This time has shaped our region, and Napoleon’s laws lasted long beyond his reign. In the Rhineland, the Napoleonic Code was in use until the introduction of the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch (civil code of Germany) in 1900.
Serfdom, rule or guilds still dominated private and personal life. Thus many people shared the French Revolution’s ideas of freedom, equality and fraternity, Moreover, the subjects had to finance their rulers’ splendid courts, even if they did not know how to put food on their own tables. Max Franz, the archbishop of Cologne, was a modest man, but most other rulers enjoyed their luxuries.
Napoleon and the Grand Duchy of Berg
Already in 1794, French troops occupied the left bank of the Rhine. Some years later, Napoleon victories forced emperor Francis II in Vienna to recognize the Rhine border. The end of the old Holy Roman Empire was near.
In 1803, the archbishopric of Cologne was dissolved. On the right side of the Rhine, the Grand Duchy of Berg came into being as a model state for the Rhine Confederation states. Now the achievements of the French Revolution came to Berg.
Wars of liberation
But at the same time, Napoleon decreed compulsory military service, and his wars demanded ever greater sacrifices from the people. Eventually, the liberators had become occupiers. The image of Napoleon as a bearer of hope darkened. In many peoples’ eyes, he had become a despot wanting to rule all of Europe at any cost, ready to sacrifice countless people in battle.
A look beyond the Rhineland
After 20 years of war, life in the countryside was very hard: many soils were ruined, there was too little to live on, almost no medical care and infant mortality was very high. In winter 1816/17, it came to a famine after several bad harvests. Today we know that it had to do with the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The eruption caused global climate anomalies, and 1816 became a “Year without summer”. Hunger and despair drove many people away from their homes, in those years mass emigration to America began. In the 1830s and 1840s, communities in southwestern Germany went so far as to deport poor people in need of support to America.