Ernst Reventlow,
The Vampire of the Continent

Chapter VI
The Great Harvest
The Napoleonic Wars

German historians generally place the military aspects of the Napoleonic wars so prominently in the foreground, that the economic aspects of these wars are entirely overlooked. The Continental Blockade established by Napoleon is considered as the only event of economic importance. The truth is, however, that the military events were, to a much larger extent than is generally supposed, determined by economic causes. Peez and Dehn have reproduced an utterance of Lord Granville’s, which the latter made in 1800 to the effect that Napoleon would derive from peace considerable advantages to the commerce, trade, and manufactures of the republic, whilst England would be left merely in its present situation. The noble Lord should have added that the future prospects for England’s commerce and industry would have been considerably less rosy, had peace been maintained. Even Continental war — as we have seen again and again — filled English barns and purses alike. But as soon as peace returned, Europe recovered some of its strength, and endeavored to satisfy its own wants by means of its own efforts.

France was immoral and criminal enough to flourish thanks to the protection afforded by her tariff! Napoleon did not fulfil England’s hope, that France would conclude with her neighbor at the other side of the Channel a treaty of commerce profitable solely to the latter. In general, Napoleon did not manifest the intention of placing his country in the service of Albion. The English waxed terribly indignant at such impertinence; and the entire nation was agreed that the power and wealth of the immoral French people must under all circumstances be broken. The most sacred rights of the Chosen People were menaced; and this implied, of course, that the liberties of Europe were jeopardised. Noble England wished to “save Europe from Napoleon.” Needless to say she wanted no recompense — nay, she would even give of her own money for the purpose, in order to induce as many European nations as possible to participate in her glorious fight for liberty. The states which remained neutral sinned against Europe; and England was obviously fulfilling the behests of Providence in destroying their shipping and their industry. The time was past, when there was any reason to fear “armed neutrality.” The English fleets ruled the seas, and blockaded the French and Spanish coasts — in fact, they blockaded, directly or indirectly, the entire Western coast of Europe. In the Mediterranean, Malta had fallen into English hands. Some years previously, Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign had failed. Its failure was inevitable, because the French fleet was insufficient; consequently the Egyptian Army was isolated, after Nelson had destroyed the French squadron at Aboukir. The lack of success of the expedition to Egypt signified a defeat of Europe at the hands of England. By way of the Pyramids, and with India as his goal, Bonaparte had intended dealing a heavy blow at Albion’s power. He would have succeeded, if it had not been necessary for him to cross the Mediterranean. The matter would to-day be much easier for a Power placed directly or indirectly in a position to march from Turkish territory into Egypt. The analogy is a remarkable and a timely one! In order to realise the plan, it would only be necessary for the Turks to march against Egypt through the desert; or else an European Power, finding the road through the Balkan Peninsula open, would itself send troops to the Egyptian frontier via Turkey. If these conditions should one day be realised, England would have no arms wherewith to defend herself against the Continent; she would have no means wherewith to defend Egypt and India, or her world-power in general. She could fill the seas with her ships, she could bombard coasting towns and sink the enemy’s vessels — but it would be of no avail. Sea power is in the long run impotent, when it is limited to the surface of the waters.

Napoleon’s unsuccessful Egyptian undertaking was not, at bottom, an attack on England, but a measure destined to safeguard France’s position in the Mediterranean. Nature has given France far more rights in those waters than England. We must also remember that Great Britain, by a series of wars of aggression, during which the European nations had been forced to do her business for her, had driven France and French trade from India.

Napoleon had failed in Egypt, but his determination to protect the position and interests of France, at home and abroad, by all the means in his power, against Great Britain — this determination was stronger than ever. Never has a Continental monarch or statesman recognised so clearly and completely the essence and the methods of English policy, as Napoleon. He knew that, for England, trade is the beginning and end of everything. He saw through all the masks and disguises which she had always put on, from the very first day when she had begun to consider Europe exclusively as a territory to be exploited in England’s interests. He knew well the strength of his mortal enemy, and he knew also that the French fleet could not, either as regards quantity or quality, compare with the British. England, on the other hand, was aware that Napoleon was capable of becoming a terribly dangerous foe on the seas, if only she were to give him time. This is one of the chief reasons why she left him no leisure, why she stirred up one war after another against him, why she looked upon every day of peace as constituting an increased danger for herself. Napoleon was likewise acquainted with this fact; hence his efforts to establish peace in Europe. He had recognised in England the firebrand of the Western world; and he knew that she had systematically carried on arson as a trade for the last 200 years. Unlike the statesmen of other European Powers, and unlike a large number of Germans who, a hundred years later, fell from the clouds of dreamland when England declared war on us in 1914 — Napoleon was to be deceived by no phrases or attitudes.

