Starting at the end of 1811, western European forces begin to concentrate on Russia’s borders. On June 12th, 1812, war begins— “an event […] contrary to human reason[.]” With “naïve assurance,” later historians name several causes—the offense against the duke of Oldenburg, the failure of the Continental System, Napoleon’s power hunger, and more. Therefore, from historians’ perspective, a subtle difference—more skillful diplomacy, perhaps—could have prevented war.
Throughout the novel, Tolstoy offers more general reflections on war and develops his theory of history. The Continental System was a blockade imposed by Napoleon between England and the European continent. Until 1810, Russia participated in Napoleon’s blockade. In 1812, Napoleon declared war to force Russia back into the blockade, claiming Russia had betrayed the treaties made at Tilsit years earlier. Other factors included France’s annexation of the duchy of Oldenburg; the duke was a relative of the Russian imperial family. Tolstoy suggests that while historians confidently name clear-cut causes of war, they’re “naïve” in doing so. Tolstoy also reiterates his belief that war is essentially irrational.
That’s also how it seemed to the people of the time, and even to Napoleon himself. Depending on who you asked—Prince Oldenburg, the English Parliament, merchants, or diplomats—everyone would have blamed a different historical circumstance. To us, however, it’s impossible to explain how any one of these circumstances necessitated the killing of Christians by other Christians. In reality, “billions of causes” coincided to bring about war, and no single cause would have sufficed.
With the limited perspective of a given time and situation, most people favor one specific cause or another. Tolstoy questions, however, how we can look back at the overall catastrophe of war and justify the bloodbath perpetrated by people who had more commonalities than differences. And in any case, it’s impossible to isolate just a few salient causes for an event as massive as war.
Each human being’s life is two-sided—a personal life and an “elemental” life in which a person merely fulfills what’s prescribed for them. While a person consciously lives for himself, that person also serves as an instrument in the unfolding of history. The higher a person’s social standing, the more interconnected with other people’s lives, the more obvious is the “inevitability” of his actions. Even kings are the “slaves of history” whose lives are just instruments. History’s so-called “great men” give their names to events, but these events are actually the product of the whole course of history.
Tolstoy argues that, beyond what an individual is aware of, they also play a role in history’s broader unfolding. The life of a prominent person like a king is connected to countless other lives. So while that person’s actions look “inevitable,” they’re actually connected to countless other causes. Their power, in other words, isn’t as encompassing as it appears to us. Even though events are attributed to famous figures, countless factors help determine those events.
On May 29th, 1812, Napoleon leaves Dresden and progresses through Poland, met by enthusiastic crowds at every stop. When he reaches the Russian border, to everyone’s surprise, he orders his troops to cross the Niemen. On June 12th, the army enters Russia, calling “Long live the Emperor!” as they go. The following day, Napoleon himself crosses the river to rapturous cries from his men. At the river Vilia, a group of zealous Polish cavalrymen, to show their devotion, attempt to swim across without finding a safe place to ford. At least 40 drown, while Napoleon obliviously paces on the bank.
The French invasion of Russia takes place on June 12th, and with this event, Napoleon begins to enter the story more consistently as a prominent character. Given Tolstoy’s previous discussion of history, though, it can be expected that Napoleon won’t be deified as a larger-than-life hero who singlehandedly changed history. For example, while his men obviously loved him, Napoleon’s disregard for their demonstration of devotion suggests that he didn’t deserve their loyalty.
For the past month, Emperor Alexander has been at Vilno. His troops aren’t prepared, and there’s no plan, though several have been proposed. Each of the three Russian armies has a separate commander in chief, and there’s no supreme commander. Meanwhile, the Emperor attends many balls and parties. The adjutant generals throw a huge dinner and ball at Count Bennigsen’s country estate, including boat rides and fireworks. Emperor Alexander dances with Countess Bezukhov as Napoleon’s army crosses into Russia. Boris Drubetskoy, now rich, is also there.
As the French invasion takes place, the Russians are caught off guard not many miles away. Leadership is divided and more preoccupied with lavish entertainments than preparations for war. Even prominent society figures like Hélène and social climbers like Boris (newly married to heiress Julie Karagin) are among the celebrants.
While dancing with Hélène, Boris watches Emperor Alexander closely. He notices that Balashov, an adjutant general, receives some obviously important news. When Balashov and the Emperor step outside, Boris feels tormented, wondering how to get the news before anybody else does. He manages to overhear a snippet of conversation—that the enemy has entered Russia without a declaration of war, and that Alexander will not make peace while a single enemy remains on his soil. This makes Boris the first person to learn about the French invasion, allowing him to rise in the opinions of other important people. The next day, Emperor Alexander sends a letter to Napoleon disputing that there’s any pretext for French aggression, and that the burden is on Napoleon to withdraw and avoid war.
Constantly alert for opportunities for self-advancement, Boris puts himself in the path of important people, scrutinizes their behavior, and calculates how to use information to his own advantage. The catastrophic news of renewed war doesn’t even seem to matter greatly to him; ever ambitious, he mostly cares about how this inside scoop can elevate him above others who aren’t yet in the know.
