Franco-Russian Diplomacy, 1810-1812
Chapter 1: "I will not draw sword first, but I shall sheathe it last" - Alexander I
On June 24, 1812, while Napoleon was standing on the shores of Niemen River and watching his Grande Armée crossing the Russian border, Tsar Alexander I was enjoying a ball arranged at the General Benningsen's estate, near Vilna. It was late in the evening, when one of his ADC's approached him. Only a few words filtered into hall, but it was enough to reveal what had happened: "The war has begun." But when did the possibility of war between the two empires first assume a degree of reality? Diplomats began to think and talk about it early in 1810 and the general public, towards the end of the same year.
But long before this, subterranean currents had been undermining the Franco-Russian relationship. On 2 December 1805, at Austerlitz, Napoleon inflicted a crushing defeat on the combined Austrian and Russian armies. In 1806-1807 the Russian armies dispatched by the Tsar to save Prussia from final defeat fought Napoleon in the bloody battles of Pultusk, Eylau and, finally, on 14 June 1807, Friedland, after which Alexander I agreed to peace and concluded an alliance with Napoleon. The two emperors met personally at the town of Tilsit, on an elaborate raft moored in the middle of the Niemen River. Alexander did not forget these painful experiences. And he was not unaware of the widespread displeasure prevailing in Russia, particularly in the army, over the "ignominious peace of Tilsit." Humiliation was not the sole difficulty. Napoleon had forced Alexander to join him Napoleon's Continental System: Russia had obligated herself not to buy anything from, or sell anything to, the English or to allow Englishmen into Russia. She also obligated herself to declare war on England. The blockade against England caused great suffering to Russian landowners and merchants. This Franco-Russian alliance, entered into force at Tilsit in 1807, manifested its first fissure in the following year during the September meeting of the two emperors at Erfurt. And the fissure widened in 1809 during Napoleon's war against Austria. Let us dwell for a moment on the two years 1807-1809.
In the panic following the Russian Army's rout at Friedland, Alexander decided not only on peace but also on a decisive, almost revolutionary turn in foreign policy. It is not our purpose to give a complete picture of Alexander as a man and a sovereign, but a brief consideration is necessary. In the course of his career, Alexander passed through several transformations. As heir to the throne he had exhibited one persona; after the murder of his father, Paul I, another; before Austerlitz, a third; after Austerlitz, yet a fourth; now, after Tilsit, he unveiled a fifth. And how many more changes he was to go through in 1814 and the following years! Not only his moods changed, but his relationships to people, his opinions of people, his attitude towards life. Indeed, his whole character seemed to become transformed. One of his contemporaries likened Alexander to Buddha, who according to Hindu legends undergoes various "transformations", "becoming" something anew over the course of his life, each time showing a wholly new face. What kind of men was he then? What were his aspirations? Alexander knew how to keep himself in hand as did no other among Russia's Tsars and, indeed, as few autocrats anywhere.
In 1805 Alexander had suffered an ignominious rout at Austerlitz and it was absolutely impossible to throw the blame on anyone else. Everyone knew that the Tsar himself, against the will of Kutuzov, the senior Russian officer present, had led army to disaster and that when all was lost he publicly burst into tears and fled the bloody field. But the enemy was so dangerous, and the nobility which surrounded the Tsar so hated and feared this enemy, that they largely forgave Alexander for Austerlitz, merely because, in spite of everything, he refused to make peace with Napoleon and because a year after Austerlitz he again took the field against "the enemy of mankind". This time the war was longer and bloodier.
With the peace made at Tilsit, it appeared that Napoleon would cease his warring, and Europe would have peace. It seemed to Russia's elite that after Austria's defeat in 1809, and after Napoleon's marriage to the Austrian Emperor's daughter, the power of the French Emperor had grown so strong on the Continent that England would soon consent to any peace, to avoid being made bankrupt by the blockade imposed by the Continental System.
Napoleon himself thought otherwise.
For him the Austrian marriage was the best means of securing his rear if he should again fight Russia. To his rapprochement with Austria, as to all political combinations in this period of his rule, he attached chiefly strategic significance. He saw clearly that his main task was to crush England-and this was impossible as long as the coasts of the Baltic, White, and Black Seas remained open to English goods. Even more clearly he realized that without a new and decisive defeat of the Russian armed forces, this aim could not be achieved. Moreover, without this defeat, he could not fully secure his power over the northern European coastline, he could not subjugate Spain, and he could not expect the Germans to give up all hope of national liberation.
