Motivated by the changing face of European geo-politics, Alexander and Napoleon both sought this summit as a necessary compliment to that which had been decided at their first meeting, on the banks of the Niemen, fifteen months previously. The goal was to clear up a certain number of ambiguities that remained from Tilsit, as well as renew the alliance in the context of a changed Europe.
The morning after Tilsit
In July 1807, Napoleon and Alexander had not only made peace, but had also concluded a secret alliance.(1) They undertook, for the time-being, to offer their respective mediation in re-establishing a general peace: Alexander would put pressure on his former ally, England, while Napoleon would do likewise with the Ottoman Empire. In the event of failure, the new alliance would come into play, including any military action. Tilsit can therefore be seen as not only an end, but also the starting-point for further development. Napoleon was also acutely aware that a follow-up would be necessary, if only to keep 'the flame' alive. Doubting less Alexander's sincerity, he was more concerned with the possibility that the Russian emperor would fall under the influence of the latter's court that remained hostile to the French alliance. It was thus of vital importance that Napoleon remained informed of what was happening in Russia; with this in mind, he immediately dispatched Savary to the Russian court, with the goal of keeping Napoleon informed of affairs and, if possible, curry positive opinion regarding France.
In the following months, everything appeared to confirm the wisdom of Napoleon's decision to bank on the Russian alliance. It is likely that Savary's reports bore witness to continued hostility amongst the Russian aristocracy.(2) Alexander, however, appeared to be keeping his word; he had named a new Foreign Affairs minister, Count Rumiantsov, to represent his new policy, and continuously referred to Napoleon with the greatest of affection. Personal letters were exchanged between the two.(3) Superb gifts of Russian furs and porcelain from Sèvres were given and received. Discretely, Napoleon even made purchases on behalf of the Countess Naryshkin, Alexander's mistress. Then in November, Napoleon named as Savary's successor an ambassador that had been carefully chosen to please the tsar: General Caulaincourt (1773-1827), who was liked and known to Alexander following his placement at the court of St. Petersburg in 1801.(4) Napoleon's choice was intended to give Franco-Russian diplomacy the personal touch. But this had still to be put into action.
Implementing the alliance: England and Turkey
And yet, a couple of months after the initial elation of Tilsit, cold realism set in. Napoleon was clearly regretting having said too much regarding the Ottoman Empire and Alexander was beginning to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of the alliance. And whilst it is true that he fulfilled more or less all that was required of him at Tilsit, it was not out of a desire for exactitude, but rather a calculation intended to seize the morale high-ground and to exact further obligations, quid pro quo, from Napoleon. The exhilaration over, self-interest took hold.
In September 1807, the morning after the English bombarded Copenhagen, Alexander was required to declare war on England as set out in the treaty.(5) Alexander deferred the decision in order to avoid an attack on his capital by the English Navy. However, by 7 November, winter having arrived, he solemnly broke with London. Napoleon would have had every reason to be relieved, had not the tsar, in the same breath, raised the Ottoman Empire question. In Russian minds, it was entirely natural that having broken with England, Napoleon would allow Russia a free-hand in extending her empire at the expense of Turkey. This was hugely embarrassing for the French emperor who was still allied with the Ottoman Empire. He had let himself be carried along by the reverie of Tilsit, but with hindsight, he realised that there lay a risk in allowing Russia to take control of the eastern Mediterranean. However, he did not want to discourage the tsar's hopes and risk losing an important ally in his struggle with England. Things had become delicate.
In August, Alexander had refused to ratify the Russo-Turk armistice, concluded through the intervention of Colonel Guilleminot. Far from setting in motion the evacuation of Russian troops from Moldova and Wallachia, as agreed at Tilsit, the Russian emperor intended to annexe the two territories.(6) This was inconceivable in Napoleon's eyes, except in the event of a division of the Ottoman lands in their entirety. In this case, if Russia kept the Danubian provinces, France would take Morea, Albania or Egypt. The situation remained precarious and the opening of this Pandora's Box could result in England's profiting in the Mediterranean. In answer, Napoleon moved the goalposts: he would accept Russia's control of the Danubian provinces if, as compensation, France stayed on the Oder, and kept Silesia, a province that was to be returned to Prussia. Thus, the Treaty of Tilsit would not be amended in favour of an individual, but that “France's ally and Russia's ally would each experience a loss of equal standing.”(7) It was hoped that Alexander would prefer to give up the Danube for the moment.
