Occupied Europe and the Napoleonic Empire



For all the might of France itself, such was the scale of the conflict that French resources alone were never enough to allow Napoleon to wage war with all its dreadful human costs. The solution was to exploit the Napoleonic Empire, which fell into three zones. First, there was the ‘Empire of the French’, ruled directly from Paris, which at its height in 1811 included France and the Low Countries; the Rhineland, Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, and Oldenburg in Germany; Piedmont, Genoa, Parma, Tuscany, and Rome in Italy; and Illyria (modern-day Slovenia and Croatia). Secondly, there were the satellites, which were notionally independent, but which were in fact puppet-states ruled by Napoleon, his family members, his marshals, or other appointees, including Westphalia and Berg in Germany, the Italian kingdom of Naples, Switzerland, and the Duchy of Warsaw. Thirdly, there were countries whose rulers calculated that their interests were best served by an alliance with France, like Denmark, Baden, Bavaria, Württemberg, Saxony, and those who had been bludgeoned into joining Napoleon, namely Prussia in 1807 and Austria in 1809.

The primary purpose of such domination was to feed the war effort with cannon fodder, money, and material resources. During the French Revolutionary Wars, metal currency was extracted from the occupied territories by draconian financial levies: between September 1794 and November 1798, millions of livres were sucked out of the Rhineland, including a heart-stopping 50 million in December 1795. Italy fared little better: in 1796, Parma was emptied of 2 million livres, Genoa 2 million, and Milan a crippling 20 million (five times its usual annual tax revenue). Ordinary people suffered the most, since official demands for money came on top of requisitioning of supplies by French soldiers. On top of this, the conquests, whether annexed to France or converted into ‘sister republics’, were bound to raise soldiers, either as conscripts directly into the French army, or in their own forces, which were deployed in French interests.

Yet where the French were able to put down institutional roots, particularly in the inner parts of Napoleon’s Empire—Belgium, the Rhineland, Piedmont—they left a constructive legacy. The abolition of seigneurialism and serfdom, and the principles of civil equality and meritocracy explicit in the Napoleonic Code of 1804, were introduced across the Empire and in the satellite states, while the religious toleration written into the Concordat of 1802—whereby Napoleon made peace with the Catholic Church after more than a decade of revolutionary conflict in France—was rolled out across his European empire, often against the bitter, violent opposition of the zealously orthodox. Yet, fundamentally, the three spheres of French domination were exploited for their human and material resources.

It all began, however, with France itself. When Bonaparte seized power in 1799, he inherited a French state which had undergone a decade of revolutionary reform. Napoleon’s inheritance included the efficiency of France’s new administrative system, a centralized, uniform structure of which the Bourbon monarchy could only have dreamt. The French Revolutionary Wars had showed just how effective the system could be in mobilizing French society. In 1789, the overlapping and often conflicting jurisdictions of royal officials, sovereign courts, and provincial institutions were abolished, and replaced by eighty-three more or less equal departments, which became (and remain) France’s main administrative unit. While initially the purpose was to decentralize by placing local initiative into the hands of elected officials, the current could be reversed, so that authority could flow from the centre and be imposed, via the departments, onto the districts and communes (the most localized level of authority).

While the Revolution began this process of centralization, it reached its apotheosis under Napoleon, who in 1800 introduced the prefects, one for each department. They were the eyes, ears, voice, and hands of the central government, charged with public order and the enforcement of all the laws coming from Paris, while reporting back on the condition of their departments. Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother and his first Minister of the Interior, admonished the first prefects with a long list of duties, at the top of which they were to ‘apply yourself immediately to the conscription draft … I give special priority to the collection of taxes: their prompt payment is now a sacred duty.’ As the ‘Empire of the French’ expanded, so too did this administrative system: by 1811, it stretched from northern Germany to Rome, incorporating a grand total of 130 départements, each with their own prefect.

Dramatic though the levée en masse of 1793 was, the conscription system that Napoleon inherited from the Revolution was the Jourdan Law of 1798, which remained in force until 1815. Every 22 September (the first day of the year in the Revolutionary Calendar, which Napoleon did not abandon until 1806), all young men of 20–5 years of age were arranged into ‘classes’, from which the new conscripts were drawn by lot, beginning with those aged 20 and then progressing up the age scale as required. As the ‘Empire of the French’ expanded, so too did the Jourdan Law: by 1811, recruits from as far north as the German Hanseatic ports and as far south as Rome were being directly conscripted into the French army. Only Illyria was exempt, because this region was the old frontier with the Ottoman Empire and the Croats had a tradition of military service in return for land and personal freedom. Napoleon’s satellite states and allies were also required to raise armies, a ‘blood tax’ which was resented, often evaded, and sometimes resisted, but which meant that Napoleon’s forces were polyglot: two-thirds of all his troops came from outside France proper, including Poland, Lithuania, Croatia, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the Low Countries, and Spain. From the Emperor’s perspective, the system meant that he could rely on a steady supply of recruits: the levies from France alone between 1800 and 1813 raised 2.8 million men. At the hideous sight of thousands of frozen corpses at Eylau, he is meant to have said, ‘I have an annual income of 100,000 men; one night in Paris will replace this.’ After 1812, however, as the Empire unravelled and more and more of the burden of fighting fell on the French themselves rather than their allies and satellites, the system became utterly rapacious in France. One of Napoleon’s prefects bluntly complained in 1813 that ‘I am taking everyone; there will be no one left from the years 1813 and 1814 capable of procreation and maintaining the population’: by this point, nearly 50 per cent of each class were being drafted. In all, 7 per cent of the entire French population was conscripted under Napoleon (36 per cent of all those liable).

