Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself


1812: Winds of Change

By: Ignacio Paz

“It's just one step between the sublime and the ridiculous”

-Napoleon on his retreat to Paris in 1812

The year is 1812, and Napoleon and his army of over 600,000 are about to march into Russia. After repeated negotiations with the Tsar Alexander I over the Continental System, and the ever-ambiguous question of Poland have failed, Napoleon has decided to try to impose a negotiation through war. Only too late will he realize how fatal a mistake this would be; Russia would bring down the Napoleonic Empire and its Emperor.

The majority of historians agree that before the lethal invasion of Russia took place Napoleon was at the height of his power. Whether or not this coincided with the height of his Empire, with its state-building and stability, is still a matter of debate. Napoleon himself said at the birth of his son on March 10, 1811, “Now begins the finest epoch of my reign”, and, as Steven Englund puts it, “if we do not agree, most of his subjects did” (363). Zamoyski elaborates by describing the joy and excitement of the citizens of France at news of the birth, happy at the prospect of peace and a continuing stability with the appearance of an heir. Plans were created to make palaces for Napoleon II and the Pope; the French Empire was to “become the metropolis of all other sovereignties”. Napoleon wanted a “European legal system, a European appeal court, a common currency, the same weights and measures, the same laws” and tried to make Europe into one people with “Paris the capital of the world” (Zamoyski 9). With his marriage to the Austrian Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s legitimacy increased, and his Empire was indeed becoming the model for the other courts of Europe. People tried to imitate the fashion, the science, the art, the culture, the finesse of the French so that by 1812 Paris was indeed becoming a model to the world, further supporting the theory that this was the height of Napoleon’s Empire.

Although true that in 1808 Spain’s population rose up against their new king, Joseph Bonaparte, which ended up tying down 300,000 French soldiers there, as Zamoyski says, “This was not in itself a major problem, and could be dealt with by a concerted operation under his own direction” (11). Only later would Napoleon realize that Spain was only a dress-rehearsal for the grand theatre of Russia. However, before the summer of 1812 “Spain was the exception that proved a seemingly happier rule” (Englund 363).  In addition, Spain was not united as a whole against the French. Napoleon’s Empire, which seemed to bring in the liberal essence of the Revolution, was regarded as a positive thing; “As a result, significant sections, and in some cases the majority, of the politically aware populations of such countries as Belgium, the   Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Poland and even Spain ranged themselves in the camp of France against those seeking to restore the Ancien Régime, even if they resented French rule and decried the depredations of French troops” (Zamoyski 41).

Despite the beautification of Paris, with its new architecture, streets, museums, monuments, education and priests, following the Concordat with the Catholic Church, Napoleon felt he would continue to be vulnerable as long as England was able to instigate and finance coalitions against him. In an attempt to starve her out, materially and economically, he enforced the Continental System, which forced all ports under his control or that of his allies to be closed off to British trade. Following the treaty of Tilsit in 1807 with Tsar Alexander I, Russia was to close its ports off as well. However, with such trade being vital for Russia’s raw materials, and their resentment towards the new Grand Duchy of Warsaw, whose nationalist Poles could be a threat, Alexander began to waiver in carrying out the policies of the alliance. Getting angrier by the second at Russia’s impudence, Napoleon wrote to Caulaincourt in June 1810, then ambassador to Russia, mentioning war for the first time. However, “it was a remark thrown out in the heat of the moment” and “nobody realized better than Napoleon” that if he were to go to war with Russia the possibility of having peace with England would be even lower and Germany, whose patriots were being roused by the Russians, could de “destabilized”. Yet, while “French society was looking forward to a golden age of peace”, such a war was becoming desirable for Russia, whose society “had been hostile to the French alliance from the start” (Zamoyski 16, 61). With that polarity of opinion, Russia and France were about to start on a collision course.

One thing that could have altered the Franco-Russian relationship was the bargaining chip of Poland. Napoleon had considered letting Russia have part of it, but then realized that it would dishonor France who had made the Poles an important part of her political spectrum. After this realization, each was more convinced that war was going to happen. Despite this, or because of it, Caulaincourt and many of his advisors and marshals “begged him not to go to war” (Zamoyski 3).  It has even been suggested that the divorced Empress Josephine, whom Napoleon still frequently visited and wrote to, advised him not to go to Russia. Instead, she tried to convince him to take advantage of the present peace and stability, by telling him about “the height of [his] power”, his “rule over the destiny of the over 60 million people”, his “wife [Marie-Louise] who loves [him]”, and the fact he now had “the son [he’d] so longed for” (Napoleon).

Nevertheless, after months of mobilizing troops of all nationalities, Napoleon began marching into Russia in June of 1812. Except there was no clear purpose or aims for the coming war and “by definition, aimless wars cannot be won” (Zamoyski 106). With such ambiguity, enthusiasm was lower among the army than in previous struggles, and would lead to massive amounts of desertions in the campaign. After all, the plan was not to march on Moscow “at all” as Esdaile examines. There had been the hope that the Tsar would either make peace quickly or his armies would be defeated right away. The summer heat would also be an added stress to the troops. This leads to the point mentioned earlier, about Spain being a dress-rehearsal for Russia. While a large part of the Spanish population was Catholic and faith was important in their struggle against the French, it was nothing like the role it would play in Russia. Tsar Alexander I set up a propaganda system that used his country’s Christianity to make Napoleon appear as the “anti-Christ”. Not only was religion stronger in Russia than Spain, but they were more easily subjected and swayed as they were under a serf system, similar to the medieval ages. As J. Christopher Herold says, Napoleon “did not anticipate that in addition to the Russian army, of whose command he had a low opinion, he would have to fight the Russian people-that ‘blind and apathetic mass’ of superstitious barbarians” (341).

