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How Did The Rise Of Napoleon Iii Change The Power Relations In Europe?

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How did the rise of Napoleon III change the power relations in Europe?

Louis Napoleon succeeded France’s Second Republic and turned it into the Second Empire. Driven by his predecessor’s legacy, he strove to remake Europe and achieve what his uncle could not. This essay question focuses on Napoleon III’s rise. Thus, I look at the impact of his ascendancy, when France’s Second Empire was at its peak. The period chosen includes the Crimean War and Italian Wars of Unification, after which the Empire is at its strongest economically, militarily as well as territorially. I leave out later events such as the Franco-Prussian wars which are more symbolic of Louis Napoleon’s decline.

Furthermore, as this question refers to Europe, I leave out analysis of Louis Napoleon’s impact on the Ottoman Empire as well as his effect on French imperialism. Louis Napoleon would change European power relations in three ways. Firstly, he would undo the alliance between Britain, Austria and Russia that defeated his uncle. He achieved this through cooperation with England and conflict with Russia. This would destroy old systems of alliance and restore France as a great power[footnoteRef:1]. Secondly, he would advance nationalism by pushing Italian unification and weakening Austria, placing Italy as a new actor in the European balance of power. And finally, he would fuel Prussian realpolitik, which would eventually lead to his downfall and create a new Europe, home to rational, self-interested and power maximising states competing for hegemony. Thus, Napoleon III would lay the foundations for realigning the balance of power in Europe.

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Napoleon first changed power relations by completing the destruction of the last vestiges of the Concert of Europe. British attitudes of non-intervention and the events of 1848 had already severely undermined the Concert’s credibility. Additionally, there was now a new ruler in France who was motivated by past Bonapartist ideals of France’s prestige and place on the European stage[footnoteRef:2]. Napoleon III proclaimed himself to be the harbinger of peace, yet his ideas were shaped by memories from the Napoleonic wars[footnoteRef:3]. As such, he saw it necessary to destroy the alliances that had historically sought to constrain French power[footnoteRef:4]. This was achieved through the Crimean war where France allied with England against Russia. Louis Napoleon opted for cooperation with a non-interventionist England. He was wary of antagonising this power that had been responsible for his uncle’s defeat in the Napoleonic wars. Conversely, Louis Napoleon entered hostile engagement with Russia. He desired to halt Russian expansion and deter the Tsar from threatening his vision of a Europe under French hegemony.

Additionally, Napoleon III also broke the traditional Russian alliance with Austria by placing the Austrians in a difficult position. Austria’s geographical proximity to Russia meant that it would have to engage Russian forces directly if it sided with France, but this was not wise considering Austria’s weaker military. At the same time, Austria could not ally with Russia as siding with the Russians meant it would become subject to Russian influence, reliant on Russia to combat France and England[footnoteRef:6]. Desperation to avoid conflict forced the Austrians to issue an ultimatum to Russia, demanding it cease its hostilities. This fractured the historic alliance between Russia and Austria in the Concert of Europe for the Tsar was under the impression that his ally would choose to remain neutral. In the ensuing conflict, French and British forces seized Russian territory, most notably the naval base in Sebastopol.

Russian power in the Danube and Black Sea was now negated. However, these territorial gains were not the main success of the war in Napoleon’s eyes. He was much more pleased that France’s military prestige had finally been restored. France was now a great power that could wage war and win against other great powers. The balance of power had shifted to accommodate a new player and destroyed any lingering faith in the Concert of Europe, whose remnants were being solely propped up by the Russo-Austrian alliance. The failure of the powers to band together to avoid conflict meant that previous international agreements no longer held any reliability.

Thus, France and England grew closer whilst Austria and Russia were now weakened and further apart. Additionally, France would continue to build on its cooperation with England as mentioned above. Initially, the British royal family were wary of Napoleon, but he eventually transformed this trepidation into a genuinely close relationship. He also negotiated the Cobden Chevalier treaty in 1860, bringing the two powers closer together economically whilst simultaneously assuaging British fears that Napoleon’s quest for hegemony might set him against the English. Louis Napoleon pushed this agenda despite the anti-English sentiment amongst the French public.

