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What If Napoleon III Had Been Executed in 1840 or Assassinated in 1858? by Rooksmoor

Author says: we're very pleased to present a new story from Rooksmoor's excellent blog Tablets of Lead. Please note that the opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the author(s).

Please click the icon to follow us on Twitter.This scenario was prompted by some of the reading I did for the posting about Italy failing to unify.  One peculiar aspect of that story is that the second assassination attempt on the life of Napoleon III of France in January 1858 led to his involvement in the unification of Italy by working with Piedmont-Sardinia and later withdrawing military support to the Papal States allowing their absorption into the growing Italian state.  The man who had almost killed Napoleon III by throwing three bombs at his carriage, Felice Orsini, wrote to Napoleon from prison asking him to assist the unification of Italy.  This may seem very peculiar and you could think that Napoleon would turn against the movement that had almost caused his death, but he had been a member of the Carbonari secret society in his youth, a terrorist movement whose main aim was to expel the Austrians from Italy and create a unified Italian state.  I looked at the consequences for Italy and Europe and the world more widely in my recent posting, but it got me thinking about what would have happened if Orsini had not failed.

Napoleon III was the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Following his defeat in 1815, Napoleon I had abdicated in favour of his son by Marie-Louise of Austria, also called Napoleon.  At birth, this Napoleon was declared Prince Imperial and King of Rome (a title assigned to the heir to the empire in the way Prince of Wales is assigned to the heir to the British throne).  Napoleon II was only four at the time his father stepped down and his claim was not recognised by the allied powers opposing his father nor by the French government which took over once Napoleon I had been defeated.  Napoleon II lived out his days living in Vienna under the title of Duke of Reichstadt.  He died from tuberculosis in 1832 at the age of just 21.  Napoleon III was born Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808; though he never really used Charles and before becoming emperor was generally known as Louis-Napoleon.  His father was Napoleon I's younger brother, Louis, who ruled the puppet state, the Kingdom of Holland 1806-10, though had this role revoked and the territority was annexed by France in 1813 because Louis did not get the Dutch to bend sufficiently to his brother's desires.  Following the death of Napoleon II and then his uncle Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon I's elder brother) in 1840, Louis-Napoleon became the designated heir to the Bonaparte dynasty.  His elder brothers, Napoleon Charles (died 1807) and Louis (died 1831 from measles; having been fighting for Italian unification) had died before their part of the dynasty came next in line.

Despite the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the restoration of the monarchy was not secure. The Legitimist Bourbon dynasty overthrown by the revolution effectively from 1789 but formally from 1794, lasted only until 1830 when the Orleans line of the Bourbons took power.  The Orleanist king, Louis-Phillipe only lasted until 1848 when revolutions shook France as they did much of Europe.  In this context, Louis-Napoleon tried to engineer coups in 1836 and 1840.  With the restoration of the republic, Louis-Napoloen stood as a candidate to become the first president of France and was elected with 75% of the vote.  However, in December 1851, Louis-Napoleon staged a coup, as his uncle had done in November 1799 and in becoming emperor in December 1804.  Louis-Napoleon did not wait so long and had himself declared Emperor Napoleon III in December 1852 a post he was to hold until 1870.  Given that France's last three rulers had seized power or been imposed by an outside force, Napoleon III was not really out of step with political developments of the early to mid-19th century in France; effectively 1851 sees the Bonapartist Restoration just as 1815 had seen the Bourbon one.  In addition, whilst a dictator with monarchical aspirations, like King Louis-Philippe, and to some degree Napoleon I, he seemed to adopt certain 'liberal' elements to his regime.  Napoleon's use of democracy to get him into position before imposing an authoritarian regime was not only characteristic of Napoleon I, but has had echoes in the assumption of power by Mussolini and Hitler and, to some degree, Charles De Gaulle who became President of France in 1959.

Napoleon III seemed to share many of the characteristics of his uncle in terms of rule.  He promoted industrialisation of France, though something which France did not find so easy later, especially when his defeat in 1870 led to the loss of the iron ore and coal reserves of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany.  However, railways grew in France and the classic design of central Paris as is known today was established during his reign.  Though it was not without challenge the modern functioning French state with a Catholic background but a far more secular state was strengthened during his period and building on the legacy of Napoleon I's politco-economic reforms, formed the basis for how France is run today.

