May 9 1812: Napoleon Leaves Paris

On May 9, 1812, Napoleon left Saint-Cloud in Paris, with the Empress Marie-Louise and a large contingent of his Court, to join the Grand Army, which had been marching through the German states towards Poland, concentrating on the Vistula and the Niemen at the Russian border. Baron Fain wrote, "Never has a departure for the army looked more like a pleasure trip." Napoleon uncharacteristically had delayed his departure as if he was uncertain of what he was undertaking. On the border with Russia what the undertaking meant was clear. Napoleon had, through his orders and agents, set in motion the creation of the largest army ever assembled, up to that point in time, with 690,000 men. The objective of this massive army was the invasion and defeat of Russia. The question that haunts is why. 

With the benefit of hindsight we can see it as a fatal mistake leading to the unfolding of an almost preordained tragedy. Within a year, Napoleon will be in full retreat, his Grand Army decimated. Napoleon's exile to the Island of Elba will follow. The beginning of the end starts with the "pleasure trip" march out of Paris on the 9th of May, 1812. Still. Erase this knowledge of what is to happen. Can we understand why Napoleon chose to go to war with Russia? What follows is a preliminary and highly imperfect stab at this question, which I hope to revisit later.

The list of factors that led Napoleon to war are well known. I am not an expert in this area or any area really. However, France was still firmly under Napoleon's control despite a noticeable loss of support in French society and in the army. Economic troubles were beginning to be expressed on French streets.  On May 4 1812, the Duchess of Devonshire was writing to her son, Augustus Foster,  in Washington, "The accounts of riots in France are confirmed, I am told, and "Bread, Peace, or the head of the Tyrant" was stuck upon the Tuilleries". Great Britain continued to engage French forces on the Iberian Peninsula with slow and persistent success. Napoleon could probably see that war offered one solution to these problems. War had united the French in the past and could do so again. The invasion, in this light, was almost away to sidestep domestic troubles rather than to confront them. 

Internationally, Austria still threatened despite its feigned alliance with France. Towards the east the threats seem more imminent. Napoleon had caused Western Galicia to be taken from Austria and annexed it to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. This was a direct threat to Russia that led it to respond by arming itself.  Russia had also left the continental system and no longer felt bound to the blockade against Great Britain. Napoleon feared that this example would lead other countries to do the same. Napoleon spoke of the need "to throw back for two hundred years that inexorable threat of invasion from the north" alluding to ancient fears from the times of the Romans. His official declarations spoke of creating a new Polish state. In summary, Napoleon wished to reshape eastern Europe so that it could not ever again threaten France. In a more straightforward way, he wanted to assert a tighter control and coerce Russia into becoming an active ally against Britain.

Still, all of these reasons do not provide a satisfactory explanation for the invasion of Russia. Circumstances do not seem to force the invasion. What forced the invasion was Napoleon. His ability and need to impose his will on circumstances is what we are left with after we parse all the other factors. Napoleon went to war because he could. War had been the foundation of all he had been able to create for good and ill.  Napoleon was able to accomplish this because an armed French Revolution had created fissures that eventually brought down - but did not destroy - the ancien regimes of Europe. Napoleon was able to ride this turmoil to unprecedented power. Again, this does not explain what happened. Again, we are faced with the power of Napoleon. It is a greatness that has to be acknowledged, which is different from approval, which many confuse. 

Napoleon is responsible for horrific butchery on the battlefields of Europe but he also refashioned Europe in terms of its law and a political system that still shapes the contours of the Europe societies and states of today. Britain and Russia, in some ways, are still on the periphery of a Napoleonic continent. Walter Russell Mead makes a similar point in his brilliant post on Napoleon:
In teaching Napoleon to young grand strategists, I find that the first thing I have to do is to open their eyes to Napoleon’s enormous historical importance and continuing impact on our world today; the second is to help them grasp the sheer greatness and audacity of the man. They have to feel his accomplishment: how a poor young man from Corsica, who didn’t speak French well, wasn’t particularly handsome or witty or charming, who had no connections with the powerful and the rich made himself master first of France and then of half the world. That Napoleon was a great commander when given armies to lead is one thing; that he got himself into a position to command armies at all may be the more remarkable accomplishment of his career.
Napoleon's whole career is an unmatched example of barriers not simply being overcome but destroyed. In the invasion of Russia, we are close to the heart of the nihilistic will to conquer or ambition that animated Napoleon. The invasion of Russia was not required by the logic of circumstances or interests. There were simply no good or sufficient reasons for the invasion other than Napoleon wanted it. He believed that he could succeed, as he had in the past, and this was justification enough. Habits of a lifetime of war were not easily denied. Napoleon wanted - he needed - to conquer again. In one way, it was simple thuggery but a thuggery of a high order in terms of the level of organization. It is a thuggery that lays bare the core of one conception of politics. Adam Zamyoski notes that Napoleon seems to have sensed that he did not really have any good reasons for war with Russia. Zamoyski writes:  
To General Vandamme he gave a more perfunctory reason for going to war. "One way or another, I want to finish the thing,"he said, "as we are both getting old, my dear Vandamme, and I don't want to find myself in old age in a position in which people can kick me in the backside, so I am determined to bring things to a finish one way or the other." In effect he had assembled the greatest army the world had ever seen, with no defined purpose.
Napoleon was the purpose.


The quotations above are from Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812: Napoleon`s Fatal March (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), at 134 and 107 and Walter Russell Mead "Eagle Nests and Sheeple Stalls" in The American Interest found here. 

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