Saturday, May 03, 2008

Imperial paradigms

Two hundred years ago today, the executions pictured above marked the beginning, in Europe, of the modern era of nationalist, citizen-based resistance to empire. The Spanish artist Francisco Goya shows French soldiers firing at citizen "patriots" placed up against a wall in Madrid on May 3, 1808. The painting hangs in the Prado museum.

These Spaniards had revolted against Napoleon's attempt to install a Bonaparte (his relative) on the Spanish throne. The French Revolution that began in 1789 had created citizen armies filled with nationalist patriots rather than peasant conscripts; Napoleon used the mighty French force this novel development had made possible to try to impose a French empire on much of Europe. But the passion for citizen nationalism spread to France's occupied territories -- hence the Madrid revolt of 1808 and its bloody suppression.

The Spanish call the ensuing six scorched-earth campaign their "War of Independence." The British who aided the Spaniards in tying down the French army call it the Iberian Peninsular War.

The war was a brutal affair in which the occupying French repeatedly tried to eradicate Spanish resistance by the "unlawful combatants" of their day with bloody reprisals. This failed. Irregular Spanish fighters, the first guerillas (this conflict was the origin of the English adoption of the word) bled the Napoleonic empire of human and material resources, contributing to its fall in 1814.

Spain and Portugal too were devastated by the brutal campaigns fought across their territory and did not recover for more than a century.

H/t to democracy for highlighting this all too contemporary-seeming history.

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