History of Literature









E. H. Gombrich




"World History for Children"




 


Part VI
 

 

31 An Unlucky King and a Lucky King

The Stuart king, Charles I - Cromwell and the Puritans - The rise of England - The year of the Glorious Revolution - France's prosperity- Richelieu's policies - Mazarin - Louis XIV - A king's lever-Versailles - Sources of the government's wealth - The peasants' misery - Predatory wars

 


Louis and his family portrayed as Roman gods in a 1670 painting by Jean Nocret. L to R: Louis's aunt, Henriette-Marie; his brother, Philippe, duc d'Orléans; the Duke's daughter, Marie Louise d'Orléans, and wife, Henriette-Anne Stuart; the Queen-mother, Anne of Austria; three daughters of Gaston d'Orléans; Louis XIV; the Dauphin Louis; Queen Marie-Thérèse; la Grande Mademoiselle.

 

The only important country not to join in the fighting of the Thirty Years War was England. Lucky English, you may say. But they too were going through troubled times even if the end, when it came, was not as devastating as it was in Germany. Now you may remember that in 1215 King John of England signed a great Charter of Liberties - the Magna Carta - in which he made a solemn promise that he and his successors would never act without first consulting the barons and the nobility. For nearly tour hundred years English monarchs kept this promise, until one day a new king, Charles I, the grandson of the beheaded Mary Stuart, came to the throne, and he didn't wish to abide by the agreement. He disliked having to consult the nobility and the elected members of his parliament. He preferred to govern as he pleased, and this cost the country a great deal of money.

The English didn't like it at all. Many of them were strict and zealous Protestants, called Puritans, who had a deep loathing for all forms of wealth and display. A farmer and member of parliament named Oliver Cromwell was their leader in the conflict that eventually broke out between Parliament's supporters and those of the king which split the country in two. (People called Cromwell's supporters Roundheads because they wore their hair close-cropped, unlike the long-haired royalists who were known as Cavaliers.) Cromwell was a deeply religious man and a brave, determined and ruthless commander. His soldiers were well trained and no less ardent than he was. After many battles the king was taken prisoner and brought to trial at Westminster, where he was charged with high treason. He refused to recognise the court and made no effort to defend himself, for he believed that only God could be the judge of the king of England. Charles was sentenced to death, and in 1649 he was beheaded. Oliver Cromwell then ruled England, not as king, but as 'Lord Protector of the Commonwealth', as he described himself. And this wasn't just a title, because it is exactly what he did. Following in Elizabeth's footsteps he devoted himself to increasing England's power -through her colonies in America and trading settlements in India, and by building a strong fleet and expanding sea trade - and did his utmost to weaken England's Dutch neighbours. After his death, however, kings soon ruled England once again. But government was now less difficult than it had been before and went on becoming easier. And since that time no other English monarch has ever dared break the ancient promises laid down in the Magna Carta.

It was easier for the kings of France. There they had no great charter. Moreover, they ruled over a prosperous, well-populated country which was in no danger of collapse, even after the terrible wars of religion. But above all, at the time of the Thirty Years War the real ruler of France had been that formidably gifted minister, Cardinal Richelieu. He achieved at least as much for France as Cromwell did for England - if not more. Richelieu had been especially good at winning over the knights and the nobility. Through skill and cunning - like a good chess-player who knows how to exploit every move and turn a small advantage into a greater one — he gradually reduced their powers until he was able to assume them all himself, including, as you saw, the power of France in Europe. And because he had helped weaken the German emperor in the Thirty Years War, and because Spain had been reduced to poverty and Italy dismembered, and because Kngland wasn't yet very powerful, by the time Richelieu died France was the dominant country in Europe. A year after the cardinal's death, in 1643, King Louis XIV ascended the throne. He was then four years old and still holds the world record for the length of his reign. He ruled until 1715: that is, for seventy-two years. And what's more, he really did rule. Not, of course, when he was a child, but as soon as his guardian, Cardinal Mazarin, had died (Mazarin had been Cardinal Richelieu's successor), he was determined to rule himself. He gave orders that no passport was to be issued to any Frenchman unless he himself had granted it. The court was highly amused, imagining his interest to be no more than a young king's whim. He would soon tire of ruling. But he didn't. For to Louis, kingship was no mere accident of birth. It was as if he had been given the leading role in a play which he would have to perform for the rest of his life. No one before or since has ever learnt that role so well, or played it with such dignity and ceremony to the end.

All the powers that Richelieu, and later Mazarin, had held, Louis XIV now took upon himself. The nobility had few rights other than that of watching him perform his role. This solemn performance - the so-called lever - began early, at eight o'clock in the morning, when he deigned to rise. First to enter the bedchamber were the royal princes of the blood together with the chamberlain and the doctor. Then two great curled and powdered wigs, like flowing manes, were ceremoniously extended to him on bended knee. Depending on his inclination, he chose one, and then inserted himself into a magnificent dressing gown, before seating himself beside the bed. Only at this point were the noblemen of highest rank, the dukes, permitted to enter the bedchamber, and while the king was shaved his secretaries, officers and various officials all entered in their turn. After which the doors were thrown wide to admit a host of splendid dignitaries - marshals, governors, princes of the Church and royal favourites - all there to gaze with admiration upon the solemn spectacle of His Majesty the King getting dressed.

Everything was regulated down to the last detail. The greatest honour was to be permitted to offer the king his shirt, which had first been carefully warmed. This honour belonged to the king's brother or, in his absence, to the person next in rank. The chamberlain held one sleeve, a duke the other and the king inserted himself. And so it went on, until the king was fully dressed, in brightly coloured silk stockings, silk knee-breeches, a satin brocade doublet and a sky-blue sash, with his sword at his side, and an embroidered coat and a lace collar which a high official with the title of Guardian of the King's Collars held out to him on a silver tray. The king then left his bedchamber, plumed hat on his head and cane in hand, smiling and elegant, to make his entry into the Great Hall with a well-turned and courteous greeting for each, while all those around gaped at him with awestruck expressions and declared that today he was more beautiful than the sun god Apollo, stronger than Hercules, hero of the ancient Greeks. He was the God-given sun itself, le Roi Soleil- the Sun King - on whose warmth and light all life depended. Just like the pharaoh, you might think, for he had been called the Son of the Sun. But there was one big difference. The ancient Egyptians really believed it, while for Louis XIV it was only a sort of game which he and everyone present knew was no more than a ceremonious, well-rehearsed and magnificent performance.

In his antechamber after morning prayers the king announced the programme for the day. There then followed many hours of real work which he undertook in order to have personal control over all affairs of state. Apart from this there was a lot of hunting, and there were balls and theatrical productions by great poets and actors which the court enjoyed and which he, too, always attended. Every meal involved a ceremony no less wearisome and solemn than the lever, and even his going to bed was a complicated ballet-like production that gave rise to some comical moments. For example, everyone had to bow to the king's bed, like the faithful before the altar in church, even when the king wasn't in it. And whenever the king played cards and made conversation there was always a swarm of people standing around him at a respectful distance, hanging on his every word.

To dress like the king, to carry one's cane as he did, to wear ones hat as he did, to sit and move as he did, was the aim of all men at court. And that of the women was to please him. They wore lace collars and ample, rustling robes made of the richest fabrics and were adorned with precious jewels. Life revolved around court and was staged in the most magnificent palaces anyone had ever seen. For palaces were Louis XIV's great passion. He had one called Versailles built for himself outside Paris. It was almost as big as a town, with an infinite number of rooms covered in gold and damask, and crystal chandeliers, mirrors in their thousands, and furniture that was all gilded curves, upholstered in velvets and silks. The walls were hung with splendid paintings where people could see Louis in many guises. There is one that shows him dressed as Apollo, receiving homage from all the peoples of Europe. Grander still than the palace was its park. Everything about it was magnificent, elaborate and theatrical. No tree might grow as it pleased, no bush retain its natural form. Everything green was clipped, trimmed and shaped into walls of green foliage, curved hedges, vast lawns and spiralling flowerbeds, avenues and circuses, set with statues, lakes and fountains. Forced to live out their lives at court, once-mighty dukes and their ladies strolled up and down white gravel paths, exchanging witty and well-turned phrases on the way the Swedish ambassador had recently performed his bow, and things of that sort.

Just think what such a palace and such a way of life must have cost! The king had two hundred servants for himself alone, and that was only the start of it. But Louis XIV had clever ministers, mainly men of humble origin chosen for their outstanding ability. These men were all experts at extracting money from the country. They kept tight control of foreign trade and encouraged France's own crafts and industry as much as they could. But the true cost fell on the peasants, who were burdened with crippling taxes and duties of all kinds. And while at court people ate off gold and silver dishes, piled high with the choicest delicacies, the peasants ate scraps and weeds.

But it wasn't life at court which cost the most. Far more expensive were the wars that Louis XIV kept waging, often with no other purpose than to increase his own power at the expense of the neighbouring states. With his immense and well-equipped army he invaded both Holland and Germany, seizing, for example, Strasbourg from the Germans, without offering any real pretext for his actions. He saw himself as the master of all Europe which, in a sense, he was. All the great men of Europe imitated him. Soon every German prince - even those who owned no more than a miserable patch of land - had his own gigantic castle in the style of Versailles, with all the gold and damask, the clipped hedges, the men in great wigs, the powdered ladies in voluminous gowns, the courtiers and the flatterers.

They tried to imitate him in every way, but there was always something missing. They were what Louis XIV only played at being: somewhat comical puppet-kings, with pompous airs and glittering fancy dress. Louis XIV himself was more than that. And in case you don't believe me, I'm going to quote something from a letter he wrote to his grandson, when his grandson was leaving to become king of Spain: 'Never favour those who flatter you most, but hold rather to those who risk your displeasure for your own good. Never neglect business for pleasure, organise your life so that there is time in it for relaxation and entertainment. Give the business of government your full attention. Inform yourself as much as you can before taking any decision. Make every effort to get to know men of distinction, so that you may call on them when you need them. Be courteous to all, speak hurtfully to no man.' These really were the guiding principles of King Louis XIV of France, that remarkable mixture of vanity, charm, extravagance, dignity, indifference, frivol-it v and sheer hard work.

 

 

32 Meanwhile, Looking Eastwards...

Turkish conquests - Insurrection in Hungary - The siege of Vienna - Jan Sobieski and the relief of Vienna - Prince Eugene - Ivan the Terrible - Peter the Great - The founding of St Petersburg - Charles XII of Sweden — The race to Stralsund - The expansion of Russian might

 


This shows you the route taken by Charles XII, King of Sweden, the daring young adventurer who marched through Poland and into Russia, and later raced back to Slralsund from Turkey and met his death besieging a fortress in Norway.

 

While Louis XIV was holding court in Paris and Versailles, Germany suffered a new misfortune: the Turks. As you know, more than two hundred years earlier (in 1453), they had conquered Constantinople and established a great Muslim empire, known as the Ottoman empire, incorporating Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Greece - in other words, the whole of the ancient Roman Empire of the East, of whose magnificence and splendour, it must be said, not much remained. Under their great leader, Suleiman the Magnificent, they had then pushed onwards beyond the Danube and defeated the Hungarian army in 1526. Almost every Hungarian nobleman, including the king, had been killed. Having conquered the better part of Hungary, the Turks had tried to take Vienna, but they soon turned back. As you remember, their fleet had been destroyed in 1571 by King Philip II of Spain and his Venetian allies. But they were still a powerful state and a Turkish pasha - or governor - was ruling in Budapest. Now many Hungarians were Protestants, and when their king had been killed they had become unwilling subjects of the Catholic emperor and had fought against him during the religious wars. After the Thirty Years War these uprisings continued, until one day the Hungarian nobility asked their Turkish neighbours for help.

The sultan, as the Turkish ruler was called, was only too happy to respond to this request. For a long while he had been wanting a war because his soldiers and warriors had become too powerful at home. He was afraid that he would lose control of them and was delighted to be able to send them off to fight. If they won, so much the better, and if they lost he would be rid of them. You can see what sort of a person he was! So in 1683 he mobilised a huge army from all four corners of his empire. The pashas of Mesopotamia and Egypt brought their soldiers, and Tatars, Arabs, Greeks, Hungarians and Romanians all assembled in Constantinople under the leadership of the Grand Vizier - or prime minister - Kara Mustafa, and prepared to march on Austria. There were more than two hundred thousand of them, armed to the teeth and dressed in exotic and colourful costumes and turbans with banners bearing their sign: the crescent moon.

The emperor's armies stationed in Hungary were in no position to withstand such an assault. They retreated and left the way to Vienna open to the Turks. Like all towns at that time, Vienna had fortifications at the ready. These were now hastily put in place, and cannon and supplies brought in. Twenty thousand soldiers were to hold the city until the emperor and his allies came to their aid. But the emperor and his court had fled, first to Linz and then to Passau. And when the Viennese saw smoke rising from distant villages and suburbs set on fire by the Turks, some sixty thousand people abandoned the city, in an unending stream of carts and carriages.

Now the Turkish cavalry arrived. Their gigantic army ringed Vienna and began firing cannon balls at the walls and undermining them with explosives. The Viennese fought back with all their might. A month went by. With each day the danger increased as more and more breaches appeared in the walls, and still no help came. Terrible outbreaks of disease began to sweep through the town, far more deadly than the Turkish bullets. Supplies of food were running low, despite daring sorties by soldiers who sometimes returned with an ox or two. As time went on, people found themselves paying twenty or thirty crowns for a cat - no small sum in those days for such unappetising fare! The walls were on the verge of collapse when the imperial troops finally reached Vienna. The Viennese could breathe at last! However, the imperial troops from Austria and Germany hadn't come on their own. The Polish king, Jan Sobieski, who had previously signed an alliance with the emperor against the Turks, had declared himself willing to help in return for significant concessions. These included the honour of supreme command which the emperor wanted himself, so precious time was lost in negotiation. In the end Sobieski's army took up position on the heights above Vienna and from there charged down upon the Turks. After fierce fighting, the Turks fled without even taking the time to decamp, leaving rich pickings for the imperial soldiers. The camp, consisting of forty thousand tents, set out in neat, straight lines separated by narrow lanes, was just like a small town, and a truly magnificent sight.

The Turks continued to retreat. Had they succeeded in taking Vienna, the situation would have been almost as bad as if the Muslim Arabs had defeated Charles Martel at Tours and Poitiers a thousand years earlier.

However, the imperial troops pushed them further and further back, while Sobieski's men went home. A distinguished French general was to lead the Austrian army in this triumphant pursuit. This was Prince Eugene of Savoy, a man whom Louis XIV wouldn't have in his army on account of his plain appearance. In the years that followed he took country after country from the Turks. The sultan was forced to give up all of Hungary, which then became part of Austria. These victories brought much wealth and power to the imperial court at Vienna, and now Austria too began to build magnificent castles and many fine monasteries in a sparkling new style which they called Baroque. Meanwhile, Turkish power continued to decline, not least because a new and mighty enemy had appeared behind them. This was Russia.

Until now we have heard nothing about Russia. It was a vast wilderness of forests, with great steppes in the north. The landowners ruled the poor peasants with terrible cruelty and the sovereign ruled the landowners with, if anything, greater cruelty. One of Russia's tsars, around 1580, was known as Ivan the Terrible, and rightly so. Beside him Nero was mild. In those days Russians took little notice of Furope and what went on there. They were too busy fighting among themselves and killing each other. Although they were Christians they didn't come under the pope's authority. Their spiritual leader was the bishop or patriarch of the Roman empire of the Fast in Constantinople. So they didn't have a great deal to do with the West.

In 1689 that is, six years after the Turkish siege of Vienna -a new tsar came to the throne. This was Peter, known as Peter the Great. He was no less barbarous or cruel than many of his predecessors. Nor was he any less fond of drinking or less violent. But he was determined to model his empire on western states, like France, Fngland or the German empire. He knew what was needed: money, trade and cities. But how had other countries acquired these? So he went to find out. In Holland he saw great seaports with mighty ships that sailed as far as India and America to do business. He wanted ships like these, and he needed to know how they were made. Without a second thought, he took a job as a ship's carpenter, first in a Dutch shipyard and later in the dockyard of the Royal Navy in England, to learn the art himself. Then he went home, taking with him a team of skilled craftsmen to build his ships.

All he needed now was a seaport. So he gave orders for one to be built. A city on the sea, just like those he'd seen in Holland. The coast to the north of Russia, however, was nothing but barren marshland and actually belonged to Sweden, with which Peter the Great was at war. This didn't deter him. Peasants were rounded up from the surrounding countryside and made to drain the swamps and drive piles into the ground. He had eighty thousand labourers toiling there, and soon a real seaport rose up out of the marshes.

He named it St Petersburg. Next, Russians had to be made into true Europeans. They had to stop wearing their traditional lout; skirled kaftans and weren't allowed to grow their hair and beards long. From now on they were to dress like Frenchmen or Germans. Anyone who protested or disagreed with Peter's innovations was flogged and then executed. Even his own son. He was not a nice man, but he achieved what he wanted. The Russians may not have become Europeans overnight, but they were now ready to enter the field as players in Europe's bloody contest for power.



"The Morning of the Streltsy Execution" after their failed uprising in 1698 by Vasily Ivanovich Surikov

Peter the Great made the first move. He attacked Sweden which, following the victories of Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years War, had become the mightiest state in northern Europe. Sweden's ruler in Peter's time may not have had the piety or the perspicacity of Gustavus Adolphus, but he was one of the most extraordinary adventurers the world has ever known. The young King Charles XII came to power in 1697. He might have leapt straight out of the pages of the popular adventure books that left me spellbound as a boy in Vienna. His exploits can hardly be believed. He was as foolhardy as he was brave - and that's saying something! He and his army fought Peter the Great and defeated an army five times as strong as his own. Then he conquered Poland and pushed straight on into Russia without bothering to wait for another Swedish army, which was on its way to assist him. On he went, deeper and deeper into Russia, always at the head of his troops, wading through rivers and trudging through swamps, without ever meeting any resistance from the Russian army. Autumn came, and then winter - the bitter, biting-cold Russian winter -and still Charles XII had had no chance to prove his courage against the enemy. Only when his men were half-dead with hunger, cold and exhaustion did the Russians finally appear and inflict a massive defeat on them. This was in 1709. Forced to flee, Charles made for Turkey. And there he remained for five years, vainly trying to persuade the Turks to go to war with Russia. Eventually, in 1714, news reached him from Sweden that his subjects had had enough of their king's adventures in Turkey. The nobility were about to elect a new ruler.

Disguised as a German officer and with only one attendant, Charles crossed the Turkish frontier without delay and, riding as fast as he could by day and sleeping in mail coaches by night, raced back to Stralsund in north Germany- in those days part of Sweden - in a mad sixteen-day journey that involved all sorts of perilous adventures as they passed through enemy territory. Roused from his bed, the governor of the fortress could scarcely believe his eyes when he saw his king standing before him, for like everyone else he thought he was somewhere in Turkey. The town was delighted with Charles XII's dramatic appearance, but Charles simply fell into bed and slept for a very long time. His feet were so swollen from his long ride that his boots had to be cut off him. But there was no more talk of electing a new king. Charles hadn't been back in Sweden long before he embarked on a new military adventure. He made enemies of England, Germany, Norway and Denmark. Norway was first on his list. He died while besieging a Norwegian fortress in 1718, shot, some say, by someone on his own side because the country simply would not tolerate any more wars.
With this enemy out of the way Peter the Great, who now called himself Emperor of All the Russias, was able to increase his empire's might, expanding in all directions: into Europe, into Turkey, into Persia and into the countries of Asia.

 

 

33 A Truly New Age

The Enlightenment - Tolerance, reason and humanity - Critique of the Enlightenment - The rise of Prussia - Frederick the Great -Maria Theresa - The Prussian army - The Grand Coalition - The Seven Years War — Joseph II - The abolition of serfdom - Overhasty reforms - The American War of Independence - Benjamin Franklin - Human rights and negro slaves

 


Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze

 

If you could talk to a gentleman from the time of the Turkish siege, there would be many things about him that would surprise you. The way he spoke and the many Latin and French words he used. His elaborate and convoluted turns of phrase and habit of slipping in Latin quotations that neither you nor I could place, and his grand and solemn bows. You would, I think, suspect that beneath that venerable wig was someone with a large appetite for good food and fine wines. And - if you will forgive me for mentioning it - you could hardly fail to notice that beneath the fancy lace, the embroidery and the silk, this prinked, perfumed and powdered gentleman stank, because he hardly ever washed.

But nothing could prepare you for the shock you would have if he were to begin to air his views. All children should be thrashed. Young girls (no more than children) should be married (and to men they barely know). A peasant's lot is to toil and not complain. Beggars and tramps should be whipped and put in chains in the marketplace for everyone to mock. Thieves should be hanged and murderers publicly chopped into pieces. Witches and the other harmful sorcerers that infest the country should be burnt. People of different beliefs should be persecuted, treated as outcasts or thrown into dark dungeons. A comet seen recently in the sky must mean bad times ahead. As protection against the coming plague, which has already claimed many victims in Venice, it would be sensible to wear a red armband. And finally, a Mr So-and-so - an Eng-lish friend - has an excellent and well-established business selling negroes from Africa to America as slaves: a brainwave of that most worthy gentleman since, as we all know, American Indian convicts don't take well to manual labour.

And you would hear these opinions not only from the mouth of some coarse or uncouth fellow, but from the most intelligent and pious people in all walks of life and from all nations. Only after 1700 did things gradually change. The widespread and terrible suffering that Europeans endured during the wretched wars of religion had made some people wonder if it was really right to judge someone by his or her religious belief. Was it not more important to be a good and honest human being? Would it not be better if people got on with one another regardless of any differences of opinion or belief that they might have? Better if they respected one another and tolerated each other's convictions? This was the first and most important idea that the people who thought about such things now voiced: the principle of tolerance. Only in matters of religion could there be differences of opinion. No rational person disputes the fact that two plus two makes four. Therefore reason —or sound common sense, as they also termed it - is what can and should unite all men. In the realm of reason you can use arguments to convince others of the Tightness of your opinions, whereas another's religious beliefs, being beyond rational argument, should be respected and tolerated.

And so reason was the second most important thing to these people. Clear and reasoned thinking about mankind and nature was rediscovered in the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans and in those of the Florentines during the time of the Renaissance. But, more than anywhere else, it was to be found in the works of men like Galileo, who had boldly set out to investigate the magic of nature's mathematical formulas. Differences of belief played no part in these things: there was only experiment and proof. Reason alone could explain the appearance of nature and the workings of the universe. Reason, which is given in equal measure to all mankind the world over.

Now if reason is given to all, it must follow that all people are of equal worth, and as you remember, that was just what Christianity had taught: that all men are equal before God. But those who preached tolerance and reason took this argument one step further: they didn't only teach that all people were essentially equal; they demanded that they be treated equally as well. That every human being, as God's creature, endowed by Him with reason, had rights that no one might or should deny him. The right to choose his own calling and to choose how he lived: and the freedom to act or not to act as his reason and his conscience dictated. Children, too, should not be taught with the cane but with reason, so that they might come to understand the difference between right and wrong. And criminals were human beings too - no doubt, they had done wrong, but they could still be helped to mend their ways. It was dreadful, they argued, to brand a man's cheek or forehead with a red-hot iron for one wrongdoing, leaving a mark he would bear for the rest of his life so that all might say 'That man is a criminal'. There was something, they said, which forbade a person to be publicly humiliated. It was called human dignity.

All these ideas, which from 1700 onwards were debated first in England and later in France, came to be called the Enlightenment, because the people who held them wanted to combat the darkness of superstition with the pure light of reason.

Many people today think that the Enlightenment only taught what was obvious, and that people in those days had a rather simple view of the great mysteries of nature and the world. This is true. But you must realise that what seems obvious to us wasn't in the least so then, and that it took a great deal of courage, self-sacrifice and perseverance for people to keep on repeating them so that they seem obvious to us today. And of course you must also realise that reason cannot, and never will, give us the key to all mysteries, although it has often put us on the right track.

In the two hundred years that followed the Enlightenment, more mysteries of nature were studied and explained than in the preceding two thousand years. But what you must never forget is the importance for our own lives of tolerance, reason and humanity -the three fundamental principles of the Enlightenment. Because of them we no longer take someone suspected of having committed a crime and torture them inhumanly on the rack until, half out of their wits, they confess to anything we want. Reason has taught us that there's no such thing as witchcraft, so no more witches are burnt at the stake. (The last time a woman was convicted of witchcraft in England was in 1712.) Diseases are no longer fought by superstitious means, but mainly through cleanliness and the scientific investigation of their causes. We don't have slaves or peasant serfs any more. All citizens are subject to the same laws and women have the same rights as men. All this we owe to the brave citizens and writers who dared stand up for these ideas. And it was daring. They may have lacked understanding and behaved unjustly in their struggle with ancient and long-held traditions, but they fought a long and hard battle to win tolerance, reason and humanity.

The battle would have taken much longer, and involved far greater sacrifices, if some of Europe's rulers hadn't fought in the front line for the ideas of the Enlightenment. One of the first to do so was Frederick the Great, king of Prussia.

As you know, the title of emperor, passed down through several generations of Habsburgs, was by this time not much more than a venerable title. The Habsburgs' only real power was over Austria, Hungary and Bohemia, whereas in Germany power was in the hands of numerous princes who ruled over Bavaria, Saxony and many other big and small states. The Protestant lands in the north were among those which had paid the least attention to the Catholic emperor in Vienna since the Thirty Years War, and the most powerful of these princedoms was Prussia. Since the reign of its great sovereign Frederick William I, who ruled from 1640 to 1688, Prussia had taken more and more land from Sweden, until finally, in 1701, its princes had declared themselves kings. Prussia was a severe warrior state, whose nobility knew no greater honour than to serve as officers in the distinguished army of their king.

Now, since 1740, Prussia had been under the rule of its third king, Frederick II, who was a member of the Hohenzollern family. Known as Frederick the Great, he was without doubt one of the most cultivated men of his age. He was on friendly terms with a number of Frenchmen who preached the ideas of the Enlightenment in their writings, and he himself wrote much on the subject in French. For although he was king of Prussia he scorned the German language and customs, which, as a result of the Thirty Years War, were in a very poor state. His aim and his duty, as he saw it, was to make Prussia a model state and in so doing demonstrate the value of the thinking of his friends in France. He liked to say that he saw himself as the first servant of the state: the butler, as it were, rather than the owner. And in that role he concerned himself with every detail of his project of putting the new ideas into practice. One of the first things he did was to abolish the barbaric practice of torture. He also relieved the peasants of some of the heavier duties to their landlords. And he was always particularly concerned that all his subjects, from the poorest to the mightiest, should receive equal justice. A rare thing in those days.

But, above all, Frederick wanted to make Prussia the mightiest of all the German states, and destroy Austria's imperial power. He didn't foresee any difficulty in this. Austria was ruled by a woman, the Empress Maria Theresa. When she came to the throne in 1740, aged only twenty-three, Frederick thought it a suitable moment to remove one of the empire's possessions. So he took his well-trained army to the province of Silesia and seized it. From that time on he would spend most of the rest of his life fighting the empress of Austria. The state of his army was always of the utmost importance to him. He drilled his troops unremittingly until he had the best army in the world.

But Maria Theresa was a far more formidable opponent than he had first thought, although no warmonger at heart. She was deeply religious, and first and foremost a mother. She had sixteen children
in all. Although Frederick was her enemy, she followed his example in introducing many of his reforms in Austria as well. Like him, she abolished torture, made the peasants' lives easier, and took a special interest in establishing good education throughout the land. She genuinely saw herself as a mother to her people, and never pretended to know all the answers herself. She chose the ablest people to be her advisers, among them men quite capable of holding their own against Frederick during the long wars, not only on the battlefield, but also as envoys to all the courts of Europe, where they won sympathy for her cause. Even France, which for centuries had taken sides against the empire, was eventually won over, after which Maria Theresa gave her daughter Marie Antoinette in marriage to the future King Louis XVI of France, as a pledge of their new friendship.

Frederick now found himself surrounded by enemies on all sides: Austria, France, Sweden and Russia, now a vast and mighty empire. Without waiting for them to declare war on him, he occupied Saxony, which was also hostile. He then went on to wage a bitter war that lasted seven long years, in which his only support came from the British. But his perseverance paid off, for despite the superior strength of his enemies, not only did he not lose the war, he even managed to hold on to Silesia.

From 1765 Maria Theresa ceased to rule Austria alone. Her son Joseph ruled with her and succeeded her after her death as Emperor Joseph II. He was an even more zealous fighter for the ideas of the Enlightenment than either Frederick or his mother. Tolerance, reason and humanity were all that mattered to him. He abolished the death sentence and peasant serfdom. Protestants were once again allowed to worship freely, and although a good Catholic himself, he confiscated some of the lands and wealth of the Catholic Church. He was an invalid and, knowing that he might not have long to rule, he did everything with such zeal, such impatience and such haste that it was often all too quick, too unexpected and altogether too much for his subordinates to endure. He had many admirers, but his people loved him less than they loved his more cautious and pious mother.

 

 

34 A Very Violent Revolution

Catherine the Great - Louis XV and Louis XVI - Life at court - Justice and the landowning nobility - The Rococo - Marie Antoinette - The convocation of the Estates-General - The storming of the Bastille - The sovereignty of the people - The National Assembly - The Jacobins - The guillotine and the Revolutionary Tribunal - Danton - Robespierre - The Reign of Terror - The sentencing of the king - The foreigners defeated - Reason - The Directory - Neighbouring republics

 


The storming of the Bastille, by Jean-Pierre-Louis-Laurent Houel

 

All countries felt the ideas of the Enlightenment to be just and fair, and ruled accordingly. Even the empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, regularly exchanged letters with the French thinkers of the Enlightenment. The only exceptions were the kings of France, who behaved as if they neither knew nor cared about the new ideas. Louis XV and Louis XVI, the Sun King's successors, were incompetent, and content merely to imitate their great predecessor's outward show of power. The pomp and magnificence remained. Vast sums were spent on entertainments and operatic productions, on a succession of new chateaux and great parks with clipped hedges, on swarms of servants and court officials dressed in lace and silk. Where the money came from didn't concern them. Finance ministers soon became expert swindlers, cheating and extorting on a grand scale. The peasants worked till they dropped, and citizens were forced to pay huge taxes. Meanwhile at court, amid exchanges that were not always light-hearted and witty, the nobility dissipated and gambled the money away.

But if a noble landowner happened to leave the palace and go home to his estate, it was even worse for the peasants. For he and his attendants would rampage across the land after hares and foxes, their horses' hooves trampling the carefully tended fields. And woe betide the peasant who protested! He would be lucky to escape with a few blows across the face from his lord's riding whip, for a noble landowner was also his peasant's judge and could punish him as he pleased. A landowner who enjoyed the king's favour could obtain a note from him which simply said: 'Mr____is to be
imprisoned. Signed: King Louis XV The nobleman wrote in the name himself, so that anyone who displeased him for any reason whatsoever was simply made to disappear.

But at court these lords were elegant, prinked, powdered and perfumed, rustling in their robes of silk and lace. Weary of the heavy pomp and splendour of Louis XIV's time, they favoured a lighter, less formal way of speaking. Instead of their full-bottomed wigs they now wore light, white-powdered ones with a little plait at the back. No one could dance and bow better than they - unless it was their ladies, tight-laced in their corsets, the skirts of their crinolines billowing and round like giant bells. And while all these fine lords and ladies strolled in the gardens of the royal palaces, their estates decayed and the peasants starved. Yet even they sometimes tired of such an unnatural life that was all elegance and sophistication, so they invented a new pastime. They played at Simplicity and Nature. This consisted of living in charming shepherds' huts which they had built in the grounds of their chateaux, and giving themselves the names of shepherds and shepherdesses taken from Greek poems. What could be more natural or more simple?!

Into this bright confusion of elegance, gracefulness and over-refinement came Maria Theresa's daughter, Marie Antoinette. She was a very young girl, barely fourteen years old, when she became the wife of the future king of France. And, of course, she thought everything was as it should be. She threw herself delightedly into all the fairy-tale masked balls and operas, she acted in plays, she was an enchanting shepherdess and thought life in the French royal palaces was altogether wonderful. Nevertheless, her elder brother, the emperor Joseph II, and her mother repeatedly warned her to live simply and to avoid stirring up further resentment among the poor with foolish extravagance and frivolity. In 1777, the emperor Joseph wrote her a long and serious letter saying: 'Things cannot go on like this, there will be a terrible revolution if you do not do something to prevent it.'

Yet things did go on like that, for twelve more years. And the revolution when it came was all the more terrible for it. By then the court had squandered all the country's wealth. Nothing was left with which to pay for the monstrous daily extravagances. In 1789, King Louis XVI finally decided to summon a meeting of the three estates - the nobility, the clergy and the bourgeoisie - to advise him on how to restore the country's finances.

However, their proposals and requests did not please the king, and he told his master of ceremonies to give the order for the representatives of the estates to leave the chamber. Bui when he attempted to do so, the impassioned voice of a very clever man named Mirabeau was heard to call out: 'Go and tell his majesty that we are here through the will of the people, and will not leave except at the point of a bayonet!'

No one had ever spoken to the king of France like this before. The court officials had no idea what to do. While they consulted one another, the assembled representatives of the nobility, clergy and the bougeoisie went on discussing what was to be done about the economic crisis. It was no one's intention to overthrow the king. All they wanted to do was to introduce the sorts of reform that other states had already adopted. But although the king was a weak and indecisive man who liked nothing better than pottering about and making things - locks, in particular - he was not accustomed to taking orders, and it never occurred to him that anyone would dare to oppose him. So he called out troops to disperse the assembly of the three estates by force. The people of Paris were enraged, for they had pinned their hopes on this assembly. Crowds gathered and everyone rushed to the state prison, the Bastille, where many Enlightenment thinkers had been confined, and where a whole host of innocent people were now thought to be held. The king did not dare fire on his own subjects for fear of further increasing the fury of the mob. So the mighty fortress was stormed and its garrison killed. The mob surged through the streets of Paris in triumph, parading the liberated prisoners, although it turned out that the only people in the prison at the time were common criminals.

Meanwhile the assembled representatives had made some extraordinary decisions. They wanted the principles of the Enlightenment to be put into effect in their entirety - in particular the one which said that reason, being common to all men, meant that all men were equal and must be treated as such under the law. The assembled nobility led the way by grandly renouncing all their privileges, to everyone's delight. Any citizen of France would have the right to any job, and each would have the same rights and the same duties in relation to the state - human rights, as these were called. Henceforth the people, it was proclaimed, would be the true rulers, and the king merely their representative.

As you can imagine, what the assembly of the estates actually meant was that the ruler was there to serve the people rather than vice versa, and that he would no longer be allowed to abuse his power. But the Parisians who read it in the press took the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people to mean something entirely different. They thought it meant that people in the streets and marketplaces, communally known as 'the people', would be the rulers. And when the king still refused to see reason and entered into secret negotiations with foreign courts, asking for help against his own people, a procession led by market women went out to the Palace of Versailles. They killed the guards, burst into the magnificent rooms with the wonderful chandeliers, mirrors and damask hangings, and forced the king and his wife, Marie Antoinette, together with their children and their entourage, to return to Paris where they were under the people's control.

The king and his family made one attempt to flee abroad. But because they did it with all the ceremony and formality of someone setting out to a masked ball at court, they were recognised and
brought back, and placed under close guard. The National Assembly had meanwhile decided to introduce many more changes. All the possessions of the Catholic Church were confiscated, as were those of noblemen who had fled abroad in fear of the revolution. Then the Assembly decreed that the people must elect new representatives, to vote on the laws.

And so in 1791 a great number of young people came to Paris from all over France to give their advice. But the other kings and rulers of Europe had had enough. It was not as if they felt Louis deserved their support, for they had little respect for his behaviour, nor were they altogether sorry to see the might of France reduced. But they could not sit back and watch while a fellow monarch was stripped of his powers. So Prussia and Austria sent a few troops to France to protect the king. This threw the people into a frenzy. The whole country was up in arms at the uninvited interference. Every nobleman or supporter of the king was now deemed to be a traitor, in league with foreign accomplices of the court. Noblemen were dragged from their beds at night by raging mobs, thrown into prison and murdered. Things grew worse by the minute. Soon everything that had to do with the past had to be rooted out and destroyed.

It began with dress. Supporters of the Revolution gave up wearing wigs, knee breeches and silk stockings, and wore red nightcaps on their heads and long trousers as we still do today. This was both simpler and cheaper. Dressed in this way they took to the streets shouting: 'Death to all aristocrats! Liberty! Equality! Fraternity! 'As far as fraternity was concerned, the Jacobins - as the most violent party was called - had a rather odd understanding of the word. They were not only against aristocrats: they were against anybody who disagreed with them, and anyone who crossed them lost his head. A special machine called a guillotine was invented, which did the job quickly and efficiently. A special court was set up, known as the Revolutionary Tribunal, and day in, day out, it sentenced people to death, upon which they were guillotined in the squares of Paris.

The leaders of these frenzied mobs were remarkable people. One of them, Danton, was an impassioned orator, a bold andunscrupulous man whose powerful speeches incited the people to ever new attacks upon the king's supporters. Robespierre was the opposite of Danton. He was a stiff, sober and dry lawyer who made interminable speeches in which he never failed to mention the heroes of Greece and Rome. Always impeccably dressed, he would climb the steps of the pulpit of the National Assembly and speak about nothing but virtue - the virtue of Cato and the virtue of Themistocles, the virtue of the human heart in general, and the heart's hatred of vice. And because vice had to be hated, the heads of France's enemies had to be chopped off, so that virtue could triumph! And who exactly were these enemies of France? Why, all those who did not share his opinions. So Robespierre had hundreds of his opponents killed in the name of the virtue of the human heart. But you mustn't think he was a hypocrite. He was probably convinced that he was right. No one could bribe him with gifts, or move him with tears. He was terrifying. And his aim was to spread terror. Terror among the enemies of Reason, as he called them.

Even King Louis XVI was brought before the People's Tribunal and condemned to death because he had appealed to foreigners for help against his own people. Soon afterwards Marie Antoinette was beheaded. In dying they both displayed more dignity and greatness than they had during their lives. There was genuine outrage abroad over the executions, and many troops marched on Paris. But the people had no intention of giving up their newfound freedom. Men were called up to fight from all over France, and the German armies were beaten back, while in Paris, and above all, in provincial towns where opposition to the Jacobins was greatest, the Reign of Terror intensified.

Robespierre and the representatives had declared Christianity to be an ancient superstition and abolished God by decree. Instead, people were to worship Reason. And a printer's young bride wearing a white dress and a blue cloak, representing the goddess of Reason, was led through the city amid festive music. Soon even this was not virtuous enough for Robespierre. A new decree was issued announcing that God did exist and man's soul was immortal. Robespierre himself appeared as priest of the Supreme Being — as God was now called - wearing a hat decorated with feathers, and with a bunch of flowers in his hand. He must have looked quite ridiculous, and many people must have laughed when they saw him. However, his power was almost at an end. Danton had had enough of the daily beheadings and asked for mercy and compassion. Robespierre's reaction to this was to say: 'Only criminals ask for mercy on behalf of criminals.' So Danton, too, was beheaded and Robespierre had his final victory. But soon, after yet another of his interminable speeches, in which he insisted that the executions had barely begun, that freedom's enemies were still all around, that vice was triumphant and the country in peril, it so happened that, for the first time, nobody clapped. Instead there was just a deathly hush. A few days later, he, too, was beheaded.

France's enemies had been defeated. The nobility had either been killed, driven out of France, or had opted to become common citizens. Equality before the law had been achieved. The possessions of the Church and the ruling class had been shared out among the peasants, who had been liberated from feudal serfdom. Every Frenchman was free to choose his profession and aspire to any office. The people were tired of fighting and wanted to enjoy the fruits of this tremendous victory in peace and stability. The Revolutionary Tribunal was abolished, and in 1795 five men were elected to form a Directorate, which was to rule the country according to its new constitution.

Meanwhile the ideas of the French Revolution had reached out beyond the frontiers and been met with great enthusiasm in neighbouring countries. Belgium and Switzerland also formed republics based on the principles of human rights and equality, and these republics were given military support by the French government. And it so happened that, in the ranks of France's armies, there was a young officer who would one day prove stronger than the whole Revolution.

 

 

35 The Last Conqueror

Napoleon in Corsica - To Paris - The siege of Toulon - The conquest of Italy - The Egyptian expedition - The coup d'etat - The consulate and the Code Napoleon - Emperor of the French -Victory at Austerlitz - The end of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation - Francis I - The Continental System - Victory over Russia - Spain and the War of Spanish Resistance - Aspern and Wagram - The German uprising - The Grande Armee - The retreat from Moscow - The Battle of Leipzig - The Congress of Vienna -Napoleon's return from Elba - Waterloo - St Helena

 


Here you can clearly see the power of the little man from Corsica, who set his relatives up as rulers all over Europe like pieces on a chess board.

 

What I have always loved best about the history of the world is that it is true. That all the extraordinary things we read were no less real than you and I are today. What is more, what did happen is often far more exciting and amazing than anything we could invent. I am now going to tell you the story of one of the most astonishing of all those adventures, which was nevertheless as real as your life or mine. It took place not so long ago. My own grandfather was alive then, and he would have been about your age.

It begins like this. Near Italy there is an island, mountainous, sunny and poor, called Corsica. On that island there lived a lawyer, together with his wife and their eight children. His name was Buonaparte. At the time when his second son, Napoleon, was born, in 1769, the island had just been sold to France by the Genoese. This did not go down well with the Corsicans and there were many battles with the French governors. The young Napoleon was to become an officer, so his father sent him, at the age of ten, to a military school in France. He was poor - his father could barely support him, and this made him withdrawn and unhappy and he didn't play with his fellow students. 'I sought out a corner of the school,' he was to say later, 'where I could sit and dream to my heart's content. When my companions tried to take over my corner, I defended it with all my might. I already knew instinctively that my will could triumph over the will of others, and that anything I wanted could be mine.'

He learnt a lot and had a wonderful memory. At seventeen he became a second lieutenant in the French army, and it was there that he was given the nickname 'the little corporal', because he was so short. He almost starved. He read widely and missed nothing. When the Revolution broke out three years later in 1789, Corsica wanted to free itself from French rule. Napoleon returned home to fight the French. But he was soon back in Paris, for, as he wrote in a letter at the time, 'only in Paris can one do anything.' He was right. In Paris he did succeed in doing something. It so happened that one of Napoleon's fellow countrymen was serving as a senior officer in an army sent by the revolutionaries to crush resistance in the provincial town of Toulon. He took the twenty-five-year-old lieutenant with him, and didn't regret it. Napoleon gave such sound advice, on where to place the cannons and where to aim them, that the city was quickly taken. For this he was made a general. But in those troubled times this was no sure sign of a great career. If you were the friend of one party, you were the enemy of another. When the government, which was made up of Robespierre's friends, was overthrown, Napoleon was arrested too. True, he was soon released, but in punishment for his friendship with the Jacobins he lost his command and was dismissed from the army. He was desperately poor and the future looked grim. However, once again, thanks to someone he knew, his name was put forward to the five men of the Paris Directorate, and they gave him the task of crushing a violent demonstration of young noblemen. Napoleon didn't hesitate to fire into the crowd and so dispersed the demonstrators. In recognition, he was reinstated to the rank of general and given command of a small army sent to Italy to spread the ideas of the French Revolution.

It seemed a hopeless task. The army lacked everything. France was destitute and in chaos. In 1796, at the outset of the campaign, General Napoleon (who now signed himself 'Bonaparte', in the French manner) spoke briefly to his troops: 'Soldiers! You are almost naked and ill-fed. The government owes you much and cannot pay you. But I will lead you to the most fertile plain in the world. Rich provinces and great towns will fall into your hands, and in them you will find honour, glory and riches. Soldiers! Do you lack courage and steadfastness?' With these words he inspired his soldiers, and so great was his skill in the face of the far greater strength of his enemies that he won victories everywhere he went. Within a few weeks of the start of the campaign he was able to write in a letter of command to his troops: 'Soldiers! In fourteen days you have won six victories, captured twenty-one banners and fifty-five pieces of cannon. You have won battles without cannon, crossed rivers without bridges, marched great distances without boots, slept in the open without brandy and often without bread. I rejoice that each of you, upon returning home, will be able to say with pride: I too was of that army that conquered Italy!'

