Territorial Developments in France: Losses & Acquisitions

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  • 0:02 19th-Century France
  • 0:35 Napoleon
  • 3:37 Congress of Vienna
  • 4:39 Italy and Germany
  • 6:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the wild fluctuations the borders of France experienced during the 19th century, from its European domination during the Napoleonic wars to its losses under the new German Empire.

19th-Century France

Have you ever played the card game War? It's pretty simple, really: you and your opponent each play a card, and the person with the higher ranking card gets to keep both cards. You do this over and over until one person is left with no cards. Some hands you win, other hands you lose, and the amount of cards you have can fluctuate wildly. In some ways, the card game War mimics the actual wars the French fought during the 19th century: some they won, others they lost, and the borders of France expanded and contracted enormously during the century.


The borders of France had begun to expand even before the beginning of the 19th century, growing beyond their traditional borders during the French Revolution in the final decade of the 18th century. As a result of the French Revolution's deposing of King Louis XVI, the revolutionary French government made enemies on all of its borders because Europe's other monarchs feared a successful revolution would tacitly undermine their own monarchies and possibly encourage insurrection in their own territories.

As such, various coalitions of European countries invaded France throughout the 1790s, though the invaders were repulsed each time. In the process, France also acquired additional territory on its eastern frontier as it beat back the invaders. For example, France occupied Savoy and Nice to the southeast, as well as the Austrian Netherlands (modern-day Belgium) and all German states west of the Rhine River.

This entire time, France proper was experiencing considerable political turmoil. The French Revolution of the 1790s, one of the more confusing time periods in all of history, saw various factions take power for weeks or months only to be violently overthrown and replaced. Public riots, whether over food, money, or other various accouterments, were also commonplace. Nonetheless, France maintained at least nominal control over its territorial gains, despite attacks and invasions by various coalitions of Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Spain, the Netherlands, and others.

French politics was only fully stabilized with the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte. By 1804, Napoleon, a diminutive French general turned politician, had declared himself emperor, and focused the full power of the French army and people on expanding French influence and the French Empire. Napoleon's armies marched across Europe, conquering all who lay before them, first in Italy, and then in Egypt and Germany, including defeating the greatest Central European military power of the day, Prussia.

At its greatest extent, the French Empire under Napoleon either controlled or had close control over allied regimes over nearly all of continental Europe, from the French homeland east to the Russian border and south into Italy and the northern Balkans. Spain, as well, was a satellite state of France.

Napoleon and his armies, however, were not infallible. Napoleon's summer 1812 invasion of Russia proved disastrous to his army and the French Empire. Russian forces largely retreated, drawing French forces deeper and deeper into Russia and leaving no food, shelter, or supplies behind that the French forces could use. With few actual victories, Napoleon was forced to retreat from Russia during the harsh Russian winter, in which disease, starvation, and hypothermia killed tens of thousands of French troops. French reverses against several nations continued the following year in Germany, and by 1814 the French government had tired of Napoleon. He was deposed and exiled in April 1814.

Congress of Vienna

Despite a brief period of a few months where Napoleon returned from exile, was popularly reinstalled as the emperor, and renewed the fight before being defeated and deposed again, the French Empire was well and truly dead. However, the vast expanses of territory and states the French Empire had conquered left many territorial questions for Europe to answer in the wake of Napoleon's final defeat.

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