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Maastricht University

Enforced Progress: Napoleon’s Occupation of Europe

Michael Rowe, King’s College London

The Revolutionary and Napoleonic period (c.1789 to 1815) is an important one in the history of occupations. True, the ‘revolutionary’ nature of the so-called Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) is easy to exaggerate: in many ways they were fought by armies that were recognisably Old Regime, even on the French side. Nor were the wars especially novel when it came to geopolitics. Yes, the French Republic (as it became in 1792) expanded its territory way beyond the wildest dreams even of Louis XIV. But large-scale territorial transfers were very much in vogue in the late eighteenth century, as evidenced by the Polish partitions, the first of which predated the French Revolution.

What was undoubtedly novel was the language employed by the French in places they occupied in the early 1790s, including Belgium, the German-speaking Rhineland, and north Italy. This new language extended from top politicians and policymakers in Paris, down to subordinate officials and soldiers on the ground. The famous decree of 15 December 1792, passed in the euphoria of French advances in Belgium and the Rhineland, was foundational. It called for ‘the revolutionary administration of conquered lands’, which in practice meant the abolition of ‘feudalism’: that whole edifice of privilege that held together European Old Regime society. In its place, the French sought to empower ordinary people through the introduction of democracy. The 15 December decree itself followed quite logically the earlier declaration of 19 November 1792, whereby the French revolutionaries promised fraternity and assistance to peoples striving to recover their liberty. This French policy marked a fundamental break, as pre-revolutionary occupations generally stressed respect for local customs and laws as a quid pro quo for passive local co-operation. What the French were doing now was new: exporting their revolution abroad at the point of a bayonet.

Robespierre was one of the first who recognised that soldiers make poor missionaries. The realities of eighteenth-century warfare inevitably imposed massive burdens on the mass of the civilian population in occupied areas, making a mockery of revolutionary promises. On top of this, French revolutionary anti-clericalism, which manifested itself in violence against clergy and the destruction of religious artifacts, alienated the vast majority. The upshot of all this was hostility and resistance, which in turn provoked French retaliation in a deteriorating spiral. On the French side, from about the summer of 1793 onwards, a new argument came to the fore: peoples beyond France had failed to support their own liberation, and hence could quite legitimately be treated as enemies who should not be spared the costs of war.

This principle that the occupied finance their own occupation – that ‘war pay for war’ – became a maxim that continued throughout the remainder of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. It worked, from a French perspective, in the rich lands immediately adjacent to France: Low Countries, western Germany, north Italy. It failed when the French armies later reached poorer, sparsely populated regions, like Iberia and eastern Europe, where the cost-benefit equation always meant that occupation would cost the occupiers more than what they might extract. Commanders within the French army, including not least Napoleon Bonaparte, came to understand what we might term the economics of military occupation. Their survival and that of their soldiers depended upon this understanding. An obvious way of reducing occupation costs was to win hearts and minds, even at the expense of ditching such revolutionary principles as anti-clericalism. It is this calculation that explains Napoleon’s statement to the effect that when in Italy he was a Catholic, in Egypt a Muslim, and that governing a Jewish nation would necessitate rebuilding Solomon’s Temple. This cynicism reflects disillusionment with the great revolutionary ideal of spreading democracy.

In 1799, Napoleon overthrew the French government in a coup and established himself as the new chief executive. The disillusionment with democracy Napoleon shared with his supporters was reflected in his remoulding of the French state. Some of the new institutions were progressive in a nineteenth-century elitist sense: public jury trials, equality before the law, and so forth. But many were very oppressive, including paramilitary territorial policing, special courts dealing with state security, and the facility to suspend the constitution. The Napoleonic regime used this last mechanism on multiple occasions, declaring martial law in areas where resistance to government authority was deemed unacceptably high. This was especially so in the western and southern departments of what, after 1804, was no longer the French Republic but the French Empire. The ordinances that regulated domestic martial law were identical to those drafted earlier for foreign territories under occupation. Methods honed by the army abroad, in the 1790s, were now applied to France itself by a regime whose own head had learned the art of governance occupying hostile foreign lands. The previously clear distinction between government at home and foreign occupation was now blurred.

Napoleon’s empire, at its height, stretched from Portugal to Poland. The soldiers and statesmen who ran this ever-expanding empire refined techniques of conquest, occupation, integration, and acculturation across the continent. Generally, they envisaged the occupation phase as a temporary one, which would be short and seamlessly morph into the next phase when military government gave way to civilian administration. However, unlike the case in previous occupations, the move to civilian administration did not mean a return to pre-war conditions, or a return of former sovereigns. Rather, in a new type of non-democratic universalism, it meant the imposition of the Napoleonic machinery of government, though at a local level this was generally entrusted to established elites on condition they adopt the French way of doing things. In some places this worked better than in others. Generally, it worked best in urban centres, with their wealthy ‘enlightened’ elites; poorer rural regions, in contrast, often resisted, with that resistance directed as much against the urban centres as against the French themselves. So, whilst a region might start to appear well integrated, imperial institutions and methods often continued to treat urban areas differently from their unruly rural hinterlands: whilst the former would be entrusted with their own administration and policing, the latter would remain subject to something akin to occupation, by the gendarmerie, a branch of the army composed of veterans. Given this, and adopting the perspective of the empire’s rural hinterlands, one is left wondering how ordinary folk were expected to tell the difference between military occupation and ‘normal’ Napoleonic government.



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Picture credits:

Cover picture: Extract from a painting by Charles Meynier: Entry of Napoleon I into Berlin, 27th October 1806.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Michael Rowe is Reader in European History, King’s College London, UK