The Uses of History, 16 – France, Revolution #4, 1870-1, Part 2

(Image credit – Wikipedia)

Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, reigned from 1852-70. His regime has been called “The Liberal Empire”. As Emperor of the French, he brought France fully into the industrial age, modernizing cities, creating a national transportation network, and promoting a liberal economic system within France and widening international trade outside, including a free trade treaty with Great Britain. He instituted universal male suffrage, although it was used only to rubberstamp his major measures.

His Empire was liberal economically and commercially, but he maintained a tight grip on internal affairs, resurrecting the Imperial State Police to watch for dissident elements who concocted plots to overthrow his regime and even assassinate him. The principal opposition with such intentions came from the socialists, while early supporters among liberals such as Thiers, Lamartine, and Victor Hugo, the great novelist and poet, were bitterly disillusioned. Hugo denounced him and went into exile, publishing a virulent opposition newspaper in Belgium.

Internationally, Napoleon III could not ignore the mantle left by his much more illustrious uncle, Napoleon the Great. From his perspective, he had to prove that he was worthy to own the name Napoleon Bonaparte, having dropped the prénom Louis once he assumed the imperial purple. The weight of the Great One’s legacy never left him and finally led to his downfall.

Napoleon III began his foreign sallies by sending heavy reinforcements to Algeria to ensure France that held to its expanding North African Empire, He set about expediting naval and army forces to Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia today) in 1854 to make sure that France gained a foothold in South Asia to demonstrate her power far overseas, just as the British (in China and Australia) and even the United States (in Japan) had begun to do. The French colonial regime in Indochina ended exactly a century later in 1954 after a stunning defeat of the French forces at the hands of Vietnamese Communist revolutionaries under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh.

In the 1850s, a French naval squadron went into the South Pacific to lay claim to some of the newly discovered island chains in Polynesia and Melanesia. Tahiti remains a French Overseas Department to this day.

But Napoleon III’s most significant efforts were made to impress Europe with France’s newfound recovery of strength. He set out to exert French influence and power across the whole continent. He was careful not to project a plan to overthrow the whole established system put in place since 1815. Rather, his goal was to have France reassume her “proper place” as the continental arbiter of Europe, supplanting Austria, which had taken that place since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The two areas of special interest to Napoleon were Italy and Germany.

The first sally into these potentially dangerous waters came in 1854 when Turkey went to war with Russia because of Russian encroachment upon Turkey’s Balkan provinces. Turkey was no match for Russia on its own, but Great Britain came to the aid of the Turks, and France, not to be outdone, joined the British. The two western Great Powers jointly attacked the Crimea, Russia’s main stronghold in the Black Sea. Hence the appellation “The Crimean War” in the history books. For 21st Century people, Russia’s seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 will perhaps make a little more sense in this retrospective look. Russia has viewed Crimea as its legitimate territory for several centuries. Its inhabitants when Russia first took it over were not Ukrainians, but Tatars.

In 1854, the Franco-British objective was to draw off major Russian forces from advancing against Istanbul. They succeeded, and the Crimean War successfully prevented a Russian seizure of Romania, Bulgaria, and Istanbul, allowing the Turks to hold their ground. Austria, also not wanting a Russian advance deep into the Balkans, remained neutral.

Russia sued for peace in 1856 and withdrew behind its previous frontier in south-east Europe, even giving back some minor territories to the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus. Thus, Napoleon could claim a major foreign success. Even if he had to share some of the glory with Britain, the bulk of the Western armies involved had been French.[i]

The next important demonstration of the renewed French Empire’s strength came in Italy in 1858-9. In 1815, Italy had been assigned to Austria’s direct tutelage, and Austria had annexed two Italian provinces to ensure that Italy’s incipient unification and liberalization movements were held in check. Here, Napoleon III played a carefully calculated double game. As President of France in 1849, Louis Napoleon had driven back Italian patriot republican forces from Rome and protected the Pope’s hold on Rome and its surrounding Papal State in central Italy. The Italian effort to free Italy from Austria and authoritarian rule in 1848-9 had collapsed, with one exception. The small Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia had held onto its liberalized Constitutional Monarchy and set about creating a modern liberal state to serve as a beacon and model to the rest of Italy.

