The end of the House of Bonaparte

In order to know how a story ends, it is indispensable to understand the essence of how it began. The years leading up to the French Revolution were tumultuous. Deep in a financial crisis, King Louis XVI and his advisors attempted to implement a taxation system, which was highly ostracised. This, coupled with the American Revolutionary War, the Seven Years’ War, and years of bad harvest, the French monarchy was at its breaking point. An opportunistic Napoleon saw a chance to devise a political and social upheaval in France.

With the fall of the French monarchy, a republic was created, with Napoleon leading the way. It was during this time that Napoleon laid the foundation for the House of Bonaparte. In his early life, Napoleon was born into modest nobility, which afforded him the luxuries of his station. By 1784, Napoleon trained as an artillery officer, and upon graduation was commissioned a second lieutenant. Perhaps because of his accomplished military career, Napoleon successfully led a military campaign that saw the collapse of the Directory, a body that governed France after the Reign of Terror. Due to his popularity, Napoleon created the Consulate, which was later known as the First Empire.

Portrait of Napoleon in battle by French painter, Joseph Chabord in 1810. Portrait: Joseph Chabord (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

The French Revolution paved the way for modern France, along with the global advancement of republics and democracies. In order to secure his rule, Napoleon implemented regular electoral consultations, which helped silence radical democratic forces. Those first few years of Napoleon’s rule were tenuous, but he managed to stay in power.

Many assassination plots against Napoleon were uncovered, which allowed him to justify his expansion of power. The first step towards expansion came when Napoleon kidnapped the Duke of Enghien, and after a speedy trial, the Duke was executed. Imperialism was not without bloodshed. On 2 December 1804, Napoleon was made Emperor of the French, which was the result of an election for his newly proposed referendum. With roots that were planted in the French Revolution, it was at this time that the House of Bonaparte was created. Napoleon I, as he was known from there on, had officially transformed the French Republic into an empire.

During his many military victories, Napoleon managed to place members of his family on the thrones of nearby European power players. Some titles that were gained by war or alliance were: King of Holland, King of Spain, and the King of Italy to name a few. For a little over a decade, the House of Bonaparte was in a position of power but soon came to an end with the onset of the Napoleonic Wars. Pressure from neighbouring Prussia, the Bourbon Dynasty, Russia and the United Kingdom, contributed the collapse of the House of Bonaparte.

Napoleon signing his abdication in 1814. Portrait in Palace of Versailles. Portrait: Bildarchiv der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Herrick (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

After a period of restoration, a member of the Bonaparte family would again rule the French Empire. In 1852, Napoleon III created the Second French Empire and ruled as Emperor of France for eighteen years. By 1870, things were again tumultuous in Europe, which didn’t bode well for Napoleon III’s Second French Empire. The candidacy of Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen for the Spanish throne had triggered a wave of fear within the French regime. A French ambassador was used to put pressure on Prussian King William I because Napoleon III felt threatened by an alliance between Spain and Prussia. King William I would not budge on his decision, which left an infuriated French government ready to sign a declaration of war. On 19 July 1870, Napoleon III’s advisors convinced him that French forces could easily overtake the Prussian’s, but were perhaps too confident.

Minister President of Prussia (also the Chancellor of the North German Confederation and Foreign Minister of Prussia during this time), Otto von Bismarck, saw war with France as an opportunity to unify Prussia with southern German states. To the surprise of the French, German troops were efficient and ready for war, and by 2 September 1870, the French surrendered ending the reign of Napoleon III. Two days later, French resistance established a new regime called the Third Republic. After a short period of negotiations, war continued into the next year until Paris surrendered in January of 1871, which ended in the election of a French National Assembly.

The collapse of the House of Bonaparte had far-reaching consequences, many of which can still be felt today. Italian states were annexed by Papal forces, a German Empire was created, and of course a France was now under control of the French Third Republic. Germany’s annexation of French territories, along with Prussian influence over German states created a perfect environment for World War I. Modern European history was distinctly impacted by the imperialistic nature of the House of Bonaparte, making it hard to forget that it started with the brave ambition of Napoleon I.