Geography and politics are always interlinked, and never more so than in the history of the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine. It came about as a result of French concerns over its “natural frontiers” and the desires of a ‘third' Germany (that is, neither Prussia nor Austria) to free itself from traditional burdens associated with the hegemony of its larger Germanic neighbours, Austria and Prussia.
Throughout the Revolutionary Period, France was obsessed with the concept of its “natural frontiers”. The best borders (defensively speaking) for France's were thought to be the Alps to the South and East and the Rhine river to the north and east. For this reason, after victories in Italy in both the First and Second Italian campaign (1796-96 and 1800), it was the left bank of the Rhine which was handed over to France, thus sealing up the leaky French north eastern border. However, ever since the Revolutionary wars of 1793, France had also assiduously cultivated the German territories just the other side of the Rhine, the right bank. These statelets were largely characterised by their interest in the Englightenment and the new ideas aired by the French Revolution. And although technically despotic in their regimes, they nevertheless saw that French interest and cooperation would allow them to escape from on the one hand the impediments put upon them by their ancient attachment to the Holy Roman Empire with its Austrian Habsburg Emperor and on the other the traditional territorial rapacity of Prussia. It would also help them to rationalise their territories, pockmarked as they were by autonomous zones belonging either to bishops, ducal families or even the major powers of Prussia and Austria. The subsequent meeting of the imperial representatives in 1803 in Stuttgart to establish the compensation of loss of territory brought about by the Peace of Lunéville (the famous Reichsdeputationshauptschluss) lead to closer French links for states such as Baden and Württemberg since the compensation package which had been drawn up by France and Russia was particularly favourable to them. Thus as a result of a process of the ten years of assiduous courting, from the beginning of the French Revolution, France and the states to the right-hand side of the Rhine were drawing ever closer.
Nor was a relationship between France and the Rhine states historically unprecedented. In 1658, just after the murderous Thirty Years war, Mazarin had signed a treaty forming a Rhine Alliance, involving (amongst other) the rulers of Mainz, Hesse-Darmstadt, Trier and Württemberg. Although much smaller in scale to its 19th-century counterpart (it only mobilised about 10,000 troops as opposed to the 73,000 under Napoleon), it formed a French foreign policy standard of attempting to create a bridgehead against Prussia and Austria, just the other side of the Rhine. What was of interest to these German rulers in the 17th century was all the more important 150 years later when France was a hyper-power in the region and the Prussia and especially the Austrian empire were on the wane. On the passing of the Holy Roman Empire, Goethe famously remarked that he more interested in an argument between his coachman and the footman.
The foundation stone for the Rheinbund was however the war of the Third Coalition in late 1805. Napoleon had enrolled Baden, Württemberg, Hesse-Darmstadt and Bavaria into his small French coalition against Russia, Austria and Britain. It is true that they had already been wooed in the compensations given them and they had also shown their positive attitude to Napoleon when they came to meet his visit to Charlemagne's tomb in the September of 1804 immediately preceding his coronation at Notre-Dame. Furthermore, Austria was to behave highhandedly with respect to Bavaria, invading, annexing and outraging the population in September 1805, pushing Max I Joseph into Napoleon's arms even more effectively than if he had wanted to. Once Austria was decisively beaten in the space of two months (at Ulm and Austerlitz), Napoleon sealed his alliances by making the rulers of Baden and Bavaria kings and the rule of Württemberg a Grand Duke. He then went on to marry his step son Eugène de Beauharnais to the Max Joseph's daughter Augusta Amalia and Josephine's niece, Stéphanie de Beauharnais to the Crown Prince of Baden both in the spring of 1806. The stage was thus set (with diplomatic negotiations taking place at the same time in Paris) for the creation of a confederation of state lined up along the right bank of the Rhine. It is true that they were obliged to promise troops to Napoleon and to pay for the garrisoning of French troops on their lands, but they were given independent royal identities, their territories were rationalised, their administrations modernised, and they were protected from the predatory behaviour of Austria and Prussia by the Napoleon himself, who by the treaty was named ‘Protector'. In addition to troops, France gained a defensive bastion and hegemonic control over central Europe, all without firing a shot. A triumph of diplomacy of ever there was one.
The creation of this third Germany was viewed with dismay in Prussia and Austria, and it was to be the kernel of disputes over the following nine years. Furthermore, although successful to begin with the Confederation's relation with the metropolis began to sour. For example, it began to be felt in Bavaria that they provided ever greater numbers of troops for ever decreasing rewards, and relations became frayed. Bavarian troops fought bravely and successfully in 1807, but they were to get nothing out of the Treaty of Tilsit (June 1807). And relations fell further after the events of 1809 in which Bavaria lost many men and 22 million gulden (the equivalent of two years revenue) only to received nothing in return. Franco-Bavarian relations were stretched to breaking point when Napoleon announced his divorce from the Crown Prince's mother-in-law and a new marriage to the daughter of the Austrian arch-enemy, Francis II. Indeed, for Bavaria, any Franco-Austrian rapprochement brought with it the spectre of Habsburg retaliation for Bavaria's opposition throughout the first decade of the 19th century. Negotiations begun in late 1810 regarding reparation for the war of 1809 (involving notably Bavaria ceding the Tyrol to the kingdom of Italy) left Max-Joseph in no doubt that his ‘special relationship' with Napoleon was at an end. Furthermore, on the birth of Napoleon's son in 1811, Augusta Amalia could no longer expect to become queen of Italy. Disaffection was to lead to defection. On eve of the Battle of Leipzig, via the Treaty of Ried (8 October, 1813) Max-Joseph, agreed to join the allies against Napleon. Similarly, Frederick of Württemberg found that all was not positive for him in the Confederation. Indeed, he became de facto an enemy to his father-in-law, George III. And so when the French empire began to crumble (and the Confederation with it) Frederick changed sides in 1813, joining the Allies, where the fact that he was brother-in-law to the British Prince Regent (later George IV) helped his status. After the fall of Napoleon, he attended the Congress of Vienna and was confirmed as King.
The states also began to suffer financially. After the setting up of the continental system designed to prevent British goods entering the continent (Berlin Decree of 21 November, 1806), smuggling began to occur in the states of the Confederation of the Rhine. As a result, Napoleon decided to pass the Trianon Decree (5 August, 1810) and the Fontainebleau Decree (9 October) placing heavy tariffs on raw materials (notably cotton) and on colonial produce (sugar, coffee, etc.). This decree of 5 August was followed by a decree dated 19 October (Fontainebleau Decree) ordering the destruction of all British merchandise found in territories occupied by Napoleon, included within which were the states of the Confederation. Indeed the smuggling problem was so acute that it was also cause the complete annexation of territories which were once rightful member of the confederation, notably on 13 December, 1810, when Napoleon annexed the northern state of Oldenburg, the two principalities of Salm, the duchy of Arenberg, to the Empire removing them from the Confederation of the Rhine. The death knell of the confederation was sounded after the Battle of Leipzig when the allies proclaimed the dissolution of the Confederation of the Rhine on 4 November, 1813.
That the institution was useful was revealed by the fact that during the negotiations at Vienna in 1815, a new Germanic confederation was founded, this time without French hegemonic interest, although certain states were to maintain a certain nostalgia for the good old Napoleonic days. Current bicentennial exhibitions reveal the importance of the event for the history of Germany as a whole, since in a way, the confederation of the Rhine signals the beginning of the move away from the Austrian/Holy Roman Empire domination of German lands of the 18th century to the Prussian northern German domination of a unified Germany after Bismarck.