How a Friend’s Betrayal Led to the Downfall of Mighty Napoleon

The final betrayal that brought Napoleon I down.

The famous meeting between Napoleon I and Marquess Klemens von Metternich | Image Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

In 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte, the emperor of the French, won two crushing victories against the Austrians at Ulm and Austerlitz. In the treaty that followed, he carved up Austrian territory in Germany and Italy, adding it to France. Next, Napoleon wanted to make Austria a subordinate ally.

Such an alliance would bring him a diplomatic advantage, considering Austria enjoyed a high status in European politics. Napoleon I, while pursuing this strategy, requested a new Austrian ambassador to France: Prince Klemens von Metternich, who was the Austrian ambassador to the Prussian court in Berlin at the time.

Metternich was a brilliant man. He was a conservative politician, a fluent speaker of French, and a charmer to the ladies. At the time, he was 32 and came from one of the most illustrious families in Europe.

The presence of such a polished aristocrat added color to the imperial court. More importantly, winning over a man of such power would help Napoleon in his vision of making Austria a weak ally of the French.

The two first met in August 1806, when Metternich presented his credentials. Napoleon acted coolly. He was dressed well for the occasion, although he kept his hat on, which was considered rude. Metternich spoke briefly and ceremoniously.

After that, Napoleon began to discuss politics in a manner that made him look in command. He liked to stand up to talk to people while they remained seated, speaking less but to the point.

Napoleon did not want to give the impression of being some naive Corsican compared to the sophisticated and elegant Metternich. In the end, he was confident in having made the impression he wanted.

It was Napoleon’s plan to charm the prince, but it turned the other way around

Napoleon and Metternich had many similar meetings over the next few months. It was Napoleon’s plan to charm the prince.

However, the plan turned the other way around. Metternich listened attentively, commented appropriately, and even complimented Napoleon on his strategic insights.

In such moments, Napoleon would become very happy inside. He thought of Metternich as a man who could truly appreciate his genius and began to crave his presence, with their discussions of European politics becoming more and more frank. The two became friends of sorts.

Napoleon, being a good judge of character, had realized that Metternich had a weakness for women. He wanted to exploit this weakness by getting his sister, Caroline Murat, to have an affair with the prince. She would bring Napoleon important pieces of diplomatic gossip and tell him that the prince had come to respect him.

In turn, she also revealed to Metternich that Napoleon was not happy with his wife. Josephine was unable to bear him children, and Napoleon considered divorcing her. Metternich’s knowledge of these personal details did not offend Napoleon.

In 1809, Austria declared war on France. It wanted revenge for its embarrassing defeat at Austerlitz four years before. Napoleon welcomed this event. It gave him a chance to beat the Austrians still more soundly and completely than the last time. Without surprise, France emerged victorious, although the war was hard fought.

Napoleon imposed a humiliating peace settlement, annexing whole sections of the Austrian Empire. The terms of the settlement also included the disbandment of the Austrian military, restructuring of its government, and Napoleon’s friend Metternich being named the foreign minister.

Something surprising happened a few months later that caught Napoleon off guard but delighted him. The Austrian emperor offered him his eldest daughter, the archduchess Marie Louise, in marriage. Napoleon was aware that the Austrian aristocracy hated him.

The marriage proposal had to be Metternich’s work. Alliance by marriage with Austria would be a strategic tour de force, and Napoleon was very content to accept the offer. He first divorced Josephine and then married Marie Louise in 1810.

Dynastic legitimacy was crucial in the early 19th century.

Metternich accompanied the archduchess to Paris for the wedding. He now became closer to Napoleon, and their relationship became warmer than ever. Napoleon, by marrying the archduchess of Austria, became a member of one of Europe’s greatest families. Family was of great value to a Corsican. Dynastic legitimacy was crucial in the early 19th century.

Napoleon was not of royal lineage, and so this marriage brought him what he lacked as the emperor of France. He began opening up more than before when in conversation with Metternich. He was also quite pleased with his new empress, who showed him a keen political mind, letting her in on his plans for Empire in Europe.

In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia. At this juncture, Metternich requested him to form an army of 30,000 Austrian soldiers who would be at his disposal. In return, Napoleon would let Austria rebuild its military. Napoleon did not find the request to be harmful. He was bonded to Austria by marriage, and an Austrian army would only help him in the end.

However, the Russian invasion turned into a disaster several months later. Napoleon was forced to retreat, with his army decimated. Now, Metternich offered his services as a mediator between France and the other European powers.

Austria, due to its central position in European politics, had performed that task in the past, and in any case, Napoleon had little choice. He needed time to recover. Austria’s role as a mediator, even if it allowed it to reassert its independence, was unharmful, given Napoleon had little to fear from his in-laws.

By the spring of 1813, negotiations turned into a failure, and a new war was about to break out between a mighty coalition of Russia, Prussia, England, and Sweden, and France, which had only recently been devastated in Russia. The Austrian army had grown to a considerable size during this time.

It became vital for Napoleon to get his hands on this army, but fortunes seemed less favorable. His spies reported that Metternich had entered into a secret agreement with the coalition. This must have been shocking to Napoleon, who could not have suspected the Austrians to fight their own son-in-law. Yet, the spy report became official in a few weeks.

Austria would drop its mediating position and join the Allies unless France negotiated peace. It was unbelievable for Napoleon. He traveled all the way to Dresden to meet his friend Metternich. The meeting took place on 26th June. He was shocked the moment he saw the prince.

The air of friendliness had gone. Metternich, being cold as ever, informed him that France must accept a settlement that would reduce it to its natural boundaries. Austria would defend its interests and the stability of Europe.

Napoleon finally realized that Metternich had been playing him all along

Napoleon, at this moment, realized what had been going on for the past few years. Metternich had been playing him all along.

The marriage was only a means to achieve Austrian rearmament and independence. “So I have perpetrated a very stupid piece of folly in marrying an archduchess of Austria?” Napoleon said to Metternich. “Since Your Majesty desires to know my opinion,” Metternich replied, “I will candidly say that Napoleon, the conqueror, has made a mistake.”

Behind that elegant appearance and smiling face rested a clever and sinister mind. Metternich was a spy under the guise of a friend, which made him even more dangerous. Of course, he was an Austrian, and Austrian interests would always be his first priority. But he turned out astonishingly clever by reading Napoleon’s mind and character and using that to his advantage.

Metternich learned that for an ordinary Corsican, like Napoleon, family was of great value. The Austrian emperor, being of royal lineage, placed little importance on marriage and family. For him, the dynasty and its preservation were everything, and marriage was a mere tool to achieve that. He knew that there was no chance of defeating Napoleon on the battlefield, and crafting a political alliance with Napoleon through his daughter would benefit him the most. Metternich used it as a ploy to lure Napoleon and win his trust and support.

Napoleon refused to accept Metternich’s dictated peace, and Austria dropped its mediating position in favor of the Allies, going as far as becoming their de facto military leader. The coalition, under Austria’s leadership, defeated Napoleon in 1814 and exiled him to the island of Elba. A friend’s betrayal led to the downfall of one of the mightiest conquerors in history.

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