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Speech Prince Schwarzenberg

Speech Karl Prince of Schwarzenberg - Battle of Nations Leipzig

Ceremonial address by Karel Schwarzenberg, former Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic: Ceremony on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Nations, City of Leipzig - Free State of Saxony


His Excellency Karel Schwarzenberg,
Former Minister of External Affairs of the Czech Republic,
at the Occasion of the Act of the 200 Year Commemoration of the Battle of Nations at Leipzig,
organized by the City of Leipzig and the Free State of Sachsen

at October 18th, 2013 at the Memorial of the Battle of Nations in Leipzig.

Mr. President of the European Parliament, Mr. Prime Minister, Mr. Mayor of Leipzig, Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen

We are assembled here to commemorate that great battle 200 years ago. Comments have already been made about the immeasurable suffering caused by this battle. In reality, every fourth participant in this event has lost his life. And, of course, it was an encounter as we cannot imagine, not like today when we kill by sending rockets to a thousand miles off, but fighting with bayonet and sabre. It was a battle in the ancient sense of the word.

And yet, as has justly been stated, it was, somehow, the beginning of a new area. It had all the elements of the old area: the monarchs have all been present on the battle field, Napoleon himself leading his troops in person, the three leading monarchs, the emperor of Austria and Russia, the king of Prussia, and the crown prince of Sweden, all are present and, from a certain distance, can intervene in the battle.

It has always annoyed me, when in some historical pamphlets published in recent years, Napoleon is equated with 20th century dictators. That is not what he was. He was, in fact, a genius. He was, as Hegel wrote, “a ‘Weltgeist’ on horse”, representing a new area. He changed not only France but the whole of Europe. He was not only a great military leader, he left us a great legacy, the Code Napoleon, which served as law in many German states for decennia. These states have also been raised in their “infrastructure”, as we would say today. In France, but also in the countries he had briefly subjugated, the roads, the bridges far away in Dalmatia, served for decennia. He was a trend setter of his time. He was the last human being setting the world in his own style. And all this in a very short time. If we look at the time between the first consulate and Waterloo, it is just 20 years – and in these the world was changed.

We have to know all this to understand why this contest was so dreadful: Here principles were fighting with one another. Napoleon was on one side the embodiment of revolution, of change in Europe. On the other hand, it was he, who when revolution threatened to fall into anarchy, tamed it and directed France back into the European system, however in a changed fashion. He wanted to unite Europe, and yes, under his supremacy. He was the first to grasp a probability that Continental Europe could be unified.

We should not forget the progress brought under his rule in many countries, which had been kept in their life forms deep in the 18th century or even earlier. We should recognize all this. There were many also in Germany who later have been looking back with favour on his rule which brought a new legality liberating from medieval forms of law and in fact, first introducing modern times in quite a few instances.

On the other hand he was – as we would say today, a dictator – a tyrant. So he was labeled by his contemporaries. He is, until today, a unique phenomenon in world history. And truly France after Napoleon was a different country than before. Also Europe. No one has changed Europe in such a short time as he did.

The monarchs realized this much later. “When all clamoured, finally the king arose”, so was the saying in Berlin, and not much different in other German townships. Something new arose, peoples’ will made the monarchs opposing Napoleon at the battle of Leipzig.

To form alliance against Napoleon was the great question of the times. Why? Some yet saw their interests varied: a French regime could be welcome in some respects. Some others were opposed. Opinions were not uniform. And who wants to enter into a big confrontation?

The great art therefore was to forge this alliance. Field Marshall Schwarzenberg was an Austrian Imperial Officer and diplomat and as such predestined for this task. Austria so far – like other kingdoms and principalities – had been forced to create an auxiliary corps for Napoleon. In the autumn 1812 Field Marshall Schwarzenberg, who was a loyal man, went to Napoleon to warn him. He said he knows Russia and its winters and he recommends the French to take winter shelter as fast as possible, and then, in spring further assessments could be taken. But Napoleon believed in his strength and his art of leadership and he wanted to conquer Moscow. This he achieved, to the distinction of others later. But: Moscow was set to fire by Rostoptschin and the terrible retreat of the Great Army followed. How wrote the great Russian poet Lermontov: “Say, uncle, it was not in vain, that Moskow burnt has been surrendered by the French?” It was not in vain. Moskow no doubt was burnt, but Napoleon had no quarters for the winter and there was nothing left but to retreat. And Beresina followed.

Napoleon, who did not take defeat easy, met the Field Marshall one last time in Warshaw. He turned, looked at him and said: “You have been right.” But this “have been right” did cost innumerous lives. The Field Marshall, having been ambassador in Paris, knew Napoleon’s genius, knew Napoleon truly was a superior commander in chief and he, in comparison to him being just an experienced and good military man. But he did not have the abilities of his great opponent. Therefore he wrote to his beloved wife some days before the battle: “I have prepared everything to the best of my knowledge and I have reckoned Napoleon alone as an army of 10000. He knew his adversary to be the genius, not him. And he picked a chief of staff of whom he knew to be expert in all military expertise. This was the later Field Marshall Radetzky who even forty years later was still a successful commander in chief. Radetzky drew the plans.

