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When Napoléon conquered Berlin

On the 27th October 1806, Napoléon and his army marched triumphantly through the Brandenburg Gate.

Napoleon in Berlin by Charles Meynier

Jürgen Luh is a German historian who specialises in the history of Prussia and military history from the Peace of Westphalia to the early nineteenth century. He is a senior researcher at the research centre Sanssouci in Potsdam. We spoke with him about when France’s greatest General arrived in the German capital.

For those of us not familiar with this period in German history, can you paint a picture of what things were like here at the beginning of the 19th century?

Well, firstly, Germany didn’t exist at this time. The north of modern Germany – including Berlin – belonged to the kingdom of Prussia, which stretched much further East across modern-day northern Poland, as far as Lithuania. Under Frederick the Great, Prussia had become a big player on the world stage, but by the beginning of the 19th century it was no longer a major power – although it still thought of itself as one. Meanwhile France, under Napoléon, was ferociously expanding its Empire to take over parts of Italy, Spain, Egypt and the Middle East.

How did Berlin come to fall under French control?

Napoléon’s vision was to rule over a unified Europe and, to this end, he attacked and triumphed over many of France’s neighbouring kingdoms. Prussia had mainly avoided standing up to Napoléon, but, for some ill-advised reason, the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III decided to challenge him after his occupation of Ansbach and Bayreuth, and so the French and Prussian forces clashed in the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt. At that time, the Prussian army was not in good shape. The higher ranks were made up of ageing nobility who hadn’t kept up with modern warfare – with some even still wearing old-fashioned, long wigs in battle. But Napoléon’s army was modern, disciplined and made up of hardened soldiers who hadn’t just inherited their positions; they were ordinary men who had risen through the ranks on merit. So when the two sides met, the Prussians faced a catastrophic defeat and so it was natural for Napoléon to take possession of Berlin, then the capital of Prussia and the seat of its government.

How was the defeat of the Prussian army taken by the people of Berlin?

The ordinary Berliners couldn’t care less that the Prussian army had been defeated and much less that the King and the nobility had fled to the eastern tip of the Prussian Empire. In fact, the ordinary Prussian citizens had high hopes following the French victory. Remember that France had just had a revolution and the ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity, the removal of absolute monarchy, as well the introduction of a constitutional state, were spilling out into the rest of Europe. The Prussian citizens were hopeful that the French would make sure that these ideas took hold in Prussia, too.

Does that mean that the French arrival was welcomed by the people of Berlin?

Yes. In fact, Napoléon and his army received a warm welcome from the ordinary Berliners. There are many reports that the newly-occupied citizens actually celebrated their arrival and that there was a high-spirited, carnival atmosphere. The French troops marched through the Brandenburg Gate in parade formation on what was apparently a beautiful day, wearing immaculate uniforms adorned with gleaming medals. They made quite an impression. Napoléon later assigned the painter Charles Meynier to document his glorious arrival in the city in a huge four-by-six metre painting, which now hangs in Versailles. Napoléon himself only stayed a couple of days before moving on as the war continued in East Prussia.

How long did the French love affair last?

Not long. Although the French occupation was relatively peaceful and met with little resistance, the war reparations that Napoléon demanded took a very heavy toll on the ordinary people. Within a year, the French went from being the bringers of hope to financial oppressors. They burdened the kingdom with enormous debts and inflation rose rapidly and prices for everyday necessities like grain skyrocketed. It was a miserable situation for the population and a lot of people starved.

One famous incident from this period is the theft of the monument on top of the Brandenburg Gate, the so-called “Quadriga”. Why did the French take it?

Napoléon had a penchant for taking art and cultural artefacts from the places he conquered and, of course, he wasn’t the first or last to do so. He had his very own “art commissioner”, Dominique-Vivant Denon, who would accompany Napoléon to the occupied territories and select the artworks to be taken back to Paris and put on display at the Napoléon Museum (today the Louvre). But the removal of the sculpture on top of the Brandenburg Gate was ordered by Napoléon himself as an extra kick in the teeth for the Prussians and a boost to the stature of Napoléon the Conqueror.

An 1814 caricature of Napoleon stealing the Quadringa

And what happened once Napoléon decided to take the Quadriga?

Napoléon’s orders were swiftly enacted and his troops set about bringing the monument down from its perch. But it was far from the most delicately handled operation and the sculpture got badly damaged in the process. It also had to be dismantled for shipping and it was packed into 12 boxes for its journey to Paris. By the time it arrived, it had sustained even more damage and it had to be extensively restored in its new home of the Orangery of the Museum Napoléon (today The Louvre). Napoléon’s original wish was for the Quadriga to be placed on top of a new Arc de Triomphe, but that never happened. In fact, after the restoration, it seems that Napoléon forgot about it entirely and it remained in the basement of the Louvre for the next seven years.

Did the people of Berlin really care that the Quadriga was gone?

You have to think that, architecturally, the Brandenburg Gate was one of the only things of note to see in Berlin for the common man in those days. There was no big cathedral, no Parliament building, no Louvre, no Palais du Luxembourg. It was the only suitable edifice on which to place such a symbol in the city and it was also the main gate in and out of Berlin. So it’s absence was very much felt.

How did the French occupation end and the Quadrida come back to Berlin?

The French left Berlin in 1809 to move further East, though much of Prussia remained under occupation for the next few years. By 1814, the Prussians – allied with the Austrians and Russians – had defeated Napoléon at Leipzig and then advanced into France and finally into Paris to end Napoléon’s rule. When they were there, General Blücher – one of the only surviving generals from the Battle of Jena- Auerstedt and who hated Napoléon with a passion – pushed for the swift return of the Quadriga, as he recognised its symbolic importance to Berlin. The King wanted the Brandenburg Gate restored to its former glory, mainly to signify his own power. So, it was packed up again and transported by water across Germany, arriving in June in Jagdschloss Grunewald.

Did the French leave any lasting traces in Berlin?

In terms of the cityscape, the French occupiers didn’t build anything significant in the short time they were here. There are some myths about French words making their way into the German language at this time, but these are, sadly, just myths. What did stay, however, were the debts incurred during the occupation which took until 1861 to be fully paid off.