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The Rhineland under the French (1794 - 1813)

Revolutionary France conquers the Rhineland and Westphalia

The "Rhineland" at the beginning of the French 
from: Putzger Historischer Weltatlas 
(102. Aufl. Berlin 1997, S. 82/83)

The "Rhineland" only emerged as a united political entity in the first half of the 19th century. Before 1794 the area on both sides of the Rhine, between the river Moselle and the Dutch border, comprised a patchwork "rag-rug", made up of many different territories and princedoms. Not only secular rulers, like the Dukes of Jülich, Klewe and Berg, but also religious leaders, such as the Archbishops of Trier and Cologne, governed the areas later known as the Prussian Rhine Province. Accordingly, the inhabitants did not describe themselves as "Rhinelanders", but rather as "Jülicher", "Klever" or "Kölner" and did not form a cross-territorial identity. Although they lived in an empire, namely the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation", which disintegrated in 1806 with the abdication of the Kaiser, the territorial and regional laws and circumstances characterized and determined their lives.

The French Revolution of 1789 was the event which influenced the political landscape in that epoch, beyond the borders of France and also in the longer term. Although Germany did not succumb to revolutionary change, nevertheless the wars with revolutionary France and its Commander, Napoleon Bonaparte, who for certain periods was able to call himself the ruler of half of Europe, severely shook the great German powers Prussia and Austria.


They were trapped in what had suddenly become outdated structures of benevolent despotism and, like the other German countries organized in such a corporately feudal way, had nothing to counter liberal France, with its extremely motivated soldiers. Thus Napoleon won victory after victory and was finally able to dictate peace terms to his opponents. For the German countries this meant not only the partitioning of regions, but also a territorial change, which can be described as the reparcelling of agricultural land. The patchwork "rag-rug" of German countries was done away with and the states of the Rhine Confederation were merged together, thus forming a third German power beside Prussia and Austria.

 At that time France dominated developments throughout Europe. That was especially true for the Rhineland and – to a lesser degree – also for Westphalia. In 1794 revolutionary France conquered the regions left of the Rhine, which Napoleon subsequently annexed in 1801. They were systematically brought into line with the legal, administrative and political conditions in France. In 1802 the French constitution, le Code Civil, was introduced. The achievements of the revolution enacted in the Code Civil included the equality of all people before the law, an independent judiciary and the universal right to vote. However, "people" were still only defined as men; women were regarded as the chattels of men and were not recognized as independent persons.

Code Civil

Under the influence of Napoleon not only did the hitherto territorial and political order change, but the French occupation also brought social reforms with it. The regions right of the Rhine were neither as long nor as intensively under the influence of France:  in 1806 Napoleon founded the Grand Duchy of Berg with Düsseldorf as the capital, he created the Kingdom of Westphalia especially for his younger brother, Jerome Bonaparte, who governed that state as a model state from 1807 to1813. Thus, the regions right of the Rhine never actually belonged to the French State, but retained greater autonomy as its satellites. And so it came to pass that the Prussians, even after their incorporation of the Rhineland and Westphalia in 1815, were regarded by the Rhinelanders with more suspicion, due to their Francophile feeling, than by the Westphalians.

In 1815 the time of French influence was over, but had left behind far-reaching changes, which had been appreciated as a change for the better, especially in the areas of commercial law and administration. Therefore the population also resisted having to sacrifice such achievements for the sake of Prussian citizenship. Consequently, the Code Civil, also known as the Code Napoleon, remained in force as the first citizens' compendium of laws left of the Rhine until it was superseded by the „Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch" (modern German civil code). Prussia itself had been forced to adopt the superior French State as a model and to carry out reforms. These reforms paved the way
for the constitutional state of the 19th century.

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