When England recommenced war in 1803, Napoleon resolved to attack the hereditary enemy on his own soil — in other words, to cross the Channel with an army of invasion. The plan, as is well known, was frustrated by the battle of Trafalgar, when Nelson destroyed the allied fleets of France and Spain. Henceforth was France’s chance of obtaining even a temporary command of the Channel gone. What remained of the French navy lay bottled up in the harbors of the Atlantic coast. We must not take Napoleon’s boast, to the effect that “six hours’ command of the sea would have made him master of the world,” too seriously. But on the other hand, the possibility is not to be denied, that a landing might none the less have been rendered feasible by a happy combination of circumstances. The problem of landing troops in large numbers on English soil was at that time much less complicated than it is to-day. The sailing ships which formed the navy of friend and foe alike, were at the mercy of wind and weather. Twenty-four hours without any wind might possess decisive importance for the success of a landing expedition. The speed of ships in those days was very small, and the range of their guns was insignificant by comparison with that of modern artillery. Frigate could only fight against frigate at a very short distance, whereas a naval battle can today be fought while the vessels are a long way from each other. Mines and torpedoes, submarines and airships, were then unknown. When we take all the new methods of warfare into consideration, it is evident that the transporting of troops over the Channel is to-day infinitely more dangerous; and, on the other hand, it is far more difficult to protect the transports. In addition to this, we must recollect that large masses of troops would be required, in order to permit of a successful landing developing into a fruitful military operation. The invading army must be sure of receiving reinforcements without interruption; otherwise it would be infallibly doomed to early perdition in the hostile country. An uninterrupted supply of reinforcements presupposes lasting command of the Channel. Another factor has also to be borne in mind: the population of Great Britain has enormously increased during the last 110 years. The island is filled with munitions of all descriptions. A large number of men capable of bearing arms is available; and even if the overwhelming majority of them have no military training, yet they are capable of shouldering a rifle, and they know every corner of their country. Movements of troops in England are easy to effect in this age of railroads, cables, and telephones; and they can take place with a rapidity which would render the ulterior development even of a successful landing operation a far more difficult affair than it was in Napoleon’s time. As matters stand to-day, there is no doubt that the population of England would form a single vast body of franc-tireurs, who would carry on the war against the invading army by all the means available, and to the bitter end. These necessarily brief reflections show us that a landing of troops in Great Britain is possible only if the invading Power possess, in one way or another, effective command of the sea. If this be not the case, then all plans of invasion are illusions — and illusions that are liable to become a source of danger.

As to whether Napoleon really believed it possible to realise his plan of invading England, after the French fleet had been destroyed at Trafalgar is an open question. Did he think it possible to rebuild the navy, and to train the necessary crews ?  We may consider it probable or improbable, as we like. But at all events the feasibility of the plan, from the military point of view, is incontestable.

