'My power depends on my glory, and my glory on my victories'
If Napoleon expected his enemies to deal with him honestly and truthfully, he was to be rudely disappointed time and time again. Anyone who believes that Napoleon alone bears responsibility for the wars he waged hasn't considered the dynamic forces at work in Europe following the Revolution. Broken treaties, assassination attempts, countless conspiracies and personal betrayals are all integral parts of the politics of this fascinating epoch.
In retrospect it seems clear that regardless of who led France during the post-Revolutionary years, as long as the Count of Provence (future King Louis XVIII) remained exiled in England as the guest of King George III, there wasn't going to be any degree of a lasting peace between France and her neighbors. English gold, fear of the Revolution spreading across Europe, Tsar Alexander's seething jealousy of Napoleon's glory, there were many reasons why Napoleon could not count for long on the promises made by his beaten enemies. Any one of them was enough to guarantee perpetual war.
Napoleon's off-the-field failures being at least as colossal as his on-the-field successes, he committed a number of serious political blunders which did nothing to encourage the enemies of France to come to terms with the proudful, hyperactive and more than anything else ambitious little Corsican firebrand. He never restrained his insatiable lust for power nor his famous hot temper, and he never really stopped believing in his 'Star of Destiny', that panacea for all of his self-doubts. Napoleon seemed to believe that each and every decision he made was somehow sanctioned by the Gods. At the core of Napoleon's psyche was faith not in the Catholic Church into which he was baptized but in a Dogma of Imperial Infallibility.
Each new year seemed to herald either another of Napoleon's grandiose schemes or another allied coalition formed to exploit any perceived cracks in the imperial armor. If it wasn't one of Napoleon's many political miscalculations, the invasions of Spain and Russia, the disastrous Continental System (which hurt his own subjects as badly as it hurt its intended victim, England), or Napoleon's thoroughly bungled relationship with the Pope, his annexation of Rome being one of the thornier issues of the time, then it was another scheme of Napoleon's opportunistic enemies whose words weren't worth the paper they were printed on.
Increasingly wrathful toward enemies he knew couldn't be trusted, Napoleon gradually began to take dictatorial steps both at home and abroad which alienated even those who sincerely admired him such as Chateaubriand, Lafayette and even Beethoven who undedicated the symphony he had been composing to honor the First Consul after Napoleon opted for Empire. Many were livid that the man who claimed to stand for a Revolution which had deposed a King would choose to become an Emperor. Poetic irony, to say the least.
During his incredible career, Napoleon was seen as very different things to very different people. Heine and Goethe all but worshipped the one man who they believed defined the very age itself. Stendahl and Carlyle lamented the many lost opportunites for a more enduring imperial legacy which Napoleon's unbridled ambitions had squandered. Jefferson and de Tocqueville found him to be a pitiable amalgam of talents who despite his obvious genius had failed to consider the incredible costs of empire building. Bolivar and de Stael reviled him as the despot which he did in fact become.
In the final analysis, probably no other man in all of human history squandered so many opportunities to be so many good things to so many good people as did Napoleon I. And this perhaps is his greatest failure, one which even sympathetic testimonials such as O'Meara's A Voice from St. Helena and The Memorial of St. Helena by Emmanuel Las Cases could not minimize.
If wasting the opportunity to be of benevolent service to mankind in a position of high power isn't a crime then it should be. Napoleon can be defended against the charge of being a reckless warmonger since the wars were clearly not his fault alone, not all of them anyway, though his incursions into Spain and Russia are almost impossible to explain in any terms except Napoleonís colossal arrogance and pride.
No, Napoleon simply cannot be excused from wasting a tremendous opportunity for more enduring hold on Europe. Tyrants are ordinary, and Napoleon was gifted with the ability to be extraordinary. He may have spent the last 6 years of his life in exile patching up his failures as best he could and working to build up his legacy, mostly through oversimplification and embellishment, but nothing changes truth into a lie. Napoleon failed, he was after all beaten.
Oh the 'what ifs' which come to mind. What if he decides to stay put with his nearly 700,000 man strong Grand Army in Poland and just bottle up the ambitious Russian tsar on his own side of the Niemen? What if he garrisons the Pyrenees instead of sending hundreds of thousands of his best troops to chase the English back and forth across the length of the Iberian Peninsula? What if abandons the Continental System before it does as much damage to his brother's Holland and the rest of Europe? Do the Southern and Western German states forget their historical dislike for Prussia and rise up against him then?
All France originally saw in Napoleon the Great Defender of the 'Rights of Man', yet either out of spite or a sense of necessity, Napoleon grew out of the legend of the young maverick General and into a new legend, that of a despot. There were more than 60 newspapers in France before Napoleon became First Consul, not even a half dozen when he abdicated 15 years later. Here are some thoughts of Napoleon from 1805 on the notion of a 'free press':
'I shall repress the journals a little, make them produce wholesome articles. I shall inform the editors of the newspapers that are widely read in order to let them know that the time is not far away when, seeing that they are no longer of service to me, I shall suppress them.
