June 26 1813: Napoleon and Metternich


On June 26 1812, Napoleon met for eight hours, in the Chinese room of the Marcolini Palace in Dresden, with Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, Austria’s Foreign Minister. Metternich had brought peace proposals from Russia and Prussia. The peace proposals called for the return of Illyria to Austria, dissolution of the Duchy of Warsaw,  the return of France’s eastern boundary to along the Rhine, and the break up of the Confederation of the Rhine. Napoleon rejected the proposals and refused to compromise.  War now became inevitable, and Napoleon’s overthrow almost certain. Austria would have no choice but to enter the war on the side of Prussia, Russia and, Napoleon’s most constant enemy, Great Britain.

There are various contraditory reports of what took place in the meeting. All agree that Napoleon at times pleaded, and at other times raged with volcanic fury. Metternich later recalled: “Our conference consisted of the oddest mixture of heterogeneous subjects, characterized now by extreme friendliness, now by the most violent outbursts of fury.” In responding to the peace proposals, Napoleon at one point said: “What do you want of me! Dishonour myself? Never! I shall die before yielding an inch of territory. Your monarchs are born on their thrones. They can afford to be defeated twenty times over and still return to their capitals. Me, I cannot, I’m an upstart soldier! My domination won’t last beyond the day I cease to be strong and people fear me.”  Others recorded his response this way: “Your sovereigns who were born to their thrones cannot comprehend the feelings that move me. To them it is nothing to return to their capitals defeated. But I am a soldier. I need honour and glory. I cannot reappear among my people devoid of prestige. I must remain great, admired, covered with glory.”

Both versions make it clear that Napoleon did not see how he could survive unless he waged war. Metternich understood this replying to Napoleon: “But when will this condition of things cease, in which defeat and victory are alike reasons for continuing these dismal wars? If victorious, you insist upon the fruits of your victory; if defeated, you are determined to rise again.”

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