throwers had had better aim, the world might be considerably different. Even better.

Of course, the result might also have been that Germany won the big European war that was probably brewing around the turn of the century. Or things might have unfolded much as they did. But Napoleon was an idiot. And even though fools are not in short supply including in positions of leadership, including in France, it’s hard to believe it didn’t matter at all that a major European power was ruled by one for almost a quarter-century ending in humiliating disaster for the man and his nation.