Franco-Russian Diplomacy, 1810-1812
Chapter 3: Allies and Spies
At the beginning of 1812, Napoleon accomplished a task, which he had thought very important, but which really presented no difficulty: he concluded military alliances with Prussia and Austria against Russia.
King Frederick William III exceeded all bounds in his fear of Napoleon. He trembled like an aspen leaf before the Emperor of France. As a result of 1806-1807 campaign Napoleon did not withdraw his troops from Prussia, on the contrary he sent some additional reinforcements and maintained his garrisons in Prussian fortresses.
As early as autumn 1811, Napoleon gave Frederick William to understand that he faced one of two choices - either to enter into close military alliance with him for a common war against Russia, or to say farewell to his crown, because in the event of his refusal, Marshal Davout had his instructions to occupy Berlin and put an end to the Prussian kingdom. His situation was clearly hopeless, especially in view of Austria's attitude.
Meanwhile, Clemens Metternich, Chancellor and Foreign Minister to Franz I, had decided that Austria must take part in the approaching war on Napoleon's side. At that time, Metternich had no doubt of Napoleon's ultimate victory, and even anticipated opulent favors from the French of Emperor. In the event of Napoleon's failure, both sides - Russia and France - would be so weakened by war that Austria would be in the advantageous position of being able to sell her support to whichever side she chose.
In 17 December 1811, Napoleon and Schwarzenberg, the Austrian ambassador to Paris, concluded an agreement, which, shortly afterward, led to a Franco-Austrian military alliance. Austria pledged herself to put an auxiliary Corps of thirty thousand men into the field against Russia. This force would be under the supreme command of Napoleon. In compensation, Napoleon agreed to return Austria's Illyrian provinces, ceded to him by the Treaty of Schönbrunn in 1809. Austria, however, was to receive these provinces only after the conclusion of Napoleon's war with Russia; further-more, Austria agreed to cede Galicia to Poland, once Napoleon had restored it.
The Prussian King no longer hesitated. As a final touch, he was informed that Napoleon had promised Prussian Silesia to Austria, in case Prussia refused to join him in a military alliance against Russia. Faced with the alternative of prompt dismemberment and ultimate destruction of his kingdom or complete sub-mission to Napoleon's will, the King was not long in deciding.
On 24 February 1812, Prussia signed a treaty of alliance with Napoleon. She undertook to provide an auxiliary corps of twenty thousand men, and to replenish it steadily to make up for possible losses. Prussia also undertook to supply the French military forces with oats, hay, liquor, and other items in fixed quantities. In return, the Prussian King wheedled out of Napoleon the promise of some conquered Russian territories. The text of this clause runs: "In the event of a fortunate issue of the war against Russia-if, notwithstanding the desires and hopes of both high contracting parties, the war takes place-His Imperial Majesty [Napoleon] pledges himself to give the Prussian King a territorial reward, in compensation for the sacrifices and losses which the King would incur in the course of the war."
The papers of Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky, attached to the copy of this pact, contain this interesting note:
"Upon conclusion of this alliance with France against Russia, the King demanded the provinces of Courland, Lithland, and Estland from the French Government, in the event of a successful issue to the campaign."
When Maret, the Duke of Bassano, reported the Prussian demands to the Emperor, Napoleon maliciously remarked: "And what about the oath at Frederick's Tomb?" This reference was to the sentimental comedy with vows of eternal love and friendship enacted by Alexander I, Frederick-William III, and the Prussian Queen Louise on night of October 1805 in the Potsdam, at Mausoleum of Frederick the Great.
Few persons believed that the Austrians would put up a serious fight against the Russians. Langeron hurrying to Russia near the beginning of the war, wrote frankly to Vorontsov from Bucharest, on 22 May mal 1812:
"Schwarzenberg commands 30,000 Austrians. This choice does not frighten me, because he does not hate us, and I hardly think that these 30,000 will fight with any heart against us."
Others, however, were less optimistic. From A Detailed Inventory of Autographed Letters, written by Alexander to Barclay de Tolly, we learn of the Tsar's plan to parry Austria's thrusts against Russia by encouraging the Slavic peoples and helping them to unite with the discontented Hungarians. The Tsar had even chosen the man to carry out this plan - Admiral Chichagov.
The very idea of this plan was largely based on in his complete ignorance of the actual relations between "the Slavic peoples" under Austrian rule and the Hungarians, but it shows that in April 1812, just after he had learned of the agreement between Austria and Napoleon, Alexander was filled with the greatest apprehensions. He could not be sure that the Austrians in 1812 would do what the Russians had done in 1809.
