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The Rise & Fall of Napolean Bonaparte

In 1791, the King of Prussia (William II) and Austria (Leopold II) issued a Declaration of Pillnitz. They asserted the divine right to rule and argued for the restoration of monarchial rule in France. Failing this, the imposition of war was threatened.

Under leadership of Napoleon, the French army managed to repel the offensive of Prussia and Austria successfully. Following this, Napoleon’s popularity witnessed a significant and steady rise during this period.

In 1793-1795, a Committee on Public Safety was established under the leadership of Jacobians. The Jacobians publicly executed more than 25000 individuals starting from King Louis XVI. The people who were executed were termed as enemies of the revolution and were critical of National Assembly’s failure to revive the French economy. The whole episode of execution is known as ‘reign of terror’.

In 1795, following the election, the Rule of Directory was put in place. It was composed of 5 councils. The Directory was to make executive decisions by consensus,  to prevent the abuse of authority by one individual.

From 1795-1799, almost five years rule of Directory was marked by indecisiveness. The underlying issues of higher prices, unemployment, lack of industrialisation, low agricultural growth rates etc., were not addressed.

On the 1st decadal anniversary of the French Revolution (in 1799), a public protest broke out in Paris against the inefficient rule of the Directory. Napoleon soon returned to Paris and assumed a leadership role in the public protest, bringing about an effective coup (Coup of 18 Brumaire). The rule of the Directory was now replaced by a council of 3, to be led by Napoleon.

Napoleonic Wars

France was increasingly seen as a challenge to British Supremacy. From 1799 to 1802, another round of battles broke out in Europe as Britain launched a military offensive to overthrow Napoleon. Napoleon successfully repelled the British offensive.  With the Treaty of Amiens of 1802, the British recognised Napoleon’s rule over France. This further boosted Napoleon’s popularity.

In 1803, Napoleon declared himself as 1st council of France for life. In 1804 he invited Pope for his coronation and declared himself as the emperor of France. However, he continued to emphasise that he was a chosen ruler and ruled because of people’s wishes.  Thus, did not require a divine sanction.

Napoleon argued in favour of the idea of nationalism and continued to reject the divine right to rule. He supported the emergence of German, Italian and Polish nationalism. He argued that people who speak a similar language and come from similar cultural background must unite to form a nation led by their chosen representative.

Napoleon saw Britain as its key rival that could obstruct his objective of achieving European domination. To overcome the same, he aimed to militarily subdue Britain. However, the British navy was superior to the French and launched a pre-emptive strike on the French navy stationed in Trafalgar, imposing a major naval setback on Napoleon. 1805 Battle of Trafalgar.

The Continental System

During 1806, 1807, Napoleon imposed quick defeats on Austria and Prussia. He introduced the Continental system and imposed an economic blockade on Britain. He thus prohibited other European parts from trading with Britain. The continental system reduced British export to the region by 2/3 rd and hurt the British economy. However, it also led to higher prices across Europe as French industries could not meet the demands for goods. In 1810, Russia, fearing a wider popular revolt against high prices, broke out of the continental system.

As a result, in 1811, Napoleon launched an attack on Russia. The Franco-Russian war of 1810-11 resulted in French defeat with a major military setback for Napoleon. The French leader had underestimated the Russian challenge, and though led the offensive with four lack troops, returned with merely 75,000.

In 1813 (Battle of Leipzig), seeing weakened France, Prussia, Austria, Russia, and Britain launched a joint military offensive to remove Napoleon from power. . Napoleon was defeated, and the Bourbon dynasty was reinstated.

18 June 1815, the Battle of Waterloo witnessed Napoleon’s final attempt to capture power in France. He was defeated by a combined army of Britain and Prussia. Napoleon spent the rest of his life as a prisoner on St. Helena island until he died in 1821.

“A revolution can be neither made nor stopped”

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon wars

I       1791 – 1792Against Prussia and Austria.  Defensive.
II1799 – 1802Against British offensive. Treaty of Amiens.
III1805 – 1807At Trafalgar, Against Britain, Austria, Prussia. Continental System.
IV1810 – 1815Against Russia, Against alliance at Waterloo.

Reasons for the failure of Napoleon

The Continental system backfired, and failed to produce desired response as it led to inflation.

The expansionist ambitions of Napoleon.

The failure of Napoleon to judge Russian challenge in 1810-1811 and overestimation of his own strength.

The Congress of Vienna

After the defeat of France, a conference of major powers was established at Vienna, Austria. It was mandated to provide for the geopolitical arrangement in post-war Europe. It was called the Congress of Vienna.

The winning side, Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria, decided in the congress to take back France to pre-1789 position, i.e. to undo the changes introduced by French Revolution and Napoleon. It reasserted the divine right to rule. Undo the spread of nationalist ideas and restore peace and stability to Europe.

A number of steps were taken for the purpose

Principle of Legitimacy – The Monarchs are the legitimate rulers in Europe and would be reinstated. e.g. Bourbon dynasty in France, House of Orange in Holland, Pope’s rule in Rome etc.

Principle of rewarding victorious powers – territorial rewards to those who enabled the overthrow of Napoleon.

Principle of balance of power – It aimed to surround France with a rim of strong states which would prevent France from considering territorial advances against its smaller neighbours.

Prussia was given control of states that were earlier in the Rhine Confederation, established by Napoleon in 1806. Prussia was handed back the control of Polish territories. Belgium and Holland were united with each other. Austria was granted the control of Lombardy and Venetia.

However, the Vienna congress could not completely undo the ideas of nationalism unleashed by Napoleon and the French Revolution. The revolution of 1848 overthrew Metternich’s rule in Austria, and rudimentary parliament was established. Finally, in 1871, a stable French Republic was established.

Relative peace and stability – Congress of Vienna treated France with considerable respect and dignity and did not penalised for the actions of Napoleon. This brought a century of relative peace to Europe [1814-1914] till the outbreak of WW 1 in 1914.

The Legacy

French revolution gave ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity not only to Europe but also to other parts of the world. In India, the leaders like Tipu Sultan, Raja Ram Mohan Roy etc., supported ideals of the French revolution.

The French revolution occurred due to oppression and exploitation. It resulted in citizens getting rights that are inalienable. It was a completely new idea in the times. The French revolution was also an inspiration to the Indian freedom movement, where Indians were fighting against the British.

Posted in World History

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