Blinded by Ambition Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte’s dramatic fall from power was the consequence of his over-ambitious military policy. He thought himself the emperor of the Europe, with the goal of liberating its people from serfdom and feudalism. His Empire was constructed of three layers, “The Core” (France and its expanded territory), “Satellite Kingdoms” (Territories in which Napoleon placed a Bonaparte as Monarch), and his Alliances (many of which he politically abused and bullied) (MHB 708). As the empire grew in territory and strength, Napoleon began to upset “the Balance of Power,” shared by the ruling monarchies of Europe. Blinded by his ego, Napoleon neglected to acknowledge his ambitions as tyrannical. He directed his attention to his ongoing conquests instead of establishing stable regimes in newly conquered territories. These aggressive war efforts demanded excess money and troops that France alone did not have the capability to provide.

Thus, Napoleon implemented taxes and drafts in conquered territories to bolster his military machine. Specifically, the “Grand Armee,” a coalition of 600,000 troops whose purpose was to invade Russia (MHB 708). The army consisted of only one third Frenchmen while remaining soldiers came from territories such as Prussia or Northern Italy (MHB 708). The indignation created by Napoleon’s actions sparked “Reactive Nationalism,” among the lower class (MHB 708). People began to rally around their common strife and culturally and emotionally identified as a nation (MHB 708). These nationalistic feelings caused by Napoleon continued to have a large effect on European political long after the fall of the Grand Empire.

The lower class’s anger resulted in the ruling elite of conquered territories, “Satellite Kingdoms,” and other European powers to act. Specifically, “The Quadruple Alliance,” made up of; Russia, Prussia, Great Britain, and Austria, banded together in 1814 under the Treaty of Chaumont to put an end to Napoleon’s power-hungry expansion (MHB 708). United by fear and supported by an angered Europe, the “Quadruple Alliance,” effectively backed Napoleon into a corner following the destruction of his “Grade Armee” in Russia (MHB 708). The combined efforts of the “Quadruple Alliance” feverishly restored the “balance of power” in Europe in order to maintain their positions as monarchs.

Jakob Walter’s memoir, The Diary of a Napoleonic Footsoldier, provides excellent evidence as to how this “Grand Armee” collapsed. Walter was a Prussian soldier in this army who recounted the hardships of Napoleon’s campaign into Russia. He wrote regarding the food supply, “All is burnt and the Russian [Army] has carried off all subjects [inhabitants]…there is no food to be found because nobody is to be found in any town,” (Walter). Walter illuminates the struggle the “Grand Armee” had regarding Russia’s retreat policy. When Tsar Alexander I withdrew deep into Russia he implemented a scorched earth policy, burning all crops and food supplies in the path of the enemy. Scarcity of food and supplies left Napoleon stranded in a harsh Russian winter.

Napoleon paid little interest to the suffering of his army, and according to Walter “his outward appearance seemed indifferent and unconcerned over the wretchedness of his soldiers; only ambition and lost honor may have made themselves felt in his heart,” (Walter). Napoleon’s unwavering ambition in the face of mounting obstacles led to a lack of faith amongst the troops. Walter wrote, “the French and Allies shouted into his ears many oaths and curses about his own guilty person, he was still able to listen to them unmoved,” (Walter). As the soldiers of the “Grand Armee” began to grow restless, Napoleon did little to combat their woes. In fact, he all but abandoned the army when he knew they would surely be defeated and instead refocused on his next campaign.

While Napoleon shifted focus, the “Grand Armee” retreated from Russia in a disastrous fashion. From the start the campaign was destined to fail, but the death toll of 370,000 and 200,000 captured was unprecedented (MHB 708). Cold, sickness, and a lack of supplies heckled the troops on their journey home, but Russian attacks from the rear delivered the final blow. Walter remembered, “And so we retreated, when many died, and I lost my health. We retreated 20-4 miles when Emperor Alexander encircled us with 200,000 in our back and captured us. Whoever did not die was taken prisoner,” (Walter). He describes the swift victory Russia had in hunting down the plagued and no longer glorious “Grand Armee.” Walter’s descriptions of the conditions, Napoleons attitude, and the Russian army advancement paints a vivid picture of the primary reasons a force so large failed. On a larger scale, the “Grande Armee” exemplifies the over ambitious nature of Napoleon as a leader and helps explain how the fall of the French Empire happened swiftly.

