The date was October 14, 1806. Napolean's army had just completed a decisive rout of the Prussian army near the cities of Jena and Auerstadt, now located in eastern Germany. The blood of some 55,000 dead and wounded colored the fields red.
On Saturday, exactly two centuries later, soldiers once again took to the battlefield. This time, though, the result was not mass bloodshed. Rather, the 1,300 actors and extras -- and the some 32,000 onlookers who braved the gray, low-hanging clouds -- were interested in seeing history re-enacted.
History buffs from clubs and associations throughout Europe gathered together to create the spectacle. This time the French were outnumbered -- some 485 Germans outfitted themselves in 19th century war duds, alongside 180 French and 160 British -- but they still won. Onlookers paid between 8 and 60 depending on their vantage point. Not cheap perhaps, but better than the arm, leg or life the same seat would have cost two hundred years ago.
Although Napolean would probably delight in his victory being commemorated two centuries later, it's an open question whether he would have approved of his modern-day double. American actor Marc Schneider played the French emperor to the wide appreciation of the spectators, probably more for his resemblance to the general than for his accent.
The spectacle was not intended to glorify war, says the head of Jena's cultural center, Margret Franz. It was meant to recreate an authentic historical encounter.
The battles of Jena and Auerstadt spelled the end to any significant Prussian resistance to the French until Napolean's withdrawal from Russia in 1813. It's debatable, though, whether Napolean's military brilliance or Prussian incompetence was more decisive. Jena historian Werner Greiling said the difference was in the decisiveness of the leaders and the soldiers' willingness to follow orders. "All of Napolean's soldiers were convinced of their commander's leadership qualities," he said.
Napolean's strategy in Jena was to push the Prussian army into open ground and then overwhelm it with numbers. It worked, and even though Napolean lost 5,000 troops, five times as many Prussians lay dead or wounded when the smoke cleared. Nearby in Auerstadt, the Prussian army totally collapsed, leaving the French in complete control of the region.
The battle marked the low point for the Prussian state and army, but it helped pave the way for reform. Legendary Prussian generals Clausewitz and Gneisenau served in the battle before going on to become major figures in Prussia's military revival. Without experiencing the defeat at Jena, the breadth of Prussia's military reform and resurgence is considered to have been unlikely.
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