Napoleon’s and Hitler’s failed invasions of Russia

Two men separated by over 100 years of history, yet both planted the seeds of their downfall by invading the same country. Possibly the two most significant invasions in modern military history that would significantly change the balance of power in Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte, a man that would change European history forever with not only his military skill, but with the ideas of the French revolution spread across the continent. And Adolf Hitler, possibly one of histories most horrific ruler whose ambition dragged the world into yet another horrifying war that saw the death of over 50 million people worldwide.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon was born in Corsica, an island just off the west coast of Italy. The ownership of the island had changed in years close to Napoleon’s birth, the islands being at one time part of the Republic of Genoa in Italy. When Napoleon was born it was then owned by France but he was hardly a Frenchman. The young Napoleon did not even speak French, the majority on the island speaking Italian, and had to learn it in his youth, however he would speak it for the rest of his life in a strong Corsican accent. Like Napoleon, Hitler was also not born in the country he would eventually rule over. Hitler was born in Braunau, Austria but did not face the difficulties of language that Napoleon did with Austria being a German speaking country.

Adolf Hitler

In later life when both rose to power, the similarities are impossible to miss. Hitler ignited a Second World War in 1939 quickly achieving victories with his German army until by 1941 he was the de facto ruler of Europe. In Napoleon’s time, the revolutionary wars ended with France being the dominant superpower in Europe as Napoleon skilfully manoeuvred his way into power, eventually declaring himself emperor of France and, like Hitler, master of Europe by 1812. The only nation that defied Hitler and Napoleon’s rule was Great Britain. Protected by the seas and its Royal Navy, the sturdy island nation proved to be a constant hindrance to both leaders in their never ending pursuit of power.

In 1807, following the French victory in the war of the fourth coalition, Napoleon had completely charmed the Russian Tsar and had been able to sign a peace treaty leading to an Alliance between the two countries. The main purpose of the alliance was for Russia to join the ‘Continental System’, designed by Napoleon, it was intended as a solution to defeat the British. The ‘Continental System’ effectively stopped any trade with Britain by any nation in Europe. With a huge power like Russia joining this system, Napoleon hoped it would hurt Britain even further and leading to Britain coming to the negotiating table with him. But the alliance with Napoleon, who before the alliance had been slated as being the Antichrist in Russia, was highly unpopular, eventually the Tsar had to concede to the Russian nobles and neutral ships began arriving at Russian ports for trade. Seeing his ‘Continental System’ threatened, Napoleon knew he needed to intervene militarily to force Alexander’s hand.

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Stalin smiles as the pact with Nazi Germany is signed

Like Napoleon, Hitler had also signed an alliance with Russia, or the Soviet Union as it was then called. The Molotov – Ribbentrop pact had brought both rival ideologies of National Socialism and Communism together, an act which stunned the world. The main intention was to give Hitler a free hand in the West dealing the British and French without any worry for a war in the East for the time being. Hitler made quick work of the Allies, taking Poland in September of 1939, then Norway and France in 1940. Veering south he next took the Balkans with Yugoslavia and Greece falling. By 1941 Hitler had defeated every major enemy on the European continent. But like the conundrum Napoleon was in, Hitler was unable to force Britain to her knees. Here is where things start to differ between the two men. Napoleon only invaded Russia reluctantly in order to drag Russian back into the alliance and into his cherished ‘continental system’, Britain being the main enemy in Napoleon’s eyes. But for Hitler, defeating Russia was much more personal. He detested the Soviet Union and everything it stood for, especially communism. He believed his invasion was to be a war of extinction against the ‘Slavs’ in the East and his ‘Aryan’ Germans and was clear on his intentions of destroying the population in the East, developing horrific ideas such as the plan to systematically starve millions of people once a victory had been achieved over the Soviet Union. Hitler was able to convince his generals of the invasion by reasoning that if the Soviet Union also fell, then Britain must surely come to terms in understanding that they could never defeat Nazi Germany alone.

