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The French Invasion of Russia
Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia was the most extensive military campaign Europe had seen up until the outbreak of WWI. A massive army of well over half a million men, under the command of Emperor Napoleon himself, crossed the Neman on June 24, 1812.
As we all know today, the invasion of Russia quickly turned into a disaster. Napoleon lost most of his men, and the fiasco weakened his power considerably. The Russians pressed their advantage in 1813 and continued to fight Napoleon. The reluctant allies of Napoleon, Austria and Prussia, switched sides and joined the Russians.
The allies forced the French to retreat from Germany and invaded France itself. Finally, Napoleon was forced to admit defeat in early 1814 and was sent into his first exile.
Napoleon was warned by many of his advisors not to attack Russia, but he pressed on with the invasion anyway. The reason for this decision was simple: Napoleon needed the cooperation of Russia to defeat Britain.
Napoleon fought Austria and Russia on multiple occasions, but in reality, Britain was the French Emperor’s greatest and most stubborn enemy. Britain lacked a strong enough standing army to challenge Napoleon on land, but thanks to her strong economy, Britain could finance Napoleon’s continental rivals. It is telling enough that even before his great victory at Austerlitz, Napoleon called the Russians and Austrians British lackeys.
Napoleon defeated the British-backed Third Coalition in 1805. Another British-backed coalition was defeated by Napoleon in 1807. Russia was present both times, and Napoleon decisively defeated them twice. The first time at Austerlitz and the second time at Friedland.
Napoleon met Tsar Alexander in 1807, and the two men allied. In exchange for allying himself to France, Alexander was not forced to lose territories as Austria did to France on numerous occasions, or Prussia did in 1807. Alexander also agreed to join Napoleon’s Continental System.
What Was the Continental System?
The Continental System was Napoleon’s strategy for defeating Britain. France tried for over a century to get the upper hand over Britain on the high seas, but their efforts failed. After the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar, Napoleon seemingly had given up hope on destroying British naval power by confrontation.
According to the Continental System, the countries under the control of Napoleon and those allied to Napoleon were forbidden to trade with Britain. By refusing to buy or sell things to Perfidious Albion, Napoleon hoped he would destroy Britain’s economic might. Once that was done, Britain would either sue for peace (and a peace favourable to France would be signed), or Britain will go down in Revolution.
The plan was sound on paper. Britain’s proximity to Europe naturally made Continental Europe the biggest trade partner of Britain. British goods were bought all over Continental Europe, and Britain also bought goods from the Continent.
Napoleon achieved his initial ambition by the embargo, and historians estimate that Britain’s trade with Continental Europe shrank between 25-50%. Nonetheless, there were differences in how strictly the states of the Continent adhered to the System.
Failure of the Continental System
The first victim of the System was Portugal. As the Portuguese refused to implement the System, Napoleon ordered an invasion against Portugal. Napoleon deposed the Spanish Bourbons not much later, but this move backfired spectacularly. The people of Spain and Portugal rose against the French, and the deadly Peninsular War began in 1808.
Other countries were also relatively lax in their adherence to the embargo. Embarrassingly for Napoleon, his brother, the King of the Netherlands, was one of the worst offenders.
More importantly than his incompetent family members, the Russian Tsar was hesitant to implement the Continental System strictly. Alexander had his reasons, of course. Through the Baltic, Britain bought up many supplies from Russia, such as furs, timber and ropes. Russian goods were essential to the British shipbuilding industry, but the Russians also made a good profit from trade with Britain.
The will of one man was trying to overturn centuries of economic and commercial development. No matter how great a man Napoleon was, not even he was capable of achieving that.
The Question of Poland
Commercial reasons were not the only motivation for Alexander either. The Russian elite was more than capable of deposing and killing the rulers they deemed were acting against the interest of their country. In a palace coup, Catherine the Great deposed her husband, Peter, in the 1760s. More importantly than this episode, even the father of Alexander, Tsar Paul, was deposed by a palace coup a decade before Napoleon invaded Russia.
Alexander was by no means a genius like Napoleon, but he was more than smart enough to see the writing on the wall.
The Continental System was not the only differing interest between Napoleonic France and Russia. After defeating the Fourth Coalition in 1807, Napoleon created the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.
The Grand Duchy of Warsaw was only a sad shadow of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but at least it was a state on the map. Something which Poland seized to be in the late 18th century.
During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Great Monarchies of Continental Europe went through a remarkable transformation. The state was finally able to curb the power of the almighty nobility, a growing state bureaucracy was built up, and the Age of Absolutism began.
Poland-Lithuania was one of the states which failed to modernise, and this proved to be a great mistake. The absolute monarchies which surrounded Poland-Lithuania became much more powerful than Poland. By the late 18th century, Poland was there for the taking, and it was an opportunity that was too good to be missed by Frederick the Great or Catherine the Great. Maria Theresa was more reluctant to partition up Poland, but as there was no turning back, in the end, Austria took off large bits from Poland.
Frederick the Great mockingly said that he heard that Maria Theresa cried when he had presented the plans, but the more she cried, the more she took. Thanks to the three partitions of Poland in the 1770s and the 1790s, Poland-Lithuania was swallowed up whole by Prussia, Austria and Russia.
Napoleon partially undid the partitions by recreating a rump Polish state, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Whether Napoleon had any intention to recreate a greater Poland is anybody’s guess. Considering he married the daughter of the Austrian Emperor and was trying to maintain his alliance with Russia, the answer is more probably no, than yes.
Finally, besides the commercial and geopolitical differences, Napoleon and Alexander were fundamentally different men in terms of ideology too. Napoleon did not believe in a democratic form of government and was not above nepotism either, but he still maintained some of the innovations of the French Revolution.
On the other hand, Alexander was a man of Old Europe, a man of the Ancient Regime era of the Continent. And his country and the Russian nobility, despite their western taste and language, were no more willing to see the ideas of the French Revolution spread into Russia than Alexander was.
One thought that absolutely horrified the Russian nobility was the freeing of the serfs. Unlike in most of Western Europe, in Eastern Europe, serfdom saw a Renaissance from the 16th century on. Peasants once again became tied to their lands and were little better off in many instances than slaves. Russia had a huge serf population, and the nobility was unwilling to change this status quo. In the end, Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs, but another 50 years had to pass for that moment.
Napoleon's Invasion of Russian in 1812
McLynn, Frank. (2011). Napoleon: A Biography. Arcade.
Chandler, David G. (1973). The Campaigns of Napoleon. Scribner.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler