The wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic regime (1792-1815) were accompanied by a specific, clear ideological rhetoric: First, the French Revolutionary governments, and then Napoleon, were categoric that the main purpose of their hostilities was to liberate the peoples of Europe from oppressive, obscurantist rule, and to bring them the benefits of enlightened government, incarnated by the system of law and administration that had been evolving in France since 1789. Those forms could and did change – the French revolutionary governments of the 1790s offered representative, parliamentary forms of government, which Napoleon did not – but the rhetoric of reform and enlightenment, per se, remained a constant.
This contrasted sharply with much of the historical reality, however. French armies ‘lived off the land’ and the ‘liberated’ territories were expected to finance their own new-found freedom. French troops and officials were noted for their brutality, rapaciousness and their insensitivity – indeed, contempt – for the cultures of other Europeans. Moreover, the process of enlightened reform, itself, usually produced upheaval and resentment among those occupied, and deeper contempt and distrust, among the French.
The Revolutionary and Napoleonic campaigns offer a stark series of paradoxes and contrasts, which throw into relief the complexities of the concept of a ‘crusade’ driven by warfare.