In this lesson, we explore the fall of Napoleon’s French Empire after his fateful decision to invade Russia in 1812. In turn, we also discuss the Congress of Vienna that convened after Napoleon’s defeat and attempted to plan post-Napoleonic Europe.
Fall of Napoleon
Literature is full of characters whose pride and vanity are their ultimate downfall. Whether it’s the hubris of Oedipus Rex or Dr. Frankenstein, literature teaches us that sometimes the very ambition which has led a character to greatness can also ruin them if they don’t humble themselves.
In the same way, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction: history has numerous great figures who were brought down by their own blind egotism. However, few can match the arrogance and ultimate fall of France’s first Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.
French Empire at 1811
After seven years of sitting on the imperial throne, Napoleon had fought off numerous European enemies multiple times. He’d also increased French possessions and client states to include nearly all of continental Europe, from Paris to Poland to the Iberian Peninsula and into Italy. Though Napoleon’s attempts to pave the way for an invasion of Great Britain had proved unsuccessful, the diminutive French Emperor had implemented the Continental System, whereby no continental states controlled or beholden to France were allowed to trade with Great Britain, essentially setting up a blockade of the islands.While this system intended to destabilize the English economy, it actually hurt the regions of France that depended upon trade more. It also stretched the French army and allied French forces thinly across the continent attempting to enforce the system.
Additionally, Russia experienced internal grain shortages after the system was implemented because it had previously relied heavily on British imports to feed its populace. As a result, Russia broke the system in December 1810 and resumed trade with Great Britain.This angered Napoleon, who had previously come to terms with Russia after defeating the Russians in 1807 at the Battle of Friedland. The two powers had signed the Treaty of Tilsit, which recognized Russian and French spheres of influence and Russia also agreed to abide by the Continental System. In response to Russia’s breaking of the treaty, Napoleon spent the entire year of 1811 mobilizing troops and supplies in preparation for an invasion of Russia.
Napoleon’s intentions were not a well-kept secret, and in May of 1812, Russia, Sweden, the Spanish rebels, and Great Britain formed the Sixth Coalition to oppose Napoleonic France.
The following month, Napoleon crossed the Niemen River, which had been set in 1807 as the boundary between Russian territory and French-controlled states.Napoleon’s armies advanced slowly across the Russian countryside, unable to gather supplies along the way as the Russian army burnt crops and towns as they retreated. Napoleon’s first major battle of the campaign, the Battle of Borodino, proved successful, though his army took heavy casualties in winning the clash.The battle laid Moscow open to Napoleon and his troops. When he reached the city in September, Napoleon found the city deserted and in flames, set ablaze by the city’s inhabitants. With little else to accomplish in Russia and his supply train too strung out to maintain a winter camp in the city, Napoleon was forced to retreat from Moscow in October in the midst of a ferocious Russian winter, losing scores of troops to frostbite and disease along the way.
Napoleon’s nominal victory weakened the French cause against Russia more than the burning of the capital helped. Soon after Napoleon returned to Paris in December of 1812, Russia promised to help Prussia regain the territory the Prussians had lost in the Treaty of Tilsit, and Prussia promptly declared war on France.Despite early French successes against this alliance, there were problems elsewhere.
The Duke of Wellington arrived in Spain to lead the Spanish rebels, who had intermittently fought French control in Iberia since 1807. Additionally, Austria joined the anti-French coalition in August of 1813 after negotiations between Napoleon and the great Austrian statesmen, Metternich, broke down.At the Battle of Leipzig in October of 1813, the allies dealt Napoleon’s army a severe defeat, and by the end of the month, Napoleon’s armies were retreating all across Europe. By December, nearly all of the French territorial gains of the previous decade had been erased.
Fall, Return and Congress of Vienna
By early 1814, the allies were invading France itself and in March, one of Napoleon’s chief generals, Joachim Murat, defected to the allies.
Paris surrendered by March. In the first week of April, the French government deposed Napoleon from the imperial throne, and only a few days later, Napoleon officially abdicated in favor of his son. He further agreed to exile on the island of Elba off the coast of Italy.
In response to the end of the French Empire, the powers that had defeated Napoleon convened the Congress of Vienna in September of 1814 to determine how the territories France had conquered would be divided. The main objective of the Congress were to divvy up territory in a way that pleased all parties and created a balance of power such that pan-continental conflict would become impossible. Additionally, the Congress sought to restore the French Bourbon monarchy, return the borders of Europe as much as possible to its pre-1793 boundaries, and eliminate the possibility of events such as the French Revolution from happening elsewhere in Europe. The Congress was moderately successful in that Prussia’s borders were expanded to check French power in Western Europe, and all sides managed to avoid a major war until the Crimean War in the 1850s.However, this was not the last Europe had heard of Napoleon. France’s economy had remained weak and the restored Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII, was unpopular with the people. Napoleon saw his opportunity and seized it, returning to France in March 1815 and marching an army of disaffected French soldiers into Paris only three weeks later, where he was greeted as a hero and proclaimed Emperor of France yet again.
Naturally, the former allies immediately formed a new coalition and invaded France. Napoleon’s quick mobilization of France was remarkable and made the initial defense of his position possible. However, he suffered decisive defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo in June of 1815, which doomed Napoleon’s second reign. By July, the allies were back in Paris, and Napoleon was exiled once again, this time to the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821.
Napoleon’s own delusions of his army’s prowess and his personal genius certainly played a part in his quick fall from European dominance.
Many of his closest advisors nearly begged him not to invade Russia in 1812. When Napoleon’s forces were defeated more by the elements than by any army in Russia, it opened the door for the rest of Europe to exploit the French Empire’s weaknesses, which they did brilliantly. Napoleon’s return only a year after his original exile and his ability to mobilize an entire country quickly is perhaps the event that best illustrates Napoleon’s military and organizational genius. His removal from power, however, cemented the implementation of the European plan devised at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and 1815 to create and maintain a balance of power in Europe – essentially trying to safeguard Europe from another Napoleon.
When this lesson is over, you should be able to:
- Understand how Napoleon’s ego and Russia’s scorched earth policy caused his eventual defeat
- Identify the results of the Congress of Vienna as resetting the boundaries of Europe after the Empire’s fall