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The Rise & Fall of Napoleon Bonaparte

1. Background

Image: Napoleon Bonaparte

In 1791, the King of Prussia (William II) and Austria (Leopold II) issued a joint Declaration of Pillnitz, which asserted the divine right to rule and argued for the restoration of the monarchical rule in France. Failing to implement this declaration, the imposition of war was threatened. As a result, to counter their threatening claims Napoleon took the lead of the French army and repelled both of them. This scenario contributed to the rise of Napoleon’s popularity during this period.

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

Image: Execution of King Louis XVI
Image: execution of Robespierre on 28 July 1794 marked the end of the Reign of Terror

Along with this, in 1795, following the election, the Rule of Directory composed of 5 councils was put in place to make executive decisions by consensus and to prevent the abuse of the authority by one individual.

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

Consequently, 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) which ended the rule of the Directory. The coup also replaced the council with 3 members to be led by Napoleon.

2. Napoleonic Wars

France was increasingly seen as a challenge to the British Supremacy. From 1799 to 1802, another round of battles broke out in Europe as Britain launched a military offensive to overthrow Napoleon. However, Napoleon successfully repelled the British offensive and 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 the 1st council of France for life. In 1804, he also 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 the people’s wishes. Therefore, he 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 also argued that the 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)

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3. The Continental System

During 1806-1807, Napoleon imposed quick defeats on Austria and Prussia. He also introduced the Continental system and imposed an economic blockade on Britain, prohibiting other European parts from trading with Britain. The continental system further reduced British export to the region by 2/3rd and hurt the British economy. However, it also led to higher prices across Europe as the French industries could not meet the demands for goods.

In 1810, Russia, fearing a wider popular revolt against the high prices broke out in the continental system. As a result, in 1811, Napoleon launched an attack on Russia and the Franco-Russian war of 1810-11 resulted in the French defeat with a major military setback for Napoleon. The French leader had underestimated the Russian challenge, and led an offensive attack with four lakh troops, however, he returned with merely 75,000 soldiers.

French Empire in 1812 – before Battle of Leipzig
Image from Wikipedia
Image: Napoleon retreats from Moscow

Then, in 1813 (Battle of Leipzig), seeing weak positions of France, a coalition led by Prussia, Austria, Russia, and Britain launched a joint military offensive attack to remove Napoleon from power.  In this attack, Napoleon was defeated and the Bourbon dynasty was reinstated.

Later after a span of two years, on 18 June 1815, the Battle of Waterloo took place which witnessed Napoleon’s final attempt to capture power in France. However, he was defeated by a combined army of Britain and Prussia, and consequently, he 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

4. Timeline of Napoleonic Wars

I1791 – 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.

5. Reasons for the failure of Napoleon

There were several factors which contributed to the fall of Napoleon such as the Continental system backfired, and failed to produce a desired response in France which led to the rise in inflation.

The expansionist ambitions of Napoleon also made it difficult to achieve success and continue to hold power. In addition to this, the failure of Napoleon to judge the Russian challenge in 1810-1811 and overestimation of his own strength added much more to the difficulties for Napoleon.

Image: The Battle of Waterloo

6. The Congress of Vienna

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

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

6.1 A Number of Means Applied for the Purpose

Several principles were employed by the Congress of Vienna to assert the decision made in the conference such as:

  • 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 and Pope’s rule in Rome etc.
  • Principle of rewarding victorious powers – whereby the territorial rewards were provided 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 the territorial advances against its smaller neighbours.

Prussia was also given the control of states that were earlier in the Rhine Confederation, established by Napoleon in 1806 and that of the Polish territories. Furthermore, Belgium and Holland were united with each other, and 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 the Metternich’s rule in Austria, and a rudimentary parliament was established. Finally, in 1871, a stable French Republic was established.

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

7. The Legacy

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

The French revolution occurred due to oppression and exploitation and it resulted in providing the citizens with rights that are inalienable in nature. 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.

8. Summary

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the greatest statesman, soldier and the ruler of the ages. His rise and fall can be attributed to the situations prevailing in France such as seen during the Declaration of Pillnitz, deteriorating state of economy in the French society and the continual occurrence of protests resulting into the failure of the governing body to handle the conditions leading to a war.

Napoleon fought many wars during his tenure, the most remarkable one; however, was the Battle of Waterloo of 1815. This battle of Waterloo finally established Napoleon’s control over the vast territories of France.

However, like any other ruling authorities in the world, Napoleonic regime could not stood for long due to both the internal weakness of the governing system and the rise of other political powers such as Britain.

To conclude, it can be said that though Napoleon could not stand for a much longer period of time but his period brought many inspiring changes both in the French society as well as to the world model of governance.

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9. Multiple Choice Question

1] The Declaration of Pillnitz was signed between whom:
a) Russian and Germans
b) Austria and Prussia
c) France and Germany
d) None of the above

Show Answer

Ans: b) Austria and Prussia

2] The principle of balance of power refers to:
a) Surrounding France so as to limit its expansion
b) Providing territorial rewards
c) Giving authority to the Monarch
d) Establishing a world government

Show Answer

Ans: a) Surrounding France so as to limit its expansion

3] The conference of Vienna was established to:
a) Establish representative government
b) Geopolitical rearrangement
c) Suggest reforms in constitution
d) Waging war on Austria

Show Answer

Ans: b) Geopolitical rearrangement

4] The treaty of Amiens of 1802 symbolises:
a) British recognition of Napoleon control over France
b) Reduced British export to the region
c) The division of France
d) Defeat of Napoleon

Show Answer

Ans: a) British recognition of Napoleon control over France

5] The Battle of Waterloo was fought in which year?
a) 1805
b) 1807
c) 1814
d) 1815

Show Answer

Ans: d) 1815

6] Why the coup of 18 Brumaire was organised?
a) Corruption in society
b) Inefficient administration of Directory
c) Unemployment
d) Religious factions

Show Answer

Ans: b) Inefficient administration of Directory

7] The Battle of Trafalgar was fought between whom?
a) Britain and France
b) Germany and France
c) Russia and Germany
d) France and Belgium

Show Answer

Ans: a) Britain and France

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