By Michael Sauter
Napoleon Bonaparte is both an heir to and the end of the French Revolution. He encapsulates the complexities and tensions that made French politics so volatile after July 14, 1789. These tensions were the result of the French Revolution’s attempt to bring together two distinct but incompatible traditions. One was the Republican tradition of liberty, equality, and fraternity; the other was an authoritarian tradition that sought to control all aspects of people’s lives, including their political opinions. This authoritarian tendency became most obvious during the so-called Reign of Terror (1793 to 1794), when the Revolution’s leaders, Maximilien Robespierre foremost among them, kept Paris’ guillotines busy with a procession of enemies both real and imagined. Thus, we see throughout the Revolution a constant battle between an egalitarian instinct that constantly uprooted existing social and political relationships and an authoritarian one that wanted peace and order. Napoleon finally brought peace to France, but as we will see, the rest of Europe paid a terrible price for this benefit.
Let us begin with a brief look at Napoleon’s background in an attempt to understand in what ways he was a child of the revolution. Born in 1769 in Corsica, Napoleon was only 20 years old when the Revolution broke out; yet he was only 30 when he was named France’s First Consul in 1799. Napoleon’s career is, thus, an example of the opportunities that the French Revolution made available to people who would have remained in their station under the Old Regime. Napoleon was the son of a minor noble, and as such, he could never have risen higher in the army than the rank of Colonel. But the Revolution’s wars made his career and he advanced rapidly through the ranks, becoming France’s youngest General and enjoying a string of foreign victories that made his name back in France. When he returned from a campaign in Egypt in August 1799, he was hailed a hero. (This was due, in part, to Napoleon’s assiduous attempts to keep the news that the Egyptian campaign had been failure secret.) On the 9-10 of November, Napoleon held a coup d’etat, ending ten years of war and chaos under the Republic.
This change had been coming for some time. In fact, it had already been predicted in 1789, when the British writer Edmund Burke wrote that the Revolution’s contradictory goals made a strongman inevitable, saying, “that he will draw all eyes upon himself, and that will be the end of your whole Republic.” The real problem was that French people were tired of the internal chaos, and many of them concluded that a strong executive authority was the only thing that could keep this chaos at bay. Although Napoleon’s rise to power reversed part of the Revolution, it was not a signal that the Old Regime was returning. It was rather an attempt to find a consensus among the French people based on a need for security. After the Revolution, many people became property holders for the first time, and they saw Revolutionary unrest as a danger to their new status.
Napoleon’s early years in the position of First Consul were an attempt to come to terms with the forces of disorder in France. In 1801, Napoleon reached what was called the Concordat with the Catholic Church, which ironed out difficulties between the church and the state. In this deal the church recognized the loss of property to the state and allowed Napoleon to appoint church officials. In exchange, the state would assure that all church officials were paid. This is an important historical moment, because it reconciled the church to the French Revolution, leaving it with a secure, although subordinate role vis-à-vis the French state.
Napoleon also settled the problem of France’s debt. The war with a group of states called the “First Coalition” lasted from 1793 to 1797. And then there was a war of the Second Coalition that ran from 1799 to 1802. Wars are expensive enterprises, as you are aware, and France desperately needed to pay for the war expenses, so that the state could repair its credit. Until that time, the state had resorted to seizing property, when it could not buy what it needed. Napoleon addressed this issue by setting up the Bank of France, which was modeled on the extremely successful Bank of England. The Bank of France controlled monetary policy and provided sufficient stability to allow the French economy to grow again, which is usually a consensus-building phenomenon. The bank would also be important later, because it also allowed Napoleon to float loans, so that he could pay for the wars that he was about to start. In the meantime, however, Napoleon needed to end the war of the Second Coalition, which had been going since 1799. He rapidly defeated Austria, signing a treaty known as the Peace of Lunéville in 1801. He was unable to defeat the British, so he came to terms with them in the treaty Treaty of Amiens, signed in 1802. Thus, three years after his coup, Napoleon brought all potentially destabilizing wars to an end.