Emperor Alexander sends Balashov to Napoleon with his letter. He instructs Balashov to personally convey his declaration that he will not make peace as long as a single armed enemy remains in Russia. Balashov is rudely received at the French outpost and waits for a long time. Finally, just after sunrise, a yawning French colonel leads Balashov to Murat, who is now the king of Naples. Murat doesn’t understand why he’s the Neapolitan king or exactly what he’s doing in the war, but he accepts the role happily nonetheless. He walks and chats with Balashov about the war, explaining that France’s dignity is offended by the Russian demand to withdraw their troops from Prussia. Murat doesn’t accept that Napoleon is the war’s instigator.
Balashov was a historical figure who served as an adjutant general and state councilor under Emperor Alexander I; he did relay the Emperor’s reply to Napoleon in person in 1812. Murat was a longtime general and also brother-in-law of Napoleon who was rewarded with the title king of Naples (a French client state under Napoleon) in 1808. Unsurprisingly, Murat rejects the Russian perspective on the invasion.
Balashov assumes he’ll see Napoleon next, but instead, he’s taken to Marshal Davout in the next village. Davout is a cruel, determinedly gloomy man. He refuses to let Balashov deliver his message directly and takes pleasure from the resulting dismay on Balashov’s face. Balashov is forced to spend the night and speak to nobody except for Davout’s adjutant. Four days later, Balashov enters Vilno, which is now occupied by the French. He will meet with Napoleon in the same house where Emperor Alexander’s party was held four days ago.
After seeing Murat, Balashov is deliberately kept waiting for days before he’s allowed to speak to anyone else. During that time, the French continue to press into Russian territory. The site of the leisurely celebration of just a few days earlier is rapidly transformed into occupied territory.
At last, Napoleon—short and stout, majestically uniformed, with a springy step—enters the reception room where Balashov waits. Glancing briefly into Balashov’s eyes, Napoleon speaks to him quickly and confidently. He seems to think that his own will is all that matters in the world. He asserts that he has been forced into a war he never wanted and explains why he’s unhappy with the Russian government. Balashov gives his prepared speech, stating that Alexander doesn’t want war and is not cooperating with England, despite what the French think.
Napoleon is immediately characterized as an arrogant, self-satisfied figure who is used to getting his own way, and believes he’s justified in asserting his own will at all times, notwithstanding the views of those around him.
Balashov remembers what the Emperor had ordered—he’s to tell Napoleon that Alexander will not make peace while a single armed enemy remains on his soil. Yet, somehow, he can’t bring himself to say those words. Instead he says that Alexander will make peace if the French withdraw to the other side of the Niemen. Napoleon seems to be agitated by this. He points out that, a few months ago, Alexander demanded withdrawal from Prussia, yet now he’s willing to start peace negotiations if Napoleon merely crosses the Niemen. He is offended by this idea and paces, his left leg trembling, listing Alexander’s weaknesses and his own strengths.
Tolstoy takes some liberty with Balashov’s conversation with Napoleon. It’s not clear why Balashov hesitates to give the Emperor’s full ultimatum. In any case, Napoleon acts insulted by the fact that he’s invested so much in the advance across the Niemen, only to be met with, in his view, a weakened Russian response. In turn, Napoleon openly insults the Emperor and plays up his own greatness. Tolstoy brings out small humanizing details, like the way Napoleon’s leg trembled when he was worked up.
Napoleon continues to insult Alexander, the Russian army, and Russia’s allies. Balashov keeps trying to speak in his sovereign’s defense, but Napoleon repeatedly interrupts him. Balashov knows Napoleon is talking nonsense, yet he cowers before Napoleon’s compulsive torrent of words. Napoleon yells at Balashov that he will destroy Prussia and push back Russia. He dismisses Balashov from his presence without acknowledging his protests.
Even though Napoleon isn’t making sense, that doesn’t make him less intimidating to Balashov. Tolstoy portrays Napoleon as bombastic, with an out-of-control temper, hinting that Napoleon’s reputation owes more to these characteristics than to the substance of his words.
To Balashov’s surprise, he’s invited to dine at Napoleon’s table later that day, and Napoleon greets him cheerfully, apparently unembarrassed by his outburst earlier. He questions Balashov closely about Moscow, seeming oblivious to Balashov’s subtle attempts to insult France. By the time dinner is over, Napoleon seems to assume that Balashov is his friend. As they have coffee in Emperor Alexander’s former study, Napoleon grows heated again, declaring how he’ll overthrow all of Alexander’s German relatives. He tugs Balashov’s ear, which is considered to be a sign of great favor in the French court. Then he sends Balashov back to Alexander with a letter of his own. War begins soon after.
Napoleon is further portrayed as lacking in self-awareness—or at least, he thinks everything he does is right and therefore isn’t embarrassed by inconsistencies that seem obvious to everyone else. His moods are mercurial, and once he knows what he wants, he’s impossible to reason with. Balashov’s drawn-out errand is a pointless failure.