The View from the Regions

The vast Napoleonic Empire has captured the imagination of generations of historians. Whether proponents or opponents of Bonaparte, historians often portrayed the French state as a continent-wide monolith, tightly directed by the Emperor. But the past few decades have seen an upsurge in innovative studies that, taking a bottom-up view, distance themselves from traditional interpretations. Now, the Empire’s diversity is acknowledged and attention drawn to regions and peripheries. The present study examined two of such peripheral regions. It has sought to provide insight into the integration of the Netherlands and Northwest Germany into the Empire, highlighting the implementation of Napoleonic governance.

Although a comparative analysis is hampered by gaps in historiography and archival sources, this small-scale study indicates that a transregional approach to Napoleonic governance can yield relevant results. Notwithstanding the relative brief duration of Napoleonic rule in these regions, its possible impact on state and society should not be dismissed beforehand. Attempts at suppressing traditional governing practices and local institutions, in favor of Napoleonic ones, succeeded and failed at the same time. Efficiency and uniformity, the spearheads of Napoleonic governance, were appealing to many, but nevertheless not easy to achieve. Moreover, Napoleon’s heirs, the Restoration governments, later gave their own interpretations to Napoleonic governance.

This concluding chapter begins by examining the downfall of the French Empire in the North. It will then go on to explore the legacy of Napoleonic governance. Finally, it assesses the extent to which Napoleonic state representatives have succeeded in their endeavors of conquering, incorporating, and integrating the North.

The Collapse of Napoleonic Rule in the North

Early 1813, Prussia and Russia declared war on Napoleonic France, starting the Sixth Coalition War. More to the West in Germany, the population turned against the French, starting in the Grand Duchy of Berg where, because of conscription, thousands of farmers and workers harassed gendarmes. Only with great difficulty uprisings were suppressed. Unrest also reached the Hanseatic departments. Fearing the approach of Russian troops, Napoleonic authorities fled mid-March, many toward the Dutch departments. Concurrently, the wave of protest moved to Ostfriesland, and subsequently the Netherlands. The French in the Netherlands became restless. For example, Police Director De Villiers du Terrage made evacuation preparations. It was not until mid-April, when a French counter-offensive was launched, that rest was restored to the northern periphery and conscription intensified.Footnote 1 As shown in the chapters on the prefectoral system, numerous prefects and subprefects were transferred or replaced. In one extreme case, Bremerlehe’s subprefect Von Gruben was declared an enemy of the state and banished from the Empire in July 1813, as was Secretary-General Johann Michael Gries.Footnote 2 Exiled Hanseatic Germans formed the ‘Hanseatic Directory’ to promote their common interests and stimulate the armed struggle against France. Meanwhile they entered into negotiations with the Allies to ensure post-war independence.Footnote 3

In the autumn of 1813, the French authorities were put under still further pressure. On 4 October 1813, De Villiers du Terrage warned the prefects of Frise, Verstolk van Soelen, and Ems-Occidental, Petit de Beauverger, about a possible underground anti-French network connecting the Dutch departments, via Westphalia and Münster, with German rebels. The latter were allegedly associated with the (disbanded) Prussian secret society the Tugendbund. De Villiers du Terrage feared that secret messengers and insurgents were wandering around in the northern periphery, and local policemen were summoned to track them down. Whether there really was a transregional resistance network is unclear, but it was certainly feared by the French.Footnote 4

Autumn 1813 was characterized above all by chaos. Following Napoleon’s defeat against the Sixth Coalition, on 19 October at the Battle of the Nations, the French authorities definitively lost their faith in the Dutch. Beginning of November it was rumored that the Emperor had died and Davout was heading for Amsterdam to discuss with Charles-François Lebrun the surrender to the Allies.Footnote 5 Fear took possession of the French. De Villiers de Terrage’s home went up in flames. Prefect De Celles was confined to bed because of gout and De Villiers du Terrage struggled to secretly bring him to safety. On 11 November he wrote: ‘If we are not saved within six days, we are dead [… ] a different governor and eight hundred men would have been able to retain these provinces’. When, on 15 November, French soldiers left Amsterdam to combat the advancing Cossacks, the population of Amsterdam rebelled. The people’s anger focused mainly on the repressive forces: the customs, police, gendarmerie and tax collectors. Douaniers were lynched. General-Governor Lebrun urged Amsterdam’s notables to restore order, but they polity refused to help. Escorted by the gendarmerie, Charles-François Lebrun left, without being harassed.Footnote 6

