Napoleon's Grand Military and Diplomatic Strategy: Divide the Great Powers; Demonstrate Strength; Control Negotiations

To Talleyrand, the Emperor dictates a preliminary armistice agreement to include all the great powers, with Austria as mediator

"I alone could build an army equal to all of Europe.  It is not impossible that this will be how peace is made."


"To negotiate as you are fighting daily changes the state of things, and from this one cannot negotiate."

Napoleon's military and diplomatic strategy was offensive, quick and decisive. Like Caesar, he longed not only for political victory at home, but to send to Paris news of great foreign conquests. Numerous time he successfully maneuvered to divide a unified enemy and then picked each off individually. He used fear to impose peace, concluded treaties with countries who had seen his power, used the media to spread his message, and worked to prevent or split coalitions. He moved his armies faster than anyone had before. This is what he did when as a general, at the start of his rise, he took Italy, sending the Austrians packing and winning portions of northwest Europe besides.

This was the case in 1805 during the Third Coalition against him, when he defeated the bulk of the Austrian forces before the Russians could arrive, meaning he faced a weakened force at the Battle of Austerlitz.  This ended that coalition and in the process destoyred the 900-year old Holy Roman Empire. Although Franz II retained the title of Emperor of Austria, he abandoned the title of Holy Roman Emperor. As part of the peace, France received land in Bavaria (Germany) and  Italy. It was a massive victory, and  Napoleon was master of Europe. Following it up, in 1806, as a buffer between France and Prussia, the Confederation of the Rhine was created out of various states in western Germany. France was creeping closer to Prussia. 

"He would have to be completely blind to think France could be killed like a pheasant on the hunt, and that there would follow many military campaigns, which would drain money and moral.  Who knows this better than Austria [the reference is to Austria's defeat at Austerlitz]?"

Napoleon's dual mindset - confident, ego-driven yet practical - can be well seen by reflecting on the fact that although he felt he was destined to rule and could lay Europe at his feet, yet he felt his chances of victory were greatly undermined if he had to fight all three Continental powers at the same time, and thus always sought the ability to control the battlefield. 

The victory at Austerlitz dealt Austria a powerful blow, but it also awakened Prussia to the danger France could play as it moved closer and closer.  A new coalition, the Fourth, was formed in late 1806 with Prussia and Russia the largest Continental powers. Napoleon again succeeded in dividing the coalition, striking first at and defeating the Prussians at the battle of Jena-Auerstedt.  Napoleon then turned East and marched through Prussia and toward the Russian frontier, where he met Tsar Alexander's force at Eylau in East Prussia, today part of Russia.  Napoleon painted Eylau as a victory, but in reality it was more of a draw. The inconclusive result frustrated Napoleon's strategy that had brought him to power: create a grand vision, intimidate, fight, win conclusively, then extract favorable peace terms when the dust cleared.  In short, an inconclusive and major battle gave his enemies time to think and perhaps to regroup.  

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, better known simply as Talleyrand, was Napoleon's Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Alone among the French leaders, his career spanned uninterrupted from the Monarchy, through the Republic, Directory, Consulship and Empire, and then again Monarchy.  He endeared himself to and then outlived his superiors in nearly every case.  His dexterity as a diplomat is legendary, and his ability to survive massive and violent change have led many to conclude that his interest lay in what was best for France; others simply call him a self-interested servant of fortune. 

After his lightening victory over the Prussians in late 1806, Napoleon first entered Berlin, the Prussian capital, and then occupied Warsaw, among other parts of Prussia. There he sent Talleyrand to organize what would be the Duchy of Warsaw, where the French would maintain their headquarters during this period.  Here Talleyrand conducted the most complex and heated diplomacy of his Napoleonic career.  After Eylau, this meant keeping Austria out of the war and Russia isolated. The Russia threat was magnified by the fact that it was at war with the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), a weak military power. So a Russian victory in Turkey would afford it the chance to greatly increase its influence and power in the Mediterranean and Middle East, which were contra to France's interest. To Talleyrand, this also meant tempering Napoleon, whose impetuous policies might lead him make the situation worse.  Napoleon was the military might, but he lacked the finesse of Talleyrand.  However, Napoleon did not delegate.  He was his own country, his own Empire.  So his instructions to Talleyrand were meant to be carried out.  

In January 1807, the Austrian Baron de Vincent arrived in Warsaw. Vincent was acting as an emissary from his court, and served that purpose. But the French questioned him extensively, to the point where he was essentially debriefed on the situation in Vienna and Austrian intentions. He arrived just in time to see the draw at Eylau in mid-February.  This was no welcome scenario for Napoleon, who feared an Austrian entry into the war, which would divert him, give Russia an ally, create an additional front, and give Prussia time to re-assess the situation.  Napoleon chose to act, again to demonstrate power and divide the enemy.  On March 20, he wrote to Talleyrand, directing him to coyly propose to Austria that it might mediate peace between France and Russia. This scenario benefited first and foremost Napoleon, as France would retain the land it had already taken (which found the Grande Army on the doorstep of Russia), give Napoleon time to regroup, neutralize Prussia, and split Austria and Russia.  He held out as a lure to Vienna the dangers of Russian success in the war with Turkey, from which Austria as well as France would not benefit.  That same day, he sent an address to the Senate promising his peaceful intentions towards Prussia and announcing further military conscription for 1808.  He wrote Talleyrand a letter directing him to do one of three things relating to this message: either send it directly to Vienna, publish it in the newspapers in Prussia, and/or communicate it to allied ministers.  The letter also told Talleyrand to say that Prussia had only 8 million people, almost 3 million fewer than the generally accepted number.  His purpose in announcing peaceful intentions was to placate Prussia, but his underestimating the Prussian population to the Austrians was likely done to minimize in Austrian eyes the value of Prussia as a potential ally. Talleyrand was, however, not happy with the idea of printing the Prussian population as 8 million instead of 11, as the latter statistic was available and it might offend the Prussians to do so.

