Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Napoleon: the downfall

[The above picture is Goya's, The Second of May, 1808: The Charge of the Mamelukes, depicting the brutal suppression of the Spanish revolt.]

The first major test of Napoleon’s rule was the Spanish crisis of 1808, when he placed his brother Joseph on the throne. The military presence of the French in Madrid led to a revolt  on 2 May. Its brutal suppression triggered off the Spanish War of Independence, known in British history as the Peninsular War, a popular counter-revolution which was exploited by the British. In August British troops under Sir Arthur Wellesley landed in Portugal, and the ensuing war forced Napoleon to commit 300,000 troops to the country to fight the British and Portuguese armies and the Spanish insurgents.

Napoleon’s troubles in Spain inspired an Austrian invasion on French positions in Bavaria, the Tyrol, Venetia and the Adriatic in April 1809. But the French struck back, taking Pius VII prisoner and reaching Vienna in May 1809. After their defeat at Wagram on July, the Austrians signed the Treaty of Schönbrunn in October, and their new leader Prince Metternich pursued a policy of co-operation with France. The policy of conciliation was seen most starkly in the marriage of the Emperor's daughter, Marie-Louise, to Napoleon in March 1810.

Prussia pursued a different policy. Inspired by the reformers Karl vom Stein and Carl August von Hardenberg, the country reorganized itself militarily and politically. In an edict of 1808 Stein abolished serfdom in Prussia. Hardenberg reformed secondary and university education and gave full civil rights to the Jews. Recognizing the force of nationalism in inspiring the French armies, writers and intellectuals espoused German nationalism. (You will revisit these themes in Block 6.)

Napoleon’s biggest mistake was his invasion of Russia in 1812, the result of Russia’s failure to enforce the Continental System against Britain. In the summer of 1812 the (by now multinational) Grande Armée of 650,000 men (an unprecedented size) marched into Russia. In September they occupied the evacuated and burned city of Moscow and in October Napoleon gave the order to retreat. Half a million allied soldiers died on the retreat. By the time the Grande Armée crossed the river Niemen into Prussia, fewer than 100,000 soldiers were left. On 5 December Napoleon abandoned his army and returned to Paris on the 18th. His principal need was to muster fresh forces but he also realised that he had to assert his authority at home.

The Russians could have remained behind their borders. Instead they made the momentous decision to advance west. At the end of the year they captured Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Russia had become a major player in Europe.

On 2 February 1813 Johann Gottlieb Fichte ended his lecture at the University of Berlin with the words
‘This course will be suspended until the close of the campaign, when we will resume it in a free fatherland or reconquer our liberty by death’.
Young men from all over Germany flocked to join a Freikorps (a volunteer army) of at least 100,000, dedicated to the liberation of Germany. The weapons of the French Revolution were now turned against France in what the Prussians called the ‘War of Liberation’.

On 27 June Austria, Russia and Prussia signed the secret Convention of Reichenbach. At the ‘Battle of the Nations’ fought at Leipzig in October 1813 over half a million soldiers and 2,000 pieces of artillery were in action, the largest military engagement fought until the First World War. (On the left is the memorial to the battle.)

In 1814 the French, already defeated in Germany, were driven out of Spain. In March Russian, Prussian, and Austrian soldiers entered Paris, and Napoleon was forced by his generals to abdicate. The count of Provence became king of France as Louis XVIII, and Napoleon was sent to rule the island of Elba.

In March 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France for his ‘Hundred Days’. After his final defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815 he was exiled to St Helena where he died in 1821.