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Napoleon with his Grande Armée

For an invasion of a country as vast and powerful as Russia the two leaders knew that they needed a colossal army. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was the largest of its time. Whilst it was led by French generals, it would have been more appropriate to have called it ‘L’Armée de l’Europe’. It included soldiers from all over the continent, the main body being Frenchmen and others from the French empire such as Dutch, Swiss, Italians and Belgians. The second largest in number were Poles, then came the Italians, Germans, Austrians, Croats and Spanish, just to name a few. The actual number of the troops involved has been widely debated, but it was somewhere between 550,000 to 600,000, along with over 160,000 horses gathered from all over the continent to be used as cavalry or transportation. Hitler’s army of 1941 dwarfed Napoleon’s, but then again it was over 100 years after Napoleon’s time. Hitler had positioned 3,050,000 German troops along the border to the Soviet Union. They were joined by troops from their Axis allies bringing the total to nearly four million soldiers. Hitler also had his famous Blitzkrieg weapons in the form of tanks and armoured cars that would race behind the Russian lines, but along with this army came 600,000 horses used to tow ambulances, ration wagons, guns and used for other forms of transportation. Although modern technology allowed for motorized vehicles to speed up certain units, the majority of troops were on foot, just like Napoleons soldiers.

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A French soldier of the Grande Armée

On 24th June 1812 Napoleon and his army crossed the Niemen river to start its invasion of Russia, almost 129 years later on the 22nd June 1941, German and axis troops began entering the Soviet Union, only 2 days before the Grande Armée had set off. For Napoleon the invasion went relatively well. The Grande Armée swiftly pushed through the countryside as the Russian armies retreated further and further towards Moscow. The Russian generals preferred to fall back and let attrition take its toll on the Grande Armée rather than take on Napoleon whose military genius was greatly feared. Many times the Russian general Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly attempted to create a strong defensive position in order to fight the Grande Armée in a decisive battle, but the French advance was too rapid for the Russians who continued to retreat. Eventually Barclay de Tolly was removed due to his refusal to give battle. His replacement was Mikhail Illarionovic Kutuzov. Like his predecessor, he soon realised that if he were to give battle to Napoleon he would surely lose, his only hope was to fight whilst in a strong defensive position and so he continued in the same way as Barclay de Tolly had. He eventually was able to stop in Borodino, a village a mere 70 miles or so from Moscow. He set up defensive positions and awaited the Grande Armée.   

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German motorized troops on the move in Russia

The German armies in 1941 had managed to catch the Soviets by complete surprise and quickly engulfed entire armies in vast encircling manoeuvres with the panzer troops racing behind the Soviet lines. Just 5 days after the invasion, two panzer groups had met at Minsk, some 200 miles behind the Soviet front line and had managed to encircle more than 300,000 Red Army troops along with 2,500 tanks that were either destroyed or captured. In 3 weeks the Red Army had lost 3,500 tanks, over 6,000 aircraft and around 2 million men. For Hitler victory seemed close as his troops continued to roll forward crushing any Soviet armies that lay in their way. Whilst the Germans began to reach Moscow in the centre and Leningrad in the north, they soon learned how extensive the Soviet Union’s manpower really was. Hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers were rushed into the front line only to be killed or captured by the Germans, but no matter how many Soviets they killed, more kept appearing on the horizon. As they approached Moscow the weather was beginning to turn for the worst. To the German soldier the situation was certainly unsettling. The optimism following the early victories had been ground away by the countless number of Red Army soldiers they continued to face. Victory only seemed possible if they got to Moscow, but the weather was getting colder.