In other words, Alexander had to reckon with the participation of Austria and Prussia in the approaching war. Should Napoleon desire to march on Kiev, his right flank would be strongly reinforced by Austria. Should he desire to advance on St. Petersburg through Riga and Pskov, his left flank would be protected by the participation of Prussia. Should he decide to march on Smolensk and Moscow, the Prussians and the Austrians would press the Russian troops on the left and right flanks, driving them off the line of the Grand Army's central advance.
The situation was becoming increasingly difficult; matters were looking more and more threatening. But in April and May, no concessions on Alexander's part could have prevented the war or even the advance of the separate detachments of Napoleon's army, moving slowly but steadily from the Rhine, the Elbe, the Danube, the Alps, the North Sea, towards the Niemen. There were a few circumstances, however, which heartened Alexander and his entourage.
In April, and then again in May, Metternich deviously and in strictest secrecy informed him that Austria did not take her share in the coming conflict seriously. She would not even furnish the entire 30,000 men, and would not, in any case, advance beyond certain districts very close to the Austro-Russian frontier. These secret conversations continued even during the war: in this manner Metternich re-insured Austria against any eventuality. Furthermore, during these spring months, the Tsar found out that former Marshal of France, now Prince Regent of Sweden Bernadotte would favor not Napoleon but Russia. This meant that there would be no need to scatter his forces in defense of Finland and the northern land and sea approaches to St. Petersburg. Towards the beginning of the summer, there were other favorable developments.
From the very start of 1812, neither side had any doubt that war was near. An unexpected case of espionage added to the tenseness of the situation.
It must be mentioned that before 1810 there was not a separate body responsible for military espionage in Russia. As a rule members of the diplomatic missions were gathering information and communicating it to the "center". But it was Barclay de Tolly who decided to establish a new system of military espionage. In 1810 Alexander approved Barclay's report on establishing military agents (attaches) who were sent to diplomatic missions and were responsible purely on gathering the military information. By the end of 1810 several agents were sent to Paris, Vienna, Warsaw and Munich.
Naturally the major attention was paid to Paris and espionage on Napoleon's future plans toward invasion to Russia. There were two agents in Russian Embassy in Paris: Count Nesselrode, future Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia. He was sent in 1810 to the Embassy as a counselor on financial issues, although his main purpose was to play a role of political resident and communicate Alexander and Talleyrand. It was he who acted as paymaster to agents sources such as Talleyrand. In his correspondence with Speransky, Nesselrode usually called Talleyrand "our cousin Henri", "Anna Ivanovna" or "our librarian", while "Korentyi Petrovich" was Napoleon, "Andryusha": Ambassador Kurakin, "our nephew Serge": Champagny, and Tsar Alexander I was "Luisa".
Generally, Nesselrode's correspondence can be divided into three parts - his personal reports on political situation in France; reports on the meetings with Talleyrand; and, the most important part, copies of the documents provided by Talleyrand. As rule these documents were the secret reports of the Imperal Police on the situation within Empire, military reports on the war in Spain and secret reports to Napoleon on various issues.
It must mentioned that besides these transmitting such documents, Talleyrand was advising the Tsar on the issues of foreign policy. It was he who advised Tsar to begin secret negotiations with Metternich, to continue support of the Prussian King, to impede Napoleon's relationship with Sweden, and to make peace with Turkey and Persia. And Alexander, whether considering this advice or not, ultimately followed the same pattern in his foreign policy.
Another, and one of the most active and effective agents, was Alexander Ivanovich Chernishev, later Minister of War under Nicholas I. Though only twenty-eight at that time, he had the rank of colonel and aide-de-camp. Attached to the Russian Embassy in Paris, Chernishev several times served as his courier, bearing letters from Alexander to Napoleon and from Napoleon to Alexander. Chernishev won Napoleon's confidence by his subtle flattery and his apt and quick-witted remarks on the military subjects in which the Emperor so delighted. The smooth-spoken courtier, young, brilliant, and handsome, was an absolutely unprincipled careerist. Subsequently the ruthless executioner of the Decembrists, he aroused moral loathing even in those inured to court life. During his long life he won the favor of three emperors. The three were strikingly dissimilar, but he knew how to handle each: Alexander, Napoleon, and Nicholas. And that was all he needed for his purposes. The favor of Napoleon opened the doors to all the salons in Paris and provided him with connections in the upper circles of French society.
Early in 1811, Chernishev made the acquaintance of one Michel, who was serving on the General Staff of the French army and who had long been connected with the Russian Embassy.
As it was known that on the first and fifteenth of every month, the French Minister of War handed the Emperor a so-called Survey of the Situation of the entire French army, with all the numerical changes in its separate divisions, all the changes in billeting, a complete list of fortnightly appointments to commanding posts, and so forth. These reports found their way into Michel's hands for a few hours. Michel made rapid copies of them, and delivered them to Chernishev for a suitable reward. This arrangement went on smoothly and successfully for over a year, from January 1811 to February 1812. But despite Chernishev's cleverness and Michel's discretion, there were others who specialized in these issues: in February 1812 Chernishev's apartments were thoroughly searched by the Imperial secret police (in his absence-unofficially, of course). A courier was also searched at the frontier.
