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The true reasons for Napoleon's downfall that no one talks about.

Napoleon was one of the greatest figures in human history. His rise to power was spectacular, but so was his downfall. But was Napoleon's downfall really because of his ego? Did he have a Napoleon complex, as it is now called, and did his delusions of grandeur cost him his crown? In this blog we’re going to look at Napoleon’s downfall, how it happened, and why it happened. This blog will show you that it was not because he had a Napoleon complex, or because of delusions of grandeur at all. Let’s first go over his exact downfall, starting with his war in Spain, and then dissect where everything went wrong and why.

The Peninsular War:

Napoleon's downfall actually began when he decided to invade Spain and Portugal. Spain and Portugal were allied with the British Empire and were still trading with them, something he didn’t want them to continue doing. He wanted to impose a trading blockade on Britain in the entire European continent to weaken the British economy and win his war with England that way. He implemented the trading blockade over almost the entire European continent, the only nations still trading with Britain were Spain and Portugal, so he had to deal with them. So he made his generals invade Spain while he himself remained in Paris. At first, everything went well, they stormed through Spain like it was nothing and quickly reached the capital. They believed that if they’d just take over and overthrow the monarchy, the Spanish people would accept it and go along with the French. Sadly for Napoleon, that is not what happened. The Spanish people revolted and started exacting guerrilla warfare on the French army. This form of warfare was brutal and carried out not by a military force, but by ordinary citizens. They weren’t going to let Napoleon take over Spain without a fight. This form of guerrilla warfare worked so well and was so effective that it brought serious damage to the French army.

His Spanish campaign known as the Peninsular War, was the start of his downfall for the following reason. It weakened his army and his position in the eyes of his allies and made sure that some troops had to stay in Spain to ease the situation while Napoleon decided to invade Russia, which meant he didn’t have access to tons of troops and generals that were extremely important to him. But next up is the most important and well-known event considering his downfall: His invasion of Russia.

The invasion of Russia:

It was one of the bloodiest and most gruesome campaigns in world history, and an absolute disaster for Napoleon and his army. It began after Napoleon found out that his deal with Russia that they were not allowed to trade with Britain wasn't honored. He was furious about this and demanded them to rejoin the trading blockade. Tsar Alexander wouldn’t do that, so war it was. So with his more than 600,000 men, the largest amount in history up until that point, consisting of French, Austrian, Polish, and Italian soldiers, he marched off to Russia. At the beginning of the campaign, his invasion of Russia seemed to go quite well. He defeated the Russians everywhere and they retreated every single time. Until he arrived at the town of Smolensk where he set up camp. The Russian winter was coming and most of his generals believed that they had to wait it out and move when the spring would arrive. But Napoleon noticed an opportunity, as he did many times before (read this blog on why Napoleon was an incredible opportunist). He saw that he could just march straight to Moscow and take the Russian capital. This would provide him with a solid place in the history books and provide him and the French with a ton of status and glory. With most of his generals in disagreement with his decision, they decided to march to Moscow, but they were stunned when they got there. The whole city was up in flames and all of the citizens had already fled, Moscow was a complete ghost town. This was all a deliberate plan from the Russians, they abandoned Moscow and ordered its prisoners to commit arson over the entire city. This way when the French would arrive, they’d have no supplies, there’d be nothing to steal, and had no glorious victory whatsoever.

What Napoleon didn’t know was that his march to Moscow was extremely advantageous for the Russian army. When winter came and supplies ran out, Napoleon finally saw the need to retreat from Moscow and get back to their supplies. What he didn’t realize was that the Russians were retreating on his side and attacked him from the flank on his way back home. Numerous battles took place during this retreat from Moscow back to Smolensk, but the worst of it was the weather. The Russian winter had arrived, and it was extremely cold, on some nights it could be as low as -35 degrees Celsius. This coupled with the fact that they didn’t have adequate winter clothes for this occasion meant that most of Napoleon's men froze to death and died of hypothermia. There was also almost no food so numerous troops also died of starvation. From the 600,000 men who marched into Russia, only around 100,000 came out. It was a bloodbath, and the end was near for Napoeon. By losing so many men, and having a campaign that failed so badly, he was in a very weak position when he returned, and his empire was essentially done. While Waterloo was seen as the end of Napoleon, it was more of an official ending. His real end was when he got back from Russia.


