Monday, February 22, 2016

The "tipping points" of history: the countess of Castiglione and the greater French Empire

In 1810, Napoleon Bonaparte had managed to create a sort of West European Empire that would have generated a much different Europe, today, if it had lasted. 

History is supposed to be driven by gigantic and impersonal forces that govern the economy and the movements of nations. What happens, it is often said, happened because it had to. And yet, sometimes, we see that history is on the balance. We can imagine that just a little push on one or another direction could have changed the destiny of whole nations and empires. Of course, thinking of these tipping points is just an exercise in fiction; but it is a fascinating one. So, here is a pseudo-history of Europe that could have taken place if the Countess of Castiglione had not seduced the emperor of France, Napoleon III, and convinced him to help Piedmont to invade and annex the states of the Italian peninsula - something that he should never have done if he had reasoned according to common sense. If you want to read what happened in reality, you can do that in the blog "Cassandra's Legacy"  in a post titled "Coal, Wars, and Beautiful Women." Here is, instead, the fiction. (don't take it for anything political, it is just that: fiction)

In 1858, some momentous events take place in Paris. It is said that Emperor Napoleon III is so influenced by his mistress, the Italian Countess of Castiglione, that he has promised to her to help the King of Piedmont, Vittorio Emanuele II, to carve out for himself a much larger reign than the North-Western corner of Italy where he reigns: the whole Italian peninsula.

The Countess of Castiglione is shrewd, beautiful, and she is supported - it is said - by the secret services of Piedmont under orders by the smart prime minister, Camillo Benso, count of Cavour. And things seem to be moving as the count of Cavour plans. It is said that the strategical agreement is going to be signed and that Piedmont will soon attack the Austrian Empire with the help of the French army. However, in a curious twist of fortune, Countess Castiglione is hit by a falling tile while she walks along a street in Paris. Taken to the Hôpital Général, she is pronounced dead on arrival. They say that Napoleon III is devastated, not the same appears to be the case for Empress Eugénia, Napoleon's wife.

When Count Cavour attempts to have Napoleon III sign the treaty that they had agreed upon, he finds that he has changed his mind after the death of his beloved Italian mistress. More negotiations follow, but it doesn't appear obvious that the French will support Piedmont to take on Austria in the risky and difficult task of conquering North-Eastern Italy.

In 1860, Cavour attempts to force the game. With the help of Great Britain, a military expedition led by General Garibaldi is launched against the Kingdom of Southern Italy. The expedition had been planned to take place only after that Piedmont had decisively beaten Austria. But now it has become the only possibility to unlock the political situation. It is a big gamble that Cavour attempts, and it fails, badly.

At the beginning, with the protection of the British navy, Garibaldi lands unopposed in Sicily. Then, he manages to soundly defeat the Neapolitan army and his men march North, nearly unopposed. But Napoleon III is outraged that this operation is taking place without his consent and with the clear objective of tilting the power balance in Italy in favor of England. The Emperor reacts by sending a corps of 10,000 elite troops, the chasseurs, to Italy. The French troops land in Naples and proceed South. The joint French and Neapolitan army stops Garibaldi advance in the Southern tip of Italy, Calabria. A confused naval battle takes place between the French and the English fleets in the straits of Messina; it ends without clear winners but it shows that the Britsh don't have the domain of the Mediterranean sea. In the meantime, Napoleon III sends an ultimatum to King Vittorio Emanuele, threatening to invade and annex the Piedmont domains West of the Alps. The King of Piedmont agrees to call Garibaldi back. Garibaldi refuses, but he is wounded and captured in a confused battle in the Aspromonte, in Calabria. Transferred to the fortress of Gaeta, off the coast of Naples, he will end his life there, old and forgotten.

With the disappearance of their leader, Garibaldi's troops melt away and the King of Naples, Francesco II, regains control of Sicily, mopping away the last resistance pockets. In Piedmont, Count Cavour is deposed by King of Piedmont and replaced by a more moderate prime minister who pursues a politics of retrenchment, trying to maintain good relations with both France and Austria.

In the years that follow, the political situation in Italy remains unchanged. Austria and France agree to keep Britain away from the peninsula and to maintain its fragmentation in statelets, convenient for both. The North-Eastern region of Italy is increasingly Germanized, the rest of the peninsula is gradually becoming more and more French. Already in Piedmont the language most commonly spoken is French, and it gradually spreads south, where the Kingdom of Naples remains occupied by the French troops that had been sent there after the ill-fated Garibaldi expedition.

In 1870, France and Austria agree on a common policy to stop Prussia from its ambitions to become the leader of a nation formed of German states. The war is harsh and the Prussians manage to defeat the French in the battle of Sedan. But the army of Piedmont, small but powerful, comes to the rescue, stopping the Prussians from marching into Paris. On their side, the Austrians put a heavy pressure on Prussia, whose armies are forced to retreat. A treaty is signed among the states involved in this war and Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck will have to limit his ambitions. The French-Prussian agreement is the last political act of Napoleon III, who dies in 1873, handling the crown to his son, Napoleon IV.

