Was Napoleon a Warmonger?

Was Napoleon a Warmonger?

Napoleon is famous for being one of history’s great generals and is often pointed at as being a notable example of a warmonger. But what does this mean? Is it true? A quick look at some definitions of the word show a warmonger to be one who advocates aggression to others and attempts or encourages war.

On the face of it that seems like a description that can be attributed to Napoleon, however when we dig a little deeper the picture can become a bit muddier.

If we take the definition of warmonger simply as being the aggressor then we can objectively look at how many conflicts were started by Napoleon and how many were started by the various coalitions against him. First we will look at the campaigns that I will attribute to Napoleon as an aggressor:

Napoleon as the Aggressor

Campaigns for the French Revolutionary Wars 1796-1799 

It is a bit hard to blame Napoleon for the outset of these wars as he was just a general and not in charge of the French State during this period. As such the foreign policy decisions of the French Revolutionary government cannot be placed solely at his feet as evidence of him being a warmonger.

On the flip side, both the Italian campaign of 1796-7 and the Egyptian campaign of 1798-99 were dreamed up by, planned for and executed by Napoleon.

First Italian Campaign 1796-7

Battle of Arcola

“The Road to Rivoli” by Martin Boycott-Browngives an excellent understanding of the situation in Italy and how Napoleon came to be the strategic planner for the activities taking place in that theatre.

By looking at correspondence for the period of 1794-5 when Napoleon was attached as a general of artillery to the Army of Italy we can see that he positively encouraged a much more aggressive action than the commander in chief at the time Schérer. His time in the Bureau Topographique also saw him undertaking some extensive planning for aggressive actions which he greatly advocated for the Italian campaign and which he would put into practice when he became its commander in chief.

So while Napoleon did not start the war of the First Coalition he certainly planned for an aggressive campaign in the Italian theatre which was at the time a relatively dormant part of the wider war.

Egyptian Campaign 1798-99

battle of the pyramids

For an in depth look at the origins and the actions of the Egyptian campaign I recommend a look at “Napoleon in Egypt” by Paul Strathern. On discussion here is the often brought up “Oriental Complex” that it is assumed that Napoleon had with suggestions that he wished to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great.

Whether or not this is true it is undeniable that Napoleon pushed for the Egyptian campaign, selling it as a way to strike further at British Colonies in India by using Egypt as a springboard. It would be way to put pressure on Britain and draw their navies and armies further apart.

Another reason discussed (and one which is probably true) is that Napoleon did not want to try and undertake an invasion of England which would most certainly fail. It would simply provide a hit to his reputation with no material benefit. As he was currently stationed with this invasion army it was expected that he would have to attempt this task. The Egyptian campaign can therefore be seen as way for Napoleon to extract himself from this and to win glory afield. It conveniently placed him far away from France when the Directory were having domestic troubles and allowed him to send back stories of French victories abroad.

Either way we look at the Egyptian campaign it is certainly an aggressive act against a country that had so far remained out of the French Revolutionary wars.

The War in Spain 1808 -1814

Peninsular war

You will notice there is now quite a jump between the Revolutionary wars and to the war in Spain which I attribute as Napoleon’s first proper aggressive war when he was in charge of the French State. A proper explanation as to the wars in between will be given in the sections further down.

Without a doubt this war was aggression on the part of Napoleon. Spain was an ally (although a very troublesome one from his point of view) and so can’t be seen to have provoked Napoleon into attacking them. Indeed the Spanish War comes across mainly as an act of opportunism on the part of Napoleon who wanted to replace the current ruling Spanish Royal Family with a Bonaparte and properly incorporate Spain into the Napoleonic Empire.

All of the subsequent death and destruction boils down to the fact that Napoleon believed he could usurp the Spanish throne and control it formally.

The Russian Campaign 1812

Russian Campaign 1812

Once again this is a campaign that we can directly link to Napoleon acting as the aggressor. He had reasons to do so of course and an excellent summary can be found in “Russia against Napoleon” by Dominic Lieven.

The reasons I will highlight are the rejection of a Russian princess to marry Napoleon after his divorce from Josephine, the lack of enforcement of the continental system and the non-intervention of Russian in the war of 1809. Both the continental system issue and the non-intervention in the war of 1809 were likely by themselves to have made up Napoleon’s mind about whether he saw Russian as an ally or enemy.

Nonetheless even though there were provocations on the Russian side it was Napoleon who finally took the step towards war – although it should be noted that Russia was preparing for it too.

Even though this seems like a clear cut case of warmongering I actually think this may be one of the weaker cases. Yes he did make the aggressive move, but it was not his first choice. There were plenty of diplomatic overtures towards Russia to try and avoid an unnecessary conflict, and while generally we can say Napoleon tended to dictate in diplomacy, the Russian case is in fact different.