Meanwhile, the situation in Northwest Germany was also chaotic. For example, after the expulsion of French troops from Bremen, the city was briefly recaptured. But the French left Bremen permanently by the end of October, when Davout was ordered to preserve Hamburg after the Battle of Leipzig. Beginning of December the French sway over Lübeck ended. This was followed by the siege of Hamburg which lasted four months. Living conditions in Hamburg grew worse, as food became scarce. Many starved. Also, the French army and the population of Hamburg were plagued by typhoid. Intendant De Chaban also fell prey to the disease. Enclosed by Allies, the French were only remotely aware of the First Empire’s collapse.Footnote 7 Davout only left the city at the end of May 1814, long after Napoleon had abdicated.

Napoleonic Foundations for the New States?

The Low Countries

On 17 November 1813, as the French fled the Netherlands, a provisional government was formed in The Hague. Stadtholder William V’s son Prince William Frederick was requested to return from England and accept the dignity of Sovereign Prince of the Netherlands.Footnote 8 For continuity’s sake, and to guarantee rest, the invaded Allies ordered all Dutch members of the prefectoral system to remain at their posts. In cases where prefects or subprefects of French origin had been employed, Dutchmen took over their functions, for example, the Secretary-General or the maire of the district’s capital.Footnote 9 Also on the national level, most former Napoleonic administrators were kept and contributed to the construction of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.Footnote 10

Although few political purges took place in the Netherlands, not every former Napoleonic official was directly accepted by the new government. An individual case shows how forgiving and reprimanding were balanced. The 30-year-old Bernard Hendrik Alexander Besier had from the beginning of the incorporation been subprefect of Brielle, on the island of Voorne, southwest of Rotterdam. On 15 November 1813, rebellious farmers, on Brielle’s market day, threatened to clash with the French garrison. Maire Jan Marcus Heeneman (an administrative veteran of Orangist origin) managed to prevent French troops from brutally intervening and sent the farmers away. Prefect Besier immediately reported the maires’ intervention to the prefect, also dissatisfied that the maire no longer respected his authority. Three days later, a similar incident took place between citizens and French customs officers, in which Heeneman could also prevent bloodshed.

A group of notables, including Heeneman, secretly contacted the new government in The Hague, planning to seize power. They were betrayed and it was subprefect Besier who, together with the gendarmerie, forced Heeneman to leave his post. Besier sent a threatening message to all maires in his district. Retaliations were taken against openly unwilling surrounding villages. French soldiers, for example, took several local dignitaries hostage. Besier further made himself unloved by the rural population because, on French orders, he seized foodstuffs for the army. The local population took the initiative when French troops, together with the subprefect, entrenched themselves in the town center, awaiting reinforcements. They were attacked by a combination of deserted Dutch cannoneers and local militia members. In the following days, Besier was taken prisoner, his functions taken over by the returned Heeneman, and transferred to The Hague awaiting trial.Footnote 11

Besier was the only Dutch former member of the prefectoral system who was subsequently brought to trial. He was accused of excesses, violence, and exactions, in function. The court in The Hague pronounced its verdict on 17 May 1814 and decided that ex-subprefect Besier should not be prosecuted, since he had acted on orders of the French military commander. The court ruled that it was unreasonable to ‘judge his actions in his capacity as a French civil servant by the principles of the present government’.Footnote 12 In this vein, all Dutch former Napoleonic officials were assessed. That individuals had collaborated with the French was not held against them, however, very devoted and persistent ones were frowned upon. The case of Besier (who was to continue his career in Indonesia) indicates which behavior was just barely considered acceptable.