Under the leadership of the new Emperor, France continues to encroach the Western Mediterranean region. The French had already taken Algeria in 1830, they occupy Tunisia in 1881 and Morocco in 1904. In 1911, France occupies unopposed the region called Libya. The Kingdom of Naples feebly protests about that, but it remains occupied by French troops and cannot mount an effective opposition. The Mediterranean is becoming more and more of a French lake. The French even extend their power to Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. The British cannot stop the French expansion, and decide not to try. It is the start of the decline of the once powerful British empire, gradually overcome by the expanding French Empire.

In 1914, the Archduke of Austria Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Serbia. That leads Austria to invade Serbia in an action that inflames the whole Balkan region. The French Empire intervenes with all its military might, rapidly defeating Austria and forcing all the parties involved to start negotiations. In the end, Austria is awarded most of the Balkans in exchange with the Austrians ceding the Northern Italian regions to Piedmont, which then proclaims itself "Kingdom of Padania".  The capital of Padania is moved to Milano, the largest city of Northern Italy. The first part of the old plan by Cavour is accomplished, although only half a century later. Yet, the Piedmontese are not happy with this arrangement. They had hoped to obtain much more from Napoleon V: the whole Italian peninsula. But the French Emperor is adamant on this point: the Kingdom of Naples will remain a French protectorate.

There follow some years of peace, but dark events are brewing. In 1922, Benito Mussolini leader of the Padanian Fascist Party, marches to the capital of Padania, Milano, with his black shirts and seizes power. Mussolini distances Padania from the French European Empire. He exploits the resentment of Padanians for what they believe was an injustice; being denied leadership over the whole Italian peninsula. In 1933, a young Austrian hothead, Adolf Hitler, leader of the Austrian Nazi party, is elected Chancellor of Austria. Later on, he will seize power exploiting the fire of the Reichstag of Vienna, whom he attributes to the Communists. The King of Austria is exiled and Hitler becomes the sole ruler of Austria.

In 1939; the Nazi Austrian regime allies with the fascist regime of Padania, forming a European "Axis." With the support of Prussia, still brooding from the defeat in the great war, the Axis attacks the French-European empire. The attack is successful: Paris is occupied by the Prussian-Austrian troops, while Padania advances in France from the South. At the same time, the Padanian Armies invade Southern Italy, completing the old Cavour plan, occupying the whole Italy reuniting it under King Vittorio Emanuele III and the name of "Kingdom of Greater Padania".

However, at this point, Hitler makes the wrong decision of attacking Russia and the Austro-Prussian troops are soundly defeated after a harsh Winter campaign. The French fight back from their possessions in North Africa, rich in human and mineral resources. While the Austro-Prussian army retreats in disorder from the Russian front, the outremer French troops disembark in Normandy and force the Nazi armies back to Vienna in a pincer movement together with the Russian troops. French troops also disembark in Sicily and push Northward the Padanian troops that retreat in disarray. In 1945, the Russians enter in Vienna and Adolf Hitler commits suicide in his bunker, while Benito Mussolini is hanged in Milano while trying to escape away from Padania. Britain had remained neutral during these events, but at this point, the British crown is forced to find an agreement with France. Britain becomes a French protectorate and the French empire is re-established in Paris with Napoleon VI crowned Emperor of Europe in 1948.

In the 1950s, the Euro-Mediterranean Union (EMU) is formed, under the auspices of the Emperor of France, blending together all the nations of North Africa and Europe in an alliance for peace and prosperity. Today, everyone in Western Europe and Northern Africa speaks French. In Europe, only some barbarous islanders in the North-West keep speaking a barbarous language that's referred to as "Ingliss"


  1. Thank you Maestro Ugo for the lessons in European History of which I no next to nothing. Linking in Chaos Theory and history with powerful women too.

  2. Excellent counterfactual Ugo! Changing not too many things we get a vastly different world. Harry Turtledove would be proud of you!

  3. It is fun to think of this fictional history. And, yet, in doing that, I keep being amazed by the enormity of Napoleon III's mistake. Not only he lost the possibility of creating a Mediterranean French Empire, but he created an entity, Italy, that turned out to be often hostile to France. So, in 1870, Italy switched allegiance and joined Prussia against Austria and - indirectly - against France. That was the disaster of Sedan for France, and another big blow to the French ambitions of being a great power. But imagine that Italy didn't exist in 1870. Then, Piedmont, a much French-ized country, would probably have joined France in the fight against Prussia, while Austria would have been more powerful, with the control of North-Eastern Italy and at the same time, would not have had to fight at its Southern border. Would that have been sufficient to turn the tables and see Prussia defeated? Of course it can't be said, but surely Bismarck would have had a much more difficult time!

  4. A far more preferable outcome to today's mess.