There did seem to be a move towards a shared hegemony within Europe – Napoleon was willing to give Russia control of certain parts of Europe and was willing to unite the two dynasties to try and cement a long lasting peace.

The 100 Days Campaign

Battle of Waterloo 1815

This is a difficult campaign to place blame on and to decide if either side were warmongers. It is essentially a recommencement of the Sixth Coalition. Napoleon can be blamed for returning from exile and seizing the French Throne when he should have stayed on Elba but also he made offers of peace based on France’s original borders from before the Revolutionary Wars.

Interestingly this was offered to him during the Sixth Coalition campaign and was an offer he rejected because he believed he could still win. It is therefore not an outrageous offer to have made, however the allies were well past trying to negotiate with him and were unanimous in requiring Napoleon to go. In this case war was inevitable from the moment Napoleon escaped from Elba and seized France.

Napoleon may have misread the situation in Europe – the Congress of Vienna had seen the allies bickering and at some points ready for war which are well documented in the “Congress of Vienna”. From this background Napoleon would have believed that he could exploit the divisions that had arisen from the Congress and return France to dominance. In fact his return was the very thing that reunited the allies.

Because of this I lay the blame with Napoleon for forcing allies to fight against him, and indeed Napoleon was the aggressor in Belgium being the force that invaded that country which shows the signs of a warmonger.


The Allies as Warmongers

War of the Second Coalition 1799-1802

Battle of Marengo

The War of the First coalition is generally recognised as ending with the peace of Campo Formio – one which Napoleon has organized against the defeated Austrians after his first Italian Campaign.

The introduction of Austria again to war and of the Russians can in some ways be attributed to Napoleon’s actions such as the grab of extra territories not agreed at the preliminaries of Camp Formio and the aggressive actions taken in Malta on his way to the Egyptian campaign which were under the paternal watch of the Russian Tsar. Of course the likelihood was that, at least in the case of Austria, war would break out eventually as they wanted to be the dominant power in Italy so the war can’t be blamed solely on Napoleon’s actions.

The campaign was well underway while Napoleon was still in Egypt. In fact his return and grab for power was framed as an excuse to save France from her problems arising from the war.

That Napoleon was able to effectively plan and execute a win when France was losing the war before he arrived sealed his reputation as the saviour of France, and after the signing of the Treaty of Amiens a man of peace.

War of the Third Coalition 1803 – 1806

Battle of Austerlitz

There are plenty of reasons for the breakdown of the Treaty of Amiens and many point towards the behaviour of Napoleon and his attitude towards Britain on the continent. The argument is that by trying to push Britain out of continental affairs (so that France could dominate them) he simply made Britain an enemy that would strike when it could. This however does not make Napoleon a warmonger.

He could be charged with ruthlessly pursuing his own interests however so could Great Britain, in which case blame should lie with both of them. For this coalition it was Britain which declared war on France, and later Austria and Russia.

Again reasons can be laid at Napoleon’s feet which can be seen as provocative such as crowning himself king of Italy, an area which Austria had long claimed dominion and the dubious execution of Louis Antoine, Duke of Enghien which outraged the monarchies of Europe.

Nonetheless aggression falls to the Third Coalition, both in the form of Britain and Austria/Russia who initiated hostilities. It would have been likely that Austria would have ended up at war with France anyway due to French control of Italy and so we can’t lay much blame at Napoleon’s door for this war.

War of the Fourth Coalition 1806 – 1807

Fourth Coalition

As with the other coalitions Napoleon is hardly blameless for the outbreak of war. His overtures to Britain for a fresh peace in exchange for the return of Hanover angered the Prussians, as did the formation of the Confederation of the Rhine in West Germany.

These and some minor transgressions from the previous campaign would eventually lead to Prussia opening hostilities against Napoleon. The fact that Russia was still at war with France was also seen as a big plus.

If we are to blame Napoleon for this war however it would be because he disrespected the Imperial ambitions of Prussia in Germany. The fact that Prussia had been opposed to France in the Revolutionary Wars should give understanding as to why Napoleon was keen to isolate and weaken them. They were no ally. It would also be up to France what happened in French occupied land and not an outside power. Therefore the warmonger here would be the Prussians who wanted to secure their empire in Germany and force the French out.

This coalition ended with a substantial peace treaty with Russia at Tilsit in 1807. In this treaty Europe was split between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander (although Napoleon certainly had the lions share). Tilsit was expected to be an end permanently for the hostilities between Russia and France and future overtures to consolidate the alliance announced there were made to the Russians. These are not the actions of a warmonger.

