Prussia Goes to War I

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Even before the fresh round of fighting broke out, it could be argued that Napoleon had committed a cardinal error in reorganizing Germany in a manner hostile to the interests of Austria or Prussia. But far more damaging were the events that followed in the course of the next twelve months. Not content with the challenge he was already mounting to Russia in the Balkans, Napoleon established a Polish state and thereby struck at the very heart of Russia’s pretensions to be a great European power. And in the Continent as a whole the emperor conscripted each and every one of its inhabitants into a great self-denying ordinance that sought to close its ports to British trade and in the end bankrupt London into surrender. As Fouché observes, this was a man who was giddy with triumph: ‘The delirium caused by the wonderful results of the Prussian campaign completed the intoxication of France . . . Napoleon believed himself the son of destiny, called to break every sceptre. Peace . . . was no longer thought of . . . The idea of destroying the power of England, the sole obstacle to universal monarchy, became his fixed resolve.’

The long-term consequences of these developments – in essence, a guarantee of further conflict and, more particularly, direct police action on the part of France – will be looked at in due course. What is of concern here is why Prussia should suddenly have opened hostilities on her own when a year earlier she could have done so in the company of a powerful coalition. In brief, Frederick William suddenly discovered the limits of Napoleon’s friendship. Trouble began with the very agreement that Haugwitz had signed with Napoleon after Austerlitz at Schönbrunn. In the first place, there was the issue of Prussia’s international obligations, for under the terms of the treaty of Basel of 1795 Prussia was actually a guarantor of Hanoverian independence. In the second there was Prussia’s neutrality, the latter’s restoration clearly being of the utmost importance. And in the third instance there was that of the future: if Hanover was to be taken over by Prussia, the British subsidies that might one day become necessary to Prussia would clearly not be forthcoming. Amidst much anger, then, Haugwitz was sent back to Napoleon to suggest a number of amendments to the treaty, one suggestion being that Hanover was not to be annexed but rather simply occupied and held as a bargaining counter that might be returned to its ruler in exchange for a variety of other territories at the end of the war. This, however, did no good at all. On the contrary, Haugwitz was confronted with terms that were even worse than before. Hanover would not only be Prussian, but Potsdam would now have to close her ports to Britain’s trade. Failure to accept these terms, it was hinted, would lead to war and, with Prussia in no condition to fight – for reasons of cost, the army had immediately been demobilized – on 9 March Frederick William ratified the new agreement and thereby, to all intents and purposes, declared war on Britain.

The consequences of this act were very serious. Hardly a shot was exchanged between the British and Prussians, but such was the loss of customs revenue that the state’s income fell by 25 per cent. As if this was not bad enough, Prussia also experienced a period of unparalleled humiliation. Thus, in July 1806 Napoleon organized his new Confederation of the Rhine without any reference to Prussia. To add insult to injury, the emperor suggested that Frederick William should form a confederation or even an empire of his own in northern Germany, while at the same time either inciting states that might have been involved in this scheme to reject the whole idea (Saxony and Hesse-Kassel) or making it clear that he would not evacuate them (Hamburg and Lübeck). Still worse, it then transpired that the abortive negotiations with the Talents had seen Napoleon offer to return Hanover to Britain. To the dismayed Frederick William, it really seemed that the end of Prussia was at hand, especially as there were persistent rumours of French troop movements to the south and west. As he wrote to Alexander I, ‘[Napoleon] intends to destroy me.’ On 9 August, then, the Prussian army was mobilized, and on 1 October this step was followed by an ultimatum calling for France to agree to withdraw all her forces from Germany by 8 October or face war. Even then some question remained whether Frederick William was really in earnest, however. There were certainly voices in Prussia calling for war, but the king himself was almost certainly bluffing. Such at least was the opinion of Ferdinand von Funck, a cavalry officer who became a close adviser of the King of Saxony in the wake of the battle of Jena:

All circumstances point clearly to the fact that Frederick William III . . . always cherished the secret hope that Napoleon would shirk a struggle with the erstwhile military prestige of Prussia, and, as soon as he saw things looking serious, negotiate for the repurchase of Prussian friendship either by the restoration of the Franconian provinces ceded in exchange for Hanover, or perhaps of the territories of Westphalia sold at the peace of Lunéville, or by the free-will offering of part of Saxony. By this means Frederick William would have silenced the malcontents in his own country by the prestige of fresh and cheap aggrandizement.

Also interesting here are the memoirs of General Muffling. Sent to join the staff of the Duke of Brunswick, Muffling discovered that the newly appointed Prussian commander-in-chief was anything but enthusiastic: ‘I found the duke, as generalissimo, uncertain about the political relations of Prussia with France and England, uncertain about the strength and position of the French corps d’armée in Germany, and without any fixed plan as to what should be done . . . He had accepted the command in order to prevent war.’

At this point it might be asked what intentions Napoleon had with regard to Prussia. Such was the manner in which Potsdam was goaded that it would be logical to assume that the emperor wanted war and was intent on its instigation. A new land campaign was by far the easiest means of winning fresh laurels and such a venture was all the more tempting in view of the presence of the grande armée in southern Germany (following the Austerlitz campaign, it had gone into cantonments along the river Main). At the same time there was also the issue of Potsdam’s flirtation with the Third Coalition, and the two issues together have certainly led some historians to argue that there was a blueprint for a march on Prussia. This, however, is almost certainly not the case. Intent on establishing the Confederation of the Rhine, the French ruler – at least in the short term – had no desire to destabilize the situation in Germany. According to Talleyrand, he was, as Frederick William hoped, afraid of Prussia. ‘It was not without secret uneasiness that the emperor went for the first time to measure his strength against [Prussia’s],’ wrote Talleyrand. ‘The ancient glory of the Prussian army imposed upon him.’ But this is most implausible. Much more to the point is the fact that he had other schemes on his mind – the conquest of Sicily; the dispatch of an army to Portugal to end British access to the vital port of Lisbon; and conceivably even a new attempt to invade England. As for Prussia, the reality seems rather to be that he regarded her not at all. There being no evidence whatsoever that Prussia would ever go to war, the emperor in consequence had no compunction about riding roughshod over her interests. To quote a letter the emperor wrote to Talleyrand on 12 September 1806, ‘The idea that Prussia could take me on single-handed is too absurd to merit discussion . . . She will go on acting as she has acted – arming today, disarming tomorrow, standing by, sword in hand, while the battle is fought, and then making terms with the victor.’ What we see, then, is a typical mixture of contempt and over-confidence. Napoleon did not want a fresh war in 1806, but at the same time he simply did not know what was required to keep the peace. Truly it was a most revealing moment.

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