In 1812 the most powerful man in the world assembled the largest army in history and marched on Moscow with the intention of consolidating his dominion. But within months, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia – history’s first example of total war – had turned into an epic military disaster. Over 400,000 French and Allied troops perished and Napoleon was forced to retreat.
Adam Zamoyski’s masterful work draws on the harrowing first-hand accounts of soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict. The result takes the reader beyond the invasion of Russia to present both a poignant tale of the individual foot soldier and a sweeping history of a turbulent time.
Adam Zamoyski was born in New York but has spent most of his life in England. A freelance historian with a singular command of languages, his recent books include ‘1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow’, ‘Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna’ and ‘Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe’. He is married to the painter Emma Sergeant.
In 1920 the new Soviet state was a mess, following a brutal civil war, and the best way of ensuring its survival appeared to be to export the revolution to Germany, itself economically ruined by defeat in World War I and racked by internal political dissension.
Between Russia and Germany lay Poland, a nation that had only just recovered its independence after more than a century of foreign oppression. But it was economically and militarily weak and its misguided offensive to liberate the Ukraine in the spring of 1920 laid it open to attack. Egged on by Trotsky, Lenin launched a massive westward advance under the flamboyant Marshal Tukhachevsky.
All that Great Britain and France had fought for over four years now seemed at risk. By the middle of August the Russians were only a few kilometres from Warsaw, and Berlin was less than a week's march away. Then occurred the 'Miracle of the Vistula': the Polish army led by Jozef Pilsudski regrouped and achieved one of the most decisive victories in military history.
As a result, the Versailles peace settlement survived, and Lenin was forced to settle for Communism in one country. The battle for Warsaw bought Europe nearly two decades of peace, and communism remained a mainly Russian phenomenon, subsuming many of the autocratic and Byzantine characteristics of Russia's tsarist tradition.
In the wake of his disastrous Russian campaign of 1812, Napoleon's imperious grip on Europe began to weaken, raising the question of how the Continent was to be reconstructed after his defeat. There were many who dreamed of a peace to end all wars, in which the interests of peoples as well as those of rulers would be taken into account. But what followed was an unseemly and at times brutal scramble for territory by the most powerful states, in which countries were traded as if they had been private and their inhabitants counted like cattle.
The results, fixed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, not only laid the foundations of the European world we know; it put in place a social order and a security system that lie at the root of many of the problems which dog the world today. Although the defining moments took place in Vienna, and the principle players included Tsar Alexander I of Russia, the Austrian Chancellor Metternich, the Duke of Wellington and the French master of diplomacy Talleyrand, as well as Napoleon himself, the accepted view of the gathering of statesmen reordering the Continent in elegant salons is a false one. Many of the crucial questions were decided on the battlefield or in squalid roadside cottages amid the vagaries of war. And the proceedings in Vienna itself were not as decorous as is usually represented.
Drawing on a wide range of first-hand sources in six languages, which include not only official documents, private letters, diaries and first-hand accounts, but also the reports of police spies and informers, Adam Zamoyski gets below the thin veneer of courtliness and reveals that the new Europe was forged by men in thrall to fear, greed and lust, in an atmosphere of moral depravity in which sexual favours were traded as readily as provinces and the 'souls' who inhabited them. He has created a chilling account, full of menace as well as frivolity.