European History Pt. 44 — The Tide Turns Against Napoleon

Last time, we saw Napoleon at his high point. His brothers were king in various part of Europe and he himself was undisputed land power in Europe. He was at peace with Russia and found allies in trying to starve Great Britain. This time, we see how it all begins to unravel.

Napoleon tried to create an ideology to unify the nations of Europe against Great Britain. He called Great Britain “a nation of shopkeepers” who wanted to keep Europe’s growing wealth for themselves (the parallels to anti semitism in WWII is pretty interesting). Both sides resorted to trade warfare. Napoleon forbid British goods and England blockaded most of Europe. England was called “the modern carthage,” a ruthless trade cartel. Both France and Britain competed for trade.

NOTE: the war of 1812 in American history came about largely because the U.S. was one of the few neutral countries that could pick between these two blocs of power.

But the continental system was a failure. Not because the continent was starved out. There was plenty of food and weapons produced in Europe proper, so the blockade did not succeed that way. Also, boycotting French goods BOOSTED the business powers on the continent who now did not have to compete with them.

Rather, the problems came from the fact that there was not free trade in the continent. France kept tariffs strongest at its national borders and so its industry was protected at the expense of other countries.

Also, land transport was too slow and inefficient to keep the goods (which there was enough of) going to the right places at the right times. If Napoleonic Europe had happened 40 years later (when railroads existed) — the continental system MIGHT HAVE SUCCEEDED. 

Britain meanwhile was not damaged by the continental system because they had their overseas connections and were able to keep their traders flourishing.

Resistance to the French System

After placing the continental system in economic context, the book turns to a little intellectual history, which I love.

The book discusses nationalism and how it grew and was nurtured by Napoleon’s insistence on a kind of French internationalism. People explored their local traditions and found new ways to argue in favor of their autonomy. They turned to liberalism and conservatism in various ways to make this case. The book has this powerful quote: “Both conservatism and liberalism rose up against Napoleon, destroyed him, outlasted him, and shaped the history of the following generations.” 

For instance, in Spain, anti Napoleonism was conservative, aiming to restore the Bourbon monarchy and the church. England by contrast of course was concerned with stamping “Boney” out completely.

The most important place though was Germany. We’ve learned so much of Germany, how it had always played second fiddle to France intellectually speaking. Prussia was a military state and was a great power on that fact alone, but now there was a great flourishing in German thinking and art. This was the time of Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Herder, Schiller, Goethe, and Beethoven — some of the most interesting minds of all time. Germany at this time was wrestling with its national identity after roughly 300 years of being manipulated and isolated by various empires.

Herder is the classic expression of these impulses, but because I’ve never read him, I won’t summarize other than to say he seemed to challenge the enlightenment view of universal reason developing everywhere at different paces.  He seemed to argue that cultures were just different, end of story, and that this difference was a source of pride for its citizens. Culture, was the watchword of this philosophy. Anti-semitism developed at this time as a perversion of the anti-internationalism that was trickling through Germany. Looking back at how this spirit developed, its clear that it had many laudatory goals and impulses (it was for instance, democratic because it emphasized the spirit of the Volk), but it was also lent itself to a kind of paranoid and neurotic obsession with national purity, an overreaction to years of manipulation and exploitation.

Prussia especially internalized these lessons. They had lost their territory in one sweeping blow (the loss to Napoleon) and were casting about for a philosophy to bring about a new Prussia. They settled on a kind of patriotic militarism (the kind that had been on display in the American Revolution. Hessian mercenaries who saw American patriotism reported back to Germany).


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