The Uses of History, 4 – From France to Russia, 1812-1917, 1

(Image credit Wikipedia)

On June 22, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, sent his massed armies into the immense expanse of the Russian Empire. Never before in history had anything like it been seen: 650 000 French and French allied troops representing most of the peoples of Europe invaded the last European land-power still daring to oppose “the Emperor”, as Bonaparte had now become known.

Those Napoleonic armies stood for much more than the overreach of the most successful military commander in European History up to that time. They stood for the essence of the new kind of modern state arising, willy-nilly, out of the crumbling debris of the old feudal order which had held European society in its grip since the last previous great pan-European Emperor, Charlemagne (768-814 CE), 1000 years before.

Napoleon was well aware of the parallels. He loved to exploit the symbolism of the new order supplanting the old. His aristocracy was merit-based, not inherited regardless of merit. The French Republic he had overthrown had given him the basic tools, but he had honed them into the well-oiled, administratively efficient modern state aiming to bring Europe into being the next great age in its evolution – a United States of Europe under the incarnation of the Enlightened Despot ideal of the philosophes. Needless to say, he was that incarnation.

Napoleon’s Grand Armée had a mission everywhere it went – to plant not only the French flag but the French Enlightenment ­à la [mode de] Napoléon. All this can be read from Napoleon’s memoirs, written from his final exile on St. Helena in the mid-South Atlantic Ocean between 1815 and 1821.

Now, over 210 years later, we live in the all-but-invisible shadow of everything that ensued from the whirlwind epoch of France’s nearly complete conquest of Europe.

If we are conscious of any of this as we historically sleepwalk towards our own version of Armageddon in the 21st Century CE, it is usually with only the vaguest notions. “Napoleon? O yeah, wasn’t he some guy from France who tried to conquer Europe? When was that again? Couldn’t have been that big a deal, could it? After all, those people were still using single-shot smooth-bore muskets and wonky cannons that couldn’t shoot farther than a couple of kilometers.”

With two horrendous World Wars under our belts since then, and some very nasty revolutions that killed more tens of millions, the events of those far-off days pale in comparison – don’t they? The ten million dead of the European wars fought from 1792-1815 wouldn’t think so.

In all overall sense, if we just want a crude body-count, it would seem that that far-off first “total war” in world-history was not so impressive. But its human cost was half of that of World War One inflicted on a much smaller population. Furthermore, major battles of that time lasted a single day or perhaps two, or at most three, not weeks. Yet they left proportionately far higher body counts than most combats in either World War – even using the “crude” weapons of that day. Borodino, fought on September 7, 1812 over about 14 hours, about 100 km west of Moscow, at the height of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, inflicted almost 100 000 casualties out of approximately 270 000 combatants. Waterloo, the last battle of the Napoleonic wars on June 18, 1815, inflicted 58 000 casualties on approximately 155 000 combatants in the space of seven hours of relentless slaughter – more than the casualties for the three-day Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-2, 1863).

Following Borodino, Napoleon captured Moscow, something Hitler’s armies failed to do following the German invasion of Russia which began on June 22, 1941. Yes, Hitler launched his attack on the same day Napoleon had! At length, after almost four years, Hitler’s war on Russia had the same result – a disastrous defeat resulting in the collapse of the French/German hegemony in Europe, with a consequent enormous expansion of Russian power.

It is unknowable how long the influence of the French Revolution would have endured outside of France without Napoleon as its self-appointed Apostle. When he seized power in 1799, Napoleon literally saved a corrupt and crumbling state from sliding into collapse and an orgy of retribution at the hands of its numerous enemies. France’s foes were then closing in on the pre-revolutionary borders of 1789, having stripped away almost all the territory the Republic’s sometimes rag-tag armies had wrested from the various monarchies opposing her.

Napoleon had been away leading an army in Egypt and Palestine, trying, and failing, to establish a base to move on India, the jewel of the British Empire. When he returned, eluding the British blockade of Egypt, he found enough collaborators to claim power and launch a ruthless campaign to eject the corrupt administration then in place and reform the army. He then personally led it to a series of rapid victories that cemented his role as the indispensable saviour of the Revolution. He owned the battlefields of Europe for the next twelve years.

