Today, as we mark the two hundredth anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and a definite end to his conquest of Europe, I wonder what would have happened if he’d won. If the French had defeated the British-led coalition, France would still have faced Britain across the English Channel, Prussia (part of modern-day Germany) to the east, and Russia even further to the east. In other words, Napoleon would have faced a potential war on two fronts, the same situation Germany faced in both World Wars. French forces were already stretched thin, particularly from colossal defeats in Russia, so it seems unlikely that the French would win a two-front war.
Perhaps Napoleon would turn to diplomacy. Britain historically fears a continental empire, preferring a divided and contentious Europe. If Spain, France, Prussia, Russia, and the Netherlands cannot work together, England can keep them from uniting against the island Kingdom. Napoleon would be wise, then, to turn to Prussia and make a political pact against Britain. Such treaties were common during the nineteenth century, eventually creating a complex alliance system that some blame World War One on. So, to avoid a military defeat, Napoleon turns to Prussia and promises to work with them if Britain or Russia ever turn against their interests.
What would certainly be known as the Franco-Prussian Alliance creates a strong central-European power. Napoleon dies decades later of stomach cancer, but in this universe he dies a hero. Statues are built to him, poems in French and German are composed, and peace settles now that Imperial France has secured its assets abroad. A Franco-Prussian alliance changes the shape of Europe completely. German unification never happens, but Franco-Prussia probably allies with Austro-Hungary anyway. As a result, the First World War pits central European powers against Britain and Russia rather than France and Britain against Germany and Austria. However, the combined strength of France and Prussia, along with France’s imperial allies of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Romania, and probably the Ottoman Empire, manage to defeat Russia and Britain. The U.S. never involves itself regardless of the outcome, and France gains all of Britain’s colonies. As a result, French becomes the dominant language in the world, no fascist dictators come to power, and the U.S. keeps to itself and Latin America.
Of course, this is not an objective speculation. Counterfactual history is subject to individual decisions as well, namely those of the historian. My own bias against fascism motivates me to see a possible way out of it. There’s no indisputable likelihood that there would be no World Wars if Napoleon had won a single battle. There may have been a worse war, there may have been no more wars, but there’s no way of knowing for certain. As such, counterfactual history can sometimes show more about the historian’s own bias than about history itself. In any case, thousands died at Waterloo, and millions have died in combat since. Speculating about how we could have avoided past conflicts, while intriguing, can be a distraction from how to avoid conflicts now.