Tilsit: A Dictator’s Diplomacy

Reading Time: 5 minutes

It was a strange place to reorganise Europe. Napoleon did not choose a city, a castle or even a location on dry land. Instead, he decided to host the talks near the town of Tilsit on the River Nieman; three of the most important men on the Continent would negotiate on a raft. The actions of Napoleon over these few fateful days in July would provide enormous insights into the mind of the man who made Europe tremble. These meetings would, more than any cavalry charge at Waterloo, any battle in Iberia or any Russian winter, doom the French Emperor. 

In 1806, Napoleon’s foes had once again tried to humble him. This time, Prussia and Russia had aligned to combat French power, but they saw little success. The heirs of Frederick the Great were easily mopped up at the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt, and soon Napoleon marched through Berlin. The Russians offered stiffer resistance, grinding Bonaparte into a bloody stalemate at Eylau in early 1807. At Friedland, however, French military prowess forced the Tsar to wave the white flag of surrender. 

Napoleon was now master of Europe. He had obliterated the Austrians at Austerlitz two years prior, and now his other two Continental rivals had seen their capacity to resist him annihilated. Yet although Napoleon reigned supreme on the battlefield, he proved lacking when it came to diplomacy. The textbooks often describe Tilsit as a summit between Tsar Alexander I of Russia and Napoleon, completely forgetting the existence of Frederick-William of Prussia. It is a reasonable mistake; one which Napoleon himself appears to have made. On the first day of negotiations, the Prussian was left on the riverbank, while Alexander was warmly welcomed aboard the raft. Above the door of the pavilion where negotiations took place, there were the monograms “N” and “A” for Napoleon and Alexander, but no “FW”. 

Yet Frederick-William had far more to concern himself with than such vanities. His kingdom was carved up like a turkey and fed to the vultures. It lost half of its population (approximately four and a half million people) and a third of its territory. It had to pay 120 million francs as an indemnity and its army was restricted to 42,000. Prussia had only become a major power under Frederick the Great, and now was effectively reduced to the status of a speck on the map. Of course, this would have consequences. Prussia had been extremely divided on whether to enter the war, and had only declared war on France in 1806 because it felt directly threatened by the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine and the status of Hanover. Prussia had not participated in the previous two wars against Napoleon, showing the state was hardly rabid. Now, however, Prussia became insecure, bitter and vengeful. The moment Prussia smelled blood after the disasters of the Russian campaign, Frederick-William became the first leader to spit on his paper alliance with France, and threw all Prussia’s strength at deposing the French ogre. The Prussian presence was critical at Leipzig in 1813, and would play an infamous role at Waterloo. The venom which Tilsit inspired in Prussia was such that 64 years later, after the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck demanded reparations from France matched exactly those Napoleon extracted from Prussia. 

Instead of simply smiting the Tsar too, Napoleon tried to woo Alexander. The Tsar lost no land, had no constraints placed on his army and had to pay a minuscule indemnity. Most evenings, the three leaders dined together and afterwards, Alexander and Napoleon would slope off and chatter away into the small hours, talking about anything from the state of Europe’s economy to the Ottoman Empire. Napoleon even said: “if Alexander were a woman, I would make him my mistress.”

The Tsar didn’t reciprocate. He may have seemed friendly, but the letters he wrote at Tilsit show that he held no love for “the Corsican.” Why was Alexander so ungrateful? Even though Napoleon was trying to integrate Russia as an ally for the future, the French Emperor still believed that absolute victory gave him the right to impose absolute terms on the Tsar. He assumed that Alexander would happily relent to any terms, and all the other forces acting on the Russian autocrat would vanish.

Napoleon forced Alexander to sign up to the Continental System, a Europe-wide trade embargo, designed to grind the British economy to a halt. Great Britain was reaping the benefits of the early Industrial Revolution, had become the economic powerhouse of Europe and now used its vast wealth to fund the fight against France. After Trafalgar had denied Napoleon the chance to defeat the British through an invasion, he turned to economics. In the 1806 Berlin Decrees, he tried to seal Europe off from British goods, by forcing all French and French-allied ports to refuse British merchants. Unfortunately, the Continental System was a fundamentally ludicrous proposition. British trade was incredibly lucrative, and any state which refused to trade with the plucky island nation would lose out on enormous economic opportunities. The only way Napoleon could maintain the system was by threatening military action. Furthermore, the embargo would only be effective if every single port on the Continent obeyed the System – meaning Napoleon needed to compel every European nation to join. Finally, the system ignored the fact that Britain could simply trade with other parts of the globe, as it did, or that the French army relied on imports from Britain and thus required exemptions. Famously, the French boots at Waterloo were manufactured across the Channel. Yet Napoleon was utterly committed to the Continental System, and there was a gaping hole he needed to fill – Russia. 