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Painting of the battle at Borodino

As Napoleon stood on a hill overlooking the battlefield at Borodino, with Moscow in the background, the weather was still in good condition. His forces finally faced the Russian army, a battle he had been waiting for since the beginning of the invasion. The battle commenced involving more than 250,000 troops, it was to be one of the bloodiest days in European military history until the battle of the Somme in 1916. Although Napoleon’s performance in the battle was possibly his worst as a general, he still came out the victor, though not without losses. The Russians suffered around 45,000 casualties whilst the Grande Armée’s losses came to around 28,ooo. The damage to the Russian army was crippling and so it began to limp back further into Russia for a much needed rest and to await reinforcements. The Russian general Kutuzov knew he could not give battle again until his army had recovered, but this meant losing Moscow, the old capital of Russia. The French losses were not as severe, however Napoleon had all but destroyed his cavalry.Yet the Grande Armée marched on towards Moscow capturing the city on the 14th September. When the Russians fled the city, a fire had started which devastated large areas before the French had arrived. With a burnt out city at its feet, the Grande Armée needed a more suited camp to face the Russian winter and so in the middle of October Napoleon began moving his troops back westwards. Greatly underestimating the Russian climate the French manoeuvre soon became a full scale retreat as its supply lines came under attacks from Russian units in the French rear. With the army marching in freezing conditions out in the open the losses began to rise. Just to make things worse the Russian army, back up to strength after its period of rest, began chasing the Grande Armée as it fled westwards. The Russians had used Moscow as a trap to lure the Grande Armée into Russia until winter hit which they knew would destroy the French army. Napoleon had no option but to retreat as best he could knowing the cost to his army would be disastrous.

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Soviet troops ready to defend Moscow

In October 1941, the Germans had Moscow on the horizon, being tantalizingly close to achieving a possible victory. With fresh units arriving from Siberia in the far East, the Soviets launched a massive counter offensive smashing apart the German armies at the front. After months of continuous marching and fighting the German armies were in no condition to withstand the attack. For the first time in the war the German army had been halted decisively. Now troops began to panic and German generals called for retreat. Before the invasion many German generals had read accounts of Napoleons invasion of Russia and the subsequent retreat, above all they feared a similar situation for their own army. Hitler had forbidden any winter clothing to be issued to his troops, believing it to be possible that his army could defeat the Soviets before winter set in. But he massively miscalculated as his troops began to freeze on the front lines whilst being attacked by Soviet troops. It was at this moment that Hitler called for a halt. Not wishing to replicate Napoleons retreat of 1812, he forbid any units to fall back and ordered them to create strong points to stop the Soviets. Huddled together in make shift foxholes in the freezing cold, the Germans held their positions as the Soviets pushed against them hard.

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Napoleon and his freezing Grande Armée on the retreat

The Grande Armée on the other hand crawled its way back through western Russia, being constantly harassed by the Russians, losing thousands of men to the Russian cavalry hacking at their rear. The further the men marched, the worse the weather got with men and horses dying on a tremendous scale, many freezing to death. In late January, after almost 3 months of retreating and fighting their way back through Russian armies, the Grande Armée entered the relative safety of Poland. But here Napoleon was able to see the true scale of the disaster which had befallen his army. It is impossible to give an exact figure of the losses, but starting the invasion Napoleon had somewhere between 550,000 to 600,000 soldiers. In January 1813 only around 120,000 came out of Russia. Thus it can be roughly assumed that as many as 400,000 soldiers died, only a quarter of them from battle. The rest were killed by the Russian winter. This was the beginning of the end for Napoleon. His first real defeat allowed his enemies to rally behind Russia and rise up against him. First the Prussians and then the Austrians declared war on France joining Russia in pushing him back to the borders of France. By March 1814 Paris capitulated and Napoleon was defeated.

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Frozen and starved, a German soldier taken captive in Stalingrad

Hitler’s downfall went differently. His freezing army was able to hold on against the Soviets who were unable to keep up the pressure in their offensive. When the weather improved in mid 1942 his troops were able to launch another assault pushing even further into Russia, but whilst Napoleon’s end began in the city of Moscow, Hitler’s began in the city of Stalingrad. In early 1943 the Germans lost nearly 800,000 troops to the Soviets in the battle for the city which bore Stalin’s name and they were never able to regain the initiative. Over the next 2 years they were gradually pushed back until Soviet artillery shells began landing on the street above Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. Preferring to commit suicide rather than face a trial for his war crimes, Hitler shot himself on 30th April 1945. Germany surrendered shortly afterwards.