Although Napoleonic governance was essentially preserved, as well as former (sub)prefects, many Dutch jurists and politicians deemed it an example of excessive centralization, in which lower governments were suppressed in favor of the central government.Footnote 13 Main author of the new Dutch constitution Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp, argued that a restoration of old provincial institutions would be beneficial, even to a nation-state. He pointed out that the traditional provinces could serve as a political platform for the nobility, and that only provinces truly respected the country’s ‘spirit’ and that of its inhabitants. However, prominent Dutch politicians who had been active during the incorporation, or under Louis Bonaparte, objected to the historically inspired federal state envisaged by Van Hogendorp. A provincial revival could threaten the nation, as provincialism had caused so many problems in the past. They argued that Van Hogendorp did not sufficiently take into account the experiences of the years 1795–1813. Furthermore, William I wanted to preserve the centralist essence of Napoleonic governance to strengthen his personal power. Thus the unitary state was successfully preserved, and with it the achievements of the revolutionary and Napoleonic era, as guarantee for national unity.Footnote 14

Meanwhile in the Belgian departments, after the collapse of the Empire, the Allies replaced Napoleonic prefects with intendants. Various intermediary governments were formed, in line with Napoleonic practice, among which the Gouvernement général de la Belgique under supervision of the Dutch prince. More and more former imperial departments were added to ‘Belgium’. At the Congress of Vienna it became evident that the Northern and the Southern Low Countries were to be united into one state. The Kingdom of the Netherlands was intended to be a buffer state against France and included the former Dutch Republic, the Austrian Netherlands, and the Prince-Bishopric of Liège. In this process, the Dutch state made good use of the knowledge and skills of former Dutch Napoleonic officials. For instance, in August 1814, former prefect of Frise, Johan Gijsbert Verstolk van Soelen, was sent to Liège in newly occupied Belgium to prepare this region for incorporation and integration into United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

With the union of the North and the South, territorial governance was again reexamined. Because in the South the departmental structure had been functioning properly for 20 years, Belgian members of the constitution commission of 1815 advocated its preservation. A complete reform would also require a lot of effort. And the former departments had the right size to fit into the Kingdom, they observed. Only the names of the southern provinces should have a traditional ring to them, referring to the past, instead of French neologisms.Footnote 15 Thus, the provinces regained some influence, but the central government, headed by an autocratic monarch, wielded considerable power. The prefectoral system was essentially kept; prefects were renamed gouverneurs. Most were loyal servants of the king, and served as his eyes and ears, just like Napoleonic prefects had done.Footnote 16 All in all, Napoleonic governance took root in the Low Countries, albeit tailored to traditions and national demands.

Former Napoleonic Germany

Evidently, in Germany the restoration was more fragmented, because the Congress of Vienna distributed the French departments over several new or restored states. And in the former Northwest German departments there initially was relatively little personnel continuity since territorial governance had relied heavily on French prefects and subprefects. Some of them fled, others, like prefect Jannesson, were captured by Allies. Many of them returned to France and could make use of the experiences they had gained in peripheral departments.Footnote 17

Prussia (re)claimed large parts of Germany; for instance, Münster returned under Prussian rule, as did the Rhineland. Although Prussia later in the century pursued a more restrictive recruitment policy, on the basis of criteria such as Protestantism and former attitude towardthe French, the Napoleonic period seems to have had a limited effect on the subsequent careers of former Napoleonic officials of German descent.Footnote 18 In the Prussian provinces, experienced Napoleonic officials were quickly reemployed, allowing, for instance, the prefects and subprefects of Westphalia and Berg to continue their careers in Prussian service. Take Clemens von Oer, the former subprefect Steinfurt, who became Kreiskommissar in Steinfurt, and subsequently Landrat in the Province of Westphalia, as was Gerhard von Lommessem, former subprefect of Goes and Aachen.

The preservation or rejection of Napoleonic governance shows to which extent French innovations were accepted. Michael Rowe has shown how Napoleonic state-building has been an enduring legacy in Germany. Even though few longed back to Napoleonic authoritarian rule, with its high taxes and merciless conscription, the local elite of the Rhineland strongly defended the French institutions, since local socioeconomic circumstances fitted the French inheritance. Napoleonic officials had partly condoned old governing practices and traditions in order to assert their rule. In this way regional traditions could survive within a French institutional framework.Footnote 19 The elites in the now Prussian Rhineland were strongly aware of their provincial identity. This tendency was reinforced as each province had its own deliberative body, whereas the kingdom as a whole had none. Regional sentiments manifested themselves in adherence to the Napoleonic legacy, such as French legislation and the relatively liberal system of local governance. Regionalist sentiments also flourished in the neighboring, highly composite Province of Westphalia. The Westphalian and Rhenish sentiments were a catalyst for German nation-building, referring to a larger German nation instead of the Prussian monarchy.Footnote 20

