Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
27 chapters | 244 lessons
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Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
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.
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.
As a result, the major European states of the 19th century met at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, where the territorial lines of Europe were redrawn with the hope of creating a balance of power that would make future conquests such as that by the French Empire impossible. France, as the defeated party, was invited to the congress, but largely did not have a meaningful role in the proceedings, and as such received little from the congress. In fact, France was stripped by the congress of all the territories it had gained during the Napoleonic Wars and during the French Revolution. It also lost several possessions on the frontier with Germany to the new German Confederation.
France remained in this state for nearly a half century before it would again begin exchanging territory on its eastern border. France began regaining territory mainly due to its astute exploitation of European geopolitics. For example, in the 1850s and 1860s the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont was attempting to unify the entire Italian peninsula to create Italy. Sardinia-Piedmont faced substantial opposition in this effort from Austria, who controlled territory in what is today northern Italy. The French ruler, Napoleon III (the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), agreed to aid Italy against Austria, and in return France regained control of Savoy and Nice.
However, the creation of another nationalist state in Central Europe, Germany, caused France to lose territory. During the 1860s, Prussia was on its own mission to unite all German-speaking principalities, states, and territories (excluding Austria) into a pan-German state. According to Prussia, this included a territory in eastern France with many German-speaking inhabitants, Alsace-Lorraine.
As a result, Prussia invaded France in July 1870. France was heavily defeated and humiliated. Prussian forces were in Paris in less than a year, declaring the Prussian King the emperor of the new German Empire in France's own Palace of Versailles. As a result of the defeat, France lost Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, though it would regain the territory following World War I and it is still part of modern France.
French territory in the 19th century fluctuated more wildly than any other nation in Europe. Under Napoleon, France controlled virtually the entire European continent with the exception of Russia, as it conquered its enemies and forced treaties favorable to France upon those unwilling to fight. It lost this territory as quickly as it amassed it, however, after Napoleon's disastrous decision to invade Russia.
The Congress of Vienna subsequently stripped France of most of her territorial acquisitions, reducing the country to its 18th century borders. The growth of nationalist states in Central Europe would also affect France's 19th century borders, as its partnership with Italy allowed it to reacquire Savoy and Nice, and defeat in the Franco-Prussian war cost it Alsace-Lorraine for nearly a half-century.
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Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
27 chapters | 244 lessons