Our previous episode outlined some of the long-term legacy left by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era, and thus of the Emperor himself, in Europe and the world at large. Our object is now to draw out the direct line from France in 1812 to Russia in 1917, when another revolutionary tsunami shattered much of the residual imperialistic monarchical world-order that had been carried forward from Napoleon’s incomplete vision.

One may well wonder what kind of causality flows from Imperial France in 1812 to Imperial Russia in 1917. Were not both monarchies and imperially bloated mega-states which collapsed via war?

Indeed they were. But that is a mere superficial connection. The roots run much deeper.

Although Napoleon took control of the French state, and despite his severe censorship and his efficient secret police, he did not succeed in muting those who clung to the most radical elements of the French revolutionary intelligentsia. His moderate reforms were designed to calm the masses, not stir up disorder about failed hopes and expectations. These included universal male suffrage, although only exercised in periodic referenda to ratify his authority, or to elect the rubber-stamp National Assembly and Senate and various local authorities. These were radical by the standard of what existed elsewhere in Europe, or the world for that matter. Slavery had been abolished in the French Empire. Education had been generalized and centralized under state control. The Roman Catholic Church no longer directed education or could collect tithes and force the populace to adhere to its dogmas. Public office was open to all to apply and win by merit of ability, as were all rankings in the armed forces. The Legion of Honour was created to award contributors to the well-being of the nation from every class. Sadly, women were not yet included in most advances.

The ideologies of the original Revolutionaries had run the gamut from extreme socialism (embryonic communism), anarchism, to progressive capitalism and middle-class conservatism. What won out was a very modest bourgeois democracy, with a large dollop of agrarian equality thrown in.

The whole vocabulary of the political spectrum as we know it in our “Left vs Right” with all its intermediary factions formulation stems directly from the original French National and Constituent Assemblies seating arrangements, with the more radical elements, such as the Jacobins and Girondins sitting to the left of the Speaker/Chair and the moderates and monarchist seated to the right of the Chair.

These were the seeds that were paid forward into the next hundred plus years (and right to our time) along with the hope awakened among ordinary folks and citizens for better days and more equal distribution of resources and opportunities. The shoots which sprouted would feed forward both openly where they could, and under the surface in states which maintained repressive, anti-democratic governments. These were the streams that would run forward to Karl Marx, Bukharin, and a host of others to engender the Socialist International, the trade unions movement, the powerful thrust by the bourgeoisie (middle class) to win its way to power and open the doors for all to be free and to fairly try their chance.

The regimes which repressed and oppressed and practiced brutal suppression would all crumble away over time. This was prophesied, and the prophets proved true over the next decades. For Russia, progress was delayed and stone-walled until 1917 when the economic, social, spiritual, and political bankruptcy of the Tsarist regime collapsed in the wake of catastrophic defeat in World War One and national bankruptcy, opening the door for Bolshevism, which coopted the term Communism to its exclusive use.

There were a number of intermediary stops along the road from 1812 to 1917, but we cannot name or deal with them all here. France eventually went full circle, from “Progressive” Empire to a short-lived rebirth of the old aristocratic regime between 1815 and 1830, then went through three more revolutions, the last of which, in 1871, gave birth to the Third Republic, which fell to Hitler in 1940. Russia’s autocrats, blinded by privilege and class to the growing ferment beneath, and living in its bubble of ultra-rich oligarchism sanctioned by the Russian Orthodox Church as their Divine Right, were deaf to everything and so vanished in the ashes of their burning regime and World War.

All this sounds eerily familiar, except today we have a post-modern narcissistic and nihilistic Dictator à la Dostoyevsky, or perhaps Nietzsche, in charge of the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world instead of a foolish Tsar living under a spell cast by a mad self-proclaimed monk.


Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher, Educational Consultant, and author in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for almost 50 years and has 4 grown children and ten grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He has recently published his first novel, Book One in a Historical Fantasy series called "Dragoonen". The first book is "Awakening" and is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. He is currently working on further books in this series and a number of other writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

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