War of the Fifth Coalition 1809 

Fifth coalition Wagram

This war was one mainly of opportunity on the part of Austria. They wished to avenge their recent defeats and recover lost territories. They decided to strike whilst the Grande Armée was embroiled in Spain, believing that they could catch the French off guard and make substantial progress before any kind of resistance could be offered.

The only blame that can be placed with Napoleon here was his successes in defeating Austria in the past which is not fair at all. The warmongers in this campaign were certainly the Austrians as they struck when they thought it was the most opportune moment and made no diplomatic overtures beforehand.

War of the Sixth Coalition 1813-14

Leipzig war of the sixth coalition

This campaign was simply a continuation of the campaign started in Russia. We can blame Napoleon for warmongering in Russia and by extension some people would blame Napoleon for these conflicts also.

I however lay the blame for war on the Prussians and the Austrians as they were supposedly French allies who defected at what they perceived to be opportune moments to defeat Napoleon. The Austrians deserve some credit as they were willing to support Napoleon somewhat in return for some concessions which Napoleon rejected. We can therefore blame Napoleon for forcing Austria to join the coalition although it is likely they wanted to have another shot at defeating him and the terms were deliberately not reasonable enough for Napoleon to accept.

Whilst the engagement of hostilities is certainly the fault of the allies in the Coalition it should not be forgotten that the theatres of war were in Spain and from Russia – two campaigns that Napoleon himself initiated and so the Sixth Coalition can be seen as an inevitable result of Napoleon warmongering in the past.

So was Napoleon a Warmonger?

Napoleon defeatedOverall it is a mixed bag for Napoleon. Whilst he certainly made his name and throne on the back of his many great victories that does not make him a warmonger. As we have seen many of the Coalition campaigns were in fact started by the allies and not Napoleon himself. That he managed to still win and defeat the allies made certain powers such as Austria and Prussia keep coming back for more to claim their revenge. If anything that makes the allies much more of warmongers.

We can point to the various peace treaties, especially Amiens and Tilsit as examples of Napoleon pushing for peace and trying to negotiate diplomatic solutions – again not the trait of a warmonger.

This however is still far too simplistic. The treaties mentioned above still sowed the seeds of future conflict as Napoleon viewed himself as conqueror declaring terms. After Amiens he tried to push the British out which would eventually lead to war and with Tilsit he tried to enforce the continental system on Russia which greatly damaged their economy.

These treaties were never going to last long unless further negotiations were made to make them more palatable which was something Napoleon did not do.

There were plenty of campaigns where Napoleon initiated the aggression, especially when he was a general in the Revolutionary Wars and in Spain and Russia. Perhaps however the fact that he returned from Elba in 1815 for one more roll of the dice shows most that he was a warmonger as rather than leaving Europe to peace he came back to raise an army and reassert himself onto the scene.

In conclusion I would say that he was not a warmonger just successful at war. Certainly he initiated it when it was in his interest to do so, however it was not always his first choice and there are plenty examples of treaties and diplomatic overtures made. It is often assumed that Napoleon began all the wars in the period that bear his name but this is not the case and if he is to bear the title of warmonger so must all of the major nations of Europe during this time period as they too made war when it was in their interests.


Recommended Reading

The Road To Rivoli:Napoleon’s First Campaign by Martin Boycott-Brown

Excellent work of study on the Italian campaign. Provides an extensive background to the beginnings of that campaign and the preparation that Napoleon undertook. A good look for those wondering if he was a warmonger as it shows his understanding of warfare in the region and how he used aggression to maximum effect.


Napoleon in Egypt: ‘The Greatest Glory’ by Paul Strathern

Another good read but this one particularly for the Egyptian campaign. Much like the recommendation above this work provides good background of Napoleon’s preparations and hints at the possible reasons for him wanting to undertake a campaign abroad.

Another good read for those researching whether Napoleon was a warmonger.


Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 by Dominic Lieven

Focusing on the relationship between Napoleon and Russia, this work by Lieven gives a good understanding of the signing of the Treaty of Tilsit and the reasons for its eventual breakdown.

The work is extremely detailed as it is focused solely on the Russian relationship and so is an excellent book for those trying to understand why war broke out in 1812.

Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 by Charles Esdaile

This book provides an excellent look at the Napoleonic Wars from a broad general viewpoint and gives a good look at the international aspect of the conflicts.

Relations with countries such as Latin America and the United States are covered and so give an interesting perspective on Napoleon’s behavior from a more global perspective.


The War of Wars: The Epic Struggle Between Britain and France: 1789-1815 by Robert Harvey

This book is useful for understanding much of the British perspective in the wars against Napoleon. It is strong on issues revolving around the Peninsular War and can provide good perspective on the breakdown after Amiens and on Napoleon’s actions in Spain.

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