The proposition did not fail to trouble the Russian emperor. Besides the fact that his honour would not allow him to profit from his unfortunate allies in Königsberg, he feared the prospect of French consolidation at the heart of central Europe, with the reunion of Saxony, Silesia and the Duchy of Warsaw. As Albert Vandal writes, “the two questions, which for a century had prevented any lasting rapprochement between France and Russia, those of the Orient and Poland, both reappeared in conjunction. Napoleon, in trying to resolve the first by raising the second, only succeeded in complicating the situation.”(8)
To overcome this deadlock, Napoleon reluctantly returned to the idea of a division of the Ottoman Empire, a course destined to cause problems. Nevertheless, as far as Napoleon was concerned, better that it be a shared division of the empire than an amputation that would benefit only Russia. In January, in an effort to put a positive spin on things and incorporate it in his ongoing war with England, he envisaged a vast Franco-Russian expeditionary project destined for the Indies, based on a plan drawn up when Paul I was on the Russian throne. The emperor nevertheless dithered for a number of weeks, reluctant to close the door on a possible compromise with London. His decision was made once the views of George III removed any possibility of said compromise.(9) On 2 February, Napoleon wrote to Alexander, detailing his extraordinary plans(10): “It is only by grand and vast-reaching measures that we may achieve peace and consolidate our system.” He also envisaged Alexander deploying on a large scale against England, for which Russia would be well recompensed for its efforts: attack Sweden, who is allied with England, and she could keep Finland; participate in a combined expedition to the Indies, and Napoleon would allow her access to the Bosphorus. These considerable benefits, which would crown the work done by Catherine II and Peter the Great, should disarm Russian hostility to the French alliance. But to finalise the details of such an immense plan, long-distanced negotiation was no longer sufficient: delivery time for the letters, but also the intervention of intermediaries, beginning with Tolstoy, the Russian ambassador in France, which sometimes distorted the words and facts, led to things becoming confused. Napoleon therefore proposed a personal meeting with Alexander, to be held soon, but left the details of time and date to the Russian, indicating that he should put “a compass on the map” and choose a point, equidistant between their respective capitals. It would still take several months for the meeting to be realised, and the agenda would be very different, but the seeds were sown in this letter.
It is uncertain whether or not this offer of sharing out the Ottoman Empire was entirely sincere. It may well have been simply a diversion tactic to the Prussian question as well as winning Napoleon the necessary time to deal with the Spanish situation, which was demanding more and more of the emperor's attention. It is unlikely that Napoleon had made a decision, preferring as he did to exclude nothing and keep all his irons in the fire. Whatever his intentions were, his letter was received with joy by Alexander. “That is the style of Tilsit; the emperor can count on me”, he declared to Caulaincourt. He immediately accepted the proposition of a meeting, proposing either Weimar or Erfurt as the possible site. Close discussion ensued between Caulaincourt and Rumiantsov; Russia made no mystery of its intention to take Constantinople, and with France refusing to rule it out, a number of different plans were drawn up.(11) Obviously it would come down to the sovereigns to make the final decision, but Napoleon had already achieved his goal: Alexander announced on 13 March that he would offer him an army for the Indian expedition and that he was placing under Napoleon's command his navy for the Mediterranean.(12) Without waiting, his troops invaded Swedish-controlled Finland, conforming to Napoleon's wishes. Nothing appeared to stand in the way of a meeting that would lead to action in the east, and Alexander intended it to take place at the start of May. An event in Spain, however, would shake up the deal.
