The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848

By Paul W. Schroeder | Go to book overview

10
Beginning and End, 1812-1813

A single continuous theme seems to run through the story from June 1812 to August 1813, starting with the destruction of the Grand Army in Russia and continuing with the formation of a great new coalition to liberate Europe: the beginning of the end of Napoleon's Empire. For purposes of general history and military history this theme serves reasonably well. In international history, however, the dominant note is discontinuity: the story is one of three successive failures and the changes they brought to international politics. Napoleon's defeat in Russia was the first and most spectacular failure, but two others, less well known, also affected the emerging pattern of European politics: the failure of the allied effort to win the war in the spring of 1813, and the failure of an Austrian attempt to negotiate a Continental peace. The period 1812-13 therefore involved not only the beginning of the end for Napoleon's Empire, but also the end of the beginning in the search for a new basis for European international politics, in which two avenues to peace were tried and found wanting.


I. NAPOLEON'S DEFEAT IN RUSSIA

The Grand Army's destruction in Russia is too epic and familiar a story to be retold here, but we need to note its basic causes, for they relate to politics. The Grand Army did not fall prey to winter or bad luck. As David Chandler points out, it was decisively defeated already when it reached Moscow, shrunk by about two- thirds and facing inevitable further decline.1 Winter weather intensified the army's sufferings, but was not the main cause of its dissolution; in fact, at certain key points the cold actually aided the retreat, and certainly helped Napoleon himself to escape.

Many factors explain the disaster--on the French side, summer heat, the vast distances, the breakdown of Napoleon's elaborate supply system, his gambling, one-shot strategy and his tactical blunders, and above all the fact that even a huge, well-prepared

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1
Chandler ( 1966: 858).

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