And, true to his words, it wasn't long before his army had conquered the whole of northern Italy and made it a republic along the lines of France or Belgium. Wherever he went, if a beautiful work of art caught his eye, he had it sent to Paris. Then he turned north towards Austria, because the emperor had attacked him in Italy. Messengers from the emperor in Vienna came to meet him in the town of Leoben in Styria. A raised seat had been prepared for the emperor's envoy in the council chamber. 'Take away that chair,' said Napoleon, 'I can never see a throne without feeling the urge to sit on it.' He then demanded that the emperor cede to France all the parts of Germany that lay to the west of the Rhine. After that he returned to Paris. But in Paris there was nothing for him to do. So he put forward a proposal to the government for an adventurous undertaking. France's greatest enemy at this time was Britain, and, thanks to their many colonial possessions in America, Africa, India and Australia, the British had become very powerful. The French couldn't attack Britain directly because their army was too weak and, besides, they didn't have enough good ships. But on the other hand, if Napoleon were to occupy Egypt, he could strike at the sources of Britain's wealth by threatening the route to its colonial possessions in India.


Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-stricken at Jaffa, by Jean-Antoine Gros


So Napoleon took an army to Egypt. Like Alexander the Great, he wanted to conquer the whole of the Orient. He took scholars with him too, to observe and study the remnants of antiquity. On reaching Egypt he spoke to the Muslim Egyptians as if he were a prophet, like Muhammad. In solemn tones he told them that he could read the innermost secrets of their hearts. His coming, he said, had been prophesied centuries before, and they would find it written in the Koran. 'All efforts to resist me are doomed, for I am destined to succeed in all I undertake.'

And at first events seemed to prove him right. He defeated the Egyptian armies in a great battle beside the pyramids in 1798, and on other occasions too, for no one was better than he at fighting battles on dry land. But at sea the British had the upper hand, and their famous admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet off Aboukir on the Egyptian coast. When plague broke out among his troops and news came that the government in Paris was in disarray, Napoleon abandoned his soldiers and secretly took ship for France. There he received a hero's welcome. Everyone hoped that the famous general would prove as capable at home as he had been in hostile lands. Encouraged by their support, in 1799 he boldly turned his guns on the seat of government in Paris. His grenadiers threw the elected representatives of the people out of the council chambers, and he assumed supreme command. Following the example of ancient Rome, he proclaimed himself consul.

In that role Napoleon held court in splendour in the former residence of the kings of France, and brought back many noblemen from exile. But mostly he worked night and day at establishing order in France. To him, this meant that nothing should happen at any time or in any place unless he wished it. And he succeeded. He established a collection of laws in accordance with the new basic principles and named it after himself: the Napoleonic Code. In a new campaign in Italy he defeated Austria once again. He was idolised by his soldiers and all of France worshipped him because he had brought the country glory and conquests. They made him consul lor life. But this still did not satisfy Napoleon. In 1804 he proclaimed himself emperor. Emperor of the French! The pope himself made the journey to France to crown him. Soon afterwards he had himself proclaimed king of Italy as well. The other countries grew fearful of this mighty newcomer, and Britain, Prussia, Austria, Russia and Sweden formed an alliance against him. Napoleon didn't let this worry him. He wasn't afraid of enemy armies, however large they were. In the winter of 1805 he attacked and inflicted a crushing defeat on an alliance of enemy troops at Austerlitz. Now Napoleon was lord of almost all of Europe. He gave each of his relatives a kingdom - a little souvenir, as it were. His stepson became viceroy of Italy, his elder brother was given Naples, his younger brother Holland, his brother-in-law part of Germany and his sisters duchies in Italy. Which was not bad going for a Corsican lawyer's family who, hardly twenty years before, had been sitting round a table on their distant island, sharing a simple meal.

In Germany, too, all the power was in Napoleon's hands, because the German princes who had turned their backs on the emperor in Vienna long ago had now become allies of the mighty Napoleon. The emperor Francis gave up the title of German emperor, and that was the end of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation which had begun with the coronation of Charlemagne in Rome a thousand years before. The year was 1806. From now on, Francis of Habsburg was merely emperor of Austria.

Next Napoleon attacked the Hohenzollerns, and in a matter of days the Prussian armies had been soundly defeated. In the same year he entered Berlin, and from there he imposed his laws on Europe. First and foremost, he forbade anyone in the whole of Europe to have any business dealings with France's enemies, the British. This was known as the Continental System. Having lost his entire fleet to Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar the previous year, Napoleon could not invade that powerful country. Instead he planned to bring the British to their knees with an economic blockade. When the other states refused to agree to this, he returned to Germany and attacked the Russians, now allied with the Prussians. And, in 1807, he was able to present his youngest brother with part of Germany as his kingdom.

Now it was Spain's turn. He conquered that country and gave its crown to his brother Joseph, previously king of Naples, and gave Naples to one of his brothers-in-law. But the day came when the inhabitants of all these countries had had enough of being passed around the Bonaparte family as presents. The Spaniards were the first to resist French rule, from 1808 onwards. They didn't fight any battles as such, but the entire population was in a constant state of rebellion which the French soldiers were unable to crush, despite their brutal efforts. The emperor of Austria had also had enough of being bossed around by Napoleon. In 1809 a new war broke out. Napoleon's army was approaching Vienna and had reached the outskirts, at Aspern. There, for the first time in his life, Napoleon experienced defeat, at the hands of the valiant general Archduke Charles. However, only a few days later he soundly defeated the Austrian army at Wagram. He marched into Vienna, installed himself in the imperial palace at Schonbrunn and forced the emperor Francis to give him the hand of his daughter Marie-Louise in marriage. For a member of the imperial house of Habsburg, whose family had reigned from Vienna for more than 500 years, this was no easy thing to do. Napoleon had no princely ancestry. He was just a jumped-up little lieutenant who, through his extraordinary ability and nothing else, was now lord and master of Europe.