As a result, no doubt was left in Napoleon's mind concerning the real activities of the Russian Colonel for whom he had developed so much affection. By this time, Napoleon had decided that war with Russia was inevitable, but he could not and did not want to precipitate a break with Alexander. He needed another three to four months for preparations, and refrained from divulging his discovery.
Following the secret and delicate, yet ill-boding, search of his premises, Chernishev decided that a longer sojourn on the banks of the Seine was unhealthy. He paid a respectful farewell call at the Tuileries and left for Russia. Before his departure he burned all the incriminating documents that might reveal to the Imperial secret police the one thing they wanted to know -who had given Chernishev access to the documents? The riddle was solved by mere chance. In his haste to depart, Chernishev had forgotten to have the rugs taken from his floors. Under one of the rugs, near the fireplace, the police, which promptly called at his rooms, found a letter written by Michel; it must have dropped there by accident. Michel was immediately arrested, tried, and executed on 2 May 1812. His trial, and that of three others was deliberately held in public; Napoleon wanted to create the impression that Russia was planning to attack France, and was sending spies as a preliminary. Although the information in the hands of the Russian Government was somewhat out of date by the time war broke out, it was so extensive as to retain much of its value. Furthermore, lesser agents in Paris, in Germany, and especially in Poland had provided more recent information on French troop movements and changes in the army.
Napoleon was infuriated by the disclosures of espionage. On 3 March, his Foreign Minister, the Duke of Bassano, wrote a cutting letter to the Russian Ambassador:
"His Majesty was deeply distressed by the conduct of Count Chernishev. He was surprised to learn that a man whom he had always treated kindly, a man who was in Paris not as a political agent, but as the Russian Emperor's aide-de-camp, who was the bearer of a personal letter to the Emperor, and for that reason enjoyed more confidence than an ambassador, had taken advantage of this position to abuse the most sacred human ties. His Majesty the Emperor is grieved that spies were introduced to him under a title inviting trust, and this in peacetime - though such conduct is permissible only in wartime. And in a hostile country. The Emperor is grieved that these spies have been chosen not from the lowest class of society but from men whose position has placed them so close to the Tsar. I am too well acquainted with your sense of honor not to believe that you yourself are distressed by this affair so contrary to mind the dignity of sovereigns. If Prince Kurakin, the Emperor told me, had engaged in similar maneuvers, I should have forgiven him; but a colonel, enjoying the confidence of his sovereign and occupying a place so close to his person, is a different matter. His Majesty had only recently shown his trust in Chernishev by holding a long private conversation with him. The Emperor had no inkling that he was conversing with a spy and bribe-giver."
Of course, Napoleon's moral indignation did not prevent him from maintaining a host of spies in Russia. Nor did it deter him from beginning, in April and May, to print counterfeit Russian bank notes to meet the demands of the coming invasion. While preparing all his forces for the invasion, Napoleon could do nothing to hasten the approaching break. Certain internal French developments had a delaying effect. Chief among these was a serious bread shortage in some of the departments. Hunger riots broke out in Normandy, and had to be quelled by force of arms. Profiteers tried to enrich themselves on the people's misery by extensive and bold speculations. The administration proved unable to put a prompt stop to the rise in the price of bread.
The Coming Break in Relations
Towards the end of February, the tone of Kurakin's reports changed. He began to think that Napoleon had not yet decided to make war, that he was still wavering, and that it was up to the Russian Government to do everything possible to avoid the terrible clash. But two months later - on 23 April 1812 - Kurakin was again pessimistic: "Everything points to the conclusion that the war was decided upon long ago in the mind of the French Emperor."
On 27 April 1812, Napoleon granted Kurakin an audience. Kurakin had requested the evacuation of French troops from Prussia. "What have your St. Petersburg people done with their heads, to think they can intimidate me with threats?" Napoleon exclaimed. Kurakin had merely mentioned Napoleon's tremendous armaments and his alliance with Prussia clearly directed against Russia. Napoleon simply failed to listen and repeated his categorical refusal.
At the same audience, Kurakin heard from Napoleon himself that Austria had concluded an alliance with France.
On the following day, Kurakin called on the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Russian Ambassador was willing to give in on almost every point: Russia would withdraw her protest against Napoleon's annexation of the Duchy of Oldenburg and would negotiate for compensation to the Duke; Russia would introduce into the tariff of 1810 special clauses in favor of French imports. But Russia still insisted on the evacuation of Prussia, as stipulated in Tilsit agreement, and she reasserted her right to trade with neutral countries.
But all these proposals were futile. Kurakin asked for his passports, and after a long delay, obtained them.
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