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Leipzig: when the whole of Europe faces Napoleon


October 1813, just 200 years ago Napoleon was beaten in the battle of Leipzig, said "Battle of the Nations", the greatest clash of modern times until the First World War! In his latest work Walter Bruyère-Ostells, lecturer at Science-Po Aix, looks back on this key battle in the history of German nationalism.

The return of battle history

The historiographical movement of the Annales may well relativize the heuristic interest of Battle History, the latter has always known how to maintain its pool of readers while learning from the New History to increasingly integrate the shock itself, the event, in a larger context. Today, this new Battle History, which combines the movement of battalions and a broader context, has regained these letters of nobility and is the subject of a private collection at Éditions Tallandier. This collection, "History in Battles", is not unknown to you since Histoire Pour Tous presented you last year the book dedicated to the battle of Tannenberg by Sylvain Gouguenheim, that of Damien Baldin and Emmanuel Saint-Fulscien on Charleroy and finally that of Hélary on Courtrai. But many other clashes are treated: Hasting, Omaha Beach, the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbor, Alésia, Camerone, Dien Bien Phu and with regard to the Napoleonic battles Wagram and now Leipzig.
The author, Walter Bruyère-Ostells had already illustrated himself in the history of the Grande Armée with his book “La Grande Armée de la Liberté” (2009) in which he reviewed the post-imperial careers of army soldiers. Napoleonic. For this history of the battle of Leipzig the author relies on a serious bibliography made up of recent studies (Thierry Lentz, Marie-Pierre Rey, Natalie Petiteau ...) and numerous testimonies taken both from the French side and from the coalition and civil society.

A complete book on the subject

In just under 200 pages, the author carries out a rich and detailed study of the famous battle. The first chapter logically sets the geopolitical context which pushes Napoleon to confront the armies of Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sweden (and Saxony after the betrayal) here. The author looks back on the construction of the Empire and the Napoleonic "system", on the attempts to normalize relations with the old monarchies, on the contradictory expectations of the various protagonists, and finally on the disastrous Russian campaign which forced Napoleon to attempt a counter-attack during this campaign in Saxony which ended in the drama of Leipzig. The breakdown of the following chapters remains classic and effective: the prelude of Wachau, the battles of the 16th, the attempted armistice of the 17th, the resumption of hostilities on the 18th, the retreat, the calamitous state of the army which will have to defend the national border ...

The eighth chapter is particularly interesting, the author returns to the defection of the Saxons and tries to find the sources of it: the level at which the decision was made, the choice between different aspects of honor which clash, the critical situation of the Saxons at this time in the battle, the long history of German troops called to fight sometimes for, sometimes against Napoleon ... The defection of the Saxons, often decried by French memorialists, is here partly explained and integrated into a more vast number of desertions and defections (with, for example, a Baden regiment and a Wurtembergeois who did the same from the 17th). More broadly, the author dwells on the creation of an anti-French feeling in the Germanic space, justified by the levies and the occupation, but also instrumentalized by the Prussian and Austrian states which accentuate the taxation for their own. rearmament by putting all these new levies on the occupier's back ... An anti-French exacerbation also fueled by newspapers and secret societies or by philosophers and academics who form a Germanic youth exalted by nascent nationalism. However, as the author brilliantly shows, German nationalism is above all an intellectual and academic movement which ultimately hardly affects the mass of Germanic populations, unlike the image of the war of national liberation conveyed by the commemorations of the nineteenth century. On the one hand, the mass of the population is especially worried about this war which brings troops from all over Europe with their share of looting and abuses, and on the other the elites are reluctant to create armed popular movements that could be as dangerous for them as for the French ... Finally, that which for memorial reasons one nicknamed the “Battle of the Nations” remains above all a battle of princes aiming to avenge Austerlitz.

To conclude, we have here an excellent work on the Battle of Leipzig which is a good example of the new Battle History mixing pure tactical and strategic events, themselves embellished with numerous testimonies, with broader considerations on the context of the battle. and on the resulting memory reconstruction. It should also be noted, because this is not always the case in works of this format, that the book is illustrated with four very useful maps allowing the reader to find their way around the campaign of 1813, Leipzig and its battles. A wise choice of reading in this bicentennial period!

Walter Bruyère-Ostells, Leipzig 16-19 October 1813, Tallandier, 2013.


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