The French Revolution and Germany



The French Revolution of 1789-99 swept away monarchy in France and transformed life there forever. Fostered by discontent with social inequality and inspired by Enlightenment principles, this dynamic outburst of revolutionary zeal not only changed life for the French but also for all of Europe. The Age of Revolution transformed Europe, sweeping away the vestiges of the feudal system and bringing radical political, social, and economic change. Founded on progressive principles, the revolution descended into violence and oppression, sparking a generation of bloodshed on the Continent. Perhaps nowhere was more affected by these events than Germany, where the flames of revolution brought an end to a political system that had stood for 1,000 years: the Holy Roman Empire.

In the early years of the French Revolution, France’s neighbors, including German powers Austria and Prussia, proved reluctant to intervene. Despite his aristocratic distaste for insurrection, Emperor Leopold II took a cautious approach, hoping to turn the domestic disorder within France to his advantage in the old struggle between the Habsburgs and the French Crown. Meanwhile, eyeing the prospect of another partition of a hapless Poland, Prussia was distracted as well. By 1791, however, Leopold was growing increasingly concerned about the situation in France, not least because he was the brother of the French queen, Marie Antoinette (1755-93). In August of that year, Leopold approached Austria’s rival, Prussia, and the two German powers jointly issued the Declaration of Pillnitz. In this decree, Leopold and Friedrich Wilhelm II warned the revolutionaries in France of serious repercussions if they harmed the royal family. The Pillnitz decree, along with the agitation of French nobles within Germany who had fled their homeland, raised tensions between France’s revolutionary government and Austria to the boiling point.

The revolutionaries struck first, and in April 1792, the Revolutionary Assembly voted to declare war on Austria and began preparing for an invasion of the Austrian Netherlands. The French revolutionaries expected the Dutch to rise against their Habsburg overlords and embrace the spirit of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The armies of the revolution did not prove up to the task, however, since the radicals in France had purged its aristocratic officer corps, and discipline had broken down among the rank and fi le. Soon after taking the field, most of the French soldiers deserted. As the revolutionary government scrambled to rebuild its forces, an allied army commanded by the duke of Brunswick, and made up mostly of crack Prussian infantry, invaded France in June 1792. Quickly taking a series of French fortresses, including Verdun, the duke delivered the so-called Brunswick Manifesto to the revolutionary government. Instead of breaking the will of the revolutionaries, this ill-considered document, declaring that the allied forces intended to restore the French king and execute any rebels who resisted, actually endangered the royal family and rallied the French populace around the fragile new government.

On January 21, 1793, the revolutionaries executed Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and a rejuvenated revolutionary army took the field. The desperate French government relied upon mass conscription to raise a massive army, hoping to overwhelm the relatively small professional armies of their German adversaries. The execution of the French monarch prompted Spain and Portugal to join the alliance against France, and in February 1793, France declared war on Britain and the Dutch Republic. The stage was now set for a cataclysmic struggle that would transform Europe, known as the French Revolutionary Wars.

The ragtag French revolutionary armies found themselves outclassed again by their professional adversaries in the early campaigns of 1793, taking heavy losses and sparking revolts against the revolutionary government in the French countryside. However, by the end of the year, learning from these initial defeats, their massive conscript armies began to turn the tide, beating the allied armies, expelling them from French territory and bringing savage repression to the restive French provinces. In 1794, the French went on the offensive, and their troops invaded Italy and Spain and overran Belgium and the Rhineland. The following year, French armies conquered the Netherlands, installing a revolutionary regime called the Batavian Republic. The establishment of this puppet government prefigured their intrusion into German politics a decade later, under Napoléon. On the heels of this dramatic French victory, Portugal and Prussia withdrew from the alliance: The revolutionary government had averted collapse and safeguarded the borders of their new nation-state.

In 1796, the revolutionary armies launched a daring triple assault on Austria, weakened by the departure of Portugal and Prussia. Two French armies crossed the Rhine, and a third, under a young officer named Napoléon Bonaparte, moved through Italy. All three of these great armies had a single goal: to meet on Austrian soil and take Vienna, capital of the Habsburg emperors. After a string of victories in Germany, French forces advanced through Bavaria and into the Tyrol before being defeated by an Austrian army commanded by the able Archduke Charles (1771-1847). While these French armies had to withdraw over the Rhine, Napoléon’s forces fared much better in Italy, defeating Austrian armies there and besieging the city of Mantua. After the fall of Mantua, and the surrender of 18,000 Austrian troops, the Tyrol was open to Napoléon’s troops, and the Austrians sued for peace, signing a humiliating settlement. In the Treaty of Campo Formio, signed in October 1797, the Austrians handed over Belgium to the revolutionary government and recognized the French occupation of the Rhineland and northern Italy. Furthermore, France and Austria partitioned the territories of the Republic of Venice. While this treaty signaled the collapse of the First Coalition against France, it did not end hostilities for long, and the Austrians began gearing up for war again.

In 1798, Napoléon launched his quixotic Egyptian campaign, to the relief of the revolutionary government, which was happy to have the ambitious general far from the seat of power. In his absence, the French intervened in Switzerland, riven by political strife, and established another puppet government, known as the Helvetic Republic. The French annexed Geneva and turned on Rome, daring to depose Pope Pius VI (1717-99) before erecting a pro-French republic in the Eternal City. Anxiously watching these developments and fearing similar French intrusion into Germany, the Austrians joined a powerful Second Coalition against the revolutionary government in June 1798. The alliance included former allies Austria and Britain, joined by a new partner, imperial Russia. These allies attacked the French on several fronts in 1799.

In Italy, the Russians won several important victories, pushing the French forces back to the Alps. While the revolutionary armies fared better against the British in the Netherlands and the Russians in Switzerland, Archduke Charles’s Austrian forces in Germany quickly drove the French back across the Rhine. Things looked bleak for the revolutionary government of France, until internal squabbling among the allies caused the Russians to pull out of the Second Coalition. Meanwhile, at the end of 1799, Napoléon returned from his Egyptian debacle and launched a military coup, seizing power in France. Declaring himself First Consul, head of the French government, Napoléon immediately went on the offensive.

In 1800, French troops commanded by Napoléon himself reversed Austrian fortunes in Italy, defeating Habsburg forces at the Battle of Marengo and driving them back to the Austrian Alps. After another major French victory over the Austrians in Germany, at Hohenlinden, near Munich, Napoléon marched on Vienna. This reversal shattered the Second Coalition and forced the Habsburgs to capitulate once again. In the Treaty of Lunéville, signed in February 1801, the Austrians recognized French control of German territory to the Rhine and accepted the French client republics in the Netherlands and Italy. After the capitulation of the Austrians, the British were also forced to the peace table.


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