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France, Prussia, or Germany? The Napoleonic Wars and Shifting Allegiances in the Rhineland

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 December 2006

Michael Rowe
King's College London


The following article focuses on the Rhineland, and more specifically, the region on the left (or west) bank of the Rhine bounded in the north and west by the Low Countries and France. This German-speaking region was occupied by the armies of revolutionary France after 1792. De jure annexation followed the Treaty of Lunéville (1801), and French rule lasted until 1814. Most of the Rhineland was awarded in 1815 to Prussia and remained a constituent part until after the Second World War. The Rhineland experienced Napoleonic rule first hand. Its four departments—the Roër, Rhin-et-Moselle, Sarre, and Mont-Tonnerre—were treated like the others in metropolitan France, and it is this status that makes the region distinct in German-speaking Europe. This had consequences both in the Napoleonic period and in the century that followed the departure of the last French soldier. This alone would constitute sufficient reason for studying the region. More broadly, however, the Rhenish experience in the French period sheds light on the much broader phenomena of state formation and nation building. Before 1792, the Rhenish political order appeared in many respects a throwback to the late Middle Ages. Extreme territorial fragmentation, city states, church states, and mini states distinguished its landscape. These survived the early-modern period thanks in part to Great Power rivalry and the protective mantle provided by the Holy Roman Empire. Then, suddenly, came rule by France which, in the form of the First Republic and Napoleon's First Empire, represented the most demanding state the world had seen up to that point. This state imposed itself on a region unused to big government. It might be thought that bitter confrontation would have resulted. Yet, and here is a paradox this article wishes to address, many aspects of French rule gained acceptance in the region, and defense of the Napoleonic legacy formed a component of the “Rhenish” identity that came into being in the nineteenth century.

Research Article
2006 Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association

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