The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

The Battle of the Three Emperors and the End of the Holy Roman Empire

Napoleon (1769-1821) was made General at the age of twenty-four. At the time, no one suspected the genius and the gigantic ambition of the man who would dazzle the world as no one had since the time of Alexander the Great. When Napoleon was given the Army of Italy, his task was fairly modest, i.e., to distract the enemy while the main part of the French Army was advancing towards the Austrian Empire. No one expected very much from Napoleon’s soldiers, who hadn’t received their salaries in months and were ill-equipped. A month later Napoleon had taken the initiative and his men were winning one battle after another, driving the Austrians out of Italy. The famous crossing of the Alps (1800), memorized in Jacques-Louis David’s painting (in five versions, one of which is at the Belvedere in Vienna) was part of the same campaign of eliminating Habsburg power in Italy.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, 1803 version, Belvedere Palace, Vienna

Like any propaganda work, David’s painting departs somewhat from the truth. The crossing took place in exceptionally fine weather rather than the snow blizzard that we see, while Napoleon was mounted on a mule rather than the fiery steed in David. Since the main point was to draw a parallel with the historic crossings of the Alps of Hannibal and Charlemagne, one can appreciate that picturing a short man sitting on a mule, almost lulled to sleep in the sunshine, wouldn’t do.

Just a few years later Napoleon, already an Emperor, won, against the combined Austrian and Russian forces, what is probably the greatest battle of his career – the Battle of Austerlitz (1805). The meteoric rise of Napoleon and the stunning victories of the Grande Armée took place at the expense of the Austrian Empire. Why were the Austrians failing so miserably and why was Napoleon so successful?

Interview between Napoleon and Francis II by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1812, Versaille

A contemporary said that just the presence of Napoleon on the field of battle was worth 50 000 men. Now, we cannot assess how this would have compared to the effect of the Austrian Emperor on his troops simply because he was never there. In fact, the Battle of Austerlitz is somewhat confusingly known as the “Battle of the Three Emperors.” Francis II of Austria wasn’t there, while Alexander, the Russian Tsar, unfortunately for his allies, was. The Russian autocrat fancies himself a military strategist – among many other things – and so his contribution to the Battle was to override the recommendations of General Kutuzov, who seemed to have been the only one who saw through Napoleon’s plan.

Rather appropriately, one of the outcomes of the battle was that Napoleon forced Francis II to renounce his empty and now glaringly undeserved title of Holy Roman Emperor. Voltaire (1694-1778), the French philosopher of the Enlightenment, had famously said that the Holy Roman Empire was neither “holy,” nor “Roman,” nor “Empire.” Strictly speaking, this was quite true. The idea of translatio imperii reflected the claim that the power of the Holy Roman Emperor derived ultimately from the emperors of ancient Rome, but, in fact, he had very limited power over the hundreds of kingdoms, duchies, etc. that constituted the empire. The ambition to dominate the Papacy – which is where “holy” came into – most certainly came to nothing. Yet, the Austrian Habsburgs had held the title uninterruptedly since the sixteenth century and it was a great blow to their prestige when they were forced to give it up.

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