ALL Europe seemed to strain back to its eighteenth-century divisions as Napoleon rushed over its snows and through its cities to fortify his shaken throne; every old boundary became a crack in the baseless edifice of alien power. The Milanese, mourning sons who had been called to serve Napoleon in Russia and had never returned, prepared to unseat the amiable Eugène, absent viceroy of an absent king; the Romans, fond of the patient Pope who was still languishing in Fontainebleau captivity, prayed for his return to his Apostolic See; Neapolitan princes and populace watched for the moment when the ambitious Murat, slipping on his ego, would fall before a Bourbon anointed and legitimate. Austria, dismembered by war and humiliated by a harsh peace, waited anxiously for Metternich to free it, by some diplomatic finesse, from its forced alliance with its traditional enemy. The confederated states along the Rhine dreamed of a prosperity that would not have to be paid for by the surrender of their sons to an alien and uncontrollable genius. Prussia, shorn of half its territory and resources by its ancient enemy now its unwelcome ally, saw its despoiler shattered by a colossal calamity: here at last was the opportunity long prayed for; now it remembered Fichte’s call, and heard the exiled Stein’s appeal, to throw out those French troops that were patrolling them, those French indemnity-collectors that were bleeding them, and to stand free and strong as under Frederick, and become a bastion for German liberty.
Behind these kindred rebellions lay the surprising news that Russia had not only defeated the supposedly invincible Corsican, had not only expelled the French army from her soil, but was pursuing it over the frontier into the grand duchy of Warsaw, and was calling upon the heartland of Europe to join her in a holy war to overthrow the usurper who had made France the agent of his Continental tyranny.
On December 18, 1812—the day on which the beaten Napoleon reached Paris—Alexander left St. Petersburg. On the 23 rd he reached Vilna, and shared with Kutuzov and his army in celebrating victory. That army too had suffered on the march that escorted and gnawed at the departing French; a hundred thousand men had died, fifty thousand had been wounded, fifty thousand had deserted or been lost.1 Alexander publicly praised their general, but privately questioned his leadership. “All he did against the enemy,” he told Sir Robert Wilson (if we may believe Sir Robert), “was what he could not help doing, being driven to it by the force of circumstances. He was victorious in spite of himself…. I will not leave the army anymore, because I do not want to abandon it to the dangers of such a command.”2 Nevertheless, he conferred upon the tired warrior the highest Russian military decoration—the Grand Cross of the Order of St. George.
Convinced, by the fulfillment of his predictions, that he was in some way divinely inspired, and that he might proceed with all the forces of Providence behind him, Alexander overruled the hesitations of his general, took on the supreme command of his united armies, and ordered them to march to the western frontier. Avoiding Kovno, which was opposite to still hostile Poland, he continued along the Niemen to Tauroggen, where General Johann Yorck von Wartenburg, commanding a force of Prussians, allowed the Russians to cross the river into East Prussia (December 30, 1812). Stein, who had accompanied Alexander from St. Petersburg, urged him to proceed in the expectation that the people of Prussia would welcome him. The Czar proclaimed amnesty to all Prussians who had fought against him, and called upon the King and the people of Prussia to join him in his crusade. Frederick William III, torn between the French Eagle and the Russian Bear, refused to approve of Yorck’s action, and withdrew from Berlin to Breslau. Alexander advanced across East Prussia, and was greeted joyfully by the people with shouts of “Long live Alexander! Long live the Cossacks! “3
Approaching the boundary between East Prussia and Poland, the Emperor sent a message to the Polish leaders, promising amnesty, a constitution, and a kingdom with the czar of Russia as king. Apparently by a secret understanding between Russia and Austria, Prince Karl Philipp von Schwarzenberg, commanding Austrian troops in Warsaw, withdrew them to Galicia. The Polish authorities came out to welcome Alexander, and on February 7, 1813, he entered the capital unchallenged. The “grand duchy of Warsaw” came to this early death, and Poland in its entirety became a dependency of Russia. Prussia had hoped to recover that part of Poland which she had possessed in 1795; Alexander hastened to assure Frederick William III that an acceptable equivalent would soon be found for his lost share. Meanwhile he again urged the King and people of Prussia to join him against Napoleon.
