Tim Blanning: Napoleon and German Identity

History Today, Vol. 48 Issue 4, 1998

ger napoleonIn the beginning was Napoleon’ – with these words the late and much-lamented Thomas Nipperday began his masterly account of the history of Germany in the nineteenth century (recently translated as From Napoleon to Bismarck). Like most lapidary phrases, it begs as many questions as it answers. Many of the forces which turned Germany into the greatest power on the European continent went back far into the eighteenth century and beyond. But, as we shall see, there is certainly a great deal to be said for taking Napoleon as the starting point.

There is a fine irony here, for it was Napoleon who brought Germany as low at it had ever been. During the early years of the French Revolutionary wars, military fortunes had been mixed. The German powers had lost battles but they had also won battles, so if they had lost territory, they had also won it. When Prussia left the war in 1795 it was not as a vanquished but as a satiated power, looking for a respite in which to digest her enormous gains in Poland. The Austrians fared less well perhaps, but even they could point to gains in Italy to counter-balance losses north of the Alps.

It was Napoleon’s crushing victories at Marengo in 1800, at Ulm and Austerlitz in 1805 and at Jena and Auerstedt in 1806 which put Germany at his mercy. He remodelled it in three ways. One part – all the territories on the west bank of the Rhine – he annexed to France. Another part he turned into fiefs for his relations – the Kingdom of Westphalia for his brother Jerome and the Grand Duchy of Berg for his brother-in-law Joachim Murat. In the third and largest part he allowed a number of German princes to continue but only as his obedient puppets. In short, Napoleon destroyed the Holy Roman Empire.

This represented the greatest upheaval in Europe since the Reformation. The Holy Roman Empire was just over a millennium old when it was put to death, having been founded on Christmas Day 800 when Charlemagne was crowned by Pope Leo III at St Peter’s in Rome. In more recent centuries it had come to serve as Europe’s soft centre, a loose confederation of princes and city-republics under the nominal sway of the Emperor. With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that it presented the best solution to the ‘German problem’, for it was cohesive enough to give German-speaking Europe a sense of identity but too fragmented to allow the concentration of German power. Although much derided by contemporaries over-impressed by the achievements of nation-states such as France and England, the Holy Roman Empire still possessed many assets and still commanded much loyalty. Although it had often looked like floundering in the past, the self-balancing mechanism of the European states-system had always intervened to save it. But the victory obtained by Napoleon was so total that this time there could be no White Knight waiting in the wings.

The destruction of the Holy Roman Empire proved to be an act of consummate folly on the part of Napoleon, although more than half a century was to pass before all the chickens came home to roost. In 1748 the great Scottish philosopher David Hume had travelled through Germany. Mightily impressed by what he saw, he had commented: Germany is undoubtedly a very fine Country, full of industrious, honest People, and were it united it would be the greatest power that ever was in the World.

French policy-makers under the ancien regime agreed and were careful to avoid anything which might bring about that potentially fatal unification. As one diplomat boasted, the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which had brought the Thirty Years’ War to an end and thus confirmed German disunity, was ‘the finest jewel in the King of France’s crown’. Driven by their anti-clerical, rationalist and egalitarian ideology, the French Revolutionaries were blind to this asset and set about destroying it, a task which was completed by the man who was both their heir and their executioner – Napoleon.

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