The Orsini Affair
Excerpt from The unexpected heir: the life of Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte

by Leonardo Ferrari

By early 1858, Napoleon III had become the absolute ruler of France.

Through numerous purges and various draconian laws, he had eliminated or forced his most radical domestic opponents to flee, while his social and economic reforms had secured the loyalty of the more moderate French citizens.

After nine years in power (three as President and six as Emperor), Napoleon III had also finally ended the international isolation of France that had plagued the Second Empire since 1851. Thanks to Paris's rather far-sighted foreign policy, many of the other European powers had abandoned their previous distrust of the French Second Empire in favor of creating a new series of alliances with Paris.

The birth of his son Napoleon IV in 1855 had further strengthened Napoleon III's position. The future of his dynasty was now assured, eliminating any potential risk of dynastic strife among the various members of the Bonaparte family.

Of course, Napoleon III could not have foreseen that the year in which he reached the height of his power would also have been the year of his death. Certainly, the Emperor could not have imagined that he would die because of something that had happened in Latium almost a decade earlier, rather than something he had done in his own country.

Excerpt from Blood and Iron: the history of Europe in the second half of the 19th century by Edward Connors

Felice Orsini was an Italian revolutionary and a former member of the Constituent Assembly of the Roman Republic during the brief revolution in Central Italy in 1848. After the intervention of French troops and the restoration of the Papal States, Orsini had been forced to flee to England.

Unlike other expatriates, the experience had radicalized Orsini even more to the point that Giuseppe Mazzini chose to expel him from his revolutionary organization. Desiring glory and revenge, Orsini then chose to turn to the French expatriates living in London.

Between 1857 and 1858 Orsini and Simon François Bernard, a French socialist expatriate, discussed how to free their countries from the rule of governments they both deeply hated.

In their particular case, the death of Napoleon III seemed a good place to start. Bernard had the necessary contacts in France while Orsini had the men who could carry out the attack against the hated Frenchman.

Orsini and the other conspirators, who arrived clandestinely in France in late 1857 with forged British passports, had only to wait for the right opportunity to strike at the French Emperor.

On the evening of January 14, 1858, Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie went to the Opera Le Peletier in Paris. There were four Italian expatriates waiting for them , armed with a significant number of bombs.

The first bomb had almost no effect on the steel plates of the imperial carriage. The next two bombs severely damaged the vehicle, but the occupants were miraculously unharmed.

For a brief moment it seemed that the most injured member of the imperial family would have been the empress, due to her falling out of the carriage after the first explosion.

However Orsini was holding one last bomb. Wounded in the cheek and now surrounded by an angry mob, the vengeful and boastful revolutionary decided to finish the job and throw the last explosive. [1]

The first three explosions had so damaged the carriage windows that the last bomb shattered the glass and exploded inside the carriage.
The power of the explosion, combined with the presence of nails and other pieces of iron inside the explosive, gave Napoleon III no chance and killed him instantly.

According to some witnesses, after the last explosion Orsini merrily laughed despite the fact that the crowd had already started lynching him.

If Orsini had been able to predict who would succeed Napoleon III or what consequences the attack would have had on all Europe, perhaps the former revolutionary would have spent the last moments of his life weeping.

[1] The POD. IRL Orsini lost the last bomb in the confusion and fleed the scene to avoid being arrested.
Really great POD choice ! I can't wait to see the consequences of such an earlier death
Agreed. This France was on the cusp of having Nice and Savoy returned, and the emperor being a minor potentially gives France the chance to properly become a Bonapartist constitutional monarchy. This can also butterfly or change German and Italian unification and the decline of Austrian influence. The question is, who ends up in the regency? The emperor's mother? Alexandre Colonna-Walewski perhaps? Alternatively, is the monarchy cast aside yet again?
Agreed. This France was on the cusp of having Nice and Savoy returned, and the emperor being a minor potentially gives France the chance to properly become a Bonapartist constitutional monarchy. This can also butterfly or change German and Italian unification and the decline of Austrian influence. The question is, who ends up in the regency? The emperor's mother? Alexandre Colonna-Walewski perhaps? Alternatively, is the monarchy cast aside yet again?
1. Prussia and the Italian Peninsula will have a huge role to play in this TL. Bismark and Cavour are going to have far different careers and lives ITTL..
2. Austria will get closer to the Sun once again. Let's hope Vienna doesn't get too close.
3. Well, the Emperor is dead and his inner circle is full of reactionaries (remember Napoleon III started liberalising his rule only towards the second half of 1858 in OTL). A certain Pole will reshape France by being a bastard in more ways than one.

Japan too.
I have plans for most of Asia, but Japan and China are the ones that will get the most focus. To put it mildly, a bomb on the other side of the planet will change their history a lot.
bomb? or that random guy with a sword almost killed a tsar?

