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Did Napoleon cause his own downfall?

On 9 April 1813, only four months after his disastrous retreat from Moscow, Napoleon received the Austrian ambassador, Prince Schwarzenberg, at the Tuileries palace in Paris. It was a critical juncture. In the snows of Russia, Napoleon had just lost the greatest army he had ever assembled – of his invasion force of 600,000, at most 120,000 had returned. Now Austria, France’s main ally, was offering to broker a deal – a compromise peace – between Napoleon and his triumphant enemies Russia and England. Schwarzenberg’s visit to the Tuileries was to start the negotiations.

Schwarzenberg’s description of the meeting is one of the most revealing insights into Napoleon’s character from any source. In place of the imperious conqueror of only ten months before, Schwarzenberg now saw a man who feared ‘being stripped of the prestige he [had] previously enjoyed; his expression seemed to ask me if I still thought he was the same man.’

To Schwarzenberg’s dismay, when it came to peace Napoleon still showed his old obstinacy and unwillingness to make concessions. The reason for this, however, was unexpected. It concerned not diplomacy or the military situation, but Napoleon’s domestic position in France. He told Schwarzenberg:

“If I made a dishonourable peace I would be lost; an old-established government, where the links between ruler and people have been forged over centuries can, if circumstances demand, accept a harsh peace. I am a new man, I need to be more careful of public  opinion … If I signed a peace of this sort, it is true that at first one would hear only cries of joy, but within a short time the government would be bitterly attacked, I would lose … the confidence of my people, because the Frenchman has a vivid imagination, he is tough, and loves glory and exaltation.”

Napoleon’s reluctance to make peace at this key moment has been generally ascribed to his gambling instinct, a refusal to accept that Destiny might desert him, and a desperate belief he could still defeat his enemies in battle even now. The idea that fear might also have played a part seems so alien to Napoleon’s character that it has rarely been considered.

Napoleon, by Paul Delaroche. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Napoleon, by Paul Delaroche. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon was convinced, as his words to Schwarzenberg made clear,  that the best way of anchoring any new régime was through military glory. Nowhere was this truer, he felt than in France, which had just undergone a revolution of unprecedented scale and violence. He genuinely feared that a sudden loss of international prestige could reopen the divisions he had spent fifteen years trying to close.

This fear may well have originated in a particular early experience. On 10 August 1792, as a young officer, Napoleon had witnessed one of the climactic moments of the French Revolution, the storming of the Tuileries by the Paris crowd and the overthrow of King Louis XVI. It was the first fighting he had ever seen. He had been horrified by the subsequent massacre of the Swiss Guards and the accompanying atrocities. For Napoleon, this trauma also held a political lesson. Louis XVI had been dethroned because he had failed to show sufficient enthusiasm for a revolutionary war, and because his people had come to susepct his patriotism. Napoleon’s words to Schwarzenberg two decades later show his determination not to make the same mistake.

Significantly, when  the prospect of a compromised peace appeared close  during 1813 and 1814, Napoleon always used this same argument to counter it: his own rule over France would not survive an inglorious peace. He did this most dramatically on 7 February 1814. With France already invaded, his enemies offered to let him keep his throne if he renounced all of France’s conquests since the Revolution. His closest advisers urged him to accept, but he burst out: “What! You want me to sign such a treaty … What will the French people think of me if I sign their humiliation? … You fear the war continuing, but I fear much more pressing dangers, to which you’re blind.” That night, he wrote an apocalyptic letter to his brother Joseph, making it clear that he preferred his own death, and even that of his son and heir, to such a prospect.

Napoleon himself obviously believed that peace without victory would seriously threaten his dynasty. Was he right? My own view, based on researching the state of French public opinion at the time, is that he was not. The overwhelming majority of reports show the French people in 1814 as exhausted by endless war and its burdens. They were desperate for peace. Ironically, it was not concessions for the sake of peace, but his determination to go on fighting, that eventually undermined Napoleon’s domestic support. By refusing to recognize this, Napoleon did indeed cause his own downfall.

Headline image credit: Arrivée de Napoléon Ier à l’Hôtel de Ville by Jacques-Louis David, 1805. Louvre Museum. The Yorck Project. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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