These great ambitious ultimately led to defeat in 1814 at the hands of the “Quadruple Alliance.” A defeated Napoleon was forced to accept the terms of the Congress of Vienna. The ruling monarchies of Europe thought it prudent to restore “the balance of power,” “an international equilibrium of political and military forces that would discourage aggression by any combination of states or, worse, the combination of Europe by any single state,” by reinstating the Bourbon Dynasty and reinstating France’s boundaries from 1972 (MHB 749). Specially, the policy of foreign ministers; Klemens von Metternich (Austria), Robert Castlereagh (Great Britain), and Charles Talleyrand (France), pushed forward the political ideology of monarchy balance in Europe as a means to peace (MHB 749). The terms were relatively lax with the goal of creating peace in Europe and avoiding future conflicts.

The new boundaries of France were drawn very liberally considering the massive war Napoleon created. The reinstatement of the Bourbon dynasty was intended to strengthen the position of other monarchies by setting precedent to combat the liberal movements across Europe. The weak Louis XVIII commenced his rule while Napoleon was banished to the island of Elbe. He was granted governance and a stipend of two-million-franc per year. The “Quadruple Alliance” put Belgium and Holland under rule by a Dutch Monarchy to strengthen the resistance to France in case of future conflict. They also expanded Prussia’s territory on France’s border to become, “Sentinel of the Rhine,” (MHB 749). By solidifying the borders of France, “The Quadruple Alliance” provided Europe with the balance of power that the monarchies of the time thought necessary.

The terms of the Congress of Vienna proved to be too lax for Napoleon who decided to leave his island and invade France. Garnered with the support of loyalists from his former Empire, Napoleon marched to Paris and overthrew Louis XVIII in a period known as the 100 days. His efforts to reestablish rule in France were met with swift retaliation by the monarchies of Europe who easily defeated Napoleon at the battle of waterloo (MHB 750). After his short invasion, Napoleon faced harsher terms than in 1814. He was sentenced to imprisonment off the African Coast on the Island St. Helena.

France’s territory shrunk, and Louis XVIII was placed back on the throne and had to pay 700 million francs in reparations. Little territory was lost, and the prior terms of the Congress of Vienne remained in place (MHB 750). The continued use of diplomacy to solve disputes in Europe reveals the trend of collaboration between monarchies to continue the subjugation of Europe under a small ruling elite. Over the next century Europe would be plagued with violent revolution fueled by liberalism and combated by the same conservative political policies implemented at the Congress of Vienna.

Although the Congress of Vienna successfully established peace between the ruling monarchies of Europe, it left certain ethnic groups angered and slighted. The fear of liberalism prompted the European Monarchies to consolidate regions of Europe under the justification of the earlier mentioned “Balance of Power.” Ethnic groups such as the Magyars (Hungarians) became increasingly dominated by the ruling minority Germans in Austria. The Hungarians specifically struggled with the ever more controlling and powerful post Napoleonic Austria because of the geographic separation of their people. While the Hungarians dominated politics in their regions, they felt overshadowed and undermined in Austrian politics as a whole. The Treaty of Versailles and the post Napoleonic political world also affect the Polish, whose territories became annexed by Russia under the terms of this congress (MHB 750). Ethnic groups who already began to identify as a group grew restless. Independence and a lust to form a distinct nation revolving around cultural unity became a common theme amongst these peoples.

The Napoleonic era passed as fast as it came but its effects had a lasting impact on the political realm of Europe. Napoleon’s swift conquests revealed the weakness of monarchies tot the common people and introduced liberalism with the abolishment of serfdom in many territories. The collaboration of monarchies and the disruption of “the balance of power” ushered Europe into a new era of nationalism that changed interactions between countries forever.


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