The fall of Napoleon III

Sedan - The old wives' tale

Many people point to the Battle of Sedan in explaining Napoleon III's downfall. However, one such event cannot fully explain such a complex occurrence, especially the fall of a regime. Most certainly Sedan proved a starting point for Napoleon’s downfall, but how could such a popular man be removed from power by a single military defeat? The answer is that there had to be other circumstances in place at the time.

  • The seizing of Paris by Republicans ensured that power was removed from Napoleon, which in turn happened partly because of Napoleon’s liberalisation in the late 1860’s.
  • Relaxing press laws and new powers to the legislative chamber emboldened Republicans who were centred in the cities and towns, including Paris.

So a major defeat at Sedan for the Napoleonic regime was enough to prompt them to seize the administrative centre of France. With Paris, France fell too. Finally, the Bonaparte followers were too disorganised to regain control – Napoleon III had been the leader and no one could really follow him. So Sedan was the spark that lit the fire, but the only reason that Napoleon fell was that there were many logs on the fire.

After the battle of Sedan, Bismarck placed Louis Napoleon under house arrest in Prussia. Though he was absent from France and unable to control it, he was kept in captivity for only a while. Therefore why did he not return to France and become Emperor after he had been released?

Napoleon believed in reform (he believed that his uncle had always intended to make reform and liberalise), even though he led a dictatorship of sorts. He reformed not out of fear or pressure but because he wanted to. So by the late 1860s, he made a series of moderate but significant, liberalising reforms. The press gained greater freedom to print what they wanted to and by 1870, the legislative chamber had far greater power than before, including the right to initiate legislation and to bring ministers before the assembled members.

One might have thought that these reforms would satisfy Republicans and those others who opposed his regime. However the reverse happened. Though Louis Napoleon still regained huge powers, including powers to appoint ministers and control of the French army, his opponents became more and more confident, expressing their dislike of the regime more and more publicly, through the papers and in the legislative chamber.

The military defeat at Sedan was what was needed to inflict a political defeat on Louis Napoleon. Paris was undeniably the centre of France, so if it fell so would the whole country. Louis Napoleon had taken Paris and France in 1852 with the confusion in Paris.

The same happened in 1870. Louis Napoleon enjoyed a large majority among Frenchmen, shown by huge votes in his favour for a number of plebiscites he held, but this was mainly in the countryside. Though the opposition had relatively few supporters in comparison, they held the balance of power in the 22 largest towns and cities across France. Paris elected no Bonaparte deputies to the chamber after 1857.

A higher political awareness than most French and poor rises in wages compared to the cost of living, provided the motivation to seize control. Ordinarily, they would have been resisted by the State, but no one knew who was in control after Napoleon was captured at Sedan. There was no clear successor to the leadership and so the State was disorganised and unable to stop the Republicans and their allies.

Taking one city also should not have been enough to take the country. However it was the centre of French administration and government – nowhere else could control France. So a union of Republicans and other opposition groups defeated Napoleon politically. They were able to use the confusion caused by the capture of the French leader and the subsequent power vacuum that was formed, to seize power, emboldened over recent years by some liberalisation, which gave them the ability to voice their opinions and gain support amongst dissatisfied urban workers (and others who suffered under the 2nd Empire). Taking the capital brought the nation under their control. Yet is this enough to completely explain Louis Napoleon’s fall from power?

There is no politics, only civility

Louis Napoleon could have hoped for foreign help at one time in returning to power.

  • He had a natural ally in Britain, who was the most liberal of all the other Great Powers. France had helped her during the Crimean War to defeat Russia.
  • Then there was Italy, who she had helped create by supporting Piedmont’s war against Austria. Perhaps the Pope might have called for Catholic nations to help Napoleon – he was a Catholic himself and a supporter of the faith.
  • Finally, there was Russia, who had allied with France as a revisionist power to revoke the Treaty of Paris.

However by 1870, France found herself isolated and without anyone willing coming to Louis Napoleon’s rescue, due to his own diplomatic shortcomings and his weak character that let him be influenced by those whose advice he should have ignored.

Britain had been friendly towards France for a long time. Their “liberal alliance” had endured for a long time, even through Napoleon’s seizing of power in 1852. However a series of events made Britain distance herself from her old ally.

Even as early as a year after the Crimean War ended, Britain was becoming suspicious of France’s foreign policy. She was making overtures to Russia about making an alliance, as they were both revisionist nations trying to overturn their respective treaties. Britain did not want a change in the status quo and would resist a serious attempt to do so.

French intervention in the Italian peninsula in 1859 and 1860 could only further Britain’s scepticism. Indeed fighting against one of the Great Powers served to make Britain think that Louis Napoleon was becoming more and more like his uncle – a warmonger who would bring an end to hard-fought peace in Europe, especially if he was looking for influence in areas in which France had not done so before (i.e. Italy not in their sphere of influence, like Spain). He seemed to be looking to increase his influence, thereby increasing his power.

This view was exasperated by Louis Napoleon’s intervention in Mexico. Though Britain herself had landed there to restore debt repayments, France stayed behind after others had left. She subsequently tried to impose a new ruler on Mexico, attempting to crush any resistance. Such intervention was very suspicious from Britannia’s understanding. It seemed interesting that such a nation was neighbour to the United States, who was the neighbour of Canada. Though America was no longer British, Great Britain would hardly want France to start building a new centre of power that could challenge the Anglo-Saxon states in the North and make her more powerful.

Napoleon could have reassured Britain or pursued his policies with more subtlety but his diplomatic ineptitude meant that he lost a powerful ally.

What about Russia? An alliance from 1857 with a nation as powerful as Russia could only help France. However Napoleon managed to alienate even another revisionist power, again by his indecisiveness and diplomatic failings. In 1863, there was a revolution in Poland against Russian control. Louis Napoleon was a liberal and nationalist at heart, so he supported the Poles and protested strongly to the Tsar. Such a protest did little to help the Poles but served to break the tie between France and Russia (it also made Britain wonder what the French motivation was).

In one stroke, Napoleon’s conflicting ideals and interests landed him with a failed alliance and nothing gained for the Poles. The Pope and Italy were alienated at the same time when the Papal States were swallowed up by a newly formed Italy, though Rome and a little land remained under Papal control. The Pope was angry that his land had almost totally been taken away from him, even though he had a French garrison to protect him. He was further annoyed when the garrison was withdrew during the Franco-Prussian War. Italy’s grievance was that she had been denied a historic city as her capital.

So by 1870, Louis Napoleon found himself diplomatically isolated. His contrary ideals and awful diplomatic skills meant that he lost good allies needlessly, rather than use some wisdom and rectify the problem (or make sure that he never got into such predicaments in the first place). If he had retained some friends and allies, perhaps he would have been able to negotiate a peace with Prussia, or regain control of France. As it was, he was left alone to his fate.

Napoleon falls

Louis Napoleon’s fall from power was due to his own ineptitudes and weak character. The Battle of Sedan played a significant role in bringing Napoleon down but not the only one. It provided a chance for Republicans and other dissatisfied people to seize Paris and therefore the country, having been encouraged to oppose Napoleon by his own liberal reforms.

They were able to cement their control because there was no clear leader to replace Napoleon. More time was probably spent fighting each other for control rather than the Republicans. The means was there to crush them but not the leadership.

Napoleon himself spent a relatively short time in captivity but was unable to regain control because no nation was willing to help him, even when he had been allies with them before. The verdict that Sedan cannot fully explain Napoleon’s demise is completely accurate. The military defeat was a big part in his fall but not the only reason for it.

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