January 15th, 2021


The Napoleon Diaries 5

At home, Napoleon behaves increasingly like someone out of the Ancient Régime. Taxes are raised to pay for the wars. He keeps changing his mind about the Jews. First, they are free to do as they please (he thought wealthy Jews might settle in France), then he clamps down on ‘usurers’, then changes his mind again.

In Europe, he divides Germany up into new regions, little suspecting that he has started the process of German unification which will later be France’s downfall. For all his fine talk about rewarding merit, he promotes his own family members, arranging dynastic marriages worthy of Queen Victoria and indulging in king-making. These appointments of inept rulers show his political judgement to be poor in some matters but his tactical skill in battle is as brilliant as ever. Yet another small war begins, with a victory at Jena which, apparently, is still taught in military academies today as an example of ‘how to do it’.

On and on goes the slaughter. Napoleon always blames ‘the English’ for the wars; so far British activity has been confined to naval battles and to giving large sums of money to Napoleon’s many enemies. The Continental System is supposed to stop all exports and imports of British goods anywhere in Europe. The result is a vast increase in smuggling and the alienation of the French middle classes. The old Russian and Austrian empires will not tolerate the loss of one yard of land they may once have held for five minutes. The Poles, then and for many years to come, are desperate for their own territory. No wonder Napoleon now finds himself fighting in northern Europe.

The battle of Eylau is fought in terrible winter conditions and although technically a victory for Napoleon, is not decisive. Writing to his brother Joseph about it, Napoleon compares those he has been fighting to ‘those people of the North who once invaded the Roman Empire’, which shows how he saw himself as heir to the Caesars. In a summer campaign (the poor old foot soldiers are always either frozen or baked), he routs the Russians at Friedland and meets Tsar Alexander on a specially constructed raft in the middle of a river to make terms.