The Provocations of 1810
For these reasons, he began in 1810 to pursue his famous policy of "the moving frontier"; more exactly, he did not begin it, but intensified it: by a mere stroke of his pen, he annexed a number of new lands to his Empire, sent his troops to garrison German fortresses, and gradually moved the spearhead of his power eastward, closer and closer to Russia. At the same time, he took the most stringent measures against violators of the Continental blockade. Silence reigned in Europe.
Prince P. A. Vyazemsky, a friend of the great Russian author, Pushkin, was later to write,
"Napoleon was equally terrifying to kings and peoples. No one who has not lived in this epoch, can know, or even imagine, how stifling existence was at that time. The fate of every state, of nearly every person, depended more or less, in one way or another, if not today then tomorrow, on the whims of the Tuileries' cabinet or on the military dispositions of Napoleon's headquarters. Everyone lived as under the threat of an earthquake or a volcano. No one could act or even breathe freely."
The annexation of Holland to the French Empire in June 1810, the transfer of three French divisions from southern to Baltic Germany in August of the same year, the transport from the French Empire of 50,000 rifles to the Duchy of Warsaw and of an artillery regiment to the French-occupied Magdeburg-all menacing symptoms of an approaching storm-Russian diplomacy was directly related to the Austrian marriage and the Austrian alliance with Napoleon. Napoleon no longer needed Russia; his power over Europe had a new support in Vienna.
On 5 August and 17 September 1810, at Trianon, Napoleon established a new tariff system, according to which taxes on colonial goods (sugar, tea, pepper, etc.) were significantly increased. All over Europe English goods were confiscated. Russia was gently asked to adopt similar measures, but the Russian government refused, explaining that this would be contrary to her independence and interests.
In December 1810, Napoleon annexed the Hanseatic cities Hamburg, Bremen, and Lubeck, and took advantage of the occasion to acquire the entire territory between Holland and Hamburg, including the Duchy of Oldenburg. Alexander's sister, Ekaterina, was married to the son and heir of the Duke of Oldenburg. Alexander protested. But Napoleon "added a fresh humiliation": he ordered his foreign minister, Jean-Baptiste de Nompere de Champagny, the Duke of Cadore, to reject the Russian note of protest without even reading it.
In reply Tsar approved on a new tariff (entered into force on 1 January 1811), increasing the duties on all luxury articles and wines, the very articles imported from France.
From then on, relations between the two emperors grew steadily worse. The more Napoleon's troops poured into Poland and Prussia, contrary to the conditions of the peace of Tilsit, which stipulated their withdrawal from Prussia, the more vigilantly and zealously Napoleon insisted on the fulfillment of the blockade, the more did Russia's secret hopes centre on England.
Consequently, in a report presented to Napoleon on 7 April 1810 by the Duke of Cadore, the Emperor read:
"The British Cabinet has not lost hope of a rapprochement with Russia and Turkey, thus securing on the Baltic Sea, in the Archipelago, and on the Black Sea more useful outlets for her manufactures than it might obtain by any peace, even if this peace should temporarily open up to her the ports of France, Germany, Holland, and Italy."
The Duke of Cadore feared that the British might succeed in this stratagem. A struggle of interests was being fought round Alexander, he said, and England could achieve much "by promises, advantageous offers, and alluring guarantees."
"The venality of the St. Petersburg Court had always been an established fact. This venality was quite open during the reigns of Elizabeth, Catherine, and Paul. If in the present reign it is less public, if we still have in Russia a few friends inaccessible to English proposals, such as Count Rumyantsev, the Princes Kurakin, and a very small number of others, it is nevertheless true that the majority of the Tsar's courtiers, partly from habit, partly from attachment to the Empress Dowager, partly from vexation at the drop in their incomes through lower exchange rates, partly as a result of bribery, are secret partisans of England."
In this secret report, the Duke of Cadore frankly acknowledged the difficulty of preventing a possible rapprochement between England and Russia: "How will it be possible to rupture completely the secret relations between England and Russia, when their more or less weighty common interests impel both courts to renew these relations?" It is necessary to observe that Champagny was only an obedient tool of his sovereign. His mission, as he saw it, was to play up to the Emperor and to echo his passions and thoughts. For instance, he put it down to his own credit that his predecessors had sought to conclude a peace with England, while he, the Duke of Cadore, stood for the continuation of the war. It was only necessary to complete the conquest of Spain: then all the ports of Europe would be closed. "Once in Cadiz, Sire, you will be in a position either to break or strengthen the bonds with Russia." Europe must be closed to English ships and goods from Cadiz to St. Petersburg.
