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Timeline: Napoleon's Vast Empire (1809-1811)

Between 1809 and 1811, Napoleon's empire stood at its greatest extent. In 1809, Napoleon turned 40, and became concerned at his lack of an heir. Hoping that a younger woman would conceive more readily, he had his marriage to Josephine annulled and started looking for a suitably aristocratic second wife. Alexander I turned Napoleon's inquiries about his sister down, and Metternich stepped into the breach, offering Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria as a wife. (Ironically, Napoleon's marriage to Marie Louise, a Hapsburg, made him the nephew-in-law of Louis XVI, the king executed during the French Revolution. In 1811, the new empress gave birth to a son, Napoleon II, known as the "King of Rome". By 1810 to 1811, Napoleon's empire included nearly all of Europe except for the Balkans. It was comprised of an enlarged France (which had swallowed Belgium and Holland, parts of Germany, and the Italian coast all the way to Rome) and various puppet nations actually ruled by Napoleon or by a Bonaparte subservient to Napoleon. In addition to those lands he ruled over directly, Napoleon held alliances with Austria, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, and a greatly reduced Prussia. Essentially all of Europe was now "at war" with Britain, their resources and industry and populations being used to serve the French Empire. All of these states, from the Empire to the Napoleonic allies, participated in the Continental System.

Napoleon made use of his large family, appointing his brothers and sisters as royalty throughout Europe. When he ran out of family, he switched to more distant relatives and the servants he believed most faithful. For instance, when Napoleon had to transfer his brother Joseph from Naples to rule over Spain, he made one of his leading generals, Murat, into the King of Naples. He also made his stepson, Josephine's son, into the viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy.

Napoleon's takeovers all followed a similar script. First, his army would take a region over. Then, Napoleon would impose his powerful influence on a collaborationist government made up of locals friendly to France as they drafted a new constitution. Napoleon then might impose his direct ruler, or the rule of a family member, or leave the collaborationist government in place so long as it remained loyal to him.

With Napoleon now related to the king the Revolution overthrew (through his marriage to Marie-Louise), it seemed that France was moving full circle. This appearance was not merely symbolic: seeking loyal allies in France, Napoleon started making people who served him well into nobles. Within two decades of the French Revolution directed against aristocracy, a new aristocracy was coming into existence. Yet despite the creation of a new aristocracy in France, Napoleon's dominance of the European continent continued to spread the liberal ideal of the French Revolution throughout Europe. He did not believe that every country was a special situation that deserved unique treatment. Instead, he was a "universalist", believing that the same universal truths and laws applied exactly the same, everywhere. He therefore spread his system of laws, the Napoleonic Code, to all of the territories he controlled, with only minor changes from place to place. Although Napoleon brought conflict wherever he went, he also spread the idea of societies in which everyone was equal before the law, and where legal privileges for certain classes did not exist. Napoleon did what he could to end peasantry, although in Eastern Europe (for instance in Poland) peasantry seemed to continue even when it was legally outlawed, because the same people continued to own the land, and the same people continued to work it. It general, though, the Napoleonic Code was a dramatically modernizing force, bringing about social reform from its effects on modernizing of the Prussian bureaucracy into a meritocracy to its creation of the idea of the totally secular state. Napoleon even ended the Inquisition in Spain, perhaps a further reason for the proud, tradition-bound Spaniards to fight back ferociously in the Peninsular War.

In addition to his social and political reforms, Napoleon also spread the more rational metric system used in France after the Enlightenment, a major reason why it is used so widely there today. Britain, where Napoleon did not impose his system of laws and regulations, was slower in adopting the metric system. Bit by bit, Napoleon's armies carried parts of the French Revolution throughout Europe, provoking a kind of "Revolution without revolution" on the continent. All of this was done without concentration camps, and Fouche's secret police was almost entirely for spying, almost never for killing. As attempts to take over Europe go, Napoleon's can be seen as a fairly positive event in many ways. From 1807-1811, other than the continued threat posed by Britain, Napoleon's dream of a unified Europe, envisioned by poets and kings such as Dante and Charles V, appeared a distinct possibility.

It is important to note, however, that the process of making conquered peoples loyal to a foreign regime is not quite as easy as the above description may have made it sound. In fact, just as Napoleon's empire reached its greatest size his system of satellite kingdoms ruled by members of his family was beginning to crumble. Napoleon's displeasure at Louis Bonaparte's too independent behavior as king of Holland, especially in circumventing the Continental System, led to his deposition and the annexation of the kingdom to France in July 1810. His brother Joseph was merely a shadow king of Spain, where the tide of war ebbed and flowed between Napoleon's marshals on the one hand and British, Spanish, and Portuguese forces supported by Spanish guerillas on the other. Napoleon's military strategy had always been based on concentrating his own and the enemy's forces to his advantage and delivering a decisive blow, as at Austerlitz or Wagram. Such an approach was completely inapplicable in Spain, where even at the moments of greatest French power the rebels always held some territory, however little, and the guerillas could never be decisively subjugated. In fact, the military term guerilla was coined at this period (1809 is the word's first recorded usage) to describe the fighting style of the Spaniards who resisted the French occupation, for the word guerilla is the diminuitive of the Spanish word guerra, which means war.

Similarly, during the height of the Napoleon's empire nationalist sentiments emerged all over the continent, as people again desired the British goods the Continental System deprived them of, and became increasingly disgusted with Napoleon's egomania. (Though, as was mentioned above, the ruler's of European states nominally declared war on Britain much of public sentiment was more anti-French than anti-British.) In Britain, opposition to Napoleon (who was often referred to as "Old Boney") became almost a national religion. While the British lower classes were suffering due to highly exploitative working conditions, long hours at monotonous and dangerous jobs, and little job security during the Industrial Revolution and might have rebelled otherwise, the opposition to Napoleon's control of almost all of Western Europe greatly unified Britain and prevented such a rebellion from happening. While Britain was helped along a liberal path, Spanish resistance took the form of conservatism, as the Spanish fought to restore the old Bourbon family to the Spanish throne. In Germany (the Confederation of the Rhine and Prussia), hatred of Napoleon and the French also began to mount. The reaction against Napoleon was so great that many intellectuals started to reject French Enlightenment Rationalism in favor a new intellectual trend called "Romanticism." One German Romantic, Herder, contradicted the Enlightenment ideal that all nations progressed toward one goal. Rather, Herder claimed, each nation had its own particular "genius." Napoleon thus touched off a new school of thought in Germany. Furthermore, Napoleon showed the Germans the kind of power that could be achieved through a strong centralized state. Napoleon thus helped to inspire the previously loosely federated Germans to form a nation-state, which was created under Bismarck in 1871.

Two notable exceptions to the general rule that French dominance created local nationalism were Italy and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. The Italians, lacking a unified history and broken into several states under Napoleon, never developed a strong anti-Napoleon nationalist movement. The Poles were also quite happy with their new, restored state. Even if it wasn't really independent, at least they had a state, rather than being split up and controlled by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, which was what would likely happen if Napoleon hadn't been supporting the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.