After his abdication and return from the island of Elba, Napoleon was welcomed by many of France's citizens, especially by many of the troops who previously fought under him. On his march towards Paris from Elba, he even apparently told his troops: “If there is one among you who wants to kill his general, his Emperor, here I am.” After which the troops cheered and marched alongside him to Paris. When he came back, the allies in England, Prussia, Austria, and Russia panicked. They decided that Napoleon was an outlaw and a danger to world peace, and needed to be defeated. The final battle was eventually decided near the village of Waterloo in Belgium, where Wellington with his English army, stood against Napoleon's Grande Armée, which was after his abdication not so Grand anymore. Napoleon had a little more troops than Wellington when the battle began and thus rightfully believed that he had a good chance. The only problem was that Prussia was also on its way to join the English army at Waterloo. Napoleon had to act quickly if he wanted to win. He could never have beaten the English army combined with the Prussian army, so he had to destroy the English army before the Prussians arrived. He came close to winning a couple of times, where he could break through the center line of the English, but eventually, these attempts failed. Partly because of how untrained his troops were, the generals who were in wrong positions or good generals that were simply absent, and awful lots of miscommunications, Napoleon couldn’t defeat the English before the Prussians arrived. When they arrived, Napoleon had no chance, and after a little more fighting, the battle was officially over and Wellington was seen as the English hero who beat Napoleon once and for all. Napoleon fled back to Paris, where the English came in once again to exile Napoleon. They were afraid that if they killed him, which would have been an understandable option, they’d make a martyr out of him and cause chaos within France and Europe, so eventually, a one-way trip to St. Helena it was. This is where Napoleon lived out the rest of his life until he died. Eventually, due to political reasons, his remains were brought back to Paris, where Napoleon got a beautiful tomb in L’hotel des Invalides, which used to be a hospital for the military. A place where he probably would have loved to be buried, alongside his men.

Facts about his actual downfall. (Why Napoleon didn’t have a Napoleon complex)

Often when people talk about Napoleon they’ll mention that he had a Napoleon complex. A psychological condition named after the man himself. It means that when you are of small physical stature, you want to overcompensate by acting boldly and starting fights with others. The odd thing about this is that Napoleon didn’t have a Napoleon complex at all. There is no indication that he ever felt the need to compensate for his height by bullying others. Despite the fact that he wasn’t small at all like people say, but was actually average height for his time, he didn’t have a psychological condition like this.

Another one is that they believed Napoleon had delusions of Grandeur, that he invaded Russia with this belief that he couldn’t be defeated and that he could do what he wanted. This is also completely false. Napoleon was a very calculated and intelligent man, and all of his military decisions were based on reasons that sounded pretty logical at that moment. 

Let’s look at some of the claims where Napoleon is accused of acting out on his Napoleon complex or out of delusions of grandeur and debunk them:

1 - He liked to declare wars on everyone.

One of the main criticisms made about Napoleon is that he was a warmonger who sought out wars with every country that caught his eye. Though this may sound pretty accurate considering that Napoleon's entire adulthood has been war, it is not. The fact is that in total 9 different wars were fought during the Napoleonic wars, of which only 2 were started by Napoleon himself. This means that most of the wars were actually not started by him, though most of them were finished by him. 

The first war he fought with France was actually one that was started before he was a general. Countries that still had reigning monarchies such as Austria, Prussia, and England were afraid that the ideas of the French Revolution, where the monarchy was overthrown, would spread to the rest of Europe and cause trouble to their monarchies. What they wanted was to overthrow the government that was installed after the revolution and reinstitute the monarchy. So war it was. Of course, France fought back and lost at first. But when Napoleon seized the town of Toulon where he threw out the English, hope started to arrive. Now France would attack Austria from the entire right flank of France. On the upper half near Austria and Germany, some French generals fought but hardly made any progress. But then there was Napoleon fighting at the bottom in Austria-controlled Italy, who won battle after battle, and eventually conquered the entirety of Italy. Because of Napoleon's staggering and unexpected victories, Austria sued for peace and the first war was over.

