In the Napoleonic Wars the other major powers of Continental Europe, especially Austria but also Prussia and Russia, seemed to keep coming back every few years to have another go at fighting Napoleon, no matter how many times he had beaten them before. Why?

Could they not see after he had won his first few battles how hard he was to beat?

I leave the period from 1813 out of this question as it is more understandable that countries would dare to oppose him once the exceptional cold of the Russian winter and the vastness of the country had helped the Russians to destroy Napoleon’s immense invading army.

I have also confined this question to the Continental European powers, as Britain protected by the sea and its Navy, could more safely defy Napoleon.

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    By this point, Napoleon's empire would appear to be very spread out with hot issues ranging from Spain through Italy and into Central Europe. The chance to lever out a new balance probably appeared many times to various leaders who were looking for the opportunity. And remember, sometimes you don't fight a war to win - sometimes you fight to at least secure a workable negotiating position.
    – Smith
    May 31, 2017 at 16:39
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    This question does seem to suggest that Napoleon was invincible, he wasn't. This also seems to be a broad question since there wasn't a single reason why each country left and rejoined the various coalitions against Napoleon.
    – Steve Bird
    May 31, 2017 at 16:41
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    I'm not sure you can answer this question and exclude Britain whose political, economic and military influence was behind most of the coalitions against Napoleon. May 31, 2017 at 17:07
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    Why did the Allies keep fighting Hitler in 1942 despite being beaten by him so often?
    – Alex
    May 31, 2017 at 20:09
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    One thing that his invasion of Russia shows very clearly is that winning battles is not winning wars. The Russians never beat Napoleon in battle. An "unbeatable" general does not mean you will win the war! And yes, the French had an "unbeatable" general (at least at that point) but the British had an unbeatable admiral, which in the end may have been more important. Jun 1, 2017 at 1:35

4 Answers 4


There are some assumptions you've made, which are all too easy to do when judging historical events from a modern lens:

  • Hindsight is 20/20. We know that Napoleon would beat them again and again, but they probably thought "maybe this time!" which they eventually did - the Russian winter, anyway.
  • Be careful not to cherry-pick. Napoleon's expansion was checked by the British, twice: at Trafalgar, and in Iberia.
  • It's an oversimplification to say they kept fighting Napoleon; often you'll find that there were different people involved and under different circumstances. Even genuine repeat wars occur when the last one did not resolve all differences.

Of the Napoleonic wars, Napoleon won three: the Third, Fourth and Fifth coalitions. Between the Third and Fourth, Prussia entered the coalition. They originally feared Napoleon especially after the latter's stunning victory at Austerlitz, but ongoing disputes finally lead them to breaking point. Between the Fourth and Fifth, France subdued Russia but were spread thin and tied down in Iberia, and Austria sought to take advantage of this and subject France to a two-front war. By this stage the French army was qualitatively weaker, and Napoleon suffered his first personal defeat in a decade at Aspern-Essling.

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    Actually Napoleon had suffered a fairly humiliating personal defeat in the Levant and had to flee leaving his army behind. While historians might separate the events of the French Revolutionary wars from the Napoleonic wars, I'm not so sure that the people of Europe in the early 1800s did (and they remembered he could be beaten).
    – Steve Bird
    Jun 1, 2017 at 5:07
  • @SteveBird fixed; I mainly brought it up to illustrate that the chances for defeating Napoleon were getting better. Jun 1, 2017 at 5:36

Napoleon represented an existential threat to the other rulers of Europe.

First, although he was technically an Emperor of France, he was not descended from royal blood like all the other emperors, kings, and princes. He was an "upstart" who had crowned himself, both literally and figuratively.

Putting aside "social" issues, he was highly disruptive to the politics of Europe. By putting his brother on the throne of Spain, he renewed fears of a Franco-Spanish behemoth. By creating the "Confederation of the Rhine" (a group of client states encompassing mostly the modern "West Germany"), he created competition for the Austrians for "Holy Roman Emperor." He reduced Prussia to half of its former size by creating the Duchy of Warsaw (Poland) and some west German states out of its territory. He also took away Austrian lands in Italy and what later became Yugoslavia.

The Austrians and others never wanted "peace" with Napoleon, only truces that would let the reorganize and rise again. They did so when Napoleon suffer reverses, e.g. against the British in the Peninsular War in Spain, and, of course, later against Russia.


The Napoleonic Wars are perhaps best thought of as a single continuous conflict between Britain and France, extending for twelve and a half years from the breakdown of the Treaty of Amiens through Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

Now, Britain at the time didn't have much of a standing army to fight with. Rather, British strategy was to use their superior navy to control the seas and cut off their opponent's access to overseas colonies, while relying on Continental allies to engage in land combat. Diplomatically, their goal was "balance of power": arranging alliances to keep any single Continental country or group of countries from becoming too powerful.

You can see how this plays out in the Napoleonic Wars: the "War of the Whichevereth Coalition" is simply Britain's latest group of allies in an ongoing conflict.

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    Mark - This may or may not be true, but does not really answer my question.
    – Timothy
    Jun 1, 2017 at 12:29
  • There was one king/tsar that tried to ally with Napoleon, Pavel I of Russia. He was killed.
  • His son Alexander I once tried to make friends with Napoleon. He was threatened and broke the agreement.
  • Swedish King Bernadotte was one of Napoleon's Marshals. But he started to fight against him, too.

All Napoleonic wars were about struggle of French and English elites for the Europe domination. The whole Europe was already under much stronger English economical influence. So, the elites of all continental countries (except France) did not want to boycott England. And not boycotting England meant war with Napoleon. Kings could have any views, but they could not ignore the interests of all of the elite in their countries. Pavel tried...

So, several years repeated the same cycle: war against France, defeat, peace... Napoleon won military, but again and again lost economically and consequentally, in politics. His enemies among the elite of the questioned country overpowered his allies. And a new war was starting.

There were two possible ways out of that cycle: Economic victory of the French elite (never happened) or the military defeat of France (which finally happened).

One more argument for my point of view: Notice, that England did not participate in that peace/war circling - it was the constant enemy on France these days.

  • I'm not sure that the first line of the middle paragraph is strictly correct. The English elites weren't striving for domination of Europe so much as trying to ensure that none of the other European powers became dominant enough to challenge Britain outside of Europe. Admittedly, the end result was much the same.
    – Steve Bird
    Aug 9, 2017 at 12:03
  • @SteveBird They hadn't need to be politically active in every coundry. But their trade was active everywhere. As for bigger countries, England was active politically, too. According to the most sources I have read, English embassador did participate in the preparations of the killing of Pavel I, for example. As for opressing the strongest rival on the Continent - their usual politics before 1775 and after 1815, between these dates it was changed - France became comparably too strong and England had to use more serious measures than usually.
    – Gangnus
    Aug 9, 2017 at 13:31

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