Now, flushed with victory, Napoleon believed he could simply use his military supremacy to force Russia to join the Continental System. Alexander had to temporarily comply, and predictably, the Russian economy was devastated. By 1808, the deficit had reached an eye-watering 157 million rubles and the national debt had increased by a factor of thirteen. Further incensing Russia, Napoleon also created the Duchy of Warsaw. By 1785, Poland had been consumed by Prussia, Russia and Austria in a series of three partitions. Polish nationalism had been on the rise for some time, and the famed Marie Walewaska became Napoleon’s mistress to further this goal. Now, the French Emperor seemed to be restoring Poland to nationhood – a massive blow to Russian prestige. Worse still, having a French puppet on Russia’s border was a constant and uncomfortable symbol of the French Revolution and of the Tsar’s military impotence. As one historian put it, it was as if “Robespierre moved in next door.”

The Russian nobles were incandescent with rage. They had been the primary beneficiaries of trade with Britain, so were hardly enthusiastic about a boycott of British goods. They also disliked the idea of an alliance with France, viewing it effectively as a surrender and as a wound to national pride. They also feared the prospect of a resurrected Poland. Prince Sergei Volkonsky sums up this sentiment: “the defeat of Friedland, the Tilsit peace … these were deep wounds in the heart of every Russian.” 

Alexander, wisely, took note of this fury, and was always conscious of all of the forces driving him in a certain direction. Russia’s tsarist system has often been described as “autocracy tempered by assassination.” Alexander had witnessed this first-hand, being in the palace when his father was murdered by his enraged nobles, who may have been supported by British agents who felt Russia was becoming too closely aligned with France. Now, however, with the Treaty of Tilsit, Alexander had been forced by Napoleon to frustrate his nobles and align with France. 

The French Emperor had successfully bruised, humiliated and cornered his would-be-ally, and had forced the Tsar into an impossible position. To understand Tilsit is to understand the rot at the heart of Napoleon’s empire. The exact terms themselves matter less than what they reveal about Napoleon himself – that the Emperor’s insistence on imposing his will to ‘guarantee’ maximum French gain meant anything the Emperor achieved was impermanent. 

For the Tsar, the costs of the Continental System, both political and economic, were too much to bear, and Alexander abandoned it in 1810. Napoleon had two options. Either, he could allow Russia to get away with it, and effectively see his prized Continental System unravel. Or, he would attack, gain victory and re-create Tilsit – forcing Russia to become his ally and rejoin the Continental System. Famously, he invaded, and in 1812 one of history’s largest military calamities began. The Russians waged a scorched earth policy, notoriously burning Moscow itself to deny Napoleon provisions. Realising his mistake, Napoleon tried to return to Europe, but Cossacks, typhus and the winter itself mauled the Grande Armée, the very instrument of the Emperor’s will. 

Tilsit didn’t just cause his invasion of Russia. The precedent it set, that compliance could only be achieved through military might, would ultimately lead to his invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. This was meant to be a straightforward in-and-out operation, but it ended up in protracted guerrilla warfare, an “ulcer” that would drain resources for little gain. 

Clausewitz famously wrote that war is the continuation of politics through other means – that is, we fight wars because we can achieve things in conflict which cannot be achieved through normal statecraft. What is often forgotten amidst cries of hubris, nemesis and “Napoleon Complex” is that the Emperor had a clear and obvious political objective. Portugal and Russia had been flouting his rules and allowing British goods to enter the continent freely. Napoleon, in the most Clausewitzean sense, entered these wars to achieve pre-determined gains. But Napoleon is a testament to where that goes wrong. Before Tilsit, Napoleon’s settlements had often been relatively lenient, such as Campo Formio (October 1797). But something changed in those July days.

Tilsit tricked Napoleon into thinking he could achieve anything in war, and impose his will utterly on a broken foe. Napoleon ignored the idea that his opponents had other forces exerting pressure on them, and convinced himself that once he had defeated an opponent, he became the only factor they had to consider. For a time, of course, this was true, but eventually other factors in the equation of politics would re-assert themselves. Yet, to the Emperor, it still didn’t matter how harsh the settlement was, because if the vanquished ever resisted, Napoleon could simply defeat them again as proved necessary. The Napoleonic order, centred on the Continental System and typified by Tilsit, was so unnatural in its ignorance of the situations of other rulers, that it could only be achieved through war, and so required endless wars to be maintained. The issue with fighting war upon war, however, is that you only need to lose one to have the whole system crumble. Napoleon lost two. Soon all Europe sensed its chance, and the Napoleonic system was destroyed through war – the very thing which was needed to sustain it. 

Englund, S., 2004. Napoleon: A Political Life. Harvard Press

Roberts, A., 2015. Napoleon the Great. Penguin

Zamoyski, A., 2019. Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth. William Collins