Finally, and most importantly, Napoleon continued the process that had begun under the French Revolution, of instituting new legal codes in criminal, civil, and business proceedings. This new Code Napoleon was the final manifestation of the French Revolution’s interest in Egalité, as it made all French citizens equal before the law. In addition, it regularized all legal proceedings, getting rid of the bewildering array of courts that had characterized the Old Regime. By promulgating this new code, Napoleon signaled that he was not going back to the Old Regime. He was, indeed, the Revolution’s heir. It is telling, however, that this legal code had to be imposed by what was, in effect, a dictator, and it would be implemented by a highly centralized, intrusive, and eventually arrogant bureaucracy. In the Code Napoleon, the Revolutionary tension between authority and freedom is most obvious.
One thing to keep in mind is that Napoleon’s efforts at consolidating the Revolution while reigning in its excesses were quite popular. Napoleon was the first European statesman to make plebiscites a tool of statecraft. He held the first plebiscite in 1802, asking the people whether he should be named First Consul for life. The French people approved the measure by 99%. In 1804, Napoleon again went to the people, asking whether he should be made Emperor for life. Again, a majority of people approved of the measure. These elections were rigged, of course. Not everyone could vote, and Napoleon’s agents used every means available to get the desired outcome. The issue for us, however, is that even Napoleon felt his legitimacy emanated from the people, and the people alone. The use of plebiscites reveals clearly that the society of orders was gone for good.
We have considered how Napoleon changed and did not change France. Now let us turn to the ways that Napoleon changed Europe, for his wars and administrative innovations made Europe seem a much different place in 1815, when Napoleon was defeated for the last time, than it seemed in 1799, or even 1789. Before we can understand Napoleon’s impact we need to go back a bit to 1792, the year that the young French Republic declared war on Austria and Prussia. This was the beginning of an important theme in French politics. The war that had begun as a perceived defense of the Revolution’s gains changed into a broad agreement among the French that the Revolution’s values needed to be exported to the rest of Europe. This led to a series of conflicts. In 1793, France declared war on Britain, Holland, and Spain, ultimately enjoying great success against all, except Britain. By 1795, France had set up a so-called sister Republic in Holland, known as the Batavian Republic, and had also annexed what is today called Belgium. In addition, French Troops were occupying much of the German Rhineland. By 1796, French troops were advancing through Italy, where they eventually set up the so-called Cisalpine Republic in 1797. By 1798, French Troops were in Rome and then Egypt.
Napoleon was a product of this shift from defending the Revolution to exporting the Revolution. He was, in fact, the main reason that the French did so well in Italy, since he was the commanding general. From Napoleon’s perspective, military victory had been the key to his rise and it would be the key to his political legitimacy. From the time he became first consul in 1799, Napoleon followed a policy of conquest and annexation. This had the dual purpose of allowing him to appear strong, but it also meant that wars were not fought in France. As long as victories kept rolling in from wars in foreign lands, the French supported Napoleon, and he kept adding enemies. When a coalition of armies finally overwhelmed French power and marched into Paris in 1814, it was the first time that that city had been taken by foreign invaders in thirteen hundred years. Not coincidentally, it also marked the end of Napoleon’s reign as emperor.
So we can see that Napoleon always had the problem that he needed new enemies and new victories. In the end, his enemies became too large in number, and he was sent into exile. Let us consider how he collected enemies. By 1803, war had broken out again between Britain and France. The two had always retained a deep mutual suspicion. The problem for Napoleon was that he could never match British sea power, so when war broke out again, his Navy could do no more than run and hide—and this they didn’t even do that well. In 1805, at the battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Horatio Nelson, destroyed the remnants of the French and Spanish navies. The sea battle was over.