The revolution in France is over and now there is only one party in France and I shall never allow the newspapers to say anything contrary to my interests. They may publish a few little articles with just a bit of poison in them, but one fine day I shall shut their mouths forever.'
The mistaken execution of the Duke of Enghien, a son of the House of Bourbon, in 1804 won for Napoleon the everlasting wrath of the plotting Royalists and their supporters throughout Europe who promptly labeled Napoleon a 'Regicide' for his troubles. And if that wasn't bad enough, his imprisonment of Pope Pius VII after the breakdown of their negotiations over Church rights in Italy earned him an avoidable and utterly disastrous Papal Bull of Excommunication with his name in big bold letters on it, in a France which was hanging on with tightly clenched fists to its staunchly Catholic heritage.
The Continental System, which was intended to block European ports to English shipping and thus choke off the English economy which depended upon such trade, was as rough on Napoleon's own 70 million Imperial subjects and Russian allies as it was on England herself...eventually, the whole thing blew right back up in his face.
Furthermore, though a noble goal and one which Napoleon was in fact serious to do something about, his commitment to an independent Poland (the best he could do for the Poles under increasingly difficult political circumstances was to establish the Grand Duchy of Warsaw in 1807) virtually killed off any hope at all of a lasting peace with the young Tsar Alexander I of Russia...who had some lofty ambitions of his own for an empire in Europe.
The war in Spain, which mired more than 300,000 of Napoleon's best troops in a costly and frightening guerilla war...the term `guerilla' does in fact come to us from Napoleon's war in Spain...was nothing short of a tragic human horror story, the artist Francisco Goya providing the exclamation point in his humanizing sketches depicting the bitterness of the conflict.
Napoleon understood nothing of the Spanish people, underestimated their resolve to resist foreign invasion and rule under a foreigner (Joseph Bonaparte) no matter how fed up they were with their feeble old King, and failed to appreciate both the importance of faith to the Spanish people and the ability of the Catholic Church to motivate them to determined resistance. The French war in Spain isn't called an `ulcer' for lack of a better word.
The result of a combination of Czar Alexanderís designs against the Duchy of Warsaw, his refusal to abide by the Continental System and Napoleonís own ambitions to negate the czarís influence in Europe, the Russian campaign was an undertaking the likes of which would have impressed even the mighty roman emperor Trajan, another fan of military campaigning on a grandiose scale.
Considering the incredible scale of Napoleon's military authority, the obvious defensive advantages Napoleon had at his disposal with a Grand Army of Europe all of 675,000 men strong to back his authority it up, and keeping in mind Napoleon's highly efficient Communications, Supply and Intelligence networks, there really was no rationale behind an invasion of a geographical colossus like Russia.
Napoleon's decision to cross the Niemen and invade Russia in the summer of 1812 is explained as either the most grotesque miscalculation in his entire military career or a testament to his growing presumptuousness, intoxication with victory and downright arrogance. Napoleon, as he himself later put it on St. Helena, was 'out of sorts'.
Finally, there is Napoleon's return from Elba and 'The Hundred Days' campaign which ended horribly at Waterloo. , Hoping to be left alone by the allies still in session at the Congress of Vienna, Napoleon was rolling the dice, and crapped out. The breathtaking flight from Elba and the legendary march north to Paris was really nothing but a virtual admission that Napoleon wanted to die thousands of miles away from France deep in the South Atlantic on the rock of St. Helena. There was zero chance, especially after the Congress of Vienna on 31 March 1815 had declared him 'an enemy and disturber of the tranquility of the world', that in the end he would be able to defeat the Allied coalition of nearly a million men forming against him.
And what is the conclusion from all of this? Simple, really. There was plenty of blame for the 'Napoleonic Wars' to go around. To pin all the blame on Napoleon merely because he was the eventual loser is pathetic. England dumped every bit of 600 million pounds of its gold into the royal houses of Europe trying to beat Napoleon.
Many of their misadventures against the French, such as the doomed Walcheren Island expedition in Holland during the Austrian War of 1809, not only exasperated an already serious general conflagration on the continent but in some cases were flagrant violations of the very treaties England herself had willfully agreed to sign such as the Peace of Amiens signed by Fox, the ink of which was barely dry when Fox's successor William Pitt promptly revoked it. The old adage says that whoever makes the fewest mistakes wins, and Napoleon simply made too many mistakes to win in the end. England, however, remains at least as responsible for the Wars of the Coalitions as Napoleon ever was.