Napoleon III's foreign policy objectives seem to have been as adventurous as his uncle's but probably less pragmatic.  Saying that, he was ruling in different times with a focus increasingly on overseas empires.  There was continuity in him building on the control of Algeria taken by France in 1830.  He expanded French control in Indochina in 1858 and 1861 establishing the Cochin China as a French colony; the country would come to control the whole region (what are now modern day Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam).  Napoleon III had French troops fight alongside the British and Ottoman forces against Russia in the Crimean War 1853-5 and with British troops in the Second Opium War against the Chinese Empire in 1860.  This allowed trade legations in Beijing, free movement of shipping on the Yangtze river and opened up more treaty ports for foreign trade.  In this way, his policies really did not differ from those of the British governments.  I have already noted Napoleon III's activities in Italy, assisting Piedmont-Sardinia in defeating the Austrians in 1859, gaining Savoy and Nice for France, and then handing over Venetia when France was given this by Austria in 1864 following French non-intervention in the Austro-Prussian War.  That year he also agreed to remove his troops from Rome within two years though this did not happen to 1870.

Whilst these policies can be seen as least a victories (though the Crimean War was not overly conclusive) other foreign adventures went too far.  Like the British, France both supported the Confederate States of America and (like the British) sold them battleships for use in the American Civil War 1861-5; primarily, like the British due to concerns over cotton supplies.  British prevarication in recognising the CSA led Napoleon III to delay and when the CSA felt official recognition was not going to be forthcoming and expelled both Britain and France's consuls in 1863, Napoleon III's policy came to nothing.  His attitude to the CSA was in part stimulated by his attempts to establish a puppet state in Mexico; he hoped a CSA victory would give him a free hand there and allow him to create a new trans-continental state between Mexico and the CSA.  Backed by Mexican conservatives who criticised the religious policy of the state Napoleon installed a Habsurg prince as Emperor Maximillian I of Mexico in 1863.  However, defeat of French forces by the Mexican Army in 1862 and a guerilla war that ran until 1867 thwarted Napoleon III's objectives.  The victory of the USA in the American Civil War in 1865 allowed it to intervene to expel French influence in line with its Monroe Doctrine of 1823 that no power aside from the USA could have political dominance (though economic dominance was another issue) in the Americas.  A US blockade of Mexico led Napoleon to withdraw his troops in 1866 and Maximillian was defeated and killed the following year.

In Europe, Napoleon III was outmanoeuvred by Otto von Bismarck.  From his time in the Carbonari and supporting Italian unification he was naturally opposed to Austria, probably rightly at the start of his reign given that it was the main Power in mainland Europe.  However, by the mid-1860s, Prussia had risen fast.  France could have allied against Austria in 1864 but remained neutral.  I do not think allying with Prussia would have brought much benefit.  His request for Belgium and Luxembourg was ignored by Prussia and in fact when he tried to buy Luxembourg in 1867 (it was still part of the Netherlands but separated from the rest of the state since Belgium had been created) Prussia threatened war and again Napoleon III had to back down, giving up claims to the country.  I did not consider these scenarios when I looked at Belgium not existing.  If France had subsumed all of Belgium in 1866 then we certainly would have seen greatest impact in terms of French industrial development in the latter 19th century and in terms of slowing or halting the German advances of 1914 and 1940, though ironically possibly delaying British intervention in 1914.  In addition, France would have had to deal with the Flemish-speaking minority throughout this period.  The purchase of Luxembourg would have made very little difference, being a strange kind of French island on the German border as much as it had been a Dutch island up to then.

Really once Prussia was strong enough to defeat Denmark in 1864 and certainly Austria (and its German allies) in 1866, it needed to pay no attention to the wishes of any other Power.  Napoleon III had expected the Austro-Prussian War to be protracted rather than last six weeks and he expected Austria to win.  Though given how comparatively easily France and Piedmont-Sardinia had seen off Austrian forces in Italy he should have been more alert to the weakness of Austria if not the strength of Prussia.  Not having heeded the lessons of 1864-6, it is unsurprising that France was defeated by Prussia which invaded in July 1870.  Only the length siege of Paris which did not fall until January 1871 prolonged the war.  The main outcomes were the establishment of the Second Reich of Germany which unified the country.  France lost the economically vital regions of Alsace-Lorraine, stunting its industrial development until the late 1940s.  Napoleon III was captured by the Prussians in September 1870 and was deposed with another republic, the Third Republic, being days later.  Napoleon and his family went into exile in Britain where he died following a gall bladder operation in 1873 he was aged 64.  His son, Louis Napoleon was killed in 1879 by Zulus while serving in the British Army in Natal, southern Africa.

Aside from Orsini's assassination attempt there had been one in April 1855.  Before that plots against his life had been uncovered in July 1853 and September 1854.  The attempt of 28th April 1855 by an Italian called Pianori led to his execution on 14th May (quick execution of attempted assassins was another trait Napoleon III shared with De Gaulle).  Another attempt followed on 8th September 1855 about which I can find no more information.  The most famous one was that of Orsini on 14th January 1858 which led to the execution of Orsini and his accomplices on 13th March.  It might also be worth considering if, following his feeble coup attempt of 1840 which led him to being imprisoned for life, in 1846 rather than being able to escape and flee to Britain he had remained confined,.  Though less likely, it is still possible, especially if his coup had been more successful that Napoleon could have been executed in 1840.

