Alternative Moments in History: Napoleon Bonaparte
Equalling greats such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Gustavus Adolphus, Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the greatest military leaders in history. The future emperor was born in 1769. During his life, he overthrew a Republic, won multiple wars, and conquered Europe. These actions changed history forever, and we must analyze these and offer alternative outcomes without the influence of Napoleon.
End of the French Revolution
Napoleon’s first significant impact on 19th century Europe was when he overthrew the French Republic in all but name in 1799. The French Republic, created in 1789, was founded through the French Revolution, a bloody conflict that saw the gruesome end to much of the French nobility and scared the surrounding nations. The Republic continued to exist in different forms of government. Still, at the time of Napoleon’s coup, it was in a 5-man directory and two legislative houses and was highly inefficient.
Napoleon’s coup, known as the coup of 18/19 Brumaire in 1799 (November), removed the directory and the two legislative houses due to the dire situation in France. There was little resistance due to the widespread unpopularity of the system. Through this overthrow, Napoleon was able to secure France from the debt and instability she was in. Moreover, Napoleon was able to win the War of the Second Coalition, continuing the progress already made. Despite the Second Coalition war starting poorly for the Republic, when they were invaded in multiple campaigns by the British and Russians suffering a series of defeats, the French turned the tide, forcing them to retreat. With this inconclusive stalemate Napoleon, using this ultimate power as consul, showed his usual brilliance quickly defeating Austria by crossing the Alps. With one of the central powers gone, the coalition fell apart.
For more information on how the coup was completed, click on this link.
Napoleon in the Alpes
While Napoleon secured France from her enemies and fought another six coalitions without his overthrow of the Republic, it would have been much more different.
With the stalemate of the Second Coalition War and the unpopularity of the directory, coups would have been attempted by various different groups, including the Jacobins, the Royalists, or the military, who were likely to cause more chaos through unstable governments this changing and coups would have affected France’s ability to wage war. Without Napoleon’s brilliance, the Republic would likely have been worn down by constant conflict, only managing to avoid defeats.
It is highly likely that by the turn of the 18th century, the French Royal family would have been reinstated, or a more appeasable French Republic would be in place but very unstable. Thus, it is unlikely there would have been a need for four more coalition wars, and Europe would have returned to an uneasy peace waiting for the next conflict.
Founding modern Germany
Napoleon destroyed the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. After lasting 800 years, the Empire was officially ended by the Austrian Emperor Francis II. This came after the losses in the 1801 Treaty of Luneville, which formed the French puppet state of the Confederation of the Rhine. Following and before this announcement, Napoleon reorganised the German states reducing their number drastically from over 300 to fewer than 100.
These reforms and the cruel rule of his brother Jerome in the kingdom of Westphalia sparked the fire, which became German nationalism and would allow Prussia to form a united Germany in the 1880s while leaving Austria with a weaker hand and a minor role in Germanic politics.
The 800-year-old Holy Roman Empire would have continued to exist until the end of the 1880s, and a greater Germanic nation would be formed, but between the leading powers of Austria and Prussian being unclear with maybe a more equal divide or a more significant conflict between the countries for domination. This division would lead to conflict, which would most likely spark some division in Germanic states siding with Prussia and Austria in a brutal war. This war would most likely happen during the 1800s with the rise of Prussian power.
Napoleonic Code and Ending Feudalism
In 1804 Napoleon created a new legal code, the Napoleonic Code, one of Napoleon’s most enduring legacies. For a man known so well for his military accomplishments, it is strange this is his most enduring impact on the world. Moreover, the Napoleonic Code forms the basis for many European and non-European nations’ laws. Introduced into countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, parts of Italy through invasion and outside Europe, the Dominican Republic, Louisiana, Quebec, and even some Arabic states like Kuwait base their laws on this code.
The Napoleonic Code was based on the French Revolutionary ideals of ‘Laws being based on reason and common sense with the belief that ‘All men should be treated under equal law’ and ‘people should have certain freedoms. Moreover, Napoleon effectively ended feudalism through this code as it dismantled feudal laws retaining people to property and land. This ending of feudalism in his directly conquered states and many of his satellite kingdoms, thus encompassing much of Europe, opening Europe into capitalism.
Without creating the Napoleonic code, much of the Western World’s legal principle would be different, with even France still maintaining a much-adapted version of the Napoleonic Code. The breaking of Feudalism would likely happen through popular movements with mass riots and even potential revolutions demanding they are freed from their ties to the land, with France being the first state to remove it in law officially. These revolts would probably not be as extreme as the Russian Revolution in the 1900s, but they would be just as impacting on history.