The Prussians had long been waiting for such a call. They were a proud people, still remembering Frederick. The spirit of nationalism had been intensified by the quick expansion of France and the successful uprising of Spain. The middle classes were hot in protest against the Continental Blockade and the high taxes levied to pay the French indemnity. The Christians of Prussia were fond of their churches and jealous of their creeds, but all sects distrusted Napoleon as a secret atheist, and united in condemning his treatment of the Pope. The Tugenbund, or Union of Virtue, appealed to all Germans to come together in defense of their common V aterland. The King of Prussia allowed his ministers to rebuild and expand the Prussian Army on the pretext of defending Prussia against Alexander’s invasion. The Russians had taken Marienburg in January; on March 11 they marched unresisted into Berlin. Forced to a decision, the peace-loving king, from Breslau, issued “An mein Volk” (To My People), on March 17, a moving call to rise in arms against Napoleon:
… Brandenburgers, Prussians, Silesians, Pomeranians, Lithuanians! You know what you have borne for the past seven years; you know the sad fate that awaits you if we do not bring this war to an honorable end. Think of the times gone by—of the great Elector, the great Frederick! Remember the blessings for which your forefathers fought under their leadership, and which they paid for with their blood—freedom of conscience, national honor, independence, commerce, industry, learning. Look at the great example of our powerful allies, the Russians; look at the Spaniards, the Portuguese. Witness the heroic Swiss, and the people of the Netherlands….
This is the final, the decisive struggle; upon it depends our independence, our prosperity, our existence. There are no other alternatives but an honorable peace or an heroic end….
We may confidently await the outcome. God and our own firm purpose will bring victory to our cause, and with it an assured and glorious peace, and the return of happier times.
All classes rose to the King’s call. The clergy—especially the Protestant-proclaimed a holy war against the infidel. Teachers—Fichte and Schleiermacher among them—dismissed their students, saying that the time called not for study but for action. Hegel remained above “the battle,” but Goethe gave his blessing to a regiment that saluted him in passing.4 Poets—Schenkendorf, Uhland, Rückert—put into verse the sentiments of King and people, or put their pens aside for muskets or swords; and some of them, like Theodor Körner, died in action. Ernst Moritz Arndt, returning from exile in Russia, helped to rouse and form the German spirit with his song “Was ist das Deutschen Vaterland?” In that “War of Liberation” a new Germany was born.
However, no nation, when its existence is at stake, can rely upon volunteers. So, on the day of his appeal to his people, Frederick William III ordered the conscription of all men between seventeen and forty years of age, and allowed no substitutes. When the spring of 1813 began, Prussia had 60,000 men trained and ready for service. Of the several armies that had come in from Russia some 50,000 men were fit for action. With these 110,000 troops5 Alexander and Frederick William entered upon the campaign that was to decide the fate of Napoleon and the structure of Europe.
They realized that this would not be enough, and they sought allies who could contribute men and funds. Austria for the time being chose to remain faithful to her alliance with France; she feared that she would be the first to be attacked if she joined the new coalition; and Francis II remembered that he had a daughter on the French throne. Prince Bernadotte had promised Alexander 30,000 men,6 but he had committed most of them to the conquest of Norway. England, as April ended, pledged two million pounds sterling to the new campaign. Prussia opened her ports to British goods, and soon these were coming in good quantity to storehouses on the Elbe.
Kutuzov died in Silesia on April 28, still advising the Russians to go home. Alexander summoned Barclay de Tolly to succeed Kutuzov in direct command of the Russian Army, but kept the supreme command himself. Now he set out to accomplish westward all that Napoleon had hoped to achieve eastward: to invade the enemy’s country, defeat his armies, capture his capital, force him to abdicate, and compel him to peace.