In the now Grand Duchy of Oldenburg, Peter Friedrich Ludwig returned, also being made Prince of Lübeck. The Grand Duke appointed a provisional government committee, predominantly conservative in character, bypassing former Napoleonic officials. Although they wanted to distance themselves from Napoleonic governance, a return to the old situation was not considered, as it was recognized that the French structures were well-regulated. Nor did the Peter Friedrich Ludwig advocate political purges. The new government consisted of a mix of conservatives and former Napoleonic officials. Take Gerhard Anton von Halem, former Secretary-General of Bouches-du-Weser, who was appointed highest government representative in exclave Principality of Lübeck.Footnote 21 Similarly, in the Kingdom of Hanover, ruled by the British monarch, political purges were initially opted for. However, many officials were quickly reinstated. Take, Adolf von Grote, the former subprefect and ex-member of the imperial Corps législatif, who was appointed Landrat. Ostfriesland was united with the Kingdom of Hanover. There, Johann Christian Friedrich Eisendecher, formerly subprefect in Nienburg and Quakenbrück, became Amtmann in Emden.

Likewise, in the Hanseatic city-states, collaboration with the French was hardly an issue. Few had to defend themselves afterward.Footnote 22 For instance, former Secretary-General Bouches-de-l’Elbe, Johann Michael Gries, was reappointed Syndicus in Hamburg. As for the Hanseatic cities at large, no new joint central government was set up. True, the Hanseatic cities had worked together, but attempts at new reforms that transcended the urban level, let alone democratic reforms, were seen as dangerously revolutionary. Allies impeded the reform agenda of former Patriots and thus restored the sovereignty of the time-honored traditional local councils. In Hamburg, for example, voices were raised to preserve the best of Napoleonic governance, but the dominant sentiment was highly conservative.Footnote 23 Thus, the reaction in the restored Hanseatic city states was, remarkably, significantly more conservative than in the surrounding monarchies and principalities in the Low Countries and the Low German Plain.

Degrees of Completeness

Whether the Netherlands and Northwest Germany were successfully integrated into the Napoleonic Empire, has been matter of debate. Antoinette Joulia’s observations from her 1972 dissertation on the Ems-Supérieur department still hold up. She considered the introduction of Napoleonic governance in Ems-Supérieur a partial success. Joulia showed how at the highest level, reforms were carried out rather systematically and thoroughly. But for the layers below, that cannot be said. A lack of clarity, time, and staff hampered the process. To quote Joulia: ‘the work [has] remained incomplete’, but ‘one [can] only be amazed at the degree of its realization’.Footnote 24 To a certain extent, her conclusions can be extrapolated to the entire North. Attempts to integrate these regions were only partly successful, therefore integration was incomplete.

Since Joulia, the body of literature on Napoleonic Europe has grown enormously. Speaking of Europe as a whole, several different explanations have been put forward for the extent to which Napoleonic integration was successful. Summarizing historiography, Geoffrey Ellis distinguishes on the one hand between historians who emphasize the geographical distance from France and the length of Napoleonic rule as an explanation for the degree of integration; and, on the other hand, historians who believe local circumstances determined how French institutions took root, or not. And Alexander Grab has noticed that it is often assumed that the way Napoleonic institutions were received locally usually depended on, first, the duration of the incorporation into the Empire; second, the place that the area was allocated within it (pays alliés, pays conquis or pays réunies); third, the existing local socioeconomic, cultural, and political structures; and lastly, the level of local resistance to the Napoleonic authorities.Footnote 25

In other words, the success, or failure, of integration is often explained in terms of distance, duration, legal status or local circumstances. However, perhaps the problematic nature of Napoleonic governance has been overlooked. By this I mean that more attention could be given to the ways in which the various territories were actually governed, and how that affected the state’s functioning. To limit myself to the integration of the North, its incompleteness can be explained in several ways.