The military situation of Europe
Napoleon short impact on Europe through the military. His defeat of the Prussian Army forced a reform that allowed for the Prussian military’s dominance in the next decade, destroyed the Spanish nation and indirectly her empire, changed how wars were fought, and re-secured England naval dominance.
Firstly, to military strategy, Napoleon was revolutionary as he combined the artillery, cavalry, and infantry in continuous attacks overwhelming and destroying his enemies like never before. Moreover, he was the first to introduce country-wide conscription, fully mobilizing countries for war, giving him the impetus and allowing for offensive action.
Wars no longer revolved around singular battles; they were fully-fledged campaigns with multiple armies numbering in the tens of thousands with numerous battles. With this military strategy and his own brilliance, Napoleon defeated and conquered multiple nations, including Prussia and Spain.
Prussia, defeat in 1807 was humiliating. Her conscription was cumbersome. The army bogged down in a meeting and trounced on the field at Jena. This defeat forced reform with the generals who headed the reforms, Gebhard von Bluecher, Carl von Clausewitz, August Neidhart von Gneisenau, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, and Hermann von Boyenm all young junior officers present at Jena. These reforms turned Prussia into a military machine and the military centre of the future German nation. These men formed the basis of the 1807 reorganisation committee, which introduced conscription, promotion through merit, not social class, and rigorous training, which allowed for the over-hall of the Prussian military.
Napoleon changed Spain’s entire history. The takeover of Spain by Napoleon and the capture and imprisonment of its King Ferdinand VII led to the government at Cadiz, who created one of the most liberal constitutions known as the 1812 Constitution of Cadez, restricting the king creating a parliament and increasing the individualism of ordinary Spaniards. Furthermore, the occupation of Spain left her colonies in freefall with no proper control, and even after they defeated an army sent by the Spanish, inspired by Napoleon’s French Revolution.
Finally, back to British naval dominance – The Battle of Trafalgar was the most convincing maritime victory of the century. Like the Spanish Armanda, Britain’s naval fleet was a presumed favorite in almost any conflict. With her naval dominance secured, Britain was able to break Napoleon’s trade blockade with Russia and Portugal continuing trade, turning the tide of the Napoleonic period.
Wellington also proved British land supremacy in Spain, a critical arena that drained Napoleon’s troop supply. The final battle of Waterloo asserted British dominance, and through their land and naval superiority, Britain was able to counterbalance the growing strength of Russia by maintaining a strong France.
Without the military genius of Napoleon, battles would have continued with the separate operations of cavalry, artillery, and infantry. Without the influence of Napoleon, armies would have most likely maintained their smaller size due to no idea of conscription with a core of trained professionals supported by a mass of untrained levies, none of Napoleon’s well-trained and disciplined Grande Armee.
Without the devastating defeats against Napoleon and the failure of the French Revolution in the 2nd Coalition, as previously mentioned, it is likely the Prussians would have faced combat against Russia, looking to expand West and Austria for control over the Germans. These potential wars all raise questions of the country’s military credentials without a Napoleon-esque figure to destroy their national armies. Thus, military reform would be delayed until the mid/late 19th century with reforms enacted slower and with less urgency, no Napoleon threatening to wipe you off the map.
Without Napoleon’s invasion, Spain and consequently the French revolutionary ideals spreading to the empire would most likely keep control of her colonies and her monarchy-centric system. She would likely face very little threat and maintain her large European Empire of the Spanish. It would probably regain first world power as, before the conquest of Napoleon, she was reorganising her Empire. Potential conflicts would arise as the Spanish Netherlands would seek independence once again. The Americans, looking to expand from the 13 Colonies, would wage war on the Spanish, sowing chaos in her Empire of the Americas. It is likely by the late 19th century much of the Spanish Empire would have disintegrated partially through American conquest and partially through American aid.
Without the opportunities of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain would maintain her mainly isolated position in Europe, avoiding European conflicts, highlighting Britain’s great power status, and giving Britain the ability to design peace in Europe.
As you can see, the impact of Napoleon on Europe changed the continent forever, and without him, the modern world as we know it would be unrecognisable. He sped up much-needed change in the continent, forcing decaying armies and systems to adapt to face the threat of France, and Liberalism was brought forward into the world stage, challenging the dominance of the conservative aristocracy as it had never been challenged before.
Illustrated by Marta Em