The Power Of False Promises – Napoleon In Vilnius: Conquest & Failure In Lithuania (Travels In Eastern Europe #60)

When I think of Napoleon, the image that usually comes to mind is of a masterful military commander and visionary political leader. A self-made emperor, whose intoxication with power and flawed genius changed Europe forever. His vision and conquests reshaped the continent. I rarely think of Napoleon as having anything to do with Eastern Europe, but if I do it almost always involves his disastrous Russian campaign. Scenes such as the dyspeptic dictator directing his forces at the bloody Battle of Borodino or standing in the smoking ruins of Moscow. While visiting Vilnius I scarcely gave a thought to Napoleon, why would I? Vilnius seems light years away from anywhere I would associate with Napoleon. Yet he spent eighteen eventful days in the city during the summer of 1812. Long enough to leave both a legend and legacy behind.

The Grande Armée crossing the Niemen

The Grande Armée crossing the Niemen

Force Of Will – Liberation Without Freedom
Napoleon’s invasion of Imperial Russia commenced in territory that is now part of modern day Lithuania. His army crossed the Niemen River on June 23, 1812. He was soon being feted by the mayor of Kaunas.  Four days later, Napoleon arrived in Vilnius. The city had been liberated by his troops with hardly a casualty. First, the Russian Tsar Alexander and then his troops hastily retreated to the east. Upon his arrival, Napoleon was given a mixed reception by the residents of Vilnius. On one hand, he was a possible liberator, who would restore the independence of Lithuania. Pulling it out away from Tsarist rule. The reality turned out to be much more complicated. While Napoleon created a provisional government in Lithuania, he appointed French officials to have the final say in its affairs. The provisional government was created not to liberate Lithuania, but to help raise men and supplies for the invasion of Russia.  Napoleon was only going to give the Lithuanians a little of what they wanted to ensure their loyalty. In return, he received nine regiments of Lithuanian infantry and cavalry to assist the Grand Army. Twenty thousand men were called to arms. Little did they realize that in the coming months they would be marching into a deathtrap.

Right after his arrival, Napoleon toured the fortifications protecting the city, then over the coming days he visited a few more of the most prominent sites. I can vouch for the fact that the one which amazed him most is certainly worth seeing on a visit to Vilnius. The idea of Gothic architecture as flamboyant seems contradictory. Gothicism is usually dark, brooding and intimidates as much as it inspires. St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius is styled in what is known as Flamboyant Gothicism. The church’s façade is fantastically exuberant, with towering spires soaring skyward. No less than thirty-three different types of brick were used in the creation of the edifice. Imagine a red brick Bat Mobile turned vertical in a wonderous dynamism of stone and style. Such a spectacle led a man as deeply cultured and brilliant of intellect as Napoleon to have been profoundly moved by the sight of St. Anne’s. Legend says that upon seeing the church, Napoleon remarked that he would like to carry it back to Paris, “in the palm of his hand”. It is unlikely that Napoleon used these exact words, but it would not be surprising if he found St. Anne’s an otherworldly architectural wonder. Sadly, his reverence did not stop the church from being used as a military warehouse during the war.

False Promise- Napoleon in modern Vilnius

False Promise- Napoleon in modern Vilnius (Credit: Adas)

The Gate Of Dawn – Soldiering On
Another famous place in Vilnius that Napoleon visited was the Gate of Dawn. Just as today, the Gate of Dawn was the only one of the original nine city gates still standing, the rest having been torn down in the late 18th century by the order of Russian Tsarist officials when they took over the city. The gate gained its fame due to a venerated painting known as Our Lady of the Gate Of Dawn, which has been known to have miraculous powers. The painting portrays the Virgin Mary in northern Renaissance style. Long after the painting was done, a chapel was constructed around it and became a place of pilgrimage. That reverence continues today, just as it did two centuries ago. Napoleon first entered Vilnius through the Gate of Dawn while heading toward the city center, what is presently the Old Town. His first impression of Vilnius was that the locals were not as enthusiastic towards him as they had been earlier in Warsaw. Nevertheless, he and his soldiers were welcomed by crowds hoping that Napoleon would throw the Tsarist yoke off Lithuania once and for all.

The presence of his troops was a different story. The Grande Armée wore out its welcome not long after its arrival. They commandeered or looted crucial food stores and livestock from the locals. The peasantry took to the forests, trying to safeguard their possessions from marauding soldiers. Within a matter of days, the Grande Armée went from being viewed as liberators to obstinate occupiers. Relief only came to the area when they marched out of Lithuania, eastward into Russia. Vilnius would soon become a distant memory for them and their leader. A little less than five months later, a very different Napoleon was back in Lithuania. His army had been defeated by the vast spaces, harsh winter and a Russian Army that fought to the death for their territory. Napoleon arrived back in Vilnius on December 6th. His stay lasted less than a day, as he almost immediately left for Paris. There he hoped to fend off a coup d’etat and then raise another army. Napoleon may have been defeated, but he would live to fight another day.

French Army - in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius during the retreat

French Army – in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius during the retreat

Grand Failure – Blind Ambition
The same could not be said for the Grande Armée, which by this point was barely recognizable as a fighting force. Thousands of starving, emaciated, frost bitten soldiers descended on Vilnius. Many were past the point of exhaustion. They died at the outskirts, in the streets and on doorsteps all over Vilnius. Mass graves were dug to bury the corpses of an army that could no longer be termed “Grand”. The same soldiers who had once taken whatever they wanted from Lithuanians were now reduced to the status of beggars. Just as Napoleon had provided Lithuanians with false hopes, he did the same with his army. The campaign proved to be a death knell for Napoleon’s imperial ambitions. His visits to Vilnius at the start and end of the campaign, illustrate both his ambition and ultimate failure.

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