The battle of Trafalgar made England the uncontested mistress of the seas, and ensured for her that supremacy which she maintained up till 1914. When the epoch-making battle in Spanish waters, amidst the scenes of former British piratical activity, was decided, Great Britain had attained her object. She could now take everywhere what she wanted. No one was in a position to oppose her, with the single exception of the United States of America, her former colony. The importance of Trafalgar was first properly appreciated at the end of the nineteenth century, and it was then exaggerated by some writers. All historians are in agreement upon one point: namely, that Napoleon’s chances of success were not destroyed in Russia or at Waterloo, but at Trafalgar. This is none the less doubtful; for Trafalgar did but give England the supremacy over the seas, and frustrate for the time being Napoleon’s plan of invasion. If, during the German War of Liberation in 1813, there had been no Blücher nor Gneisenau, no Bülow, nor Yorck, but only generals such as Schwarzenberg and Bernadotte, Napoleon would never have been defeated. If the winter of 1812 had not been so abnormally cold, it is possible that the Russian campaign might have ended differently. It is, consequently, not exact to regard the battle of Trafalgar as alone decisive in sealing the fate of Napoleon. Of course, England has never ceased to represent Nelson and Wellington as the saviors of Europe, which, it is said, they liberated from the “tyranny of the Corsican.”  The Continent was saved once more by England, who had spent “blood and money” for the ideal of liberty, for the expulsion of the tyrant, and for the maintenance of the principles of Legitimacy. Even to-day there is no Englishman who does not consider it to be the sacred duty of every European to accept this view of the matter.

Gourgaud and others tell us that Napoleon, at St. Helena, said that his greatest mistake had been to believe it possible to unite permanently all the nations of the Continent within a single empire. And here we have certainly the nucleus of the whole question. It was this mistake which caused Napoleon’s downfall. The forces inherent in every nation would certainly have asserted themselves, at one time or another, with elementary and irresistible violence, even without Trafalgar or the Peninsular War. It was the consequences of the same mistake which gave England her lasting victory. She would not have gained it, if Napoleon had not endeavored to permanently crush and join together all the peoples of Europe. Let us try and represent to ourselves France within the boundaries traced for her by the Congress of Vienna, and governed by Napoleon; after ten years of peace and systematic preparation, she would have been in a position to fight England on the seas with every prospect of success. A country possessing the coast and the natural wealth of France would undoubtedly, if left in peace, have developed strength enough to make her equal, if not superior, to Great Britain. This truth is not often grasped at the present day; but Frederic the Great had recognised it when he said how foolish it was of Louis XIV to make of the Continent the center-point of his wars, instead of devoting all his resources to fighting England. The great Prussian King admitted that the methods of warfare adopted by the English were, from the standpoint of the latter justifiable; the English concentrated their entire force on the sea, and entrusted the European nations with the task of weakening France on land. Napoleon would not have committed this error of Louis XIV, for he knew England too well. His own mistake was that of believing in the permanence of his conquests. Thanks to these conquests was England able to find States ever ready to fight for English trading interests. — What we have just said represents, of course, only the point of view of France a century ago.

According to English writers and orators, Trafalgar is supposed to have “saved Europe”! Today, after more than a hundred years have passed, it is possible to ask the question as to whether the consequences of Trafalgar for Europe have in reality been so salutary. If we take the view that Napoleon’s World Empire would, for the reasons indicated by Napoleon himself, have collapsed in any case one day or another; we can, in truth, not discover a single consequence of Trafalgar which has been favorable for the Continent. Trafalgar it was which ensured for England the absolute supremacy on the seas.

When Napoleon had been compelled to give up his plan of invading England, and to turn his attention to Austria, he knew that for the immediate future he had no means wherewith to fight the Islanders directly. English historians, and also Mahan, have rightly recognised that everything henceforth undertaken by the Emperor against his chief enemy was in the nature of enterprises embarked on faute de mieux. This remark holds good of the Continental Blockade instituted by the Berlin Decrees. The famous blockade is extremely interesting to consider, for it shows us clearly the war between Napoleon and England in its true light — namely, as a war between England and the Continent. The fundamental idea on which the blockade was based, was derived from the measures taken by the French Republic at the end of the preceding century — measures, the object of which was to prevent the French market from being overflooded by English goods. These measures were destined as a counterblast to those taken (long before the French Revolution) by England against enemies and neutrals alike. Such English blockades had been organised in every single maritime war waged by England; their object was, in part, to damage the trade of the adversary, but chiefly to benefit her own trade and shipping. The weapon had been found so useful, that the leaders of the Chosen People decided that they could not apply it often enough. With a view to extending its application still further, recourse was had to the “paper” blockades, wherever an effective blockade could not be maintained.

