By 1812, the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte controlled a quarter of Europe’s population—from southern Italy to the Baltic, from Portugal to Poland. In the summer of that year, he made a decision that would turn out to be the worst mistake of his life.

Distrusting Russia’s imperial intentions, he invaded the country with the biggest, most spectacular army Europe had ever raised. In June, his army of about half a million men crossed the Nieman River into what was then the Russian province of Lithuania. The Russian Tsar Alexander I’s army quietly withdrew dragging Napoleon deeper into Russia. Tsar’s scorched-earth policy deprived Napoleon of food to feed his army. In September, he reached almost deserted Moscow with only 100,000 of his men, the numbers drastically reduced because of death, disease and desertion.

Napoleon’s army was woefully unprepared for the long and harsh Russian winter. The Tsar refused to make peace with ‘the oppressor of Europe and the distributor of the world peace’. He declared, ‘my campaign led by General Winter, is just beginning,’ forcing Napoleon to retreat just as winter was approaching. Napoleon and his men had to walk as the snow came down, men froze and horses starved. Only about 20,000 made back to the Nieman River. In 2002, while bulldozing some old Soviet barracks on the outskirts of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, workers discovered a mass grave of thousands of skeletons, which have now been identified as those of Napoleon’s soldiers. A grim reminder of Napoleon’s harrowing retreat from Moscow.

Encouraged by Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, other European powers formed a military alliance against him, forcing him in 1814 to surrender in Paris. ‘Like most of those who study history, he learned from the mistakes of the past how to make new ones,’ that’s how the British historian A. J. P. Taylor once summarised Napoleon’s defeat.

During World War II, Hitler also repeated Napoleon’s foolish mistake when he invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. Instead of capturing Moscow first, he ordered his general to take Leningrad and Kiev simultaneously. Buoyed by these summertime victories, in October he ordered German troops to advance on Moscow. By mid-October, German troops were within 65 km (40 mi) of Moscow and Stalin started to prepare for evacuation. But then the weather changed. ‘General Winter’ was on the march. Unequipped for brutal winter, ‘the cold relentlessly crept into, our blood, our brains’ as a German officer described the plight of his soldiers. The mighty German army started to crumble, and it would never be the same again. The rest, as they say, is history. In April 1945, Soviet soldiers hoisted the red flag over the Berlin Reichstag.

© Surendra Verma 2019

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