In 1858, the Austrians decided it was time to put this upstart Kingdom in its place and replace its liberal monarchy with a properly autocratic one. The excuse was its harboring of draft dodgers and dissidents against Austrian rule in Lombardy and Venetia, the two Austrian provinces in north-east Italy. Piedmont appealed to Napoleon III for help, pleading the memory of Napoleon the Great’s creation of a liberal Italy during his hold over Italy (1797-1814). Napoleon, riding the high of France’s recent victory over Russia (revenge for 1812!), agreed to send a French army. But he insisted on a secret quid pro quo: when the war had been won, Piedmont would cede to France the two small provinces of Nice and Savoy on its Western frontier. Cavour, the wily Piedmontese Prime Minister, agreed. After all, he stood to gain the much more rich and fertile provinces of Lombardy and Venetia.

The Franco-Austrian War of 1858-9 was short but bloody. Napoleon went to be on the scene for himself to share in the glory of his victorious army. However, after surveying the terrible carnage of the battlefield at Solferino, a great victory for the French and Piedmontese, a sickened Napoleon broke his accord with Piedmont and negotiated a unilateral peace with Austria that gave Piedmont only Lombardy, while still insisting that Piedmont hand over Nice and Savoy.

Nevertheless, France had now humiliated two of its old Congress enemies in war, re-emerged as Europe’s #1 land power, and become friendly with Great Britain, its old nemesis. At this point, who was to gainsay the will of France in European affairs? Even many of Napoleon’s bitterest critics had to be impressed and admit that France was prospering as never before in modern times and was playing a major role in world affairs once more. The would-be revolutionaries in exile or hiding could only brood and wait.

The next testing ground would be Germany. The last remaining major power of the former autocratic Holy Alliance that had not faced France on the battlefield was Prussia. Napoleon the Great’s abject humiliation of Prussia during his quasi-conquest of Europe had awakened, in fact virtually created, German nationalism. The Great One had also much simplified German affairs in 1807 by abolishing the Medieval political relic called the Holy Roman Empire. It had never been in any sense “Roman”. In fact, it was Frankish (early French), having been founded by Charlemagne in 800 CE.

Two hundred years later it had essentially become a Germanic Empire after Charlemagne’s death in 814. His inheritance had been divided among his three sons. Two centuries later, only two realms were left standing. By the late Middle Ages, the eastern realm’s Emperor was almost always of the Hapsburg Dynasty of Austria, while the western realm had evolved into “Francia”, or France. Germany was a mere geographical term for the area where various German-speaking peoples abided under the Emperor’s general authority, while dozens and eventually hundreds of petty states squabbled about lands and rights and privileges.

In 1806 Napoleon I utterly crushed Prussia in a lightning campaign. He considered wiping Prussia right off the map, but thought that would leave too large a vacuum and tempt Russia to move West. Instead, he wiped away the moribund Holy Roman Empire, greatly reduced Prussia in size and made it a subservient ally with a decree reducing Germany to a more manageable region of 39 states. The two largest were Prussia in the North-East, and Bavaria in the South-West. He called this new entity the German Confederation and gave it a constitution that recognized its vassal status under the French Empire.

After Napoleon’s disastrous defeat in Russia in 1812, Prussia remained loyal to Napoleon until Russian troops were on its borders late in the year. Prussia declared itself neutral. In early 1813, the Prussians switched sides, regained control of their territory, and once more raised and trained a formidable army. In Germany itself there was a great upsurge of a new sense of “Germany” needing to throw off the yoke of the Emperor.

The Prussian army played a major royal in Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, and was instrumental in crushing his last major army at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. The reward for that great contribution had been a large expansion of Prussia’s territory in the Peace of Vienna, and a recognized role as a leadership candidate in the emerging sense of a united “German nation” waiting to be born.

The major obstacle to the birth of that nation-in-waiting was Austria, which held itself to be the leading German nation. The Austrian empire was an amalgam of at least a dozen ethnicities, one of which, the Magyars of Hungary, had its own distinguished history to look back on until the mid-16th Century. The Magyars were almost as numerous and certainly as proud as the Germanic Austrians. Nevertheless, the Hapsburg Emperor warned Prussia that if they attempted a unification of Germany, they would have to face determined and even armed opposition from Austria.

The attitude of France in that final showdown, which all could see approaching by 1860, would be crucial. No one could predict which way Napoleon III might choose to lean, or whether he might even directly intervene once an Austro-Prussian War began. He might just take the opportunity to carve out more gains for France at the expense of Germany, whether united without Austria, as Prussia wanted, or still under the thumb of Austria, should the Hapsburgs win. And with the Germans fighting it out among themselves, who could stop the battle-tested and well-armed French Army from doing what they chose?


[i] A French general who witnessed the famous but pointless Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava, immortalized in Tennyson’s great poem of the same name, had quipped at the time, “It is magnificent, but it is not war!” It was slaughter in the name of false gallantry.

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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