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End in Berlin: The Reichstag in ruins

For all their similarities, Napoleon and Hitler were two very different people. Hitler’s desired war of annihilation against the Soviet Union resulted in nearly 20 million Soviet deaths during the war. Included in the figure are soldiers and citizens. Napoleon did not harbour any racist or ideological hatred against the Russians, nor did he ever consider it a war of annihilation. Yet Hitler was hell bent on destroying the Soviets from the outset. It is true that even Napoleon’s war brought with it death and destruction which can be blamed on Napoleon himself, but he often forbid his troops to loot local civilians and had no insane ambitions to kill all ‘Slavs’ like Hitler did. Also Napoleon truly was a military genius, none can doubt it. His control on the battlefield led to countless victories for France, yet whilst Hitler claimed he was responsible for the great German victories, his generals were often the ones who should receive credit, Hitler made a habit of claiming their ideas for his own. The only possible exception for this would be Hitler’s order to halt outside the gates of Moscow during the Russian offensive, but whether this decision helped save the German army is still widely debated to this day.

The consequences of both wars were felt all over Europe. Napoleon had conquered Europe, making France the dominant superpower in the world, only being hampered by the British Navy which kept it restricted to the continent. In truth whenever the French and Russians faced each other in battle, even during the dreadful conditions of the retreat when the French army was starved and freezing, the soldiers of the Grande Armée significantly beat the Russians every time. But with all of Europe rising up against French rule there was no way Napoleon could hold onto his dream of French hegemony over Europe. Instead a new Europe emerged out of the ashes of French defeat and two nations rose to become the new dominant forces. Russia, enjoying the prestige of defeating Napoleon and freeing Europe from Napoleonic rule was of course one. The other was Prussia which after Napoleon’s defeat received many German lands leading it to become the dominant German state. In 1870 Prussia would unite the German states to become the Empire of Germany. These two nations who had once fought side by side against the French would soon be engaged in two of the worst wars that the world had ever seen.

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The consequences of Nazism

For all their similarities both men are remembered in different ways. Napoleon is remembered for his victories. Even in defeat he still holds fame as one of the greatest military commanders who ever lived. Many rightly point out that this man was responsible for dragging all of Europe to war causing thousands of casualties. But more importantly he brought the ideas of the French revolution to the rest of Europe. The Napoleonic Code which made such laws as forbidding any privileges based on birth and allowed freedom of religion has lasted for far longer than Napoleon was alive. Hitler though is remembered for the horrors that came with Nazism. The deaths that can be directly attributed to Nazism, with its ideological beliefs of a war of annihilation against ‘lesser’ races have never before been encountered on such a scale as carried out by the Nazis. We can surely be thankful that Hitler made that fateful decision to turn East and invade the country that even the military genius Napoleon could not conquer.

Written by Jonny Morris

5 thoughts on “Napoleon’s and Hitler’s failed invasions of Russia

  1. Pingback: October 28th Greece Celebration in WWII: Its Link to Russian Invasion By Catherine Tsounis | Hellenic News of America

  2. Pingback: A False Theory of True Conclusions | McGill International Review

  3. Pingback: October 28th Greece Celebration in WWII: Its Link to Russian Invasion | greekamericanexperience

  4. The article comparing both invasions of Russia, is quite interesting. Hitler and Napoleon has many things similar and more things different. One thing is sure. Napoleon was not a Racist Radical ! He was surely ambitious and it was a common trait in the leaders of that age/era. But Hitler was a dangerous mix ! Hitler had a grave and sinister attitude despite of having some superior leadership skills than napoleon. But his ideology itself is a curse, so people remember him as a horror where Napoleon is remembered for Honor !

  5. About Boney and his defeats: a book highly recommendable: “Seventy images for hundred days”. The book tells the story of the Hundred Days and Waterloo using 70 different items (maps, engravings, military figuriones, etc.)
    And, besides that, it´s the only surviving exhibition about the Battle of Waterloo after the bicentenary!!

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