In the same way that almost all Russians followed the influence of faith to follow their Tsar against Napoleon spiritually and psychologically, so too did they do the best possible to fight him materially. “The entire nation was seized by patriotic fervor”, sons and wealth and serfs were given to the army, and merchants “gave their money and destroyed their stores to keep them from falling into the hands of the French; the gentry and the peasants laid waste their land as they fled from the approaching enemy” (Herold 348). The war evolved into what the Comte de Ségur called “a class war, a party war, a religious war, a national war – all sorts of war rolled into one” (349). He would also add that “the scorched-earth policy was not motivated exclusively by patriotism and military necessity”, which is important to keep in mind. The Russian nobility “were distrustful of their slaves” and feared they would rise against their masters in favor of Napoleon (348). Another thing that is essential to bear in mind, is the Russian policy itself of burning the lands they passed. “This was a strategy that took shape spontaneously, almost by accident, and was rationalized only later” Herold comments. Thus, for one of the first times, Napoleon faces a tactic that he cannot counter, not just for its grandness, but for its spontaneous nature.

Before taking Moscow, Napoleon was finally able to have a grand battle against the Russians as he had been wanting at the battle of Borodino. However, due to declining health, with his “plumpness” and his kidney stone, he “showed no strategic brilliance in this battle, but relied on head-on assaults, which failed to destroy the foe” (Englund 376-377).  Once the Russians, under Kutuzov, retreated, Napoleon took Moscow, and shortly after arsonists burned the city. While horrible in itself, it had a stronger psychological force than anything; “The war thus took a new turn in Russia: it became, if not a nationalist uprising – that would have terrified the ruling class – then a popular conflict that saw peasants refuse to sell goods at any price to the French” (377). Things were not going well, and a retreat would have been the wisest thing to do, which Napoleon later admitted, saying he should have stayed at the Kremlin for two weeks only rather than 35 days. As Englund so eloquently puts it, “Disaster now inexorably engulfed the French, as Russia herself and minus 30-degree weather swallowed their prey whole, like a python with a piglet” (377).

With the Russian winter arriving early, Napoleon’s overdue retreat was made all the more dangerous. With the Cossacks attacking little by little and the cold weather killing the French like flies, no one realized the failure more so than Napoleon himself, who carried a vial of poison around his neck during the retreat. To make matters worse, he was obliged to hurry back to Paris because of an attempted coup by a man called Malet, revealing that, if not the decline, the Empire was beginning to have, then “a dearth of dynastic loyalty” (Englund 388). Meanwhile, “smelling blood, Britain, Russia, Prussia and Sweden united against him” with a new coalition that would further ensure the Empire’s downfall (Napoleon: Empires). As Napoleon said, “after [Moscow], fortune ceased to smile on me” (Englund 378).  The year 1812 was the turning point, in which Napoleon and his Empire fell from their heights, “The Grand Armeé…was not bled to death by a thousand cuts, worn down by British-sponsored guerillas [in Spain] or starved into submission by the Royal Navy; it was totally destroyed at great cost in Russia in 1812” (378). In essence, the invasion of Russia was the point of no return, the point which Napoleon should never had tried to reach, but instead should have consolidated the height of his Empire.

Ultimately, the invasion of Russia and its result “sealed Napoleon’s fate”. It cost him around half a million of his soldiers, and it “tarnished the aura of superiority surrounding his person”; Napoleon was no longer invincible, he could be defeated. As the Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna said, “he is no longer an idol, but has descended to the rank of men, and as such can be fought by men”. Zamoyski makes it even clearer with his description; “As the master of Europe was seen to stumble and fall, every person who held a grudge against him, every nation which resented his dominion, every group with a dream of change took heart” (544). The retreat of Russia was one that spanned many, if not all the aspects of State; it was a military, political, ideological, and, perhaps most important for the following two years, a psychological retreat. In the words of Talleyrand, it “marked the beginning of the end” (144).

Napoleon once said that “Empires are created by the sword and are conserved by hereditary” (Zamoyski, 11).  With the birth of his son, the little King of Rome, Napoleon should have followed such a principle; he should have consolidated the peace as best he could. His empire was at its height, according to himself, his people and many historians. Now was the time to lay down “the sword” and do the best he could to maintain peace with Russia and the whole of Europe. How he could have done so with the obstacles he faced is best left for future debates, but in retrospect it is clear that the invasion of Russia was the “first stop on the road to St. Helena” (Zamoyski, Rites of Peace 144). Napoleon’s turning point from power came fast and hard, but was, like his ambiguous self, hard to pin down. His situation is best described by his quote, that “it’s just one step between the sublime and the ridiculous”, and indeed, 1812 perfectly demonstrates that.


Englund, Steven. Napoleon: A Political Life. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard University Press. 2004.

Esdaile, Charles. Napoleon's Wars: An International History 1803-1815. U.S.A. Allen Lane. 2007

Herold, J. Christopher. The Age of Napoleon. 3rd ed. Boston, New York. Mariner Books. 1963, 2002.

Napoleon. Dir. by Yves Simoneau. DVD. A&E Home Video. 2003

Napoleon: Soldier, Emperor, Lover, Statesman. Empires. Prod. and Dir. by David Grubin. DVD. PBS Home Video. 2006.

Zamoyski, Adam. 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow. 2nd edition. Great Britain. Harper Perennial. 2004, 2005

Zamoyski, Adam. Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna. New York, NY. HarperCollins. 2007.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2008


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