Execution in 1840; Life Imprisonment


Assuming that Louis-Napoleon had been executed in 1840 or had remained in prison at least for twenty-five to thirty years, if not life, then he would be a minor character in the history of France probably very much like his brother Louis or his cousin Napoleon II.  It is likely that some other strong man would have been elected president in 1848, but probably would not have seized power in the way Louis Napoleon had the popular backing and sheer gall to do.  Perhaps France would have seen another monarchical restoration, but given that the Third Republic was able to limp on from 1870-1940 even with all the political crises and external threats it faced, I feel the Second Republic could equally have survived, interestingly making it the only really enduring outcome of the 1848 revolutions.  It seems unlikely that France would have become involved in Mexico and its republican standing may have meant it being more sympathetic to the USA rather than the CSA despite the need for CSA cotton.  I do not know how the USA would have reacted to French assistance, though there was a history of it dating back to the American War of Independence. Given that a lot of what happened in North Africa and South-East Asia was being driven by men on the spot, it seems likely that France would have been drawn more into Algeria and Indochina and probably with the kind of 'liberal' policies Napoleon III adopted, such as restricting the French zone of colonisation in Algeria.

The policy towards Italy is likely to have been very different.  Napoleon III had personal links to the unification process that it is unlikely that any other head of state would have had.  The geo-political objectives of the French Republic or even France under another king, would certainly have favoured a weakening of Austria in Italy, but certainly not with the extent of intervention that Napoleon III oversaw.  What France would have done with Venetia is an interesting question.  I guess it would have established a favourable republic or monarchical state there depending on the flavour of its own regime and I guess this would have gravitated towards Piedmont-Sardinia but perhaps not as immediately as happened in our world.  It also seems possible that the French government in place of Napoleon III would not have withdrawn support for the Papal States, so that, as I discussed in my posting on Italian unification, these may have persisted with all the complex implications that that would have had.  Without the hands-on approach to Italy by France I certainly think the process would have been delayed.

Would the attitude to Prussia have been different?  I doubt France would have gone around asking for Belgium and Luxembourg especially if under a republic.  However, while a republic or a modern-looking constitutional monarchy might have felt an affinity with Prussia especially when it fought Austria, I see no reason why it would ally with Prussia and even if it had, I think Bismarck would have been no more grateful than he would have been in our world.  Would France have been better prepared in 1870 to face Prussia?  An alliance with Austria would not have seemed appealing and may have made little difference anyway.  To some degree, across Europe, most observers expected France to win.  Perhaps a French republic would have fought better, especially given the resistance put up by Paris.  However, given the difficulty the French had in stopping the over-running in Paris in 1914, even with greater warning of the forthcoming invasion, I think in 1870 the French forces would have fallen as quickly as if they had been under Napoleon III.  Ironically that defeat, rather than leading to a return to democracy as in our world, might have then led to authoritarian rule, so being a mirror-image of our world's experience.  You only have to look at 1940 and 1958 to see how the French state tended to respond to the crisis of defeat.  Ironically no Napoleon III in 1870 might have meant some other dictator in power in France as it entered the 20th century.

Thus, without the personal rule of Napoleon III there would have been many similar policies.  I think Paris would have been modernised, though perhaps with different shapes to the clear cannon firing lines that Napoleon III favoured, but perhaps not too different.  What would have been eliminated were the foreign adventures for personal whim, certainly the humiliation of Mexico would have been avoided.  However, I see a minimally different outcome in terms of relations with Prussia.  No-one realised Prussia's true strength even after 1864-6 and there was nothing that anyone could offer Bismarck that he wanted except what he knew he could take anyway.  Only something incredibly exceptional such as the realistic threat of British or Russian intervention would have swayed his path and even then I think he would have battled on with his planned approach whatever was threatened.  Perhaps this fact was vital in eventually leading to the Franco-Russian friendship of the 1890s which was to form the basis of the coalition against Germany in 1914.

Napoleon III Assassinated


Not having been able to find out much about the assassinations carried out or planned to be carried out by the other plotters aside from Orsini, I cannot really comment on how feasible they may have been.  It does seem possible if we taken the Orsini plot as a measure of the scale of intentions (and, in fact, I imagine most of the plots were far less feasible than that one) Napoleon III could have been assassinated sometime in 1853-8.  Orsini's three bombs killed eight people and injured 142 others.  His first bomb landed among the horsemen preceding the carriage, the second among the carriage's own horses breaking the carriage glass and the third landed under the carriage.  Any of these could easily have killed Napoleon III instead.  Earlier attempts may have impinged on French involvement in the Crimean War, but given the alignments in Europe, I imagine a different French regime may have followed the same path and just and ineffectually, unless the republic or some monarch had initiated substantial reforms of the logistical methods of the French armed forces, something that Napoleon I had always had an interest in.