Having lost at sea, Napoleon turned to what we today would call economic warfare. His troops occupied Italian and northwestern European ports, preventing the importation of British goods. This merely added to Napoleon’s list of enemies, as the occupations irritated Austria and Russia, who then joined Britain in what became the war of the Third Coalition. Things went no better this time, as Napoleon defeated Austria and Russia, setting the stage for the Treaty of Pressburg, which reduced Austria significantly and extended Napoleonic France all the way from Amsterdam to modern-day Croatia. (see map) After dispensing with the Austrians and Russians, Napoleon turned on the Prussians, whom he defeated at the battles of Jena and Auerstädt in 1806. After defeating all these continental enemies, Napoleon expanded his economic war on Britain by establishing the “Continental System,” which was an attempt to ban all British goods from continental Europe. In 1807, he completed this barrier by signing the peace of Tilsit with Russia. This treaty made Russia a French ally and virtually closed the continent to British commerce.
Now we have Napoleon essentially controlling the entire European continent. Let us consider how the measures he took to reorganize these huge swaths of territory that all his wars had brought him. Napoleon’s efforts built on the French Revolution’s pattern of setting up sister republics. In 1805, he reorganized the previous Cisalpine Republic and turned it into the Kingdom of Italy. He then conveniently had himself crowned as King. After French troops pressed further down the Italian peninsula, they overran the Papal States and later annexed them to France. Finally, what had been the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, was renamed the Kingdom of Naples, and Napoleon put his brother Joseph on the throne. Thus, by 1810, France controlled in one way or another the entire Italian peninsula.
The political changes were even more dramatic in Germany than in Italy. To understand how dramatic these changes were we need to go back and consider how the German states were organized before 1789. Much of the area that we today consider Germany was included in an ancient corporatist organization called the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. This empire was founded on Christmas Day in the year 800, when the Pope crowned as Emperor, Charlemagne, who was already King of the Franks.
The empire was an old and venerable institution loved by many on Germany. It was, however, completely useless on the international scene, as it lacked any real taxation power and, thus, an army. The empire could project no power, because it was designed to protect Germany’s princes from each other. In particular, it prevented Germany’s smaller principalities from being swallowed up by the larger, more predatory ones. This system worked well for many years, basically assuring that no prince could get away with stealing another prince’s land. Nonetheless, it also prevented any kinds of meaningful reform across Germany and prevented the Germans from mounting a serious defense against outside aggression. For example, in the seventeenth century, the French King Louis XIV annexed the German province of Alsace to his kingdom, setting up a problem that we will confront again in the nineteenth century. The loss was felt deeply in the German states, since Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace had been a seat of the German Reformation. Yet amidst all the cries of foul among the Germans, the empire was unable to defend this land.
The Holy Roman Emperor’s power lay not in his title, but in his role as one of the Empire’s most powerful princes. Ever since the fifteenth century, that had been a Habsburg. As the Grand Dukes of Austria, the Habsburgs controlled what is today Austria. In addition, through a very effective marriage policy, they were able to gain control over the crowns of Hungary and Bohemia. These three crowns became the core of Habsburg power, which the family then expanded by taking large areas in Eastern Europe from the Ottoman Empire during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Austria, thus, became one of the most powerful states in all of Europe. Her reserves of strength are remarkable, when we consider that she fought France four times before participating in the final victory over Napoleon.
Yet for all the Habsburg’s great power, their status as Holy Roman Emperors actually limited them. First, we must understand that the position of Emperor was elected. Now I do not mean elected in the sense of modern elections, but that certain princes had to agree to make a Habsburg emperor. The situation is complicated, but in the eighteenth century there were seven such princely electors, Napoleon would late see that number raised to nine. Each time an Emperor died and the next Habsburg waited to be confirmed a complicated dance began in which the Habsburgs paid huge bribes, while also confirming certain privileges that each elector enjoyed. The point is that the HRE was, thus, bound by certain laws and traditions and could not simply assert his will over the entire Empire. If the emperor were to annex a small principality within the empire, then all the other states would rise up against him. This also worked for the other princes, especially the more predatory ones like Prussia. So in the end, we get an institution that was delicately balanced in a way that hemmed in the most powerful states, while also giving each state a degree of protection from its neighbors’ designs.
This old institution collapsed under the weight of Napoleon’s military might. In 1801, Napoleon had signed a treaty with the Austrians called the Treaty of Lunéville. As part of this treaty the Habsburgs recognized France’s annexation of all territories left of the Rhine. Since most of this territory was German and had been controlled by princes of the Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, in effect, ceased to exist.