The measures taken by the French Republic towards the close of the eighteenth century, and which had been confined to France alone, furnished Napoleon with the idea of the colossal European blockade against English goods. A conditio sine qua non of the success of that blockade was that it should be applied quod ubique et quod omnibus — that not a link should be missing in the vast chain of prohibition. The English were cunning enough to understand this at once; and they therefore directed all their efforts towards breaking as many links as possible. The whole of the European coasts, from the Baltic to Gibraltar and the Eastern Mediterranean, were declared to be closed; they were to form a single impenetrable wall against all English products. Napoleon employed also the Northern States for this purpose — especially Denmark, who possessed the key to the Belt and the Sound. Thereupon an English squadron suddenly appeared before Copenhagen in 1807, and demanded of the absolutely neutral Danish State that it should surrender its fleet! England pretended that she wished to take the latter under her protection, and that she would give it back again later on. Denmark refused; the English promptly bombarded Copenhagen from the sea, and despatched also an army against the city. Denmark was forced to capitulate; and the whole of her fleet, consisting of 33 ships, was taken over by the English Admiral, and brought to England. The ships were all of them without crews; this proves beyond a doubt that Denmark was attacked in the midst of peace, and had no intention of abandoning her neutrality. As to whether Napoleon would have induced Denmark to abandon her neutrality later on, is another question. He had just come to an agreement with Czar Alexander I at Tilsit, and had drawn up with him the outlines of a sort of general partition of Europe. According to this scheme, Denmark was to be granted a considerable increase of territory at the expense of Northern Germany, in the event of her allying herself with France. Thus it was intended to make an offer to Denmark; but there was not the slightest evidence of any intention on the part of the latter to give up her neutrality, much less of any hostile preparations. Denmark was wholly defenceless when attacked by England, and this attack was nothing but a vile and dastardly act of brigandage. England, at the same time, stole Heligoland from the Danes, and the island became a basis of operations for the English smugglers on the North Sea coast.

The crime of Copenhagen was in so far profitable to Napoleon, that it obliged Russia to declare war on England. After the seizure of the Danish fleet, the Baltic was at the mercy of the English; whereas up till now Russia and Denmark had been united by the bonds of a natural solidarity, resulting from their respective geographical positions. But Russia’s efforts to repair the breach made in the wall erected against English importations, were vain. A second breach was made in the wall in the South. Napoleon’s unskilful and psychologically false treatment of the Spanish nation caused a guerilla war to break out in the Peninsula. This war has become celebrated; but what is less well known, is that Spanish blood was shed in order to further English interests. Spain was ruined, her soil devastated; and when Napoleon’s power in the country was definitely broken, the latter found itself tied hand and foot to England, dependent on English industry and English financial assistance. At the very moment when England hypocritically pretended to be fighting in Spain “for Spain and Europe” — at that very moment she achieved the last, decisive victory over the land of Cervantes, and trampled the erstwhile greatest nation of the West under foot. The same fate had previously overtaken England’s vassal Portugal.

Napoleon’s intentions were evident: Spain was for him but a means wherewith to fight England on the Continent. The Spanish and Portuguese coasts were to be closed to English products, as much as the Northern ones were. Napoleon likewise intended taking Gibraltar by means of a land attack. Viewed as a whole, the plan was at once a bold and a simple one: England was to be completely ostracised, and all possibility of selling anything to the Continent was to be withdrawn from her. Napoleon thought that the English would not be able to hold out for long under such circumstances — riots would break out, money would be scarce, etc. The immediate “preventive” measures taken by England against Denmark, Spain, and Portugal, showed that the British Government by no means underestimated the possible consequences of the European blockade. The Continental nations, for Napoleon, were so many instruments to be used in fighting England; the latter, on the other hand, used them as weapons against the French Emperor. But amidst all political changes, the Continent remained, for England, the territory to be exploited in the interests of her trade. The more the Continent was devastated and impoverished, the better it was for Albion; for thereby was the market assured for British producers. And when British warships captured or sunk the vessels of those States which were compelled reluctantly to obey Napoleon’s orders — this was, of course, done in the interests of “European freedom.”