The rest of the wars brought upon Napoleon were mainly instigated by the British who wanted him gone. He was a disruptor in Europe and he was bad for the English trade. The English formed several coalitions against him with other countries that included mainly Austria, Prussia, and Russia. One of these coalitions eventually beat him at Waterloo. 

But almost all of the battles with these coalitions were won by Napoleon. Every time Napoleon immediately went for the peace deal, and there were times of peace within the Napoleonic wars, but after a while the other countries continually decided to wage war against Napoleon, despite his best intentions to maintain peace.

The only times when Napoleon himself declared war were on only 2 occasions. It was with the Peninsular War, in Spain and Portugal, and his attempted invasion of Russia. With the Peninsular War, it was more about stopping the English trade at their harbors and not so much about Spain itself. As we discussed Spain turned out to be a disaster for Napoleon because of the unwillingness of the people of Spain to be conquered.

His invasion of Russia also came out of an attempt to damage the economy of England. With one of his peace deals, Napoleon negotiated a settlement with the countries of Europe, including Russia, not to trade anything with the British. But when Napoleon found out that Russia kept on trading with England, contrary to their agreement, he took it as an insult and as a way of Russia saying, we don’t care about your agreements, and he decided he needed to invade. His original plan was to inflict damage on Russia, intimidate the Tsar, and then negotiate another peace deal, but as we’ve seen the invasion went further than planned and essentially played a huge role in Napoleon's downfall.

Whereas Napoleon did like wars, and won almost all of them, he didn’t start most of them, and the ones he did start were essentially because of a war he already had with England. So is Napoleon a warmonger who only wanted war? No, he wasn’t. Was he a military genius and very good at war? Yes, he was. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that he looked for conflict with others, in fact, history tells us the opposite is true.

2 - Russia was a mission impossible from the start.

Many people claim that Napoleon's invasion of Russia was based on delusions of grandeur, that he thought he could easily invade Russia because Napoleon was Napoleon and he was just better than everyone else. This, however, is not true at all. Napoleon's invasion of Russia was much more calculated than people believe, he simply made a couple of mistakes and didn’t expect the Russians to go as far as they did.

The idea was at first to go into Russia a little bit, fight some battles, win them all, and force Tsar Alexander to sign another peace treaty. Napoleon also had plenty of reasons to believe that he would be successful in this. He had the largest army ever seen at that time, bigger than the one Russia had. Though this seemed like an advantage, it turned out it wasn’t. Many of his soldiers came from the coalition he had with Austria, Prussia, Poland, and Italy. This meant that he had tons of people fighting for him who were not emotionally invested in France. So when France was on the losing side in Russia, many soldiers just switched sides. This made Napoleon's Grande Armée even weaker and sped up his losses. 

His first idea was to march a little bit into Russia and force a peace treaty, but the Russians did something that Napoleon didn’t expect at all. Just before every battle, the Russians retreated. They did this several times, and each time Napoleon moved up into the mainland of Russia until he eventually reached Moskow. Going to Moskow was not a battle strategy, but a power strategy. The idea was that when he conquered Moskow, everybody in the world would know who Napoleon was and what he did, and as a bonus the Tsar had to sue for peace. But what happened was something that nobody expected. 

When Napoleon arrived in Moscow, the entire city was completely empty. Everybody had fled. When Napoleon decided to go to sleep (which he did in the Kremlin) he woke up to something that surprised and horrified him. Moscow was up in flames. At first, he asked his generals who did this, and they told him that the Russians themselves did it. He couldn’t believe that the Russians would burn down their own capital, so he thought his generals were lying or covering something up. But after asking another time, he noticed that his generals were serious, and they themselves were flabbergasted as well. What the Russians did when they fled the city was release Moscow's prisoners, and give them the task of committing arson in every part of the city. 