Eventually, he would shift Britain squarely into cooperation with France while Austria and Russia remained separate. At the same time, he continued to focus on weakening Austria further. As mentioned previously, Napoleon desired to present himself as the champion for nationalism. This gave him reason to place France in direct opposition to the Austrian Empire, which was struggling to stem the tide of revolution. Admittedly, his support for nationalism was sincere for the most part. Similar to Mazzini, Louis Napoleon also desired to bring forth statehood to peoples of common ethnicity and language. This desire to redraw the European map with France as hegemon had become somewhat of an obsession at this point.

Furthermore, Louis Napoleon’s memory of his uncle’s fate drove him to continue to always consider Austria as the prime enemy of France. Therefore, Napoleon willingly prepared with Cavour for war with Austria. In the resulting battles at Solferino, the French defeated the Austrians and Napoleon had achieved a crucial objective. France’s military superiority over Austria had been now become concretized for the whole world to see. However, Louis Napoleon was also horrified at the cost of the battle and realised that engaging Austrian forces at the quadrilateral would result in even greater bloodshed. Thus, he quickly concluded the treaty of Zurich in a rush to end the violence. However, in his haste he failed to cede Venetia to Piedmont which enraged Cavour.

Additionally, he continued to protect the papacy and left the fate of Italian duchies to plebiscite which eroded his position with the Italian nationalists. France got its territories but had circumvented Italy even though this process did put Italy on the eventual path to unification. Therefore, Napoleon had now created a new actor that would choose to be self-interested instead of in alliance with France. At the same time, Austria had also been weakened further. The balance of power tilted heavily in France’s favour and power relations were being diluted with the gradual consolidation of an additional actor in Italy. However, the abovementioned actions in Napoleon’s rise had unintended consequences on power relations as well. Napoleon III had unwittingly lain the foundations for the emergence of realpolitik, that would further alter power relations in Europe.

Although Napoleon championed nationalism, he was not a true realist who consistently monitored the balance of power to ensure competing interests were kept at bay. He was a dictator motivated by Bonapartist legacy and a ruler who derived legitimacy from the people. As a result, he had to fight a constant battle for public approval. Therefore, he struggled to display a coordinated and consistent foreign policy with a populace that generally did not want sustained warfare. After restoring French prestige, using it to cement his legitimacy to rule, Louis Napoleon lacked a further vision for France’s role in the international stage. This laid the foundations for Bismarck’s observation that “From a distance the Second Empire was something; seen at close quarters it was nothing.”

In this Bismarck saw opportunity for a strong Prussia to emerge. He stirred German nationalism more effectively than Napoleon did with the Italians, using it to strengthen Prussia. Therefore, apart from an independent Italy, Louis Napoleon had indirectly created a strong Prussia. This would eventually set the stage for the further weakening of Austria by Prussia. Unsurprisingly, in this conflict an independent, rational Italy would act in its own interests and side with the Prussians. Thus, in destroying the Concert, Louis the Napoleon had created new and powerful competing powers that would eventually bring his downfall

In conclusion, Louis Napoleon managed to reorganise Europe, creating new actors and alliances whilst weakening old ones. Austria and Russia suffered while Prussia and Italy strengthened. Meanwhile, Louis Napoleon grew closer to the English, both personally and economically. France would finally be recognised as great power and hegemon. Unfortunately, these actions also set the stage for Bismarck’s rise, whose power politics would usher in an age of Germanic strength. Napoleon had created a more realist Europe, dictated by rational, self-interested actors looking to project power in a way that benefitted national interests instead of strengthening international order. The implications of this system would impact the world far greater than the nostalgic Bonaparte could ever dream of, eventually setting the stage for the Great War in 1914.


  1. Rich, Norman. Great Power Diplomacy: 1814-1914. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.Furet, François. Revolutionary France: 1770-1880. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
  2. Bresler, Fenton S. Napoleon III: A Life. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1999.Gooch, George P. The Second Empire. London: Longmans, 1960.
  3. Cobban, Alfred. A History of Modern France. New rev. and enl. ed. London: Cape, 1962.


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