The Franco-Russian friendship did not last long, after having reached its culminating point at the Congress of Erfurt in 1807. The two Emperors had progressed further with their scheme for the partition of Europe; but they had not, apparently, come to an agreement regarding Constantinople. Then came Talleyrand’s betrayal of both Russia and England. When the separation of Russia and France finally took place, the Continental Blockade was at an end. None the less did England continue her old system; and, in 1809, she managed to drive Austria-Hungary into a war which ended disastrously, seeing that Austria was not ready, and had to stand up alone against France and Russia. It is possible that England may have feared a rapprochement between Austria and the two last-mentioned Powers; but it was in any case not creditable for the Austrian diplomatists, that they should have allowed themselves, after so many experiences, to be once more made the puppets of England. However, with the exception of Russia, no Continental Power had reason to be proud of its diplomatists!

In view of the war raging at the present day, it is not without interest to examine briefly the organisation of the struggle between Napoleon and England, from the technical and military standpoint.

Napoleon thought it possible to bring about the economic downfall of Great Britain; he therefore forbade all the countries under his sway or influence to do any trade with the latter. An army of French officials was placed all along the coasts — in fact, a main characteristic of the Continental Blockade was, that it existed solely on land, and not on the seas, which would have been the normal way of doing things. But England ruled the seas in the fullest sense of the word, and herein lay ab initio an important source of weakness for the whole undertaking; for it was impossible to close up effectively so long and irregular a coast. Napoleon himself admitted that not the smallest fishing-boat could go out to sea, without the English capturing it. The British Government, by way of reprisals, blockaded every port in which the Berlin Decrees were enforced. It further prohibited all neutral ships from trading with such ports; at least neutral ships could only obtain permission to do so, if they had beforehand visited a British port, where they had to pay a heavy duty and to take a cargo of English goods on board. Consequently did every neutral ship which entered a Continental harbor “break” the French blockade. Napoleon replied by ordering the confiscation of all neutral vessels which thus complied with the English regulations. Later on another step in the same direction was taken, and all English goods found on the continent were seized. We need not dwell upon the consequences of all these measures for the sea trade. The French shipping trade, which had re-flourished in spite of all wars, disappeared completely with the exception of an insignificant coasting trade. France was cut off from her colonies, and the latter were compelled to purchase all the goods and foodstuffs they needed from the United States. Owing to the interruption of all communications with her colonies, France lost the lucrative colonial produce trade, which had been hers down to the time of the English blockade.

The Continental blockade was not without creating difficulties for England; in the first place, enormous quantities of unsaleable goods were accumulated in the country; on the other hand, the raw material, which Great Britain imported from Europe, arrived only in extremely small quantities. Trade and industry suffered naturally, but the groans that could be heard were much louder than the sufferings in question were great. The English seized every opportunity to let themselves appear as the martyrs to the cause of Europe; whereas, in reality, the Continent was enduring martyrdom for the sake of England’s greed. England was in the position of a rich and dishonest partner, who willingly risks a large sum in an enterprise, because his experience tells him that the business to be done, and which will ruin his associates, will bring him in colossal profits. The harvest is some little time in coming, and in the meantime matters do not always go smoothly; so he groans and whines, in order to make believe that he is undergoing agony, and that he is honest.

The English smuggling system was carried on on the very largest scale; in addition to this, there came the port duties on neutral ships, of which we have already spoken. In passing, we may observe that these port duties imposed on neutral vessels show with particular clearness the measurelessly arbitrary methods of dealing with foreign trade, adopted by Great Britain. She even went farther still: the same ships, on returning to their home across the seas, were obliged to call at an English port and to submit to being searched. As a matter of fact, the poor neutral countries have not been treated any better during the present war. But this is by the way. The main consideration for England was, not to impede neutral shipping, but to destroy it. The effect of the English blockade on the German States, can best be understood if we give a few examples. Owing to the blockade of the Hanoverian coast and of the mouth of the Elbe, the Silesian linen industry was almost entirely destroyed. The linen could no longer be exported by way of Hamburg; and the exporting of it through other ports proved so expensive, that foreign countries — especially England, America, and Spain — were obliged to seek a cheaper source of production. Prussia, who was entirely impotent, and whose statesmen were simple enough to suppose that the destruction of one of the leading industries of the country was not desired by England — Prussia protested in London against the closing of the Elbe. The same fate overtook Prussia’s woollen export trade. Later on, after the fall of Napoleon, when the blockades disappeared and shipping became free again, Prussian industry found all its markets absorbed by English industry. In addition to all this, England was at that time the only Power possessing a trading fleet; with the result that the European States had to pay her a further tribute in the shape of freight. The through transit from South to North Germany ceased altogether. In the whole of Germany the standard of living diminished, the State revenues sank in a truly disquieting manner, and everything was at a low level. The genius of Napoleon discovered, for France and the conquered countries, means whereby industry and commerce attained a surprising development in a short time. He also lessened, for these regions, the inevitable hardships inflicted by the blockade, by awarding so-called licences; he subventioned, in the most difficult days, industrial undertakings with cash, and in this way succeeded in creating a prosperity which exerted its salutary influence on various branches of industry and trade in Germany. But precisely these branches were subsequently ruined after the break-up of the Continental system and the fall of Napoleon;  for then the vast quantities of goods accumulated in England over-flooded the European, and especially the German, markets, and effectively crushed all competition.

