A while ago, someone asked me if I could explain Napoleon’s fall from power. And I promised to think about it and come up with an answer.
So, I’ve been thinking about it. And whilst this isn’t by any means the full or final answer, what I’ve got below may go some way to explaining or outlining the contributing factors.
Because as in most things of this nature, there isn’t one single reason–it’s more a combination of factors. (And this isn’t the sexy, fun stuff–just so you’re warned.)
[Also, I should say, there are two superb books on the subject, How Far from Austerlitz? by Alistair Horne and The Roads to Waterloo by Gregor Dallas. Both of which are not just fine histories, they’re also a pleasure to read.]
But for what it’s worth, here’s an overview of one of the factors which I believe contributed to his necessary downfall: the economics of the Napoleonic wars. Which I’m calling Part I.
By 1803-4, France had become a military state. That is to say, all its energies, economic and civil policy and administration were given over to supplying and supporting and celebrating its military.
So, for example, when looking at Napoleon’s reorganisation of the civil code, one sees that by placing all the landmark events in a person’s life under civil law, he is building a huge body of information about France’s citizens. Hence, when marriage becomes a civil contract and is removed from the aegis of the church, this begins to keep track of the ages of all the young men–a young man who is of an age to marry is also of an age to serve.
The introduction of the Continental Blockade is another example of this militarisation of civilian life.
But what we don’t think in terms of is the wartime shortages across the Continent. Nor do we think in terms of the Europeans being cut off from their natural export markets. Because economically, the Continental Blockade was a disaster for Europe.
To look at various industries: sugar cane was imported from the Caribbean islands into Germany where Hamburg was chiefest in sugar processing. Before the Continental Blockade was brought in by Napoleon in 1806, Hamburg had 400 sugar factories.
By 1812, only 3 were still in existence. They simply couldn’t get the raw materials.
France, under Napoleon’s orders, was growing sugar beet–but the supply wasn’t anything like enough. And in order to support French industry, the price of sugar beet to the other nations in the French Empire was astronomical. The remaining sugar factories were only allowed to sell their sugar to France–but at a knock-down price which didn’t cover their costs.
Then, the European navies and merchant navies had been first requisitioned by Napoleon for France’s use. And these were subsequently, er, lost to the British during various naval battles. And of course, the British were maintaining a world-wide blockade against France and its Empire. So even if they had had goods to export, the European nations had no means of transporting the goods.
And this process was repeated across the Continent’s manufacturing spectrum.
The weaving industry, without access to cotton from the Americas, failed. The luxury velvet industry, also centred in Germany, also went under.
Russia couldn’t sell its hemp or timber to Britain–its largest import market. All of which led to unemployment on an unimaginable scale. And the remaining manufacturers were only allowed to sell their goods to France and to the military…
So, by 1812, there are mass shortages of everything in Europe. And this level of privation builds resentment, as many of us today have cause to know.
But in 1812, it served to alienate the middle classes, the European bourgeoisie, who across Europe, but particularly in the German states, had generally thought the French Empire and its republican ideals a good thing–so much aristocratic power and privilege had been swept away in their favour.
But economically, the Empire had failed to deliver. Industrialisation, which was sweeping ahead in Britain, was wholly stunted in Europe by a lack of raw materials, lack of markets, lack of investment, and lack of manpower.
In the Low Countries, Napoleon’s own brother, whom he’d set up as king, actively encouraged smuggling and the breaking of the blockade–that’s how bad the shortages of everyday goods were. It was a case of allow smuggling or face open rebellion, so he went for the safer (to his health) option.
Russia quietly reopened its ports to Britain in 1811, so badly was their economy hit by being unable to sell their hemp and timber…mass bankruptcy does not lead to political stability.
Then again, after twenty years, Europe was tired of war. Exhausted in every sense.
War is expensive. And I’m not just talking in terms of manpower. Although it was Napoleon who famously said, “I have an income of 85,000 men a year.”
It’s expensive to feed, clothe, and supply a standing army. And France couldn’t afford it. No one could.
So Napoleon had to keep that army on the move, quartered in other countries so that someone else was paying the room and board of that 300,000+ men. And he had to keep them in the field, winning new battles and therefore entitled to prize money and whatever they could pillage and loot, which satisfied their self-interest, but also made up for all the times when they didn’t get paid.
But, Napoleon also made a habit of demanding vast ongoing reparation payments from any country or principality which had the temerity to oppose him.
Prussia in particular was badly hit. Though of course their economy has been destroyed by the Continental System, making it harder and harder for them to raise the money to pay…
But war itself also destroys economies. And so, when you’re hearing that Napoleon marched his armies through whatever country it was–Spain, Prussia, the German states, Austria–you have to understand that in terms of almost an army of locusts eating everything that country had.
If the French army marched through your countryside, there would be no livestock left–they would have requisitioned or stolen all your cows, goats, pigs, horses, sheep and chickens. They would have left nothing behind.
So not only could you not feed yourself and your family that year, you had no hope for recovery. The chickens won’t be there to lay another few eggs which could in turn hatch and help rebuild your fragile micro-economy. There will be no cows or goats for milk, cheese production, butter…and no calves, kids or lambs…
And they will also have taken all your grain to feed their horses and mules. So, no bread, no meal, no brewing…And your neighbours won’t have anything left either.
And this will have been going on, as I say, for twenty years in Continental Europe.
So essentially, by the time Napoleon invades Russia, in the summer of 1812, Europe was bankrupt and with every country facing shortages similar or worse to those experienced during WWII.
And whilst privation was perhaps acceptable when France was winning, and adding country after country to her Empire, it started to look as though it was all for nothing once Napoleon’s winning streak faltered.
For in 1812 the unthinkable happened. Napoleon was defeated (and admitted it) and lost some 90% of the Grande Armee. That’s defeat on a scale such as no one can imagine. Not then, not today.
On paper, he took some 550,000-600,000 men to Russia. Probably no more than 350,000-400,000 crossed the border on their way, they thought, to glory and Moscow.
But that number does not include the nearly 100,000 (that’s a guestimate) of the civilians who accompanied him–camp followers, cooks, grooms and servents, brandy women, wives and children…
And so, for the first time across France, whole towns had lost all their young men. And when Napoleon’s recruitment officers went to try and raise a new army, to stave off the invasion of France in 1813, they found they could not do it. And they wrote about the resentment in the towns where over half the families are now wearing black, in deepest mourning for their sons and fathers…
So, er, that’s the economics of the thing…pretty disastrous by any reckoning. And probably enough to think about for the moment.
And, er, in another couple of weeks, I’ll consider Part II, another aspect of this…the new nationalism in Germany? Maybe Spain? Or perhaps Napoleon himself…