We've all been there. Every nation has skeletons. History is a sorry roll-call of atrocities, as genocidal young men gave free reign to their darkest urges. A king we style “the Lionheart”, whose proud statue stands next to Parliament, slaughtered thousands of Muslim hostages before the walls of Acre; centuries later millions of abducted Africans were crammed on to filth-covered orlop decks and put to work as slaves, by men who smile at us from Gainsboroughs.
Americans annihilated a race of people as they forged a vast empire, called it a nation and said it was destiny. Even our unimpeachable, tree-hugging brethren in the Nordic countries were once ironsided warriors whose dragonships penetrated Europe's great rivers like poison moving through arteries. This year Germany is yet again being made to confront its gigantic historic crimes with another round of anniversaries, of the liberation of Auschwitz, and its final defeat.
Now France, too, is finding itself in the unwelcome position of confronting anniversaries in which it is cast as the aggressor. Two hundred years ago this month, the deposed Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was rampaging north to Paris, intent on seizing back power. He had chosen to go out in a blaze of glory rather than risk death by a thousand ignominious slights in exile.