In the third installment in our series, Leighton James explains his current research into the Napoleonic wars….
This research project explores the German experience and memory of Napoleon’s 1812 campaign in Russia. It is estimated that over 100,000 German soldiers accompanied Napoleon’s Grande Armée into Russia in 1812. Many never returned, but those who did brought fantastic, and sometimes horrifying, tales of Eastern Europe. For many the advance into Russia seemed to represent a journey back in time. Those veterans who later penned accounts of their experience commented on the wildness of the countryside and the strange customs of its inhabitants. At times their narratives read more like the travelogues that had boomed in the eighteenth century.
The campaign also bore witness to a level of suffering unparalleled even within the generation of warfare between 1792 and 1815. Thousands of soldiers fell victim to typhus on the march towards Moscow, while the battle of Borodino would be one of the bloodiest of the period. However, it is the fire of Moscow and the subsequent retreat that would dominate both veterans’ accounts and the popular memory.
As the winter closed in the soldiers retreated across a countryside already laid waste. As the cold and shortages began to bite discipline disintegrated. Particularly horrific was the crossing of the Berezina river in which many were trampled or drowned in the frozen water. The ragged survivors were subject to Cossack raids and attack by peasants intent on exacting revenge on the invaders. Those who were fortunate enough to survive their initial capture faced the prospect of captivity deep in the Russian interior. The conditions these prisoners of war faced often depended on whether they had a prized skill or, somewhat ironically, whether they could speak French. The latter ability allowed officers to socialise with the Russian nobility, greatly easing their circumstances.
Despite these sufferings, or perhaps because of them, many survivors shared their experiences with a wide audience by publishing their diaries and memoirs in the period after 1815. German civilians also experienced Russian might, including its exotic military units such as the Bashkirs and Kalmucks, as the Tsar’s armies crossed Central Europe in pursuit of the French in 1813 and added their accounts to the veterans’ reminiscences. These war stories, with the dash of travelogue mixed in, found a ready audience in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany. The reading public was eager to vicariously experience the hardships and adventure of warfare. The campaign also came to represent the epitome of Napoleon’s hubris, the imperial overreach that would presage his ultimate defeat. As a result, 1812 became a dominant literary topos within the popular memory of the Napoleonic Wars in Germany second only to the experience of the Wars of Liberation of 1813./14.
My and Dr. Sheona Davies’ work opens two new, interrelated research avenues by focusing on the German experience, and later memory, of the period between 1812 and 1815. First, it explores the transition from the ‘communicative memory’ of eyewitnesses to the ‘cultural memory’ in the post-1860s period. It will trace the publishing history of the veterans’ accounts to explore the centres of publication and the level of intertextuality between the narratives. A key theme will be the posthumous reworking of contemporaries’ memories against the background of the changing geopolitical situation in Europe prior to 1914.
Secondly, the project considers the role autobiographical writing from the Napoleonic wars played in shaping and consolidating images of Eastern Europe and, by extension, Germany, from a longue durée perspective. It examines how these narratives influenced, and were in turn influenced by, broader attitudes towards Eastern Europe. It explores the dominant themes and perceptual frameworks through which German soldiers and civilians represented their experiences in Eastern Europe, while asking how those representations changed as a result of wider political and intellectual developments in the nineteenth century. It will look specifically at how the experience of 1812 and the image of Eastern Europe more generally was represented to a wider and younger audience through popular literature and school textbooks.