It is important to concentrate on this treaty for a moment, because it marks the first step in the political changes that would come under Napoleon’s hegemony. The treaty compensated the displaced German princes from the left bank of the Rhine by giving them territory that lay further west. This usually consisted of turning over the very smallest principalities and those areas controlled by the church over to the old princes, as well as larger principalities, which Napoleon wished to court. (The three most famous examples are the Margraviate of Baden, and the Duchies of Württemberg and Bavaria. Under Napoleon, Baden would increase its territory seven-fold and its population ten-fold.) In 1805, when Austria was defeated yet again, the Empire’s remnants were completely swept away. Emperor Francis II, who had already renamed himself Francis I Emperor of Austria, declared in 1806 that the HRE ceased to exist. He did this basically to assure that Napoleon’s grateful German allies didn’t elect him to be Holy Roman Emperor.
Without any effective opposition, Napoleon was now free to remake Europe in his own image. Let us begin with Germany. In addition to annexing everything to the left of the Rhine, Napoleon turned to Germany’s medium-sized states, Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria, giving each substantial territory that was intended to bind the new rulers to him. He also gave each of the rulers new titles. The Margraves of Baden became Grand Dukes, and the Dukes of Württemberg and Bavaria became Kings, respectively. In addition, Napoleon created two entirely new German states, the Kingdom of Westphalia and the Duchy of Berg. These states were to be model French states, subject to all the reforms and innovations that had characterized the French Revolution in France. Not coincidentally, Napoleon put his brother Jerome on the throne of Westphalia and he put a favored general in the Duke’s seat in Berg. Then, added to all this, Napoleon put all these small states together in what was called the Confederation of the Rhine, an organization that was to be completely subservient to French interests.
Napoleon, of course, did not stop with Germany. In 1805, the Batavian Republic was renamed the Kingdom of the Netherlands and another Napoleonic brother, this time Louis, was put on that throne. Two years earlier, the Helvetic Republic was reconstituted as another Swiss Confederation, but this time Napoleon was its official protector. He also put a favored General named Bernadotte on the throne in Sweden, in addition to putting yet another brother on the throne in Spain. Finally, after Prussia’s defeat in 1807, Napoleon carved the ethnically Polish regions out of Prussia and set up the Duchy of Warsaw, which was intended to be a friendly support for France in Eastern Europe. Thus, Napoleon set up an entire ring of puppet states that would support him, sometimes more and sometimes less, in each of his enterprises, particularly the Continental System. When this system began to unravel, it became yet another excuse for another war. This time, however, the war would spell the end of Napoleon’s empire.
Before we consider how this system came to an end, let us examine other changes that Napoleon wrought beyond his reorganization of political borders. Here we will see most clearly the deep and long-lasting effects that Napoleon had on Europe. Napoleon’s subordinates in these new states planned and executed reforms in four major areas, based on the original French model. First, came an attack on all the institutional arrangements of the Old Regime. All the old particularities of a society based on orders were swept away by the implementation of a uniform system of government and administration. Henceforth there would only be equal citizens under one law. The second area was legal and judicial. The Napoleonic code was implemented in all these areas and all the special legal exceptions for the church, nobility, and guilds were removed. Now everyone was subject to equal taxation.
The third and fourth areas covered the nobility and the Catholic Church. (In Protestant areas things were different.) Napoleonic governments suppressed all seigniorial privileges, allowing the sale of agricultural property to anyone and making all labor free. This was important in two ways. First, traditionally only nobles could own noble estates. Now anyone with the money could afford to buy land. Second, peasants were no longer tied to their estates. This may seem like a good deal, but peasants often got very little for their new freedom. From our perspective this change is important because it set the stage for a later mass movement of rural labor into the cities. Finally, to return to the reforms themselves, the new states “secularized,” that is to say confiscated, most church property, selling it off to the highest bidder. What this means is that Napoleonic reforms changed the basis of land ownership in the occupied areas.
