Germany: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Rise of Germany

The Peace of Tilsit in 1807 marks the lowest point to which Germany fell. It was indeed very low. She lay under the heel of a conqueror who knew nothing of generous pity for a fallen foe. Her fields were wasted by war, her people ground down under a cruel load of taxes and contributions which were wrung from their poverty with merciless rigour. Some of the princes of the Empire were held down with firm hand by Napoleon; the others, a situation a thousand times more disgraceful, were in alliance with him and fought under his banners. From the great ones of the land no help could come. Whence did Germany gain the new strength that raised her from the dust? From her people.

Little by little there grew up in German hearts the feeling that though prince might war with prince, yet in both states the people were Germans and brothers, and had a common fatherland. There were patriots who spoke and wrote to this effect in the darkest days of Germany's despair, and their pamphlets were passed from hand to hand, and awoke a spirit of brotherhood among their fellow-countrymen.

In Prussia a number of able statesmen began a great work of reform in the state, and laboured to restore the land to a condition of prosperity. They took the army in hand above all, and strove to bring it into line with modern conditions, for little had been learned in the Prussian army since the days of Frederick the Great. It was they who formed the famous Landwehr, a levy of the people to defend their country. In Austria, too, ministers were busy with reform, and gradually the two great states gathered strength again.

Napoleon watched this slow growth of power with uneasy eyes, and outlawed Baron Stein, the chief minister of Prussia, who was compelled to fly the country. But Napoleon now had to give much attention to Spain, where the people had risen against the French, and were trying to drive out the king whom Napoleon had set over them, his own brother Joseph. The Spaniards were aided by an English army under Sir Arthur Wellesley, afterwards the Duke of Wellington, and Napoleon was forced to send large armies to oppose the great English general. To the Austrians this seemed a good chance to strike a blow for freedom, and they declared war on France early in 1809.

The Austrian government declared that they were fighting for German independence, and they called on every German to rise and throw off the French yoke. Throughout the Empire a great number of broadsheets were circulated among the people, calling upon them to show their ancient spirit. Here is the vigorous appeal of one of these publications: "Austria saw (and every German heart bled at the sight), she saw you sunk to such a depth of degradation as to submit like vassals to the laws of a foreign monarch, and beheld your sons dragged into the field to fight against their brethren. Germans! Austria calls on you to raise your degraded heads and burst your chains! How long shall Hermann mourn over his degenerate descendants? Does the clank of your fetters sound pleasantly in your ears? Awake, Germans! Awake from this death-slumber of infamy! Let not your name be a byword of generations yet unborn!"

But Germany had not yet awakened. The appeals were all in vain. The dread of Napoleon and the fear of his power was such that not a finger was lifted to help Austria, and she had to enter on the struggle single-handed. Nay, more, it was a German army, recruited along the Rhine, which Napoleon led against the Austrians. The latter fought most bravely, but were beaten, and for the second time Napoleon entered Vienna in triumph. He punished Austria by stripping her of much territory, and once more all was quiet save in the Tyrol. Here the brave mountaineers, led by a gallant man named Andreas Hofer, struggled hard against the French power, and won several victories. But in the end their resistance was broken and Hofer was captured. He was carried in chains to Mantua and there shot in 1810.

Napoleon continued to march on from victory to victory, and it seemed as if none could shake his authority. In Germany his power appeared absolute. He permitted no patriot to make any open sign of love for his country: to do so was branded as treason and severely punished. But though Germany seemed silent and dull in her despair, yet beneath the surface things were slowly moving, and there were the first faint stirrings of a national spirit which should one day flame up and fill all German hearts.

There became spread widely through the country a secret society called the League of Virtue. Its ranks were filled by statesmen, officers, professors, literary men, students, and citizens: its object was to arouse German national feeling, and unite all in the freeing and defense of their country. The poets of the movement wrote stirring songs full of patriotic feeling, songs which were sung everywhere in Germany, and literary men called attention to the glory of the land in past ages, and wrote of heroes and statesmen. Their writings were read eagerly, and the spirit of the people was roused by these pictures of other days when Germany was great and free.

At last there came a chance for these brave souls panting for freedom. Napoleon had set his heel on every great Power of the Continent save Russia. He resolved to subdue Russia to his arms, and in June 1812 he entered that country at the head of half a million troops. Men from all parts of Europe marched in this vast army: Prussia and Austria had been forced to supply many thousands of soldiers, and the Grand Army, as it was called, swept into the heart of Russia.

