On the 25th June, in a meeting conducted on a raft in the middle of the River Niemen flowing through modern day Kaliningrad and Lithuania, Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I were negotiating a treaty that would redraw the map of Europe.
The main loser would be the monarch who was deliberately excluded from the peace talks. Frederick William III would have no bearing on the fate of Prussia following the Treaty of Tilsit. He was forced into the position of a powerless bystander as Prussia was forced to cede territory to Napoleon and Alexander. The majority of Prussia’s eastern territories gained by the partitioning of Poland were stripped to form Napoleon’s Grand Duchy of Warsaw while the rest was ceded to Russia. Prussian land west of the river Elbe was also ceded to form the Kingdom of Westphalia which would be led by Napoleon’s brother, Jerome Bonaparte.
In short, Prussia lost almost half of its territories. It was a humiliating experience. Prussia was a state that had consistently punched above its weight to be seen as a great power in Europe. With the stroke of a pen, this status ceased to exist.
Tsar Alexander I of Russia
The two new European entities; Westphalia and Grand Duchy of Warsaw, are interesting in their own right as French satellite states. Westphalia in particular is demonstrates Napoleon’s desire to make France’s dependencies politically compatible with France.
The new kingdom was given the first constitution in German history which modelled itself on French revolutionary principles. The kingdom itself was a patchwork of territories taken from various other states. It lacked the common cultural and religious traditions that one would expect from a kingdom. Holding Westphalia together was an efficient legal and administrative bureaucracy; lessons of which would persist long after Napoleon had left the scene.
The Grand Duchy of Warsaw was interesting as it rekindled the hope for Poles everywhere that there might one day be a Polish state. Prior to the Napoleonic Wars, Poland had been partitioned by the great powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia. The state no longer existed and the Polish people became ethnic minorities in their new nations. While the Grand Duchy of Warsaw was another puppet state formed by Napoleon to dominate Europe, it was hoped that he may one day resurrect the dead kingdom of Poland. These hopes are reflected in Polish enthusiasm in engaging with Napoleon’s wars. Of the half million men that Napoleon would lead into Russia, the second largest contingent of these soldiers were Polish.
The immediate consequences of Tilsit would be the change to the European balance of power. Russia would agree to join Napoleon’s continental system, a coalition of states ‘friendly’ to France aiming to prevent trade with Britain.
The Tsar would be compensated with expanding Russia at the expense of Sweden and the Ottoman Empire in Turkey. Britain’s only remaining ally at this point was Sweden which would be later abandoned.
When Russia eventually declared war on Sweden for Finnish territory in February 1808, Britain would not contest them on land. Indeed, Britain was isolated and without an ally of great power status.
The Two Emperors meeting at Tilsit
Tilsit can be seen as the high point of Napoleon’s political career.
His empire stretched from France to the borders of Russia. His great enemy in Britain was diplomatically isolated and subjected to an economic blockade from Europe. He had seemingly won.
But it is here where the seeds that would later grow into his demise were first planted. The harsh terms enforced on Prussia would ensure that were the opportunity to resist arise they would be one of the first to capitalise. The continental system itself would foster resentment against France. Russia in particular heavily relied on Britain for her economy. In hindsight, it was unsurprising that Russia would eventually open its ports to Britain and undermine the blockade.
Following Friedland, Napoleon seemed to be building a great empire but in reality it was just a house of cards.
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