Simultaneously, Napoleon sent Antoine-Francois Andreossy to Vienna as his representative, and a businessman, named Mr. Otto, to gather lower level intelligence.  The latter told a tale of horror to the Emperor: Austria and Russia bent on alliance, further meetings, impending Austrian military involvement.  

Napoleon set about his triangulation.  His methods were Napoleonic, as only Napoleon would have done.  He brandished his sword and offered a seat at his table at the same time.  This was an epic of diplomacy at a crucial moment in the war, and failure could have sent him back to Paris.

On March 24, 1807, Talleyrand wrote to Napoleon saying that he had informed the Austrians, who had historic interests in Italy, of French military strength, and that "The Army of Italy is stronger than it has ever been, that 20,000 men from the conscription of 1807 were traversing the Alps to join it, etc…I told Mr. de Vincent all these things.  I also sent them, as you prescribed, to General Andreossy, and the court of Vienna will soon be informed."

Talleyrand had avoided enflaming the Prussians, now his neighbors, by not taking to the newspapers with the claim of Prussia's diminution.  Napoleon responded with this very letter, a masterpiece of Napoleon, demonstrating both his strengths and weaknesses, his prescience and his ego, and also showing how desperately he needed Austria sidelined.  He also shows his strategy of negotiation, using carrot and stick, even alluding in this letter to Austria's defeat at Austerlitz.  At the end is a very uncommon holograph Autograph Note, in which he instructs Talleyrand to wait for Austria's response to his suggestion of March 20 before proceeding.  He would not want his hand played prematurely.  Of great import, he insists his order be printed in the newspapers.  He was a master of propaganda and this served a purpose.  The Johann de Stadion mentioned by Napoleon was the anti-French Austrian foreign minister, hoping for a new trial of strength with France.

Letter with Autograph Note Signed, 4 pages, March 26, 1807, Osterode, to Talleyrand and addressing him by his title.  "Monsieur le Prince de Benevent, I have received your letter of the 24th at 4pm.  I attach no importance whatsoever to words '8 million.'  One could, after all, easily argue that Prussia has 11 million.  It seems to me simpler to take the initiative and have my message printed in the papers of Berlin and Warsaw and, in place of "8 millions," write "the peoples of Prussia.

"I have read with care Mr. Otto's dispatch of March 10.  He has written that among the influential men of the court of Vienna, the Archduke Charles is along in desiring peace.  That is absurd; there is certainly not a single Austrian general who is not on the side of peace, and neither an archduke.  The Duke of Teschen certainly desires peace, and so does the Prince of Lichtenstein; all those with something to lose desire peace.  Mr. Otto's report appears flawed at its base;  it is certain that neither the Archduke Palatin nor Prince Ferdinand are on the side of war.  

"Who are the men of influence?  Is one Mr. de Stadion?  He could not possibly be for war, for he would have to be completely blind to think France could be killed like a pheasant on the hunt, and that there would follow many military campaigns, which would drain money and moral.  Who knows this better than Austria [the reference is to Austria's defeat at Austerlitz]?  I see my last message and recent measures as a great incentive for peace for Austria. We must take great care that Mr. de Vincent does not alarm in his reports to Vienna and does not imply that I have any resentment against Austria.  

"We must continue to speak of an alliance with Austria, and Andreossy should speak to this end.  You should tell to Mr. de Vincent that, if Austria makes us a clear proposal to intervene in the negotiations, that we are prepared to accept.  This includes Turkey, because we believe that Austria has an equal interest as we do in not allowing that power to be sliced up.  Use this argument with Mr. de Vincent and find out if Austria will make a definitive proposition.  I am not ill-disposed to adopting the following arrangement: There will be a cease fire of 3 to 6 months, based on the current status quo, between the belligerent parties; Russian, Turkish, Prussian, English and French negotiators will meet in Vienna to work toward peace, under the mediation of Austria.  Mention this to M. de Vincent.  Only speak of "armistice," as it is in fact now, as a subsequent issue, but a necessary one; for to negotiate as you are fighting daily changes the state of things, and from this one cannot negotiate.  

"What I will win from this will be a likely establishment of peace; and it is true that I alone could build an army equal to all of Europe.  It is not impossible that this will be how peace is made.  And that I have already proposed to send the negotiators to Memel; that I agree today that they would meet in Vienna.  What more can I do?  That will keep Austria, and will show her my confidence, which cannot hurt.  On this, I pray God to keep you in His holy and worthy protection.  

In his own hand: "Before advancing these propositions, you must wait to hear back from M. de Vincent.  I write you in advance only for your guidance." This last line he included as a personal warning to Talleyrand.  France should know Austria's disposition before playing its hand, perhaps too early. This very letter, along with a history of the entire series of maneuvers, negotiations and discussions relating to France and Austria at this time, may be found in "The History of the Consulate and Empire of France Under Napoleon" by Adolphe Thiers. That work indicates that, at least initially, the Austrian Emperor responded positively to Napoleon's offer of his nation's mediation.

In the end Austria, still recovering from Austerlitz, did not join Russia.  Napoleon, rather than hope for mediation, seized the offensive, as was his preference, and defeated Russia at Friedland in June 1807; he then forced Prussia and Russia to sign the Treaties of Tilsit in July. The Fourth Coalition was over and Napoleon controlled an Empire across Europe, having soundly defeated every major power but England. 

Talleyrand, however, sensed after Tilsit that things would not go well in the end. He objected to the heavy handed treatment given to Austria and to Prussia. In August, he resigned his post and began secretly speaking to Napoleon's enemies.