Confederation of the Rhine (1806-1813)


The Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund) was a conglomeration of German states organized by Napoleon, who hoped that Germany would develop into a unified state with a central government and administration modeling the political institutions of France. The opportunity for such a grandiose plan emerged after the decisive defeat of Austria during the War of the Third Coalition in 1805, when Napoleon sought to dismantle the thousand-year- old Holy Roman Empire and replace it with a new German political entity that could serve as a buffer against Prussia and Austria, a market for French goods, and a source of military manpower for the Napoleonic empire.

The origins of the Confederation of the Rhine may be traced to the gradual French encroachment into Germany that began with the campaigns conducted by the Revolutionary armies on the Rhine in the 1790s. By 1795 France had full control of the west bank of the Rhine and later compensated various princes for their lost territory according to the decisions reached in the Imperial Recess of 1802-1803. When the Peace of Amiens failed and war on the Continent resumed in May 1803, the French renewed their territorial designs in the region by invading and rapidly occupying the British patrimony of Hanover in north Germany. As war loomed between France and Austria, Napoleon sought allies from among the larger German states, some of which had territory to gain and greater autonomy to acquire by siding against the Habsburgs. Bavaria was the first to throw in its lot with France, signing a treaty of alliance on 23 September 1805, followed by Baden and Württemberg on 1 and 8 October, respectively. In the aftermath of the Battle of Austerlitz (2 December), the Imperial Reichstag was abolished (20 January 1806), enabling Napoleon to create the first of a new set of minor German states to be ruled by members of his family. On 15 March he established the Grand Duchy of Berg, placing his brother-in-law, Marshal Murat, at its head.

The Confederation of the Rhine came into formal being on 17 July 1806 according to the Treaty of Paris, with Karl Theodor von Dalberg as Prince-Primate (Fürstenprimas) and with Napoleon maintaining supervisory control in his capacity of “protector” (Protektor). The original sixteen south- and west-German states of the Confederation consisted of Bavaria, Württemberg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Baden, Berg, and eleven other smaller states, all of which, according to the Rheinbund’s constitution, formally withdrew from the Holy Roman Empire, which drew its last breath on 6 August when Francis II foreswore the Habsburgs’ ancient imperial dignity and proclaimed himself Francis I, Emperor of Austria in its place. As an inducement to membership in the new Confederation-which, however, was effectively coerced-Napoleon offered an extension of territory and elevation in rank. Thus, he raised the electors of Bavaria (Maximilian Joseph) and of the Grand Duchy of Württemberg (Frederick II) to the status of kings on 1 January 1806, made the electors of Baden (Charles Frederick and Hesse-Darmstadt) grand dukes on 13 August, and offered similar titles to other minor potentates. The Grand Duchy of Würzburg joined on 23 September.

If Austria’s dominance in Germany had all but vanished as a result of Austerlitz, the same may be said to have applied to Prussia after its twin defeats at Jena and Auerstädt on 14 October 1806. Hohenzollern influence, even in north Germany, had never existed on a par with Habsburg influence in south Germany; now the utter defeat of Prussian forces in the autumn of 1806 extinguished its pretensions to occupy Hanover or exercise any vestige of leadership over its other, lesser German neighbors. Napoleon did not wait long before capitalizing on his recent military triumphs: On 11 December, by the Treaty of Posen between France and the Electorate of Saxony (Prussia’s erstwhile ally), the latter was converted into a kingdom-enlarged with territory taken from Prussia-with Frederick Augustus III assuming the throne as King Frederick Augustus I. Four days later five small duchies joined the Rheinbund, including Saxe-Weimar, Saxe-Gotha, and Saxe-Coburg. On 11 April 1807 another twelve minor states followed, including Anhalt-Dessau and Waldeck.

The second of the two historic treaties concluded at Tilsit (the first between France and Russia on 7 July; the second between France and Prussia on 9 July), forced Frederick William III of Prussia to recognize the sovereignty of the Confederation, which with Saxony now represented a third major German political entity, deliberately intended to exclude Austria and Prussia. Tilsit paved the way for further admissions to the Rheinbund: The new Kingdom of Westphalia, with Jérome Bonaparte on the throne, was created in December 1807 out of Prussian lands and territory seized from its former allies, Hesse-Cassel, Brunswick, southern Hanover, and other minor states, while Mecklenburg and several other petty principalities also joined as a result of Tilsit. In 1808, after the admission of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and the Duchy of Oldenburg, the Confederation reached its greatest territorial extent, totaling thirty-nine states.

