The Empire Realized
The present epoch takes us back to the age of Charlemagne.
Two days after the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon met with his Austrian counterpart, Francis II, in Pressburg (now Bratislava, Slovakia), where a treaty was signed on 26 December 1805. The resulting document required Austria to withdraw from the Third Coalition, cede its holdings in Bavaria and Italy (including Venetia, Istria, and Dalmatia), and relinquish dominion over the German states. With his capital in French hands, Francis had little choice but to agree to these terms. The battles at Ulm and Austerlitz stood proof of the dominance of French arms, and while Tsar Alexander refused to ratify the treaty, the Russians had prudently withdrawn beyond the Austrian frontier, thoroughly chastened. Meanwhile, in England, news of the Austrian concessions proved mortal to the prime minister, William Pitt, who died within a month of the signing. A French continental empire, long feared by the English, was now a reality, and the map of Europe was redrawn to reflect the new order. Among the changes, the Holy Roman Empire, a political entity dating back to the time of Charlemagne, was officially dismantled, leaving a patchwork of unaffiliated German states and principalities.
At the outbreak of the war, Prussia, alone among the five great powers, had proclaimed its neutrality in the hope that both sides might be weakened by the war, enabling Prussia to step in and dominate the German states. When French forces violated Prussian territory during their rapid advance to the Danube, however, the Prussians secretly made arrangements to enter the war on the side of the Coalition, but by the time the alliance was agreed upon, the Austrians had been routed at Ulm and the opportunity for Prussia to play a meaningful role in the campaign had passed. Even so, the subsequent union of Austrian and Russian forces at Olmutz boded well for an Allied victory, in which case the Prussians might expect to benefit from the success of their newfound friends.
Instead, with the resounding defeat of the Allies at Austerlitz, King Frederick III of Prussia was obliged to offer congratulations to the victorious French emperor. Napoleon, meanwhile, had been fully aware of Prussia’s duplicity all along and held the indecisive Frederick in personal contempt. (To make matters worse, prior to the battle Napoleon had learned of the king’s intention to present him with an ultimatum predicated on the assumption of an Allied victory.) Consequently, Napoleon entered into negotiations with a resolve that not even the amorous overtures of Frederick’s wife, Queen Louise, could convince him to relinquish. The resulting Convention of Vienna called upon Prussia to cede various principalities for use by Napoleon’s favorites (including a number of the emperor’s personal servants). Prussia was also required to renounce all existing treaties in favor of a foreign policy wholly consistent with French interests. Prussia’s one potential reward for this humiliating surrender was the Electorate of Hanover, a substantial prize to be given in exchange for Ansbach and some minor principalities along the Rhine. With triumphant French forces poised on Prussia’s southern border and immediate war with France a clear possibility, the terms were approved and a draft of the treaty was signed on 15 February 1806.
When news of the proposed treaty reached England, the British seized all Prussian shipping in English ports, sending Prussia’s commercial interests into a tail-spin and provoking a widespread anti-French backlash. Where once Napoleon had been celebrated by such influential Germans as Goethe and Beethoven, a nascent nationalist movement now emerged in defense of German self-determination and Prussian autonomy in particular. Napoleon responded by indicating a willingness to give Prussia greater authority over the north German states, but by then a pro-war faction within Prussia had coalesced around Queen Louise, whom Napoleon characterized as “the only real man” in the country. Next, he invited the German state of Saxony to join a French-dominated buffer state to be known as the Confederacy of the Rhine, abruptly retracting his offer of Hanover to Prussia and proposing instead to give it to England as a peace offering. The offense to Prussian honor was clear and pointed, and the Prussians responded by preparing for war.
Meanwhile, reinstating the very model of dynastic rule that the French Republic had sought to replace, in the aftermath of his triumph at Austerlitz Napoleon named members of his immediate family to the thrones of France’s new vassal states. To his older brother, Joseph, went the Kingdom of Naples. Younger brother Louis became King of Holland, and Eugene Beauharnais, Josephine’s son, assumed the title Viceroy of Italy. In a world where strategic alliances were subject to constant maneuvering, Napoleon’s first concern was for the loyalty of the new players, and family members represented the most trustworthy prospects. As for establishing independent republican governments, this option had proven unworkable in Switzerland, where the Helvetic Republic had succumbed to its own revolutionary struggles within two years of its founding in 1798.
To be sure, Napoleon’s adoption of the title Emperor of the French was attended with all the conventions associated with monarchy, yet it is worth noting that he ultimately used such conventions as a means to dominate the ruling families of Europe. Though of lowly origins, by casting himself as the social equal of the high-born, he forced a new awareness on his contemporaries, exploding the myth that kings ruled by divine right or vague qualities of innate nobility, and showing them to be eminently fallible. Thus, the spirit of the Revolution was seen to live on, however vicariously, in the example of his own elevation from obscurity to Emperor. Fully aware of the power of this symbolism, Napoleon set about the creation of a new nobility from within the army, granting titles–read large, hereditary incomes–to the most successful of his generals, as well as a wide assortment of honors to the rank and file in recognition of feats of bravery on the battlefield. For all of his aristocratic pretensions as a political leader, as commander of the French military he maintained a strict meritocracy in which his own carefully constructed legend served as inspiration.