(From The New York Times)
‘Russia Against Napoleon’
By DOMINIC LIEVEN
Napoleon made great progress in the first stage of empire-building, took some steps towards creating imperial institutions but still had a very long way to go in legitimizing his power. To do him justice, he faced a daunting task. A thousand years after the death of Charlemagne, it was rather late in the day to dream of restoring a European empire. Three hundred years after the printing of the vernacular Bible, the imposition of French as a pan-European imperial language was unimaginable. An imperial project backed by a universalist, totalitarian ideology might have gone some way towards establishing empire in Europe for a time. But Napoleon was in no sense a totalitarian ruler, nor was his empire much driven by ideology. On the contrary, he had put the lid on the French Revolution and done his best to banish ideology from French political life. Even the uprooting of local elites in conquered Europe went well beyond Napoleon's desires or his power. In 1812 his empire was still very dependent on his personal charisma.
Many European statesmen understood this and acted accordingly. On the eve of his departure for the Americas in 1809, Count Theodor von der Pahlen, the first Russian minister to the United States, wrote that despite the triumphs of France and its current dominance, within less than fifty years nothing will remain to it but the empty glory of having overthrown and oppressed Europe. It will have acquired no real benefits from this for the French nation, which will find itself exhausted of men and treasure once it can no longer raise them from its neighbours. France's immense current influence depends wholly on the existence of a single individual. His great talents, his astonishing energy and impetuous character will never allow him to put limits on his ambition, so that whether he dies today or in thirty years' time he will leave matters no more consolidated than they are at present.
Meanwhile, added Pahlen, as a new European Thirty Years War continued, the Americas would grow enormously in strength. Of the European powers only the English would be in a position to derive any advantages from this.
The implication of this comment is that in the eyes of history the triumphs and disasters of the Napoleonic era would seem the proverbial tale full of sound and fury, not (let us hope) told by an idiot but also not adding up to much. There is some truth in this. Aspects of the Napoleonic saga were more spectacular than significant. Nevertheless it would be wrong to be too dismissive of the fears and efforts of Europe's statesmen in these years.
Like all political leaders, Russia's rulers had to confront pressing contemporary realities. They could not live on hopes for a distant future. They might well share Theodor Pahlen's longer-term perspectives and believe that, if they could buy time and postpone the conflict with Napoleon, it might actually pass them by. The emperor himself could die or lose his fire. That after all was the rationale behind Nesselrode's spies assiduously reporting whether Napoleon was still eating a good breakfast. Unless fortune intervened, however, Russia's leaders from mid-1810 had to confront the reality that Napoleon was preparing to invade their empire. No doubt if they caved in to his demands war might be averted for a time. But to subscribe to his current version of the Continental System was to undermine the financial and economic bases of Russia's position as an independent power. By definition, this would leave it open to Napoleon to establish a powerful Polish client state which would shut Russia out of Europe.
The chances of Napoleon establishing a lasting empire across Europe may have been poor, though this was far from self-evident in 1812. His regime certainly could put down deep roots west of the Rhine and in northern Italy. It was also well within his power to implement the strategy set out in Champagny's memorandum of 1810, which Russian espionage had acquired for Alexander. There was every reason to fear in 1812 that Napoleon would defeat the Russian army and force peace on Alexander I. This would have resulted in the creation of a powerful Polish satellite kingdom, with its own ambitions in Ukraine and Belorussia. Austria could easily have become the loyal client of Napoleon after 1812, as it became Prussia's first lieutenant after 1866. With its ambitions turned to the Balkans and against Russia, it would have been a useful auxiliary of the French Empire against any threat from the east. Within Germany, a stroke of Napoleon's pen could have abolished Prussia and compensated the King of Saxony for losing his largely theoretical sovereignty over Poland. Meanwhile for at least a generation the combination of French power and regional loyalties would have kept the Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund) under Paris's thumb. Russia would be permanently under threat and at the mercy of a Europe organized along these lines. On top of this the consequences of defeat might well include a crushing indemnity and the sacrifices a victorious Napoleon might require Russia to bear in his ongoing war against the British.