Much of what I have said above about France not having witnessed Napoloen III would also apply following the death of Napoleon III.  This means that whichever of the plots or attempts over that five year period had been successful there would have been no intervention in Italy or Mexico and probably a different approach to the American Civil War.  However, if the assassination had been by an Italian, this clearly would have impacted on French perceptions of the unification process.  While it would not have suddenly turned France to being pro-Austrian, it seems far less likely that there would have been intervention aimed at weakening Austrian control in the region and certainly support for the Papal States would have remained strong.  It seemes quite feasible that at least down to 1914 if not beyond there would have been both an Austrian and Papal presence in the states of Italy.  Ironically, this would mean France would be a slightly smaller state and Savoy and Nice would now be Italian areas.

A final aspect to consider is the reaction to a terrorist outrage and I would point to two examples.  The first is the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.  Ironically Alexander was travelling in a bomb-proof carriage presented to him by Napoleon III.  The first bomb that was detonated under the carriage killing an escorting Cossack and injuring bystanders.  It was only when Alexander emerged from the coach unharmed that a second assassin threw another bomb which detonated at the Tsar's feet.  The Tsar died hours later of his injuries.  A third assassin with a larger bomb did not come into action.  Alexander's son, Alexander III who succeeded to him to the throne and ruled until 1894 reversed the bulk of the liberal reforms that Alexander II had introduced.  Alexander III suppressed separatist movements and any steps to democracy; he oversaw a highly repressive regime which simply fuelled the revolutionary movements that were to overthrow his son Nicholas II in 1917 ending the Tsarist regime.  There does seem to have been a chance that in the wake of the assassination of Napoleon III in 1858 that France would have entered a reactionary period and the liberal policies of Louis-Philippe would have been reversed and using the excuse of a terrorist threat France would have seen a harsher regime, probably far more clerical in nature too, perhaps overseen by a general.  This probably would have been no less authoritarian than Napoleon III's regime, but it is likely to have been more oppressive.  Whether this state could have stood any more strongly against the Prussians in 1870 is a question, but quite possibly it could have done, though perhaps nepotism and corruption would have weakened it further.

The other example to consider is the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in June 1914.  In this case four assassins had been assigned.  The first two both armed with pistols and hand-sized bombs did not attack.  The bomb thrown by the third assassin bounced off the Archduke's car and blew up the one following it, injuring 20 bystanders.  The fourth assassin fired using a 9mm automatic pistol at short-range when the Archduke's open-topped car (most cars in those days did not have rigid roofs in order to reduce the weight) stopped in front of him.  The Archduke and his wife were ultimately killed by a single bullet each, the Archduke being hit in the neck by the first, his wife with the next bullet in her abdomen.  They died of their wounds within ten minutes of the shooting.  Whilst the event was certainly manipulated by the German government and military leaders for their own use (it was recorded as early as 1912 that they were looking for such an incident in 1914 to provide an excuse for war at least against Russia), the outrage certainly encouraged Austria-Hungary to make extreme demands on Serbia who it blamed for supporting the assassins.  Even without German backing it seems likely that a war between the two states would have broken out even if Austria-Hungary had simply intended a 'police action' against Serbia.  Given that Orsini was an Italian nationalist leader, it seems very likely that France would have sought recompense from Piedmont-Sardinia.  It lacked strong allies and in any conflict between France and Piedmont-Sardinia, it is possible Austria would have taken advantage too, perhaps suborning the central Italian states if not taking land from Piedmont-Sardinia.  Even if France had not demanded territorial gains (perhaps now taking Savoy and Nice, probably the Val D'Aosta, perhaps even Sardinia itself) Piedmont-Sardinia would be humiliated and at least have to pay compensation.  Plans for Italian unification would have been set back by decades.

Thus, taking Napoleon III from French and European history is likely to have had a number of important if not massive implications for how Europe developed subsequently.  France may have initially ended up with an established republic with elected presidents, but given the volatility of the political scene, I believe the danger of some dictator appearing would have remained a real danger for decades to come.  I think an assassination, rather than the absence of Napoleon III, would have had broader implications, perhaps setting France up for a more violent revolution in reaction to its oppressive state at the eve of the 20th century.  Of course, the greatest difference for Europe and further afield would be how Italy would have developed and it appears that replacing Napoleon III with either a more liberal or a more oppressive regime would have led to a different outcome there, with all the implications I have discussed before.  For better or worse Napoleon III did rule as emperor for 18 years and though he did not achieve as much as his uncle his impact was possibly more enduring and certainly, without him, the history of the 19th and 20th centuries would have been different.


Rooksmoor, Editor of Tablets of Lead. You can comment on this story here.

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