For all the general changes involved, however, in these puppet states, we need to refine the picture slightly, to see where Napoleon succeeded and where he failed. The reforms show us, albeit on a smaller scale, the Napoleonic tendency toward authoritarianism. Citizens were equal before the law, but none of them had much to say in response to the law’s implementation. The system was top-down, administered by people trained to enforce the law, and no one asked the people what they thought of the laws. Yet here we begin to see some of the differences. This system worked fine for France, since the people there had already been worn down by ten years of Revolutionary unrest by Napoleon’s arrival. The new states were, however, in a completely different situation. Their leaders were not necessarily as receptive to French ideas. Occasionally, the new leaders saw their interests in a different way, and they left some of the Old Regime in place. So what we get is a mixed picture of reform in which certain aspects of the Old Regime survived while others were thrown away to be replaced by new social and economic forms.
The non-French Napoleonic states are, thus, exactly the point where we can see most clearly the effects of Revolutionary ideas and their limitations. Measures such as equality before the law remained on the books, even if not always applied impartially. The entire edifice of noble privilege was destroyed, as nobles had to pay taxes, and continued to pay them even after Napoleon’s fall. The Napoleonic Code was introduced throughout Switzerland, Italy, and Holland, remaining influential for many years. In all of these states, the victory of the counter-revolution in 1814-15 could not turn back the clock.
There are, however, important regional differences in this picture of change. Germany presents a particularly muddled picture. The German legal system was organized in a completely different fashion from the new Napoleonic code, as it heavily emphasized tradition and particularity, whereas the Code Napoleon was completely new and was imposed from the top down. There was, thus, always intrinsic resistance to the code, even in the areas most loyal to Napoleon. The Code Napoleon really only went into complete effect on the left bank of the Rhine. Most other German states resisted its total implementation, picking and choosing items they thought were most appropriate.
Having considered some of the individual cases, let’s step back on look at the Napoleonic system from a broader perspective. Although the Napoleonic system had its problems, by comparison to what had come before, it also had definite advantages. The years 1802-1812 brought a stability to Europe that it had not seen since 1789. The new Napoleonic administration restored order, reduced brigandage and the problem of highway robbery, and it rebuilt the infrastructure, repairing roads and bridges, or building new ones. Napoleon’s system had its costs. There were high taxes and conscription, but the new system brought benefits. The administration seemed to respect consistent legal norms, and in general its benefits outweighed the costs for many.
The relative political stability and security that Napoleon brought also ushered in a period of economic prosperity. The first decade of the nineteenth century saw good harvests and high grain prices, which kept the countryside happy. There even seems to be some evidence that breaking up the Old Regime help farmers to become more efficient. And whereas farming seems to have improved, the manufacturing sector of the economy took off. During the first decade of the nineteenth century, manufacturing seems to have been 50% higher than during the Old Regime. This manufacturing upsurge occurred in France, but also in parts of Belgium, Germany, and Bohemia. By eliminating British competition, Napoleon’s Continental system seems to have spurred industrial growth on the Continent.
Napoleon’s system did, however, bring other economic costs. In contrast to manufacturing, maritime trade was completely destroyed by the war with Britain. Port cities, particularly places like Bordeaux, often shrank by a third. In some cases, grass grew in the streets, because there was no one there to take care of the infrastructure. This would have costs later for Europe, since trade and manufacturing became split, so that Europeans had difficulty getting their products to international markets. The British had no such trouble, of course. In other cities, beyond those involved in maritime trade, the Napoleonic system seems to have done fairly well. The period 1802 to 1812 saw full employment for urban craftsmen, which made Napoleon extremely popular among the so-called sans-culottes. Thus, in general, there was relatively little opposition to the Napoleonic regime. There were some who lost, but more people gained, and combined with the general weariness that the events of the French Revolution brought on in many, the years 1802 to 1812 were rather tame. It would take military defeat to remove Napoleon from power.