Two unexpected obstacles: Spain and Austria
As he was busy re-launching his eastern project, Napoleon also kept a close-eye on what was happening in the Iberian Peninsula. Tension between Godoy's partisans and those of the crown prince Ferdinand had exploded with the mutiny of Aranjuez (17-19 March 1808). Napoleon was called in to arbitrate, and he left for Bayonne on 2 April. The meeting with Alexander was thus adjourned sine die, which paralysed Russian plans for conquest of the Danube. The tsar's mood was not improved by the state of operations in Finland, which were dragging on, and the end of trade with England which was starting to affect the Russian economy. Caulaincourt noted the negative effects that this setback was having on mutual confidence.(13)
Paradoxically, it was Napoleon's mistakes and disappointments suffered in Spain that would improve France-Russian relations. The day following the usurpation of Bayonne, Napoleon informed Alexander of events and explained, in more detail in a letter from early-July that he was only yielding to the 'irresistible pitch of events'. He goes on, arguing that France had nothing to gain from being there, and that 'Spain will be more independent than she has ever been.”(14) Far from displaying disapproval, Alexander appears to have been satisfied with these explanations, welcoming 'the regeneration' of Spain and recognising without discussion Joseph Bonaparte as king of Spain. He did, however, intend to make full use of this condescension and initiated a new list of claims that would be presented during the meeting, now put back to September.
The capitulation of Bailén (20 July) further complicated matters. Napoleon found himself forced to revise his plans: either he give up his plans for Spain, and risk handing it over to British influence, or he dig in, but transfer a part of his army from Germany to the Iberian Peninsula. Unless he wished to see his prestige weakened, Napoleon could not hesitate. He resolved to evacuate Prussia, and informed Alexander of his decision. A potential point of contention between France and Russia was thus avoided. An equally delicate subject, however, appeared at the same time.
Austria had never really accepted the consequences of the defeats in 1800 and 1805, and hoped one day to avenge its losses in Germany and expulsion from Italy. The events in Spain hastened these projects: the deposition of the Bourbons showed that Napoleon no longer felt restrained by any limits, and the Hapsburgs feared that they were next on the list. Towards the end of spring 1808, Austria increased its military strength and stepped up its manoeuvres. News from Bailén provided further encouragement and Napoleon, well-informed, realised that he could not push into the heart of Iberia without running the risk of being stabbed in the back. Would he have to repeat the 1805 scenario of combating Austria before turning back to Spain? He hoped to avoid this by virtue of his alliance with Russia, and suggested that Alexander begin to put pressure on Vienna. First of all, to show willing, Austria was to recognise Joseph's accession to the throne of the Catholic kings. Alexander was content, however, to merely warn Austria of the danger of defying France at this time. For his part, Napoleon tried hard to both reassure and intimidate Vienna at the same time: on 15 August, during a reception of the diplomatic corps, and then again on 25 August, Napoleon spoke strongly to the Austrian ambassador, 15) Things remained unresolved, however, and this question would be a further point of discussion between Napoleon and Alexander.
These different developments rendered the meeting between the two emperors more and more urgent. On top of this, a palace revolution in Constantinople took place, presaging further troubles throughout the Ottoman Empire. Alexander suddenly made the decision, informing Caulaincourt that he would leave his capital on 12 September and arrive in Erfurt on 27 September.(16) Napoleon confirmed the meeting and dispatched Marshall Lannes to await the tsar's arrival at the Vistula.(17)
And so the meeting, planned months previously, to discuss war in the Indies and the division of Turkey was finally confirmed. Two new questions took urgent precedent, relegating the original concerns to second-tier discussions. For Napoleon, the key concern was to contain Austria before finishing off Spain. Only then could the original projects be readdressed. He was now in the position of having to ask Alexander for something, and with a far-weaker hand than the previous year at Tilsit. Not even the immense spectacle and prestige with which he surrounded himself at Erfurt would change his situation, and it is hardly surprising that the meeting resulted in a relative failure – even more so considering the fact that his former minister Talleyrand, who was accompanying Napoleon as grand chamberlain and official negotiator, far from serving his emperor, spent his time at Erfurt undermining the cause that he was meant to be working towards. At a crucial moment, the French front was not united.
Preparation for the meeting
Unsurprisingly, in preparation for this crucial meeting with Alexander, Napoleon looked to surround himself with enlightened advice, concerning primarily measures to take regarding Turkey: he knew that the Russian camp would press on this subject and he did not want to be caught short. He consulted at length General Sébastiani, who had just returned from Constantinople, and commissioned the Count d'Hauterive to produce an in-depth study. Both men made clear the drawbacks to a division of Turkey and Napoleon was persuaded that nothing more than the Danubian provinces could be granted to Russia.
