European History Pt. 42 — Napoleonic Europe

In the past few posts (here, here, and here), I’ve looked at the course of the French Revolution. This was at such a summary level that I was basically rehearsing dates and major events. Anyway, now the book moves to the international scene of Europe, AS the French Revolution was taking place. The book notes that one should think about this time as a period of world war. Everyone was involved in war with each other. Though one caveat that the book stresses is that the four great powers of Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia were never ALL in the field at one time until 1813.

A couple of things to note

1. France did not transform Europe at this time solely by force. Many countries that they conquered wanted some sort of change and worked with Napoleon to get it (sometimes). Thus, Napoleon brought broad social changes, not just conquest.

2. Internationally, various countries were happy to ally with Napoleon. Only after sustained contact with him did most leaders conclude that their ultimate interest was to dispose of him entirely.

A Rough Timeline

Remember, the declaration of Pillnitz in 1791 was signed by Leopold because he thought that it would never result in war, because its details required that all signatories be willing to form a coalition. He never thought that would happen.

Nonetheless there was war, but France made out ok because Austria and Prussia were preoccupied with the partition of Poland and with Russia. This is a theme in the French revolution. Austria and Prussia were looking east. Campo Formio in 1797 ended this first coalition.

The second coalition of 1799 was also dissolved. After Napoleon’s Egypt campaign, Russia withdrew, realizing that the British were their enemies in the Mediterranean. Austria accepted peace in 1801 and even Britain accepted peace in 1802.

In the peace of 1802-1803, Napoleon consolidated his power in the Cisalpine republic in Italy and the Helvetic Republic. He helped arrange Germany to his liking.

Great Britain goes back to war against the French in 1803, and the naval campaign is successful enough to make Napoleon abandon the new world altogether. He sold “Louisiana” in the Louisiana purchase to the United States.

Great Britain also put together a coalition for the land battle as well. In 1805, the Austrians joined, and then so did Tsar Alexander I of Russia (Alexander deserves some ink in his own right. He was Catherine the Great’s grandson, educated by a French tutor. He was an enlightened despot in many ways, and he was an astute observer of the international system and the balance of power. He declared the need to have law over force in international, and not surprisingly, he saw himself as the person to bring that dictum to pass by counterweighting Napoleon).

The war went pretty badly for the land arm of the third coalition. Russia and Austria were defeated in several battles, most notably the battle of Austerlitz. Various kingdoms in Germany were altered so that the Holy Roman Empire was finally deceased. The only bright spot was that in 1805, the British won the battle of Trafalgar, a monumental sea battle that assured British naval supremacy for a century. In 1806, Prussia (NOT part of the third coalition) went to war BY THEMSELVES against Napoleon and were soundly defeated.

Napoleon pressed on toward Russia and this made Alexander worried. He was not sure he could retreat into Russia lest the serfs or even the nobles revolt. Thus, he sued for peace. Peace was prefaced by the famous meeting between Alexander and Napoleon on the Nieman river. The result of the meeting was the treaty of Tilsit in 1807. The third coalition was dead. 


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