In the olden days, you could just go to a theme park and spend the day gorging on cotton candy and trying to determine whether the carnies were sober enough to operate the rides. You didn't have to worry about national myth-making, or historical justification, or "the coolness of Napoleon."
The coolness of Napoleon is what the French politician Yves Jégo hopes you'll find at a new park he'd like to build, which has already been dubbed Napoleonland. Mr. Jégo has many plans for his amusement park, to be built on the site of 1814's Battle of Montereau, where Napoleon's army defeated Austrian forces.
Who needs spinning teacups when you can have a slicing guillotine? The fall of the Bastille and the Terror that followed could be part of the amusement park, the former French government minister suggested. Mr. Jégo envisions visitors skiing through a re-enactment of Napoleon's catastrophic retreat from Russia "surrounded by the frozen bodies of soldiers and horses," he told the Sunday Times. (Perhaps there could be an accompanying carnival game called "frenzied scrabbling for roots" where the prize is an edible boot sole.) "It's going to be fun for the family," he said. The Addams family, maybe.
Mr. Jégo will announce more details of the park on Feb. 18, which is the 198th anniversary of the Battle of Montereau, but he's thought to have tacit backing from another pint-sized French leader with outsized ambitions. Let's not forget this is an election year for Nicolas Sarkozy, and what better time to remind voters that France was not always Germany's arm candy, but once ruled most of Europe? "As well as being an instrument of economic development, this is a question of rediscovering our roots and our history," Mr. Jégo told The Times.
Governments have a knack for rediscovering national roots and histories at the most convenient times, usually when things are dire on the home front. It's a little like telling people to look out the rear window so they won't notice the land mine in the road ahead.
This was particularly obvious in England this week, where the one-time enemies of France were announcing a giant river pageant to celebrate the Queen's 60th year on the throne, a nod, as one of the organizers said, to the country's "great naval past." So there probably won't be any reference to recent devastating cuts to the British Navy. And while we will see great vessels from the past, like Dunkirk rescue ships and Queen Victoria's yacht, it's unlikely that the flotilla will include HMS Oh My God the Debt's Hit ₤1-Trillion, or the noble frigate Carphone Warehouse Is On Fire.
In our own country, the government is trying to sweep the dust of apathy from the populace with a $30-million broom, in order to remind us of the glory that was the War of 1812. That money will be spent on various remembrances of what the government calls "the fight for Canada." This expenditure seems to fly in the face of evidence that people in Ontario only care a fig for this war, and westerners perhaps a 10th of a fig. Nevertheless, we must celebrate the victory Canada achieved over a bunch of grumbling, ill-equipped American militia. I say "victory" when I mean "draw" and "Canada" when I mean "colony of Britain," but you know, you've got to colour outside the lines a bit when you're redrawing the past.
Speaking of which, if your children are entering the 1812 poster competition sponsored by the government, remember that it was an inclusive military campaign, a magical time when French, English and First Nations fought for the same cause – the colonial war as Benetton ad. As Heritage Minister James Moore said, "participants are invited to create a poster showing how people from different backgrounds and regions joined forces to fight for Canada." So, kids, use all the colours in your box.
I hope Napoleonland succeeds. After all, one man's tiny, dictatorial megalomaniac is another man's crusader for rights and democracy. There's nothing wrong with history as theme park, so long as it's labelled as such. You can already visit the Grutas Park in Lithuania, which is filled with giant statues of Stalin and Lenin, and where children can experience "holidays of the Soviet period" and wander under guard towers like so many little Ivan Denisoviches. But that park is intended to condemn the past, not celebrate it.
So visit Napoleonland or Grutas Park and make up your own mind. Or, even better, hit the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, England, and take a ride back through history, where you will be sprayed with the authentic odour of Viking toilet. At least you know that's real.