Napoleon would finally be brought to his knees by the never-ending conflict with Britain. No matter what he did, the Brits still hung around, and in fact grew stronger. Although the Continental System hurt British commerce initially, the value of Britain’s products on the European market far outweighed the risks of running afoul of Napoleon’s laws. The result was a huge smuggling operation developed that tried to sneak British products onto the Continent at enormous profits. Things got so out of hand, in fact, that some of the profits wound up lining the pockets of French administrators, who gladly turned a blind eye to the trade in exchange for cash. The system of smuggling became so huge and so regular that insurance companies even began writing policies to cover for smugglers’ losses. The Continental system was simply too porous and unwieldy to achieve Napoleon’s aims. This led Napoleon to take drastic actions to prevent further incursions of British good, and these actions eventually led to his downfall.
We will begin tracing Napoleon’s fall by looking to Spain in 1807. Spain had experienced a great deal of bad luck in the international arena. Originally, the Spanish opposed France during the War of the First coalition. This brought them only a French invasion and occupation. So the Spanish switched sides, turning on their erstwhile British allies, but this on resulted in the Spanish fleet being sent to the bottom of the ocean. The Spanish also confronted problems in their attempts to reform along French lines. Spaniards had grown weary of the French occupation, and they focused their anger toward France through their religion. A Catholic counter-current gained strength in Spain through perceptions of French anti-clericalism. This came to a head when Spain’s King, Charles IV, considered implementing a series of French-style reforms, among which were plans to secularize church property. The King’s son, Ferdinand, was violently opposed to any such plans, which set the stage for a political conflict.
At the very moment when this political conflict was coming to a head, a French army passed through Spain on its way to Portugal. Napoleon planned to occupy Portugal, because its main port of Lisbon was a center of the smuggling trade. While these troops were in Spain, however, both the King and Ferdinand appealed to the Emperor for help against the other side. Napoleon responded by calling both men to Paris, where he informed them how unreliable they were and deposed them, putting his brother Joseph, who had only been named the king of Naples the year before, on the Spanish throne. (The vacant Neapolitan throne went to a French general who also happened to be Napoleon’s brother-in-law.)
The Spaniards did not take this change in rulers well and rebellions broke out across the country. A series of provincial juntas were organized to oppose the new Spanish government, and these juntas then found common cause with a catholic revival and the British. With the Brits protecting coastal towns for the juntas, a guerilla war erupted that although it could not displace the French from Spain forced Napoleon to commit resources to the region that he would need desperately later. In the end, Napoleon had to commit some 300,000 men to pacifying Spain. This was a significant commitment of forces. It was, in fact, only 50,000 men fewer than Napoleon would send to Russia in 1812.
Meanwhile, the Austrians were watching. Eventually, things got so serious in Spain that Napoleon had to take command of the troops himself. This was the Austrian’s cue for action. They looked at the Spanish uprising and concluded not only that France was vulnerable but also that any successful action against Napoleon must be done with the people’s help, that is French nationalism had to be fought with German nationalism. The problem with this call to nationalism was that the other German princes felt threatened by it. The princes in Napoleon’s confederation of the Rhine contributed 100,000 troops to the army that Napoleon would lead against the Austrians. By May 1809, Napoleon and his army were in Vienna and the Austrians had to sue for peace. Napoleon had weathered the storm, but his problems were only just beginning.
The problems that Napoleon confronted in 1808-09 led time to extend his control even further into Europe. First, he tried to control the entire European coast more effectively. As part of the peace treaty with Austria, France seized control of what was called the Illyrian coast (roughly today’s Croatia). Napoleon then annexed the entire North Sea coast from Holland to Hamburg. In addition, he also annexed the Papal States, extending his control deeper into the Mediterranean.
Unfortunately for Napoleon, his economic woes mounted. The harvests of 1810 and 1811 were bad, and the prosperity on which so much of his empire had been based vanished. This sent shockwaves throughout the system. Europe’s coastal cities were already unhappy at their economic situation and now more places and people were added to the ranks of the discontent. We can see how serious the situation had become for Napoleon, when we consider that in annexing Holland he displaced his own brother from the throne. Moreover, Bernadotte, Napoleon’s former general and King of Sweden balked at any attempt to extend the embargo, and he was Napoleon’s friend. It was, therefore, no surprise that Russia refused to continue with the embargo any longer. All in all, the wheels were starting to come off the entire system.