English politicians of those days, and also later on, often raised their eyes piously to Heaven, and declared sanctimoniously that God had been exceedingly good to England; for He had permitted her to become ever richer and richer, and had saved her from the fury of war which had devastated the unfortunate continental countries. There was, certainly, a certain depression among English businessmen at times, during the Continental Blockade.  This is comprehensible; for all business-men are not equally far-sighted, neither are they always strong-minded.  The tests to which they were put, were often hard; and if Napoleon had been in a position permanently and absolutely to close all the coasts of Europe, it may well be doubted whether England could have survived.  The Continent, on the other hand, would have been able to do so, had Napoleon not abandoned his principle of ruining the States subjugated by him — and notably Prussia — for the benefit of France.

The War of Liberation resulted in the yoke, which Napoleon had imposed on Europe, being thrown off. The European nations were once more free.  In those days, when the national spirit, long held in check, rose again unfettered, they knew not that another yoke had been laid upon them, the weight of which they were soon destined to feel — and to feel more and more with each advancing year: namely, the yoke formed by Great Britain’s industry, and by her uncontested command of the seas.  The position of England, alike as an European and as a World Power, was indeed, at the time of the War of Liberation, an unique one.  The Continent, to a large extent a mere series of battlefields, had been completely ruined by loss of life, by economic impoverishment, by political anarchy. An extraordinary wave of idealism had permitted the poorest of all continental countries, Prussia, to accomplish the most difficult of all tasks. Prussia fought for liberty, and sacrificed everything for it. The land of the Chosen People had not been profaned by the presence of the enemy. England had suffered scarcely any loss of life during the Napoleonic wars, outside that of some hundreds of men in the naval battles. Very few English had fought on the Continent — but all the more Germans! In Spain, England had made the Spaniards fight, besides the Germans. From a military point of view, in fact, England had done nothing at all. An expedition which she had despatched to Antwerp, failed miserably in its attempt to take the city. But even in this case, the British Government could truly say that everything necessary had been done to save the precious blood of Englishmen.

Napoleon had not, from the outset, menaced the existence of England as an independent Power and as a seafaring nation. His attempts to effect a landing in the island, and subsequently to exhaust the resources of the English by means of the Continental Blockade, were purely defensive measures. England it was who began the attack on France, for reasons which — as is always the case with such English attacks — were based on trading interests. It was in order to consolidate and develop her empire of the seas that England continually fanned the flames of war in Europe during twenty years — and at the end of that time she came proudly forward as the “liberator of Europe”! The simple-minded Germans believed it; and there are some who still believe it to-day. Innumerable historical works prove this, and endeavor to make out that we owe an incalculable debt of thanks to England for having safeguarded the liberty of the nations. There is, in fact, a legend circulated in Germany, to the effect that the English of those days were entirely different to their descendants to-day. Other people, again, are of opinion that the “golden age” of liberty-loving Britain came to an end with the wars of the Revolution; but they are firmly convinced that such an age existed prior to that date. The one view is as erroneous as the other. The methods and aims of the English nation have remained exactly the same, from the day when England, as an “island,” was definitely differentiated from the “Continent” — when, in consequence, the egotistical interests of the former entered into conflict with the interests of Europe.