Bonjour, tu parle français? This question is one that as a mainly English-speaking American, you rarely if ever encounter. However, had Napoleon saw his “destiny” enacted fully it could’ve been. By the year 1811 Napoleon was the Emperor of a France that controlled most of continental Europe with the expectations of Britain to the west and Russia in the east. His Grand Armée was at is greatest strength of over 600,000 men, one of the strongest and well ran armies Europe had ever seen (42)
He was by now the most feared military leader Europe had possibly ever seen, having won almost every major battle and forcefully bent most of his opposition to his will. His reforms to law, education and administration had been seeing huge success, many of which are still in place in France today. Many of his public works throughout Paris and France still stand and see use. Had Napoleon held off on invading Russia in the June of 1812 and sought out a diplomatic solution. He would’ve never been caught in entrapped in Moscow in the winter with an underfed and quickly demoralizing Army. He wouldn’t have lost all but less than 10 percent of his Grand Armée (46)
The biggest loss he incurred though wasn’t casualties of men but the loss reputation. His humiliating defeat and retreat allowed his continental enemies to ally with the British and follow him to France. He was soon forced to abdicate his rule in 1814 and was exiled to the small Mediterranean island of Elba (Biography.com)3.
The question I ask if is… What if Napoleon didn’t invade Russia at all. What if he instead focused on defeating the British in the Iberian Peninsula and then consolidated his control of Europe? Had he focused his full attention and military might to the conflict at hand instead of trying to make an example of Alexander and Russia, the world could’ve seen a very different outcome.
During Napoleon’s rule the aristocracy of his opposition didn’t just want to defeat him because they saw him as a threat to their rule but as a threat to their way of life. Napoleon and his France were pushing revolutionary ideals of equality before the law, anti-feudalism, meritocracy, and religious tolerance. His defeat caused Europe to fall back into its old ways and remain there until the World Wars brought some of change that Napoleon’s France was instituting. Had Napoleon remained Emperor for the remainder of his life, Europe would have only benefitted.
His ultimate defeat of Britain from a renewed campaign in the Iberian Peninsula mixed with a continuation of his continental system of trade would have eventually brought the British into his control. With control of Britain and her lands added to the continental empire he built in Europe, France’s power would be unmatched. The world would speak mainly French as opposed to English. France would’ve controlled much of the world, and we’d have seen many of Napoleon’s liberal policies and ideologies enacted. Throughout Europe liberal movements and uprisings under the Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia and Austria wouldn’t have been stopped out.
Europe would’ve joined France in the push for the abolition of slavery over the world. Europe’s feudalistic law codes and administrative systems would’ve been replaced with Napoleons uniform, liberal and meritocrat systems. France’s educational systems which under Napoleon saw France at the front of Academic achievement would’ve been copied and implemented. Europe would’ve seen a renewed interest in education, arts, sciences, humanities, etc. Under Napoleon control Europe would’ve seen advancement in all levels of society that it didn’t get to see until the end of the Great wars.
Had Napoleon choose to not invade Russia in 1812 the world would’ve been a better place. However, we know that he did indeed attempt to invade Russia and its infamous winter crushed his Grand Armée, and ultimately lead to his abdication. The question now is why? Why did Napoleon attempt to make an example of acting up Russia instead of focusing on his main enemy?
To understand this, you must look at Napoleon himself. At the time he was the Emperor of almost all continental Europe. He had won almost every major battle he’d been apart of. He quite actually changed the face of warfare and military tactics single handedly with his unprecedented success and strategies. So, when Russia started to act up and break his 1807 treaty of Tilsit, his first and only reaction was to enact his will. Russia at the time presented little threat to Napoleon and his Empire (43)
While they were breaking his treaty and trading with Britain, He could’ve dealt with them diplomatically on his own terms after finishing his campaigns against the British in the Iberian Peninsula. However, due to a combination of Russia breaking the treaty, a deterioration of Franco-Russian relations and that Napoleon saw Russia as one of his last blocks to finally taking over the Britain’s, He decided to invade. With that the preparations were made, and in June 1812 Napoleon lead his Grand Armée of over 600,000 troops into Russia. “They cut a 300-mile-wide and 600-mile gash into Russia, always seeking battle” (45)
Napoleon’s entire plan of attack however relied on getting Alexander and his army to face him in a decisive battle. Alexander had other plans, so when Napoleon pushed his way into Moscow, he found it almost entirely abandoned. Napoleon then held onto Moscow while attempting to get Alexander to negotiations. He however refused and instead and continued his plan of retreat, small attacks and burning the country side as they fled. As time went on Napoleons forces continued to dwindle as did their supplies. In December Napoleon was forced returned to Paris with his Grand Armée in tatters(biography.com) 1. His continental enemies seeing his weakness then joined forces and were able to force his abdication some two years later.
Finally, I ask so what? So, what that Napoleon’s continued rule might’ve ultimately bettered Europe society and with it the World. Instead he invaded Russia and it cost him everything. As humans in our daily lives we’re constantly asking ourselves what if? What if this or that happened. It’s human nature to wonder about the what ifs, and that carries handedly into History. It is imperative that we always wonder and ask what if? What if this went different? Where would the world be at?
This constant reevaluation of our past and how it will affect our present and out future is the very basis of History. It’s how us as Humankind learn from our mistakes to make a better future for ourselves and those who come after us. It matters not because it interesting to imagine a better world, but because asking ourselves what if and so what is the basis for improvement. It is the important first step to take down of path of betterment. You can’t improve yourself or reach your goals if you constantly make the same mistakes and never learn form them, so you must ask always yourself, what if?