Revolutionary Europe, 1780-1850 (Longman, 2000) especially helpful.
Napoleon institutionalized the changes brought about by the French Revolution and spread them throughout Europe. This makes him easily the most influential figure of the period. He was the heir both of the Revolution and the Enlightenment and the changes he brought about outlasted his military defeat.
He was undoubtedly a dictator, but he also issued constitutions and through plebiscites claimed to represent the will of the people. (The device of the plebiscite was of course copied by Mussolini and Hitler.)
How did he come to power?
Throughout the entire period of the war from 1792 to 1815 France faced two main enemies: the Austrians on land and the British at sea. The other two great powers, Prussia and Russia, came and went as did the smaller European powers.
The armies of the French Republic, created by the levée en masse of 1793, were composed of patriotic volunteers and newly drafted conscripts. Their numbers reached as high as 800,000, guaranteeing the French numerical superiority of almost 2:1 in important engagements. They did not fight in a line, but skirmished, breaking up into smaller groups to take advantage of the terrain and to fire, from cover, on the enemy, still standing neatly in rows. Following a new strategic doctrine, they abandoned the old regime armies’ slow pace of advance, and moved rapidly, living off the country – a convenient strategy for a bankrupt government!
Napoleon benefited from these changes. He distinguished himself in the war of the First Coalition (1792-7) by defeating the Austrians at Arcole and Rivoli in northern Italy in 1796-7. In the spring of 1797 he led his forces through north-eastern Italy into Austria, his vanguard coming within 74 miles of Vienna. Austria was forced to make peace and Italy was divided into French and Austrian spheres of influence. This campaign established Napoleon’s reputation as a liberator of peoples, but the Treaty of Campo Formio (October 1797) shows this claim to be spurious: France surrendered Venetia to Austria in return for Venice’s Adriatic Empire along the Dalmatian coast. These were useful stepping stones to the Levant.
For Wordsworth's lament over the extinction of the Venetian Republic see here.
In late 1797 the Directory endorsed a plan of Napoleon’s for a Mediterranean offensive against Britain. In May 1798 a French expeditionary force landed in Egypt, supposedly to threaten India (though a glance at the map might have shown that this was unlikely!). The French defeated the Turkish armies at the Battle of the Pyramids, but Nelson’s navy destroyed and sank the French fleet at Aboukir Bay, leaving the French army stranded in Egypt.
To forestall an Ottoman invasion, Napoleon invaded Syria, but, unable to take Acre in Palestine, his forces retreated on May 20, 1799. The French slaughter of the Turkish prisoners at Jaffa is a stain on Napoleon's reputation.
In November 1799 Napoleon deserted his army, took ship to France and overthrew the Directory in the coup d’état of 18-19 Brumaire in which he became First Consul. He consolidated his power by defeating the Austrians at Marengo in 1800. By the Treaty of Lunéville of 1801 the French annexation of Belgium, Luxembourg and the left bank of the Rhine was confirmed.
This involved a redrawing of the map of Germany. The number of petty states was drastically reduced and most of the free cities were abolished. The reduction of the number of imperial states from more than 300 to fewer than 100 severely diminished the authority of the Hapsburgs.
Napoleon as conqueror
Marengo ended the War of the Second Coalition and Napoleon was able to take advantage of Britain’s war weariness in the Peace of Amiens (1802). But the peace broke down in the following year, and Napoleon’s concentrated his energies on the invasion of Britain.
In 1804-5 Tsar Alexander I negotiated the Third Coalition: Austria, Prussia, Sweden and Britain.
The British victories of Cape Finisterre and Trafalgar in 1805 put an end to the attempt to invade England. However, in October Napoleon defeated the Austrians at Ulm in Bavaria and occupied Vienna. On 2 December he defeated a combined Austrian and Russian army at Austerlitz. The resulting Treaty of Pressburg (Bratislava) eliminated the Austrian position in Italy and turned most of Germany into a French protectorate. On 6 August 1806 Francis II bowed to the inevitable and resigned the title of Holy Roman Emperor which his ancestors had worn for almost four centuries. He retreated into being hereditary Emperor of Austria. A thousand years of history had come to an end.
Early in 1806 the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples was conquered and set up as a separate kingdom.
On 14 October 1806 the Prussians were defeated at Jena and Auerstädt. The French occupied Berlin and the royal family retreated to East Prussia. This was Napoleon’s sweet revenge for the Prussian defeat of the French at Rossbach in 1757. What were his feelings as he entered Frederick the Great’s city and viewed his tomb? Prussia’s old enemy Saxony allied with Napoleon and joined the Confederation of the Rhine. Napoleon created the Kingdom of Westphalia for his brother Jerome and pressurized all the German states except Austria to join the Confederation.
After several fierce battles in East Prussia in the first half of 1807 Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I signed the Treaty of Tilsit, marking the end of the War of the Third Coalition. It was an astonishing achievement. The Grande Armée had marched nearly 2,500 miles and fought five great battles. It had destroyed the armies of two Great Powers and defeated those of a third, a record of conquest not seen since the days of classical antiquity.
Britain was now left alone and in an attempt to defeat her by economic warfare, Napoleon (from Berlin) instigated his ‘Continental System’, an embargo on British goods in the entire European continent.