What the Russians did was set Napoleon up for slaughter. They lured him deep into their country, and when he was deep enough, they were able to surround him. Napoleon's plan was to wait the winter out in Moscow and then return to France, but because of the arson, and because food supplies started to run out, Napoleon had to return, in wintertime. His return to Smolensk was disrupted multiple times by Russian armies coming from the side. But what was even worse were the terrible conditions the Russian winter brought. More soldiers died of starvation, diseases, and hypothermia than by any contact with the enemy. The Russian campaign eventually ended in a bloodbath, where Napoleon lost most of his men.

Even though invading Russia in hindsight was the worst decision Napoleon ever made, it was one that made sense when he made it. His army was larger, he could’ve gone back before winter arrived had he stopped at Smolensk, he believed that the Tsar was willing to make peace, and he never expected the Russians to just give up cities, including Moscow, just to lure him in and surround him. He could never have expected what was waiting for him in Russia. This doesn’t mean that this terrible disaster was not his fault, but it does show that Napoleon knew what he was doing when he waged war with Russia and was not just on some power trip trying to conquer the entirety of Russia. He simply wanted peace, but what he got was a humiliation.

3 - The battle of Waterloo was pointless.

Another point made about why Napoleon was a megalomaniac was that he fought an unwinnable battle at Waterloo and that because of him enormous amounts of soldiers lost their lives for nothing. While this may seem like a decent point to make, and indeed the loss of life turned out to be senseless, it is neither accurate nor complete. While it may have seemed in hindsight an impossible battle to win, it really wasn’t. Napoleon had ample opportunities to win the Battle of Waterloo, and he came close to victory a few times. While Wellington seemed very confident in victory, he too believed that the English had some close shaves with defeat. If Napoleon had burst through the center line with his army when Prussia hadn’t caught up yet with Wellington’s army, Napoleon may well have defeated the English, which would have made it possible to also defeat the Prussians. Napoleon's idea was when he’d done that, he’d sign a peace deal with the allies and just rule France again as its emperor. The plan for Waterloo was absolutely not doomed to fail, Napoleon took a calculated risk. But through miscommunications, generals in the wrong positions, and bad weather (there was mud everywhere which made movement slower), the battle ended in a loss for Napoleon. 

4 - He invaded Spain to expand his empire and feed his ego.

Lastly, we have one of Napoleon's biggest mistakes he ever made besides invading Russia, his invasion of Spain. Spain is often cited as an example of Napoleon's desire for power and is often perceived as a simple land grab. This however was not the case. Invading Spain was a tactical decision, based on the war he had with England. Napoleon's plan was to destroy the English economy, and he would do this by closing off trade with the European continent. This worked quite well, and most of Europe didn’t trade anything with England for a while, but Spain was not under Napoleon's control and kept trading with the English. To put the icing on the cake and prevent further trouble, Napoleon decided to invade Spain and also implement his trade ban in Spain and Portugal. 

This however didn’t turn out quite like he’d hoped. The Spanish strongly resisted Napoleon's invasion and did this with a new style of warfare at the time: Guerrilla warfare. This was not a war of army against army, but it was regular citizens and resistance groups against the French army. This was a form of warfare Napoleon never could have suspected, and if he did he certainly wouldn’t have expected it to be this effective. After the Spanish put up a good fight against the French, even the English decided to join them. Eventually, this turned out to be a complete disaster for France, which lost a lot of men in that war. Also, the Peninsular War overlapped with Napoleon's Russian invasion, which meant that while he was busy invading Russia, he still had to pay attention to what happened in Spain, and most importantly of all, he had to still send troops out there, which meant he couldn’t go all out on Russia.

His campaign in Spain eventually failed, but the reasons for his invasion were not as flat as everyone likes to believe. It was not simply land grabbing, or a desire for more power and to expand his empire. It was a very logical decision in a trade war with England. Had he succeeded in conquering Spain and Portugal and blocking all English trade there, he could have really damaged the British economy and perhaps won the trade war after all. 

What this blog is trying to prove is that Napoleon wasn’t the megalomaniac with a giant ego who had to compensate with bullying behavior for being short. There is much more to the man than meets the eye, and he is a very complex and genius figure. His downfall was because of a couple of mistakes he made and some bad luck, not just because of grandeur or because he believed he was unbeatable. Napoleon may have been reasonably small when it came to his height, but in the historic light, he was undoubtedly a great man.


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