Meetings that made history: Napoleon and The Erfurt Meeting

The political map of Europe in the early 19th century was dominated by the Napoleonic Wars – a series of conflicts between the French Empire led by Napoleon I and its allies against various European powers and coalitions.

Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s most famous military and political leader, had risen to prominence during the French Revolution between 1789 and 1799. After being appointed First Consul of France in 1799, at the age of 30, he had an increasingly powerful impact on the world around him.

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Conflict in Europe
After inheriting a nation in chaos, Napoleon managed to stabilise France’s finances, creating a strong bureaucracy and forming a well-trained army in a relatively short time. The series of conflicts known as the Napoleonic Wars began in 1803. Becoming Emperor of the French in 1804, Napoleon continued to wage war on his European neighbours.

Austria and Russia formed the Third Coalition in 1805 and went to war against France. This resulted in the French army defeating the allied Russo-Austrian army in December 1805 at Austerlitz – considered to be Napoleon’s greatest victory during his distinguished military career.

The Russian military and political leader, Alexander I, inherited the title Emperor of Russia in 1801, at the age of 24, after his father’s death. In charge of foreign policy, he changed Russia’s position in relation to France several times in the early years of the 19th century.

Initially, in October 1801, it appeared Russia and France might come to an understanding, as Alexander openly spoke of his admiration for Napoleon and the French institutions. However, the views of the new Russian leader soon changed, following a conversation with the Swiss political leader, Frédéric-César de La Harpe.

Freshly returned from a visit to Paris, La Harpe proclaimed Napoleon was “not a true patriot” – instead labelling him “the most famous tyrant the world has produced”. Alexander’s views changed and Russia’s diplomatic relations with France ended. Instead, Alexander decided he must curb Napoleon’s power.

Peace treaty plan
Alexander began to believe he was fulfilling a divine mission in opposing Napoleon – the man he now believed to be the “oppressor of Europe”. He instructed his special envoy in London, Niklolay Novosiltsov, to discuss Russia’s proposals for an international policy with the English Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger.

The proposals included a general treaty that would be the basis of a new relationship between member states, who would form the European Confederation. It was aimed at establishing new principles on the rights of the member nations.

An important policy, it played a key role in world affairs, eventually leading to these revolutionary times finally drawing to a close. Napoleon was said to be surprised by Alexander’s determined youthful ideology and decided to try and align France with Russia.

In 1805, Alexander joined Britain against Napoleon in the War of the Third Coalition. However, the Allied nations suffered massive defeats at the hands of the French in the battles of Friedland and Austerlitz.

Erfurt meeting
Over time, Napoleon became more determined to form an alliance with Russia to prevent the major power from continuing to wage war on France. This finally led to the famous Erfurt meeting between Napoleon and Alexander, between 27th September and 14th October 1808, in the German town of Erfurt, in Thüringen.

Both the French and Russian leaders were motivated by the changing face of politics in Europe and sought the summit to move forward into a changed Europe. This was also the first meeting of the heads of government from East and West Germany – described as a “congress of princes”. What most delegates didn’t know was that in July 1807, Alexander and Napoleon had made peace and formed a secret alliance.

They offered their respective mediation skills at the Erfurt meeting to re-establish general peace across Europe. Napoleon arrived at Erfurt surrounded by his most senior aides-de-camp, chamberlains and squires; as well as his top marshals.

Tsar Alexander arrived with similar pomp and ceremony, while a massive turnout of German kings and princes filled the court. As well as debating in the chamber, there was a field visit to the battlefield of Jena, in an effort to remind delegates why they were trying to find peace in Europe.

Meeting outcome
Napoleon pushed Alexander to declare himself as France’s ally and when the two leaders went their separate ways on 14th October, they appeared to have established a truce – albeit a somewhat uneasy one. Napoleon’s decision to trust his Russian ally appeared to be well-founded in the months after the meeting.

Although some of the Russian aristocracies were openly hostile to the alliance, Alexander kept his word. He continually referred to Napoleon in complimentary terms and appointed a new Foreign Affairs minister, Count Rumiantsov, to form Russia’s new policies.

Napoleon and Alexander wrote personal letters to each other and also exchanged expensive gifts as a sign of their allegiance to one another. Napoleon appointed a new ambassador, General Caulaincourt, to please the Russian Tsar.

Alexander knew and liked Caulaincourt, who had completed a placement in 1801 at the court of St Petersburg. Napoleon had appointed him as a means of giving Franco-Russian diplomacy a more personal touch.

Historical turning point
While some historians have labelled the famous Erfurt meeting as, “little more than a facade”, nonetheless it was an important event in European history.

Over time, Napoleon admitted the final political landscape resulting from the Erfurt meeting differed considerably from what he had envisaged earlier in 1808 and he was ultimately disappointed. It was also suggested that Alexander felt Napoleon had merely sounded him out, without really opening up to him.

Despite this, there was obvious respect between the two great military and political leaders and the meeting proved to be a turning point in European political relationships, as Napoleon and Alexander signed the Erfurt Convention, shaping Europe’s future.

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