More books have been written about Napoleon Bonaparte than about anyone else in history, more than Christ, Mohammad, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great. The last estimate for the number of books written on Napoleon was over 300,000 (J.D. Markham, 9). So who was this man, and why is he so important? Napoleon was without question the most significant person of his age. At the peak of his career, he ruled and conquered most of western and central Europe. Napoleon’s importance goes far beyond his conquests. He influenced France, Europe, and the rest of the world by reorganizing the economic, legal, political, social, military, and educational institutions of France, and brought this transformation to the rest of Europe. As a result of his reforms and of the various steps towards greater unity that took place while he was in power, Napoleon is often described as the father of the European Union.
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One of Napoleon’s unintended consequences during his European campaigns was the rise of nationalism. Nationalistic feelings began to stir up as a result of Napoleonic policies that brought increased unity to an area, such as the Confederation of the Rhine in today’s Germany. The impact and feelings of nationalism often became stronger than any loyalty to the French Empire. Napoleon was an early supporter of the Italian reunification, forming the Cisalpine Republic, which consisted of areas around the Po River in northern Italy. With the Treaty of Tilsit, Napoleon resurrected Poland as an independent nation and formed The Grand Duchy of Warsaw. German states under the control of the French Empire began to resent their domination; this began to fuel German nationalism.
The territory we know as modern-day Germany had long been a collection of small – sometimes very small – kingdoms, free cities, and principalities. This collection had been brought under the umbrella of the Holly Roman Empire in 800 C.E. under the Emperor Charlemagne. That empire had withered away, and as Napoleon rose to power it consisted only of the German states under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor, who also happened to be the Emperor Francis of Austria.
The Holy Roman Empire had lost most of its power, and both Austria and Prussia eyed the German states for their soldiers and economic opportunities. The German states of the Rhine acted as a buffer between Austria, Prussia, and France. Napoleon was determined to bring the German states under his control, after his victory over the Austrians and Russians in 1805, he was in a position to do just that. The Holly Roman Empire was formally dissolved on August 6, 1806 when Francis formally gave up his title. In July 12, 1806, Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine out of the 16 principalities, most notably Bavaria, Saxony, Westphalia, Wurttemberg, and Baden. This action brought the borders of the French Empire to those of Prussia and Austria.
Napoleon encouraged the newly formed principalities to adopt Napoleonic reforms, such as the Code Napoleon. However, Napoleon did not force them to be uniform in their approach. As a result, some of the states became quite progressive, while others adopted very few reforms. All of the states in the Confederation were forced to participate in the Continental System, and all had to contribute soldiers to Napoleon for his various campaigns.
Brining together the various German states had an unintended consequence: rising German nationalism. Early on in the formation of the Confederation of the Rhine, many people living in the Confederation began to resent their domination by France. After the fall of Napoleon, the major European powers tried to return the situation in central Europe to the pre-Napoleonic status. However, German nationalism continued to grow, and the smaller Germanic states were never reinstated. Anti-French feeling continued to fuel German nationalism. By the middle of the century, much of northern Germany had unified. The Franco-Prussian war later in the 19th century solidified a united Germany.
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German Nationalism and the French Occupation
Certainly in the Rhineland the French occupation was welcomed as a providing the force for social and political change. However, even there as well as in the rest of Germany the French occupation came to be resented. Firstly, Napoleon attempted to strangle Britain’s trade by establishing an embargo, known as the Continental System. The Continental System severely affected the trade of North Germany, particularly in grain, wood and linen. ( Cite ) French attempts to prevent smuggling had a disastrous effect on German merchants. The whole situation was made worse by tariffs within Europe, particularly preventing German exports to France. Secondly, there was the effect of conscription, a third of the army that invaded Russia was German. ( Cite ) Thirdly, there was the heavy taxation to pay for Napoleon’s wars. Finally, the arrogance of French officials angered Germans.
Napoleon was ready to use national aspirations as far as they seemed to fit into his system, without having any sincere desire to satisfy them. For him nations had no reality of their own. Napoleon created and dissolved new states constantly, shifting frontiers and rulers in the process. Napoleon did not encounter opposition from German nationalism in the beginning. The people unhappy with his rule were less moved by national sentiments than by dislike of foreign troops who stayed on and lived off the land and in many cases behaved without tact or restraint. They were motivated much more by loyalty to religion or to traditional ways of life than by nationalism. Only toward the end of his reign did Napoleon succeed, against his will and intention, in arousing nationalism in some of the people subject to or threatened by his rule. Thus indirectly and unwittingly Napoleon became a midwife to the birth of the age of nationalism on the continent of Europe. At the end of 1811 Marshal Davout, the commanding officer in Hamburg, warned Napoleon of the mounting national sentiment in Germany and of the dangers to French rule that this growth of German nationalism involved. Napoleon rejected the warning; he did not believe in the possibility of nationalism and in his rebuke pointed to the peaceful character of the German people. Germany seemed to him quiet and obedient, “If there were a movement in Germany, it would ultimately be for us and against the small princes.”
Napoleon asked himself why no German prince had used the German demand for unity to his own profit. “Certainly, if heaven had willed that I be born a German prince, I would infallibly have governed thirty million united Germans; and from what I think I know of them, I believe that, once they had elected and proclaimed me, they would never have abandoned me, and I would not be here now.” Napoleon believed that he might have led a willing and obedient German nation to dominion over Europe.
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