In 1810 Marie-Louise gave birth to a son, to whom Napoleon gave the title King of Rome. Napoleon's empire was by now considerably larger than that of Charlemagne, if we include all the kingdoms of his brothers and sisters and generals, which were theirs only in name. If he didn't like their conduct he used to write them insulting letters. For example, to his brother, the king of Westphalia, he wrote: 'I've seen one of your orders of the day to the soldiers that will make you the laughing stock of Germany, Austria and France. Have you no friend to tell you a few home truths? You
are a king and the emperor's brother - titles worth nothing on the battlefield. There, you have to be a soldier and nothing but a soldier. Forget your ministers, your ambassadors and your finery. You have to sleep out in the vanguard with your men, sit on your horse, day and night. March in the vanguard, so you know what's going on.' The letter ends: 'And for God's sake have the wit to write and speak correctly!' This was how the emperor treated his brothers, the kings of Europe. But he treated the people even worse. He cared nothing for what they thought or what they felt. To him they were merely a source of money or, better still, soldiers. But as time went on they became less and less willing to obey him. After the Spaniards, the peasants in the Tirol were the next to rebel against the French and Bavarian soldiers. The Tirol was a region that Napoleon had taken away from the emperor of Austria and given to the kingdom of Bavaria. Their rebellion ended only when Napoleon captured their leader, Andreas Hofer, and had him shot. In Germany, too, the whole population was in a state of great agitation and indignation at the French emperor's wilful brutality. And now that most of the German principalities were under French rule, for the first time in their history they sensed a common destiny: they weren't French, they were Germans. Who cared if the king of Prussia was on good terms with the king of Saxony or not, or if the king of Bavaria had allied himself with Napoleon's brother? The experience shared by all Germans, that of being dominated by foreigners, had given birth to a shared desire: the wish to be free. For the first time in the whole of history, all Germans - students and poets, peasants and noblemen -joined forces against their rulers to liberate themselves. But it wasn't as easy as that. Napoleon was all-powerful. The great German poet Goethe said at the time: 'Shake your chains how you may, the man is too great for you!'And indeed, for a long time no amount of inspiration or heroism could match the might of Napoleon. What finally brought him down was his insatiable ambition. The power he had already never seemed to be enough: to him it was only the beginning. And now it was Russia's turn. The Russians had defied his command not to trade with the British, and for this they had to be punished!

Napoleon assembled troops from every region of his vast empire until he had an army of some six hundred thousand men -just think of it, more than half a million human beings! One of the largest armies the world had ever seen. And now, in 1812, this army marched on Russia. As the soldiers penetrated deeper and deeper into the heartland, they met with no resistance. When they advanced, the Russians retreated, just as they had done before the troops of Charles XII of Sweden. At last, outside the gates of Moscow, the mighty Russian army stopped. Napoleon attacked and seemed to be victorious - I almost said 'of course', since for him winning battles was the same as solving puzzles, if you are someone who is good at that sort of thing. He would note the enemy's position and knew immediately where to place his own troops in order to evade or attack them. So he marched into Moscow, only to find the city almost empty and most of its inhabitants fled. It was late autumn. Napoleon installed himself in the Kremlin, the ancient imperial castle, and waited to dictate his terms. Then came news that the suburbs of Moscow were burning. In those days most of Moscow's houses were made of wood, and as the fire spread, large parts of the city were engulfed in flames. The Russians had probably started the fires to put pressure on the French. All efforts to extinguish them were in vain.

Where could six hundred thousand men stay, with Moscow burnt? And how could they be fed? Napoleon had no choice but to retreat. In the meantime, however, winter had arrived and it was bitterly cold. Everything in sight along their route had already been plundered and consumed. The retreat across the endless, frozen wastes of the Russian plains would now become something too terrible to describe. Overcome by cold and starvation, more and more soldiers fell by the wayside. Horses perished in their thousands. The Russian Cossacks rode up and attacked the rear and flanks of the army. The soldiers fought with desperation. Surrounded by Cossacks, and in the midst of a raging snowstorm, they managed to cross the great Berezina River. But little by little their strength ebbed away and they lost hope. Fewer than one in twenty of the soldiers survived this terrible defeat and reached the German frontier in the last stages of sickness and exhaustion. Disguised as a peasant, Napoleon abandoned his troops and hurried back to Paris on a sledge.

His first act was to raise fresh troops, for now that his strength was reduced, there were rebellions everywhere. Yet once again, he succeeded in raising a mighty army, this time made up entirely of young men. These were the last men left in France, whom Napoleon now sent to combat the subject peoples. He marched on Germany. The emperor of Austria sent his chancellor, Metternich, to negotiate a peace treaty. Metternich talked to Napoleon for a whole day: 'And what if this army of boys that you have just raised is mown down?' At these words, Napoleon turned first white, then purple with rage: 'You are no soldier!' he shouted. 'You know nothing of a soldier's heart. I was raised on the battlefield, and a man such as I doesn't give a fig for a million lives!' With this outburst, so Metternich related, Napoleon hurled his hat across the room.

Metternich left the hat where it lay and said calmly: 'Why should 1 be the only person to hear this, within the privacy of these four walls? Open the doors so that your words may resound from one end of France to the other.' Napoleon rejected the terms of the emperor's peace treaty, telling Metternich he didn't have any choice. If he wished to remain emperor of the French, he would have to fight on and win. In 1813 a battle took place, at Leipzig in Germany, between Napoleon's army and those of his allied enemies. On the first day, Napoleon had the upper hand. But when, on the second, he was suddenly abandoned by the Bavarian troops who were fighting for him, he lost the battle and was forced to retreat. During this retreat he fought with another large army of Bavarians which was pursuing him, after which he returned to Paris.

He had been right: following his defeat the French deposed him. He was given sovereignty over the little island of Elba, to which he retired. However, the princes and the emperor who had brought about his defeat met in Vienna in 1814 to negotiate with one another, and share out Europe among themselves. It was their opinion that the Enlightenment had been a disaster for Europe. The idea of Liberty, in particular, was responsible for all the disturbances and the countless victims, both of the Revolution and of Napoleon's wars. They wanted to undo the whole Revolution. Metternich in particular was determined that everything should be as it had been before, and that no similar upheaval should ever be allowed to happen again. It was therefore vital, or so he thought, that nothing should be written or printed in Austria without the approval of the government and the emperor.

In France the Revolution was totally extinguished. The brother of Louis XVI came to the throne as Louis XVIII (the title of Louis XVII having been given to the son of Louis XVI, who had died during the Revolution). The new Louis ruled with his court in France with the same pomp and the same lack of judgement as his unhappy brother, just as if the twenty-six years of revolution and empire had never taken place. The French became increasingly discontented. When Napoleon heard about this, he secretly left Elba (in 1815) and landed in France accompanied by a small number of soldiers. Louis sent an army to fight him. But as soon as the soldiers saw Napoleon, they deserted and went over to his side, and were joined by soldiers from other garrisons. After a few days' march, the emperor Napoleon entered Paris in triumph, and King Louis XVIII fled.

The princes, still conferring in Vienna, were furious and declared Napoleon to be the enemy of humanity. Under the command of the English duke of Wellington, an army, largely made up of British and Germans soldiers, was assembled in Belgium. Napoleon attacked without delay. A savage battle followed in 1815 at a place named Waterloo. Once again, Napoleon seemed at first to be winning. However, one of his generals misunderstood the order he had been given and led his troops in the wrong direction. Towards evening, the commander of the Prussian troops, General Blucher, gathered together his exhausted men and, with the words 'It looks pretty hopeless, but we mustn't give in', led them back into battle. It was to be Napoleon's last defeat. He fled with his army, was once again deposed and forced to leave France.

He embarked on a British ship, placing himself voluntarily in the hands of his oldest enemies, the only ones he had never beaten. He was counting on their magnanimity, and said that he wished to live as a private citizen under English law. But in all his life Napoleon himself had rarely shown any magnanimity. Instead the British declared him a prisoner of war and sent him to a tiny uninhabited island far out in the Atlantic, known as the Island of St Helena, so that he might never come back again. There he spent the last six years of his life, abandoned and powerless, dictating the memories of all his deeds and victories, and quarrelling with the English governor, who wouldn't even let him take a walk on his own around the island. And that was the end of the little man with the pale complexion, whose strength of will and clarity of mind were greater than those of any ruler before him. Meanwhile the great powers of the past, those ancient and pious princely houses, once again ruled Europe. And the austere and unyielding Metternich, who would not stoop to pick up Napoleon's hat, guided the destinies of Europe from Vienna through his emissaries as if the Revolution had never taken place.

 

 
 
 
 
 

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