In December 1810, after publication of the new Russian tariff, all Europe began to discuss the coming war between the two empires. In a letter to his beloved sister, Ekaterina Pavlovna, dated 26 December 1810, Alexander referred to it for the first time: "It seems that blood must flow again. But at least I have done everything that is humanly possible to avoid it." This letter discussing the seizure by Napoleon of Peter of Oldenburg's duchy (Peter's son and heir, George was the husband of Ekaterina Pavlovna) contains no other important passages, except for a significant list of matters that Alexander wished to talk over with his sister at their next meeting. He was then preparing for a journey to Tver, where his sister lived, and he actually did appear there in March 1811. In this list a prominent place is given to military matters, such as the organization of the army, the increase of its effectives, reserves, etc. If, by the seizure of Oldenburg, Napoleon intended not only to secure the German Baltic coast, but also to vex Alexander, he certainly achieved his aim. But, more important, Alexander realized that this was only a beginning; it was clear that Napoleon was not insulting him for nothing.
Caulaincourt is Recalled
In May 1811, Napoleon recalled Caulaincourt, his ambassador to St. Petersburg. His reason was that Caulaincourt stood for peace with Russia and believed that Napoleon was provoking the Tsar deliberately and without justification. Caulaincourt left St. Petersburg on 15 May. "Should Emperor Napoleon start a war," Alexander said to him during Caulaincourt's leave-taking, "it is possible and even likely that he will beat us. But this will not give him peace. The Spaniards have often been beaten, but for all that they are neither conquered nor subjugated, and they are closer to Paris than we are, and they have neither our climate nor our resources. We shall enter into no compromises; we have vast spaces in our rear, and shall preserve a well-organized army. With all that at our disposal, we shall never be forced to conclude peace, no matter what defeats we may suffer. We may even force the conqueror to make peace. Emperor Napoleon expressed this idea to Chernishev after Wagram. He himself acknowledged that he would never have been willing to negotiate with Austria, if Austria had not preserved her army; and, with a little more stubbornness, the Austrians might have obtained better terms. Napoleon needs results as rapid as his own thoughts; he will not achieve them with us. I shall profit by his lessons. They are the lessons of a master. We shall let our climate, our winter, wage the war for us. The French soldiers are brave, but less enduring than ours, they are more easily disheartened. Miracles occur only in the presence of the Emperor, but he cannot be everywhere. Moreover, he will inevitably be in a hurry to return to his country. I will not draw sword first, but I shall sheathe it last. Sooner would I retreat to Kamchatka than yield a province or put my signature to a peace made in my conquered capital, a peace which would turn out to be a mere truce."
Caulaincourt, to be sure, often over-idealized Alexander. In this instance, however, his testimony is extremely plausible, although one must bear in mind that the Caulaincourt's memoirs were written well after events, and several incidents may have taken on a different light when seen in retrospect.
Caulaincourt feared a war with Russia. Upon his return to Paris on 5 June 1811, he was promptly received by Napoleon, to whom he conveyed the Tsar's words. Caulaincourt insisted that the idea of restoring Poland would have to be sacrificed in order to preserve the peace and the alliance with Russia. At the same time, he maintained that under no circumstances would Russia start a war.
Napoleon contradicted him. As always during this period, Napoleon emphasized his own conceptions: the Russian nobility was dissolute, decrepit, self-seeking, undisciplined, incapable of self-sacrifice, and, after the first defeats, following the beginning of an invasion, they would take fright and force the Tsar to sign a peace.
Caulaincourt objected strongly:
"You are mistaken, Sire, about Alexander and the Russians. Do not judge Russia from what others tell you about her. And do not judge the Russian army from what you saw of it after Friedland, crushed as it was and disarmed. Threatened with an attack for over a year, the Russians have made preparations and strengthened their forces. They have considered all possibilities, even the possibility of great defeats. They have made preparations for defense and resistance to the utmost."
Napoleon listened, but soon changed the subject. He spoke of his Grand Army, the inexhaustible resources of his world empire, of his invincible Guard. In all history, he pointed out, no military leader had commanded such enormous forces, such troops, magnificent in all respects. At the same audience, Caulaincourt protested that it was unjust to demand that Russia fulfill in every particular the ruinous conditions of the Continental System, while Napoleon himself violated them in the interests of the treasury and French industry, by granting licenses for trade with England to individual merchants and financiers. Napoleon shut his ears to all these arguments. "One good battle," he replied, "will put an end to all your friend Alexander's excellent resolutions, and to all his fortifications built on sand."
With a feeling of despair, Caulaincourt saw that he was accomplishing nothing. Napoleon's confidence in victory was increasing month by month as his grandiose preparations took shape, and he refused to take any warning seriously. Russo-French relations were in a muddled state.
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