Napoleonic Europe and the Post-Napoleonic Era for AP European History (page 2)

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Updated on Mar 4, 2011

Neoclassicism in Napoleonic France

During the reign of Napoleon, neoclassicism became the dominant architectural style in Europe. Napoleon's model for the reshaping of Europe into his own personal empire was the Roman Empire. Accordingly, he had the city of Paris redesigned to evoke the glory and power of ancient Rome. An early example of a building commissioned by Napoleon in the neoclassical style is the Temple of Glory, or La Madeleine (completed in 1829), a monument to the fallen soldiers of Napoleon's Great Army. Designed by the architect Pierre Alexandre Vignon, La Madeleine is a neoclassical monument in the style of a Greco-Roman Corinthian temple. The most famous example of neoclassical architecture executed in Napoleonic France is the Arc de Triomphe, commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 to honor those who fought for France in the Napoleonic Wars. Designed by Jean Francois Chalgrin, the neoclassical arch was built in the center of the Place de l'Étoile (now renamed the Place Charles de Gaulle) at the end of the Champs-Élysées. The arch serves as a sort of centerpiece for the Axe historique, a sequence of monuments that runs through the center of Paris.

Decline and Fall of Napoleon and His Empire

The decline and fall of Napoleon and his empire were due to a combination of flawed policies and growing resistance to his rule. The trade restrictions of the Continental System failed to weaken Britain, and succeeded instead in being a constant source of resentment amongst the conquered states of Europe. The British responded with a counterblockade that damaged French economy and engaged in a lively smuggling enterprise with the rest of Europe.

The combination of the restrictions of the Continental System and general resentment of French rule led to the growth of a new national spirit in many parts of Continental Europe.


In Spain, popular resistance to the rule of Napoleon's brother Joseph was immediate. There were demonstrations and riots in Madrid. The brutal repression with which Napoleon's troops met these demonstrations only stiffened opposition, the spirit of which was captured forever in Francisco de Goya's painting titled The Third of May, 1808, which depicts a French firing squad executing helpless Spanish protestors. Opposition to French domination grew into what has been called the first example of guerrilla warfare, as loosely organized pockets of opposition carried out raids throughout Spain in a sporadic and unpredictable way which the French could do little to prevent.


In Germany a new sense of nationalism grew in response to French domination. The sense of independence that was once a source of pride in the independent principalities and duchies was now perceived as a fatal weakness that had made Germany vulnerable to the French. In response, opposition forces in Germany began to work together, and many looked to Prussia for leadership. For its own part, Prussia quietly modernized its civil institutions and its army and waited for an opportunity.


In Russia, the competing ambitions of Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon led to renewed hostilities. In June of 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with a Grand Army of over 600,000 troops. The Russian army retreated, stripping towns of supplies and burning croplands as they went. In September, the Russian army turned on the tired and hungry French troops at Borodino, some 70 miles east of Moscow, and fought one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century. The Russians withdrew, opening the way to Moscow, but the French army lost over 40,000 men. On September 14, Napoleon led his army into Moscow to find that the Russians had deserted it and set it aflame. Napoleon reluctantly retreated, but it was too late. In November and December, the Russian winter and advancing Russian troops eventually finished off the Grand Army, undersupplied and too far from home. Nearly 500,000 French troops were lost in all; Napoleon abandoned them and dashed back to Paris.

Exile to Elba

News of the defeat of the Grand Army in Russia galvanized resistance to Napoleon's rule throughout Europe. Napoleon raised a new army, but it lacked the supplies and veterans lost in Russia. In October of 1813, a coalition of forces from Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Sweden defeated Napoleon's forces at Leipzig. In November, a combined force of British and Spanish troops crossed the Pyrenées into France and took Paris. The victorious coalition exiled Napoleon to the Island of Elba, off the coast of Italy.

The Battle of Waterloo

In 1815, Napoleon staged one last comeback, returning to France and raising one last army. He was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium by coalition forces led by the Duke of Wellington. Napoleon was finished. He was captured and imprisoned on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic where he died six years later.


In November of 1814, representatives from the four major powers that had combined to defeat Napoleon—Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria—met in Paris at a peace conference that has come to be known as the Congress of Vienna. Those representatives—Lord Castlereagh, Tsar Alexander I, Baron Hardenberg, and Prince Klemens von Metternich—were all conservative members of the aristocracy. Accordingly, the goal of the conference was to reestablish the foundations of aristocratic dominance that had been challenged by the French Revolution. They were guided by the twin principles of legitimacy and stability.

The concept of legitimacy dictated that all European territories should be returned to the control of the aristocratic house that governed before Napoleon had redrawn the map. But the concept of stability meant a restoration of a balance of power in Europe. Accordingly, the important elements of the resulting settlement contained both tradition and innovation. The important components of the settlement included:

  • the restoration of the monarchy in Spain under Ferdinand XVII
  • the restoration of the monarchy in France under Louis XVIII
  • the reconstitution of France inside borders that were nearly those of 1789
  • the ceding of parts of Saxony, Westphalia, and the Rhine to Prussia
  • the unification of the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and the Dutch Republic to form a single kingdom of the Netherlands under the House of Orange
  • the placing of the kingdoms of Lombardy and Venetia in Italy, and of the states in the German Confederation, under the control of Austria

In an attempt to secure the balance of power created by the Vienna Settlement, the leaders of Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Great Britain entered into a military alliance designed to make aggression by individual states or kingdoms impossible. The alliance, created in November of 1815, came to be known as the Concert of Europe, for the way in which it required important diplomatic decisions to be made by all four great powers "in concert" with one another. In 1818, France, having paid its war indemnities, joined the alliance.

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