Firstly, from early on, coordination was an issue, since no overall plan of approach to integration was conceived. Around 1800 various forms of temporary governing bodies had emerged in conquered lands. Initially, these were more civilian in character, but gradually hybrid forms between military and civil administration developed. Concerning the North, the Emperor was ambivalent toward Dutch and Germans, so his intents were not always consistent, let alone those of his collaborators. Both ‘harsher’ and ‘milder’ approaches were considered desirable, depending on the parties at hand. Paradoxically, precisely the actors who questioned the need for rigid integration, in certain cases contributed to making integration more ‘complete’, understood as creating support from locals and letting Napoleonic governance take root.

Consequently, in the regions, there was less uniformity than desired in territorial governance. Paris was often reliant on the willingness of actors at lower levels. Supervision was partly delegated to the intermediary bodies of governance, which had a not always clearly defined scope of decision-making discretion. Though formally not autonomous, in practice these intermediary governments were responsible for balancing the interests of Paris and those of the departments they oversaw. Even more frequently, integration in essence depended on mediating individuals. Prefects had the difficult task of actually introducing strict Napoleonic measures. Stimulating personal mobility between different parts of the Empire was a possible means of accelerating integration and increasing uniformity, as governance knowledge could be disseminated. Lack of uniformity also presented itself at district level. In one district there could be a diligent subprefect, in other districts policies could be only partly implemented. So where measures succeeded, or failed, could be rather arbitrary.

Scant coordination and lack of uniformity partly resulted from, and contributed to, animosity and opposition within the Napoleonic state apparatus. This ranged from passivity to outright conflict with colleagues, which hindered the workings of the Empire. The General-Governments in Amsterdam and that in Hamburg could have been partners in integrating the North, but remained within their own circles, not sharing a common view. So remote from the supervision of the imperial capital, many actors competed for influence. At lower levels, prefects and subprefects had clashes, internally as well as with third parties. Admittedly, other state bodies in the Netherlands and Northwest Germany, such as the police, customs, and gendarmerie, were organized more strictly, but these often worked poorly together with the members of the prefectoral system, slowing down integration. So although some branches of the Napoleonic state performed better than others, in many fields competition prevailed over cooperation.

The abovementioned shortcomings do not necessarily mean that the workings of the Napoleonic Empire were ineffective. Often the Empire’s ability to raise huge armies is presented as an example of its success, as well as other military feats, or institutional and administrative reforms. To separate different, possibly contradictory, developments, this study distinguished three different phases of empire-building. The phases of ‘conquest’ and ‘incorporation’ can be regarded as ‘completed’. French military supremacy was a given fact, which made conquest straightforward. Subsequently, the Netherlands and Northwest Germany were incorporated in two steps: first, a sort of ‘declaration of intent’, ensued by more elaborate decrees. These were followed in both areas by a clash between the traditional political culture and the imported French governing mentality, something that could not be solved with a stroke of a pen. In this phase, Napoleon and many of his close collaborators underestimated the resilience of existing ideas. Consequently, whereas on certain terrains the integration phase proceeded smoothly, on other terrains there was no linear progression, and phases overlapped.

Not seldom, there was no agreement about the phase in which an area was situated, nor about the extent to which the phase had to be completed. Contemporary reflections on the status of conquered lands can illustrate this. Napoleon on occasions spoke of (conflicts over) phases in the integration of conquered lands. For instance, when explaining his right of conquest concerning Northern Italy, he discriminated between the phase of ‘the right of conquest’ and that of the ‘work of peace’. In particular, Napoleon criticized the new rulers he had installed for assuming themselves to be in the latter phase while, in his eyes, the first was not finished.Footnote 26

In sum, integration was incomplete, but the degree of incompleteness highly depends on the divergent norms set by the different parties. The Grande Armée had made conquest possible. Yet, the next steps of incorporation and integration could have been easier if there had been more coordination, a clearer division of tasks and competences, and less internal rivalry. This seems to have been a shortcoming of Napoleonic governance. Of course, conclusions of this study are based on the northern periphery and hence do not necessarily apply to other regions of the Empire. And, certainly, the immense financial and personal costs of warfare, as well as imperial exploitation, must not be ignored in assessing degrees of incompleteness. Notwithstanding these limitations, it is plausible that aforesaid structural flaw manifested itself in many corners of the Empire. Therefore, the issue of Napoleonic governance and empire-building, specifically from a transregional perspective, is a relevant one that deserves further exploration.