The most remarkable however is the fact that he turned to Talleyrand, who had last held a ministerial position one year previously. Not only Napoleon solicit his advice and give him full access to all the previous diplomatic correspondence, but he also suggested that Talleyrand accompany him and charged him with drawing up the treaty, in place of 18) Napoleon was thus banking on Talleyrand's skill to help him get the most out of the conference. What followed indicates that it was a strange decision on the part of Napoleon: the former minister maintained a good relationship with Metternich, then ambassador in Paris, who advised him as to Austria's best interests. Maybe in 1808 and faced with a dangerous new adventure in the east, Talleyrand sincerely felt that the Austrian threat could dissuade Napoleon, in the interest of the common good. Whatever his beliefs, Talleyrand began to work against Napoleon before even leaving Paris: he effectively suggests to Metternich that he have the Austrian emperor come to Erfurt “as a discomfort” which will prevent Napoleon and Alexander from having things all their own way.(19)
Aside from this diplomatic and intellectual preparation, Napoleon was also concerned about the logistics of the event. He was, after all, the host, Erfurt remaining in French hands as a sort of 'deposit' since 1806. Nothing was too good when it came to the prestige of the event. The major buildings and roads were redone and tidied up. The palace of government was refitted and the theatre restored. It goes without saying that a number of the most impressive regiments were placed in the town, under the command of General Oudinot, who was named governor. The Grand-duke Constantin, an expert in military matters was particularly admirative of the 17th infantry, the 6th cuirassiers and the 8th hussars. Many other units were present in Erfurt and were reviewed during the two week conference. For those not satisfied by the military spectacle, Napoleon had also prepared other diversions: “I want there to be something every day,” he indicated. “I want Germany to be overawed by my magnificence.”(20) And nor did he stint on expense: “This thespian mass-levy is expensive courting,” wrote Metternich. “Everyone in the cast receives one thousand écus in travel expenses, and the main actors eight thousand francs in addition as recompense.”(21) Napoleon took with him the best actors (and the most attractive actresses) of the Comédie Française, and chose the plays to be performed himself: nothing but classical tragedies, beginning with Cinna, a political piece of which he was particularly fond, which would be ideal in “improving the morale of a German people” too susceptible to melancholic ideas.(22) Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, the very best of French classicism, but no comedies and no dramas. Those present would not laugh or cry, but would be enlightened.
Finally Napoleon himself put on a show. Arriving on 27 September, one day before Alexander, he appeared surrounded by brilliant aide-de-camps, squires and chamberlains as well as his glorious marshals, including Soult, Davout, Berthier, Lannes and Mortier. Above all, there was the veritable 'bedrock' of German kings and princes. Napoleon had no need to send invitations; each felt it necessary to be there, and Napoleon was happy to grant them permission to come.(23) Those that could not be present were represented by members of their family (this included the 24) The Austrian emperor, even if he had not followed the advice of Talleyrand, had sent the Baron de Vincent to welcome the emperors and of course stay informed of what happened behind the scenes.
Festivities and negotiation
A number of memorable episodes remain on record from Erfurt: Napoleon's conversation with Goethe (“Monsieur Goethe, you are a man.”), the visit to the battlefield of Jena, the ball at Weimar. Several asides have been retained too: Napoleon to his crown-wearing guests: “When I was a lieutenant of the artillery…”; and also while at table: “Please be quiet, king of Bavaria!”, although this one is less-certain. Remembered also is Alexander's conspicuous accolade, upon hearing a particular verse of Voltaire, to Napoleon while at the theatre.(25) It was however a different piece that played out, behind the scenes of this brilliant spectacle. Away from the amiability and proclamations of friendship, fierce negotiations were taking place, primarily between the two emperors. Each afternoon, they would find themselves in a tête-à-tête in Napoleon's chambers, although this did not prevent them from consulting their respective advisers: Talleyrand, Champagny and Caulaincourt for Napoleon, and Rumiantsev, Tolstoy and indeed Talleyrand for Alexander. The former minister, arriving a day before Napoleon, had taken advantage of this to address directly the tsar: “Sire, what have you come to do here? It is up to you to save Europe and you will only succeed by standing up to Napoleon. The French people is civilised, its ruler is not; the ruler of Russia is civilised, his people is not. It is thus up to the Russian ruler to be the ally of the French people.”(26) Alexander, initially surprised but interested, allowed himself to be persuaded, little by little in the course of his nocturnal conversations with Talleyrand, both as guests of the princess of Turn und Taxis. Eventually he was in agreement that he should resist the demands of Napoleon.
