Germany: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Fall of Germany

Frederick the Great was followed by his nephew, Frederick William II (1786-1797). In this reign the kingdom of Poland was finally broken up and divided among Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Maria Theresa had died in 1780, and her son, Joseph II, was Emperor. The condition of the Empire was very weak. Around the great states, such as Prussia, Austria, and Bavaria, there was a welter of small principalities, each with its little prince and little court, and every princeling claiming to be as independent a ruler in his dominion as the King of Prussia or the Emperor of Austria in his. Many of these German princes were very despotic in their sway, and the helplessness of their people is shown by the fact that from some states men were sold in thousands to other nations who required soldiers. The English Government bought large numbers, and formed them into regiments of the English army.

Upon this state of affairs there burst in 1789 the great storm of the French Revolution, a movement which shook Europe to its centre, and had a tremendous effect on Germany. The people of France, lashed to fury by misgovernment, rose against their king and the French nobility, putting the latter to death wherever they could seize them. Many nobles fled into Germany, and begged the Emperor to send an army into France to restore the French monarchy.

In 1792 Austria and Prussia joined to assail the French, but the campaign proved a very feeble effort, and though the German troops entered France they were soon driven back. Their leader was the Duke of Brunswick, who issued a proclamation that the allies meant to replace Louis XVI of France on the throne, and would destroy Paris if any harm was done to the royal family. To this proclamation the French replied by cutting off the heads of the unfortunate Louis and his wife, Marie Antoinette, an Austrian princess and sister of the Emperor; they also established a republic. These doings alarmed the rulers of the neighbouring countries, and the German Empire, England, Holland, Spain, and Naples joined to crush France. At first the armies of France were beaten, but the whole country rose in arms, and vast forces were poured over the frontier to assail the nations of Europe.

In 1795 Prussia withdrew from the struggle and made peace with France. Austria fought on, and now there arose upon the scene the tremendous figure of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest captains of war that the world has ever known. He was a young officer of twenty-six when he was given the command of the French army in Italy. He soon subdued the north of Italy, and in 1797 he marched into Austria and forced the Emperor to make peace on terms favourable to France.

The Powers of Europe were very uneasy at these conquests of France, for every land seized was converted into a republic and added to the French possessions. In 1798 a fresh body of allies was formed to oppose the French, the chief Powers being England, Austria, and Russia. Prussia was asked to join, but she refused. Her new ruler, Frederick William III (1797-1840), thought that safety lay in keeping on good terms with France. In 1799 there was a great deal of fighting in Germany and Italy, and the French had by no means the best of it, but then Napoleon was not there. He had gone to the East and was fighting in Egypt, and he had dreams of conquering India. But all his plans were upset when Nelson destroyed his fleet at the Battle of the Nile, and Napoleon returned to France.

Frederick the Great


In 1799 he became the ruler of France under the title of the First Consul, and now he began the career which made him the master of the Continent. He attacked Italy and Germany and overran them, and Austria was overthrown. He forced the Emperor Francis II to agree to a treaty which rent the German Empire in pieces. The German states which had been friendly to France obtained the lion's share of the spoil which Napoleon had won. Most of the free Imperial cities lost their proud position and, together with a vast number of small principalities, were handed over to swell the territories of the princes who had aided France. Prussia was a great gainer. She received rich rewards for her desertion of the German cause, and her dominions were greatly extended at the expense of her neighbours.

Napoleon now did much as he pleased in Germany, and offered insult after insult to the German people by seizing a state or a town at his will. He became Emperor of the French in 1804, and in 1805 England formed a fresh league against him. Prussia still hung back, and Napoleon resolved to invade England. His hopes of doing this were crushed when Nelson made an end of his fleet at Trafalgar. Napoleon turned upon his enemies by land and met the Emperors of Austria and Russia at Austerlitz. Here, in a great battle, he utterly overthrew them, and both emperors had to accept peace on such terms as Napoleon dictated.

The next year he dealt the cause of German unity a last destroying blow. He formed the "Confederation of the Rhine," when sixteen German princes were given full sovereignty in their own states on the condition that they should assist Napoleon, and form a bulwark of France to the east. It was felt on all hands that the old German Empire was gone, and that the title of Emperor of Germany, passed on from ruler to ruler since the days of Charlemagne, was no more than an empty form. So the Emperor Francis II gave up the Imperial crown of Germany, and took the title of Emperor of Austria, a title which his family of Hapsburg retains to this day.

And now Prussia was to feel the weight of the conqueror's iron hand. She had stood aside from the cause of German freedom, she had accepted gifts from the hand of the man who was crushing her country and refusing Germans all liberty of speech or action, and now she was to fall in turn. Early in 1806 Frederick William III of Prussia was forced to conclude a treaty with Napoleon which brought about a state of war between England and Prussia, and England seized a great number of Prussian ships, Napoleon had begun to distrust Prussia and heaped such insults upon her that every citizen who loved his country was filled with patriotic anger.

None felt these insults more deeply than Louise, the brave and beautiful Queen of Prussia. She urged her husband to resist the tyrant, she roused her people; a call to arms rang through the land, and Prussia declared war upon France in the autumn of 1806. But the ill-trained and poorly led troops of Prussia were no match for Napoleon's splendid veterans. The great commander broke the Prussian armies in every direction, and such was the dread of his name that strong fortresses and large divisions of men surrendered without striking a single blow. Within a few weeks from the declaration of war he marched into Berlin in triumph, and occupied it as a conquered city.

Frederick III fled and sought to collect the shattered remnants of his forces. A Russian army came to his aid, and Napoleon met the allies in a terrible battle, where the victory remained uncertain after great numbers of men had fallen on both sides. But the next great battle was more dreadful still, for a German army marched from the Rhenish Confederation to assist Napoleon, and Germans sought to crush Germans at the side of the French conqueror. Frederick William and his friends were overthrown, and the next blow to Prussia was that her ally Russia deserted her and went over to Napoleon.

Unhappy Prussia was now beaten to the earth, and Napoleon had no mercy upon her. He imposed the most cruel and bitter terms, and she had no longer any strength with which to resist. Napoleon demanded that she should be stripped of a great part of her land, so that her dominions would be no larger than those ruled by the Great Elector; that she should pay a vast sum of money; and that she should maintain a French army until the great fine was paid.

Such terms as these meant that Prussia would lose her position among the Powers of Europe, and Queen Louise herself met Napoleon at Tilsit and begged him to be more generous to Prussia. She spoke in vain, and the Peace of Tilsit crushed her as well as her country. She died shortly afterwards, broken-hearted at the sight of misery which she could do nothing to soften.

Napoleon was now in the full enjoyment of power. He carved kingdoms out of Europe for his brothers and his chief followers, a large part of Prussia going to form a realm for his brother Jerome to govern, and his will was absolute from end to end of Germany.