Schwarzenberg himself had, besides being commander in chief, a much more tricky task: To hold the allies together and get them to a suitable concerted action. One should not forget: monarchs are human, commanders in chief are human and in such a big campaign personal vanity plays an imperial role. How to make and force such a colourful company of monarchs, generals, commanders in chief, and their armies to cooperate? This was a diplomatic piece of art which Schwarzenberg had to achieve, in some elements not unalike to the task of Eisenhower in the second world war. As he himself said: No opponent seemed so dangerous and trying to him as the allied monarchs, with whom he had to deal day by day and who believed that they had to determine the plans of the campaign. And he knew the needs of his soldiers, because after 20 years of in constant war they were miserably equipped. Towards the end of the year he writes: “All ask me to march into France before the new year, but how shall I march if my soldiers have no shoes?” Those were the problems at that time.

Maybe it was his modesty which opened the possibility of victory for him. And maybe it is a teaching for us today: Even a genius towering above all contemporaries can be defeated if on the other side there is someone knowing his limits, being sure of his task and fighting with conviction. This was the situation on the eve of the battle of Leipzig.

Afterwards, Napoleon has been defeated. He yet won victory over the Bavarians at Hanau when they tried to cut off his retreat. But he remained the genius. All military experts judge in union that the “Campangne de France”, Napoleon’s retreat to Paris, is one of the most brilliant achievements in military history. He again showed himself as admirable. After this, a new peace order has been created at the congress of Vienna. The monarchs found, after much ado, many delays and particular interests, a common solution.

But if we think the battle of nations to be a battle against the French, we should not forget that the language of negotiations, the language everybody, all the monarchs and statesmen, spoke, was French. This was the only language in which the Russian Czar, the Austrian Emperor, the Crown Prince of Sweden (being French himself) could discourse and negotiate with one another. All the commanders in chief, all diplomats, all monarchs at that time were connected by the French culture and the French language. This was a generally accepted prerequisite, we cannot imagine today to what extent French culture was determining life. In fact, with the battle of Leipzig, a book has been closed: After that some try to emancipate themselves from this dominating French culture. It is interesting to note that also Napoleon’s opponent, the commander in chief Schwarzenberg, writes to his wife, for decades after the battle, in French. This was the language of a man of culture and in society, that is how one conversed and wrote to one another. Only due to the impression of the Liberation Wars (and rising nationalism)1 they suddenly start to write in German, occasionally.

One has to visualize also this, how great the rupture was from the dominance of France for Europe. Much of this time, much of it positive, has remained. Sometimes, I permit myself the question of a renegade: What would have become of Europe, had Napoleon won? If the Code Napoleon and everything else had been introduced in the whole of Europe already at the start of the 19th century? If the code of criminal law had been modernized according to French design? It would be good to believe that both parties at the time had their “raison d’être” and had their arguments projecting a future. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, it is known, had a fascination for Napoleon. One could not say he stirred up animosity against Napoleon.

History in reality is always different from the view, which us grandchildren are taking. We should remember, with all admiration for the tremendous sacrifice borne by both sides, that for the first time the European monarchs and peoples have united in the quest for freedom. So also here we should try to respect the other side as we are called to respect the other side in modern Europe. It is not always easy, and yet we see it inconceivable to be at war between European nations. I hope that this state will persist. But are we so sure, that in a few generations everything will be different again? If in the year 1900 someone would have said: “There will be war”? Yes, it was accepted, that some European war was possible. But nobody had the remotest foreboding of the complete breakdown of the European world. I very well remember having travelled in Yugoslavia in the 60ties an 70ties when people of all Yugoslavian nations and religions were living together in peace. Nobody suspected that 20 years later a general slaughter everybody against everybody would take place. Are we so sure to be immune to such a thing? I think, for our generation, for sure. We may be immune for three generations after the 2nd world war. But as Mr. President (of the European Parliament)2 has already mentioned: Other spirits are still alive and somehow have started to gain strength. And who can exclude that according to a general instinct of mankind we find an excuse again to kill each other. Mankind always was capable to find such excuses.

We should always remember this, especially as politicians. There never was one last war, there never was eternal peace. We can only try, day by day, year by year, to constrain this danger and to control our own instincts. Let us admit it, if I look towards the 20th century, with the exception of Iceland far away, there was no European nation not involved in 20th century criminal action, towards the neighbor, towards minorities, towards whoever was at hand. Are we convinced that we and our children know so much better than our grandparents and grandgrandparents? I am not convinced. It can always happen that we start the whole thing again.

I am thanking you for your attention.

Translated by Nikolaus Prince Blucher
Recording: pms Professional Media Service GmbH & Co. KG
Co-ordination and save of the speech:
Transkription: Kultur- und Umweltstiftung Leipziger Land der Sparkasse Leipzig

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In the context of the bicentennial memorial for the Battle of Leipzig, the descendants of the monarchs who ruled the warring powers came together from the 17th till the 19th October 2013. In this film we hear from many of them: Grand Duke George of Russia, a descendant of Tsar Alexander I, Archduke Georg of Austria, a descendant of Emperor Francis I of Austria, and Prince Heinrich of Hanover, a descendant of King George III of the United Kingdom. Prince Alexander of Saxony and Prince Michael of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, as descendants of King Frederick Augustus I of Saxony, an ally of Napoleon. The Duke of Leuchtenberg, descendant of Eugene de Beauharnais, Viceroy of Italy and stepson of Emperor Napoleon of the French. Also attending the memorial event of the Cultural and Environmental Foundation of Sparkasse Leipzig were descendants of the generals like Prince Blücher and Count Bennigsen.