However high-minded Napoleon may have been with respect to the political future of the Rheinbund, in reality it never properly developed the way the Emperor had envisioned. The diet was convoked in 1806 but never assembled, and the Rheinbund became little more than a set of French satellite states serving as a recruiting ground for soldiers, largely owing to the determination of each ruler- whether king, prince, or duke-to preserve his respective independence. Indeed, so long as each state furnished the contingents required by the various treaties concluded between member states and France, Napoleon was largely content not to interfere in the internal affairs of the Confederation. On the other hand, when he did decree the cessation of all commerce with Britain as part of his Continental System, Napoleon met opposition from German merchants and encountered widespread public discontent. Indeed, trade with the enemy via North Sea German ports became so widespread that on 13 December 1810 France annexed the entire area along the German North Sea coast, including the Duchy of Arenberg, the Princedom of Salm- Kryburg, and the Duchy of Oldenburg. Napoleon’s voracious appetite for troops-initially fixed at 63,000-also caused resentment, though not on any serious scale until the Russian campaign. The ever-increasing demands on the Rheinbund to furnish contingents for the imperial French armies resulted in thousands of men serving in Spain between 1808 and 1813, in the campaign against Austria in 1809, in Russia in 1812 (in which perhaps a third-200,000 men-of the Grande Armée consisted of Rheinbund troops), and finally in the campaign in Germany in 1813.

Many Confederation states adopted the Civil Code and other Napoleonic reforms, Hesse-Darmstadt and Anhalt being particularly enthusiastic in this regard. On 15 November 1807 a constitution on the Napoleonic model was promulgated for the nascent Kingdom of Westphalia, abolishing serfdom and establishing equality before the law, equal principles of taxation, and religious freedom. A similar legal framework was introduced in Bavaria on 1 May 1808. Serfdom effectively ended in Bavaria from September of that year, and in the Grand Duchy of Berg, in December. Yet, on the whole, the political and social institutions of the various states did not model themselves on their French counterparts, and thus no uniformity existed within the various German states that would have facilitated their eventual absorption into the French Empire as Napoleon had had in mind. The Napoleonic Code was not widely embraced, and moreover no attempt was made to impose it. What influence the French did exercise in fact proved largely counterproductive, for it fueled a slowly emerging German nationalism that-manifesting itself in a particularly virulent fashion in Prussia-would find expression in 1813 as open opposition to Napoleonic rule.

Following Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Russia, Bavaria was the first of the Confederation states to join the anti-French coalition. By the Treaty of Ried, concluded on 8 October 1813, Bavaria joined the Sixth Coalition, and within a week, at the decisive Battle of Leipzig, the Saxon and Württemberg troops defected to the Allies. The French were swept from Germany, Saxony was occupied and administered first by the Prussians and then by the Russians, and the Confederation was formally dissolved on 4 November. On the fifteenth at Frankfurt, Austria, Prussia, and Russia established a common policy toward the former members of the Confederation, which guaranteed their sovereignty pending the decision of a future postwar conference. This did not apply to states newly created by Napoleon that had not changed sides; as such, on 21 November 1813 Brunswick, Hesse-Cassel, and Hanover were restored as independent states out of the former Kingdom of Westphalia. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna confirmed the survival of many former members of the Rheinbund, albeit in many cases with altered frontiers (particularly Saxony, which was forced to cede a large amount of territory to Prussia), and placed them together in a loose association of states known as the German Confederation.

By establishing the Confederation of the Rhine, Napoleon had unwittingly placed Germany on the road to eventual unification in 1871, for by the end of its existence the Rheinbund consisted of a mere thirty-nine states, in sharp contrast to the approximately 300 duchies, ecclesiastical cities, electorates, principalities, and duchies that had existed less than a decade before. In this respect alone the brief lifespan of the Confederation of the Rhine may be seen as an important period in the development of modern Germany.

References and further reading Broers, Michael. 1996. Europe under Napoleon, 1799-1815. London: Arnold. Connelly, Owen. 1966. Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms. New York: Free Press. Gill, John H. 1998. “Vermin, Scorpions and Mosquitoes: The Rheinbund in the Peninsula.” In The Peninsular War: Aspects of the Struggle for the Iberian Peninsula, ed. Ian Fletcher. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount. Partridge, Richard, and Michael Oliver. 2002. Napoleonic Army Handbook: The French Army and Her Allies. Vol. 2. London: Constable and Robinson. Pivka, Otto von. 1979. Napoleon’s German Allies. Vol. 3, Saxony. London: Osprey.

—.1980. Napoleon’s German Allies. Vol. 4, Bavaria. London: Osprey.

—.1991. Napoleon’s German Allies. Vol. 2, Nassau and Oldenburg. London: Osprey.

—.1992a. Napoleon’s German Allies. Vol. 1, Westfalia and Kleve-Berg. London: Osprey.

—.1992b. Napoleon’s German Allies. Vol. 5, Hesse. London: Osprey.