Napoleon Bonoparte was born on the island of Corsica and rose from the chaos of the French Revolution, because of his military genius, to become Emperor of the French in 1804. It’s not exaggeration to say Napoleon was one of the greatest military minds the world has ever seen. Many rank him with Alexander the Great. Regardless, the story of his rise is stunning.
After swelling France beyond its natural French-speaking borders through military conquest, in 1805 he whipped the Austrians at Austerlitz and then the Prussians at Jena in 1806. These two powerful German-speaking kingdoms thus couldn’t prevent Napoleon’s final abolishment of the mostly German-speaking Holy Roman Empire in 1806, which had lasted for almost a thousand years, and had consisted of roughly 300 independent kingdoms, duchies, cities and other rare political entities who were not truly united into what we normally consider to be an empire.
(This is why French philosopher Voltaire said, “The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor and Empire.”)
In place of this “Empire” Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine (seen in the map above). Essentially, the Confederation consolidated most the hundreds of independent states into several larger ones, and forced them into a Confederation with each other, with Napoleon, through the power of his armies, having the final say on the Confederation’s geopolitical decisions. This new power in Europe Napoleon created for the sake of more easily raising armies from its German-speaking population to help repulse Prussian or Austrian armies attempting to annex these Confederated states, or marching into France itself.
The Confederation of the Rhine collapsed after Russia, Prussia, Austria and other allies marched massive armies into Paris in 1814 to force Napoleon’s first abdication (as Napoleon would abdicate a second time after he escaped his first exile at Elba). The subsequent Treaty of Paris of 1815 – which attempted to reestablish peace in Europe after Napoleon changed things forever – no longer recognized the myriad of independent states of the former Holy Roman Empire. This non-empire was gone for good. “A complicated structure of over 300 political units in 1789 was reduced to 38 in 1815.” (1)
Further consolidations of smaller German states ensued thereafter. In 1866 Prussia whipped the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a war, and thus prevented the Austrian Hapsburgs from forever annexing smaller German-speaking states like Bavaria and Saxony which, ultimately, became part of Germany. The Prussian-led German states then went to war with France in 1871, and annihilated Napoleon III’s army. This war, ultimately, facilitated complete unification into what is the modern state of Germany, which now had over 40 million souls under sovereign power emanating from Berlin.
Germany’s consolidated population of 41 million in 1870 was now bigger than France’s 38 million. Up until this Franco-Prussian War of 1871, France had dominated Continental European geopolitics from the days of Louis the XIV because of its large population. No more. A new power was here to stay. Napoleon’s destruction of the Holy Roman Empire led to the German unification and a loss of French hegemony. The ultimate result of this new German power led to two World Wars.
My point is that European history is so fascinating for its incessant geopolitical struggles occurring over 3,000 years. Things set in motion hundreds of years beforehand come to fruition in the most unexpected ways. The more I read of Europe, the more I want to know. This blog was inspired by J.M. Roberts’ History of Europe, which I’m reading when I can.
I’ve been to Europe. I’d enjoy going back. But I’d still rather travel Western America.
FEATURE IMAGE FROM: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rijnbond1812namen.png
1. The History of Europe. J.M. Roberts. Penguin Press. 1996.