Also essential for France’s military capacity, the Revolution had decisively sliced through the knot of fiscal privilege, venal offices, and tax-farms which had proved so resistant to reform prior to 1789. In its place was put a system of direct, uniform taxation based on incomes and land, to which were later added indirect taxes on consumption and on the employment of domestic servants, coaches, and windows. The revolutionaries also raised, potentially, some 2,000 million livres from the nationalization and sale of church land. At the same time, the revolutionaries, adherents of the free market that they were, had eliminated the morass of internal customs barriers and tolls and banned such restrictive institutions as guilds. In France, Napoleon therefore inherited the makings of a resurgent economy tapped by an effective fiscal system—one which he then fine-tuned by introducing a comprehensive tax survey and further indirect taxes on such consumables as tobacco, alcohol, and salt. He also established the country’s first national bank, the Bank of France, in 1800, with shareholders and government backing, although the attempt to mimic the British ‘sinking fund’ to manage the national debt failed because investors were wary of buying its interest-bearing bonds.

The French system of public finance was introduced across Europe to varying degrees, but, vast though the amounts of money raised were, they never met the spiralling costs of the war: the kingdom of Italy’s tax revenues were boosted by 50 per cent between 1805 and 1811, but its debts quintupled in the same period. Almost everywhere, the authorities tried to make up the shortfalls by increasing indirect taxes—on salt, tobacco, and imports—but since these fell proportionately harder on the poor, they provoked seething resentment.

The exploitation of Europe took a particularly sophisticated shape in the ‘Continental System’, established by the Berlin decrees in November 1806. The aims of the system were twofold: to wage economic warfare on the British by excluding their commerce from Europe and to secure a captive market for French agriculture and manufacturing. This latter goal—which has been described as the ‘uncommon market’ or a ‘one-way common market’—was only partially met. Some European economies certainly profited from the system: with British imports slowing, the cotton manufacturers of Saxony and the wool weavers of Silesia were able to export to Eastern Europe, while some historians have argued that Belgium witnessed its first great period of industrial ‘take-off’ behind the blockade’s protection. Yet Napoleon himself was adamant that his economic watchword was la France avant tout—‘France first’.

In practice, some parts of France benefited while others suffered desperately. Profiting from its strategic location on the Rhine, Alsace became an important entrepôt for commerce between the French Empire proper and the satellite states in Germany, but the life was stifled out of the maritime ports and their hinterland, suffering from the lack of overseas trade and of imports of raw materials. In 1808, the American consul at Bordeaux wrote that ‘grass is growing in the streets of this city. Its beautiful port is deserted except by two Marblehead fishing schooners and three or four empty vessels which still swing to the tide’. It is perhaps no surprise that as the Empire collapsed in 1814, Alsace remained loyal to Bonaparte, while the Bordelais welcomed Wellington as a liberator.

The aim of sinking British manufacturing floundered because the system was never watertight in barring British goods: it could only work if Napoleon was able to offer his European subjects alternatives to imports from Britain and its empire, but he could not. The European demand for commodities such as sugar, coffee, and cotton was such that it could only be fully satisfied by tapping the global trade that the British dominated. The British happily obliged by setting up smuggling centres on Gibraltar, on Mediterranean islands such as Corfu, Sicily, and Malta, and on Heligoland in the North Sea: sugar from the British plantations in the Caribbean was spirited ashore at Salonika and furtively carried over the mountains by mules, before being sold across the Napoleonic Empire. In 1812, Napoleon appalled Europeans by ordering public bonfires of millions of francs worth of confiscated British contraband in Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Frankfurt. Yet the French themselves realized Britain was an important market for their wine, champagne, brandy, silk, even wheat, and the Napoleonic state periodically issued licences permitting its subjects to trade with the British in such goods. The most devastating consequence, however, was political: to enforce the blockade, Napoleon resorted to political pressure and, on two particularly fateful occasions, to force: the first of these was when he attacked Portugal in 1807, precipitating the agonies of the Peninsular War, and the second was the equally disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812.

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