10th Grade: Reality comes to Roost


This week we set up the class for what will be our look at the fall of Napoleon early next week.

Napoleon loved speed.

I don’t know if he could have stopped moving if he wanted to.  Motion seemed ingrained into his being.  At this time, anyone in France who ate dinner in less than an hour would be considered a barbarian.  Most took about two hours to eat.  Napoleon routinely ate in less than 15 minutes, and his favorite dish–fried potatoes and onions–was in fact a dish he frequently had while on military campaigns.

On the battlefield, in politics, he practiced what he preached: he who acts quickly and decisively wins.  He had little patience for anything that would not move quickly.  This worked well for him in France on one level — it allowed to constantly outmaneuver his political opponents.  It certainly worked for him on the battlefield, and it translated, by 1810, into a considerable empire.

But his need for speed did not translate well in foreign policy.  He often used family members, for example, to rule large territories in his name.  This would be much quicker than patiently learning local cultures, courting local opinion, and adapting to it.   What he gained in time he paid for in many ways.  His policy was short-sighted for a number of reasons:

  • Napoleon claimed to bring the blessings of the French Revolution where he conquered.  Why then, did he think that conquered territories would accept a foreign ruler when he had exported the nationalism of the Revolution to their domains?
  • As puppets of Napoleon, his family would take orders from Napoleon, not from the people they ruled. How then, could these puppet rulers hope to hold the loyalty of the people to Napoleon?  How long until the people rebelled?

This in fact happened in Spain, a country Napoleon drastically underestimated.  To him Spain represented ignorance, sloth, military futility.  He dealt with them in his typical quick and summary fashion, but when he removed the Spanish royal family and installed his brother as king the people erupted in rebellion.  Spain became a nightmare of guerrilla war, for which Napoleon’s temperment had zero liking.  Goya captured the mood of the Spanish in his famous work, “The Third of May:”

Eventually the Spanish campaign pinned down 250,000 French troops.  But the presence of so many French in Spain alerted Portugal, who called upon England for help.  In both Portugal and Spain British general Sir Arthur Wellesley got invaluable experience fighting the French — experience he put to good use in Napoleon’s final battle at Waterloo, when he was then known as the Duke of Wellington.

But when people think of Napoleon’s missteps, they think of his invasion of Russia.

Why did he do it?

In many ways he felt he must because Russia had violated a treaty they signed with him and had traded with England.  If he let that go, then he would look weak, which would induce others to revolt as well.   Here Napoleon had, however, made his own bed.  He put tremendous stress on using his image to maintain his power.  He put his family members in charge of other nations, and so naturally did not have the loyalty of those he controlled.  So, he was right — his image was all he had left to maintain his power, and without it, it might collapse.  When Napoleon talked about the fact that losing one battle might end his reign he may not have been whining or exaggerating.  It may have been the truth, for even one defeat would shatter the image he had constructed for himself.

To invade Napoleon amassed a huge force that historians put between 475,000-600,000 men.  He wanted to use this army to quickly smash Russian forces and compel Czar Alexander I to surrender.  But Napoleon’s  usual keen strategic insight deserted  him here.  Who would fight an army that large?  Naturally, the Russians retreated inland, forcing Napoleon to follow and stringing out his supply lines.

What is victory?  Napoleon learned the hard way that victory comes not just by winning battles or capturing cities.  Victory does not come when you say it has.  It takes two to tango.  Victory only comes when your opponent, not you, thinks that he is defeated.  Battles, cities, crops — they meant nothing to the Russians.  But time did, and they used time to retreat inland and wait for winter.  They slashed and burned what they could — even the city of Moscow itself — and left Napoleon with nothing.

The Frenchman Joseph Minard made two classic visual aids, the first for Hannibal’s invasion of Rome, the other for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  Both tell the story of time, cold, and loss.

I think that Napoleon faced huge challenges when he assumed power in France.  He dealt with a country that had nearly destroyed itself during the Revolution, and felt that it needed security and stability above all else.  But he insisted on bringing that security by himself.  He never shared credit or delegated effectively.  He even took it upon himself to put the crown of France on his own head.

To establish his power, he fudged election results and removed certain civil liberties.  On occasion he imprisoned or even executed those who spoke out against him.  His image had to be preserved after all.  In the end, he complained that his friends deserted him just when he needed them the most.  He told the truth in the sense that after his failure in Russia, many did turn on him.   But his capacity for self-delusion may have been at work again.  He didn’t seem to be the type to make friends in the first place.

Many thanks,