The Unification of Europe Under Napoleon and His Defeat!
Napoleon Bonaparte occupies a place of honour among those rulers in history, who by virtue of their military skill and administrative capability have acquired undying fame.
Napoleon came into the scene when revolutionary France was involved in wars with foreign countries.
These wars were inevitable as European powers were afraid that the revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality would spread to their countries and destroy the monarchies there.
A coalition of powers comprising Britain, Holland, Spain, Austria, Prussia, Naples, Portugal etc. was formed in 1793 and again in 1797.
Napoleon fought successfully and defeated Austria. He then overthrew the Directory which was ruling France and proclaimed a new Constitution. France was to be ruled by a small council of three Consuls. Napoleon himself was the First Consul. The position of the First Consul was but a stepping stone for the further rise of Napoleon. In 1804, Napoleon declared himself the “Emperor of the French”.
Napoleon undertook military operations against the European coalitions that were formed against France. He conquered parts of Italy, Austria, Spain, Holland, Germany, etc. In Germany he created the “confederation of the Rhine” consisting of 38 German states. By 1807 all the major powers except England had come under his domination. Napoleon signed the Treaty of Tilsit with Alexander I, the Czar of Russia, in 1807. According to the treaty, the Czar accepted the Continental System (explained later) and promised to help Napoleon against England.
Since the Pope refused to accept the Continental System, Napoleon dispossessed him of his territory.
The height of napoleon’s power:
The Treaty of Tilsit marked the height of Napoleon’s power in Europe. Annexed to France were Belgium, Nice, Savoy, Genoa, Dalmatia and Croatia, Napoleon’s royal authority extended to Holland (with Louis Bonaparte as the King), the confederation of the Rhine (formed in 1806), Italy, the Kingdom of Westphalia (under Jerome Bonaparte), the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and Switzerland. Joseph Bonaparte was made the king of Spain. Russia, Denmark and Sweden were friendly. Only England remained outside his political orbit. The Grand Empire and its allies covered the whole of the European mainland except the Balkans.
The Continental System:
The Peace of Tilsit left Napoleon face to face with only one enemy, England.
The destruction of the French fleet by the British navy at Trafalgar made Napoleon realise that it would be practically impossible for him to cross the English Channel and invade England. But if he could not cross the channel, he believed that he could ruin England by excluding her from the markets of the Continent.
He issued a Decree declaring Great Britain to be in a state of blockade. No country in Europe would be allowed to trade with England. This was called the Continental Blockade. But, after the Industrial Revolution in England, all the countries of Europe depended on her for their necessary commodities.
Quite naturally, these countries were displeased with Napoleon, and disregarding the Continental System, carried on trade with England. Napoleon declared war against those who violated the blockade. The Continental System was partly responsible for Napoleon’s downfall.
The Peninsular War:
Napoleon resolved to ruin Portugal in order to deprive Britain of harbours and make Portugal a party to the Continental Blockade. Napoleon marched through Spain and put his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne of Spain. But feeling of strong nationalism had made the Spaniards carry on war against Napoleon.
The British army had landed in Portugal and from there helped the Spanish insurgents. It was there that Napoleon suffered his first serious opposition on land. Large French forces were kept occupied in the Peninsula at a time when Napoleon was in need of them elsewhere in Europe. The Peninsular War dragged on for the rest of his reign. Napoleon later on blamed the ‘Spanish ulcer’ for his downfall.
The Russian Campaign:
The Russian Czar, Alexander I, suffering from the Continental Blockade, refused to cooperate with Napoleon and opened her ports to British ships. With a grand army of 325,000 men, Napoleon attacked Russia at the end of June 1812. Napoleon’s Russian campaign proved to be his doom. His army reached Moscow but stayed there for too long.
The bitter Russian winter had set in. His weary soldiers had to retreat. The retreating army, harassed by peasants and guerillas, perished in large numbers in the bitter cold. To embark on so vast an undertaking in the east while England remained unconquered in the west was a mistake.
Revolt in Prussia:
In Prussia too, a nationalist reaction developed against Napoleon. The Prussian army was overhauled. A patriotic movement arose among students and intellectuals.
Napoleon’s harsh treatment towards the Pope aroused opposition from Catholics everywhere. This was the moment for the enemy powers to unite and start the Battle of the Nations.
Formation of a Coalition:
England, Prussia, Russia and Austria formed a coalition. In this war of liberation Napoleon was defeated at Leipzig (1813), and again, at the Battle of Paris. Napoleon abdicated and was sent to Elba by the Treaty of Paris. The old Bourbon monarchy was restored in France.
Napoleon made another attempt to recover his empire. He escaped from Elba and landed in France where he was received with tremendous enthusiasm. However, he was ultimately defeated in the Battle of Waterloo (1815 A.D.) The Hundred Days’ Rule of Napoleon came to an end. This time Napoleon was exiled to a far away island of St. Helena where he died in 1821.
Napoleon’s impact on Europe:
Napoleon, through his conquests, had built up a huge European empire. He came to power at a time when the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity were well established in France. Napoleon called himself a child of the Revolution. He introduced the Code Napoleon and a sound administrative system in every country that he conquered. Equality before the law and equal educational opportunities were ensured. Career was open to talent. Thus Napoleon gave equality to the people of the conquered countries.
He extended and perpetuated the effects of the French Revolution in Europe by destroying feudal privileges. Napoleon also helped the growth of nationalism. By transforming Italy and Germany into national kingdoms under him, Napoleon fostered national sentiments among the people.