Russia’s decision to back out of the embargo gave Napoleon the perfect pretext for war, which was of course what he was really good at. In 1812, Napoleon collected what at that point was the largest army in the world 650,000 men strong. 300,000 of the men came from Napoleon’s allies, the other 350,000 were French. This was a massive undertaking, but the very size of the army hindered its performance. First, having so many men together meant that the army could not live off the land, as other of Napoleon’s armies had done. Eastern Europe was simply too poor to support an army of that size. Second, because it could not live of the land the army needed a huge baggage train, which slowed it down and prevented the kind of quick deployments and hard strikes that had made Napoleon such a devastating enemy before. Third, the Russians exploited these weaknesses brilliantly by playing a delaying game. The Russians rarely offered Napoleon any battles, simply retreating further back into Russia’s great mass of land. As they did so, they practiced a scorched earth policy--burning anything that Napoleon’s army might have eaten.
Napoleon did make it all the way to Moscow and took the city. This, however, accomplished nothing, since the Russians had evacuated the city and burned much of it. Napoleon sat in the Kremlin for a month waiting for the Russians to sue for peace, but they never showed up. With his army exhausted and poorly fed and with winter approaching, Napoleon ordered a retreat in 1812. The Russians and the Russian Winter did not, however, offer him an easy exit. The army constantly dogged the retreat and an early winter savaged the poor men. By the time Napoleon crossed the border into Prussia, only 100,000 of his original 650,000 men were left. Napoleon hastened back to Paris to set up a new army for the attack that he knew was to come.
Here we can see just how efficient the Napoleonic state had become. By the spring of 1813, Napoleon had another sizeable army at his disposal, although many of the men were untrained. But the blood was already in the water. One of the Prussian generals, General Yorck, who had led a Prussian force in Napoleon’s march to Moscow, switched sides, calling for a German national uprising against Napoleon. Yorck had essentially committed treason, since he had switched sides without his King’s permission, but the King nervously went along with the change in policy and, in the end, the Prussians raised a 100,000-man army to fight Napoleon. The Austrians also joined the coalition against Napoleon, and along with the Russians the new coalition defeated Napoleon in October 1813 in a battle outside of Leipzig that came to be called the Battle of the Nations. Once this defeat registered, the entire system collapsed. All of Napoleon’s German allies switched sides. Sweden declared war on France. The British and the Spanish untied to throw the French out of Spain, chasing them right over the Pyrenees. By March 1814, Russian, Prussian, and Austrian troops took Paris. Napoleon was forced to abdicate and he went to the Mediterranean island of Elba, which the victorious powers had given him to rule. Elba was, however, too small for the former Emperor, so he staged a comeback. In March 1815, he escaped Elba and returned to France. In the ensuing “100 Days,” Napoleon raised another army that was then defeated by another great coalition at the battle of Waterloo in Belgium. This time the victorious powers made sure that Napoleon would no longer be a problem, exiling him to a cold and wet island in the Atlantic called St. Helena. Napoleon and the French Revolution were finally over.
So what does all this mean? How are we to understand the role Napoleon played on the world stage? Above all Napoleon represents the end of feudalism. The French revolution had ended feudalism in France, but Napoleon exported those changes across Europe. It was Napoleon who institutionalized the changes wrought by 1789, and he provided the stable environment in which those institutions could become permanent. For the first time, people were able to enjoy the benefits that ending feudalism brought to society. From this point on, too many people had a stake in retaining the changes Napoleon had brought to allow the Old Regime to return. In addition, for the first time, European states, especially France, had a large cadre of highly trained bureaucrats who would never consent to a return to the old ways. Their positions were based on the equality of law and they had grown accustomed to making decisions that affected the entire state, not just the one group over which they had control. In sum, although much had remained the same, in important and fundamental ways, the world had changed under Napoleon and there was no going back. The famous German historian Thomas Nipperdey began his three-volume history of Germany with the words “Am Anfang war Napoleon.” (In the beginning, was Napoleon.) Napoleon was both a beginning and an end. In our next hour, we will consider on of many beginnings that lurked in the New Regime that Napoleon had helped to bring about.