The principle demand concerned Austria. In order to rapidly pacify Spain, Napoleon needed to know that Austria was well contained behind him. He pushed Alexander to declare himself firmly as Napoleon's ally against Austria, and thus dissuade any vague attempt at aggression on the part of the latter. Yet it was this very subject that had formed the basis of the conversation between Talleyrand and Alexander. The latter thus presented an obstinate resistance, running the risk of exasperating Napoleon who one day, angered by the Russian's refusal to agree to his demands, threw his hat to the ground and stamped on it. Alexander was not moved. Far from consenting to threatening Austria, the Russian emperor discretely sought to reassure her. He nevertheless agreed to the insertion in the final text of the convention, signed on 12 October, which included a defensive alliance clause against Austria (Article 10).(27) The other points on the agenda posed barely any problems. The alliance agreed at Tilsit against England was renewed and a number of principle points for any future peace with the “common enemy” were agreed upon. It was no longer the hour for combined military operations, however; all that was proposed was negotiation with London (Articles I to 7 and 12 of the treaty). Before going their separate ways, the two emperors together addressed to George III a letter to this effect.(28) With regards to Turkey, Napoleon had resigned himself in advance to letting Russia retain its provinces of Moldova and Wallachia, which was sanctioned by article 8 of the treaty. Nevertheless, it was decided that the annexation would be deferred to maintain appearances.
A final question had however raised certain difficulties: that of Prussia. It was probably less acute once Napoleon had announced that he intended to evacuate his troops from the area. Nevertheless, the Franco-Prussian agreement that was signed on 8 September in Paris was not enough to entirely satisfy the Russian emperor.(29) Besides the very heavy reparation that Prussia was forced to pay France, fixed at 140 million francs, French forces continued to occupy three sites on the Oder: Glogau, Stettin and Küstrin. On this point, however, Alexander's efforts were in vain, as Napoleon made it clear that if Austria was not entirely dissuaded from attacking, then he could not afford to let go of such an asset. Possession of Glogau gave him the option of threatening Bohemia in the event of war, and the two other sites would help in keeping Prussia in check should it consider joining with Austria. Napoleon would add: “As for the rest, if you absolutely require their evacuation, I shall consent to it, but instead of going to Spain I shall finish my quarrel with Austria.”(30) This was obviously not what Alexander wished, and so things remained as they were, Napoleon limiting himself to reducing the reparations to 120 million francs.
When the two emperors went their separate ways on 14 October, Napoleon had barely any reason to be satisfied, even if he was ignorant of Talleyrand's betrayal. He left for Paris having created a treaty that was “essentially different to the one that he had in mind on arrival in Erfurt.”(31) The friend from Tilsit had shown himself to be markedly less willing, despite the appearances of friendship and all Napoleon's attempts at seduction. The differences, more marked now due to Talleyrand's efforts, had become clearer with the change in the balance of power. “These devilish affairs in Spain have cost me dear,” admitted the emperor.(32) A Franco-Russian marriage may have smoothed over some of the difficulties. On the French side, Napoleon had sounded out Alexander without really opening up to him. The idea would remain suspended for some time, but Napoleon was not yet resolved to the idea of divorce and the Grand-duchess Catherine was married a few months later.
When it comes down to it, the alliance was little more than a facade. Far from being intimidated, Austria was reassured, even encouraged to pursue its aggressive projects. And with that, England once again had an ally on the continent, and any hope of a general peace was shattered. Napoleon was not aware of everything that was said between Austria and Russia, now practically reconciled thanks to the intervention of Talleyrand, and he still believed that he could dissuade the latter with his show of the Franco-Russian alliance in all its pomp and circumstance. On 14 October, he announced to Francis I the departure of 100,000 men from Germany and the dismissal of the contingents from the Rhine Confederation. “May Your Majesty abstain from any armament that could cause me worry. The best policy today is simplicity and truth. Should Your Majesty confide to me any concerns, I shall dispel them immediately.” However, this condescending language no longer reflected the political reality. Far from consolidating the Tilsit system, the Erfurt meeting actually marked “the beginning of the end” of the unusual event that had begun in July 1807.
Michel Kerautret (Tr. & ed. H.D.W.)