Popular Resistance in Napoleonic Europe

Charles Esdaile explores grass roots opposition to Napoleonic rule, the forms it took and how the empire fought back.

Outside metropolitan France and, in part, even within it, the Napoleonic empire was in no sense a popular institution. Consciously administered by and for elite groups, for the populace it constituted a burden that was both wearisome and excessive. Already vividly demonstrated in the Revolutionary period, the tensions that these characteristics produced led to a generalised mood of unrest, whose most dramatic manifestation was a series of major revolts, the most important of these phenomena being the ones which broke out in Calabria in 1806, Spain and Portugal in 1808, and the Tyrol in 1809.

Why then did the rule of the Emperor and his satellites prove to be so universally unpopular? The answer is not hard to find. Let us first take the question of conscription. Though compulsory military service had existed in many of the states of eighteenth-century Europe, in practice few men had actually been taken. Not only were there numerous social, occupational and geographical exemptions, but the need for general conscription was reduced by the recruitment of criminals, vagrants and foreign deserters, while, in some cases, compulsion was either intermittent or absent altogether. The extraordinary demands of the Napoleonic empire therefore came as a great shock. Though service with the imperial armies may have been attractive to the adventurous, the unemployed and desperate, on the whole the idea that large numbers of men could be plucked from their homes, in all probability never to return, was anathema.

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