Napoleon's aim was Moscow, the ancient capital of the Russian Empire. He reached it without great resistance, for the Russians fell back before him, laying waste the country so that his troops went out in vain to forage. He found Moscow deserted, entered it, and took up winter quarters. But to his dismay Moscow was set on fire by its people, and in a short time Napoleon found himself faced by a heap of blackened ruins which could afford no shelter to his troops. Winter was near at hand, the army could not stay at Moscow, so there was nothing for Napoleon but to retire, and he began the terrible retreat from Moscow.

The sufferings of his troops on this awful march can hardly be pictured. The Russian winter fell upon them, with its iron frost, its driving snowstorms, and its piercing winds. The country was a desert, for the peasants had fled, taking all stores of food with them, and destroying every building where the famished, frozen troops could seek shelter. Worn out by hunger and cold, the men of the Grand Army fell by thousands, and upon these unhappy masses left in the rear of the retreating troops the Cossacks descended, to slay the dying and plunder the dead. Of all the magnificent army which entered Russia, only a few thousands of weak, weary men crept back over the frontier.

This fearful repulse was a shattering blow at the power of Napoleon. It filled with joy every heart which longed for his downfall, and nowhere did it have greater effect than in Germany. Every patriot hoped that the day of freedom was near, and when the King of Prussia declared war against France in March 1813, and called upon his people to rise in defense of the Fatherland, the response was wonderful.

The professor and the student left their books, the workman threw down his tools, the farmer rushed from his plough, the merchant from his office, the tradesman from his shop: all hastened to enroll themselves in the army of freedom. Those who could not fight gave their possessions to aid the national cause. Money, jewels, vessels of gold and silver were offered, and furniture, horses, cattle, clothing, anything and everything, were sold and the money poured into the treasury of the state. In a short time hundreds of thousands of German patriots were under arms, and the War of Liberation began.

On his side Napoleon collected a fresh army, but though its numbers were great, the new levies were, for the most part, raw boy's, young and poorly trained: he had left vast numbers of his former veterans beneath the Russian snows. Still he marched into Germany and beat the allied armies of Prussia and Russia in May 1813, and tried to win over Austria to his side. This attempt failed, and shortly Austria came into the field against him, and a last great struggle in Germany was joined.

palatine castle


During the autumn there were a number of minor battles in which the French were, as a rule, roughly handled, and the German volunteers distinguished themselves by their fury of onset and desperate courage in hand-to-hand conflicts. Then, on October 16, 1813, began the battle which broke Napoleon's power: the mighty three days' struggle at Leipzig. On the 16th things went well for the French, and Napoleon thought he had won another victory; on the 17th the famous Prussian general, Blucher, turned the tide of success against Napoleon; on the 18th he was routed horse and foot, and the next day he fled towards the Rhine. His power in Germany had been destroyed at a blow, and the land was free up to the right bank of the Rhine.

Prussia, Austria, and Russia now determined to make an end of Napoleon's authority. The King and the two Emperors did not feel safe as long as Napoleon ruled in France, and they entered the latter country on January 1, 1814. A proclamation was issued that they were not making war upon the French people, but upon Napoleon himself, whose ambition and love of war made him a danger to Europe. An English army under the Duke of Wellington also marched into France from Spain, and these combined foes were too powerful for the French nation, now weary of war, and worn out by the loss of vast numbers of their sons in the multitude of battles fought in the last twenty years.

Napoleon continued to struggle with his old skill, and there were a number of engagements before the allies entered Paris at the end of March 1814. Napoleon was now compelled to give up the throne and was exiled to the island of Elba. Peace was made, when Prussia was very angry upon finding that France was to be allowed to keep Alsace and Lorraine, but she was overruled by the other Powers.

A year later Napoleon escaped from Elba and entered France, where his old soldiers received him with joy, and gathered to fight for him once more. His triumph was short, for on June 18 he was defeated at Waterloo, and the allies now sent him into exile to a safer place, the lonely island of St. Helena in the Atlantic.

With the fall of the French Emperor Germany was free, and now she had to rearrange the states which had fallen into such confusion under the handling of Napoleon.