I believe it refers to the explosive attack that OTL failed, but which here acts as the starting point of the story, and considering the importance of Napoleon III's ambitions in those areas of the world historically, it is obvious to think that his death also significantly changes their development compared to Otl
Agreed. This France was on the cusp of having Nice and Savoy returned, and the emperor being a minor potentially gives France the chance to properly become a Bonapartist constitutional monarchy. This can also butterfly or change German and Italian unification and the decline of Austrian influence. The question is, who ends up in the regency? The emperor's mother? Alexandre Colonna-Walewski perhaps? Alternatively, is the monarchy cast aside yet again?

well without Napoleon III support I hardly see Savoy succeeding in unifying Italy, it certainly can still count on British economic support, but it's not a great incentive when you have to challenge the imperial armies on the battlefield, remembering that most of the previous clashes ( without French support ) ended badly for the Piedmontese, perhaps here we see the Habsburgs being more elastic compared to Otl, at least in Germany and Italy, in the former supporting reforms that strengthen the third Germany within the German Confederation ( perhaps presuming a further mediatization albeit moderate, particularly reinforcing Saxony and Hanover ) while on the peninsula it would be necessary to eliminate the burden of defense of the smaller Habsburg satellite states, which are a burden for Vienna from a military and economic point of view ( except for Tuscany and partly the Papal States ) it would certainly be better to definitively annex Modena and perhaps Parma to the Lombardy Veneto, it is above all to start a series of liberal reforms on site ( which Otl Max was starting to do, albeit gradually ) as well as increasing the use and local representation in the administration, so as not to give too much of the idea of a totally foreign government

certainly it must be considered that the Habsburg Otl wanted Bosnia, not only to make up for their loss of prestige, but also to gain a defensive zone that could allow a better defense of Dalmatia, given that previously it was dangerously exposed and easy to separate from the rest of the empire, perhaps here instead of the whole region, in Vienna they are satisfied with the territories corresponding to the district of Cazin Otl, and inviting all the Catholics present in the Ottoman empire to settle in the area ( and obviously the Croats who still lived in Bosnia at the time ), while for the rest it works to keep the Ottoman state as intact as possible ( still a feasible undertaking ) and its hold on the Balkans ( Greece excluded ) certainly there would also be Serbia, but it could happen that it is reabsorbed by Constantinople or is merged with a newly formed Bulgaria or even that we will only see Romania and Greece exist as independent states with respect to Otl ( also considerably subject to territorial changes, both in a positive and non-positive sense )
Last edited:
I would assume so, which adds to the squick when one considers that in OTL Napoleon III had an affair with said Pole's wife as I recall.
It gets funnier because:
1. Walewski openly encouraged his wife to sleep with the Emperor because he wanted more influence on Napoleon III.
2. Walewski was apparently upset when Napoleon III ended the relationship in 1862/3.
3. Empress Eugenie basically went "At least I don't have to sleep with Napoleon III anymore". Maria Ricci quickly became the Empress' best friend and closest confidant.
Enter the bastard(s).
Excerpt from The Bonaparte Legacy: France from Napoleon I to Napoleon IV by Francois Le Pen
The political crisis that gripped France throughout January 1858 was caused as much by Napoleon III's self-centeredness as by his sudden death.

In the seven years he had been emperor, Napoleon III had not prepared the French political system for his possible departure. The Emperor had continually refused to appoint a prime minister, preferring to preside directly over every function of his government.

In the hours immediately following Napoleon III's death, France found itself without a government. No one knew who was in charge of France in that moment, causing numerous protests, riots and looting in the streets of Paris and other major cities of the Second Empire.

The situation was further complicated by the lack of a regent for the young Napoleon IV. The future Emperor was just over two years old, so someone would have to rule on his behalf until he reached adulthood.

However, fearful of a potential coup d'état Napoleon III had never established who should have filled that role. The only possible candidates were either Empress Eugene or Joseph Bonaparte, second cousin of Napoleon IV.

Empress Eugene was in a coma and in a very serious condition at Val-de-Grâce Hospital, leaving Joseph Bonaparte as the only candidate. Unfortunately, Joseph was also considered the worst option.

Joseph Bonaparte had the rare ability to make everyone hate him, regardless of their political beliefs. French conservatives hated him for his anti-clerical views, while liberals hated him for having supported some of Napoleon III's most repressive initiatives.

Furthermore, Joseph was extremely unpopular with the armed forces for having abandoned the men under his command during the Crimean War.[1]

France had only two equally horrible options.
Without a regent, the Second Empire was in danger of collapsing completely into anarchy. Appointing the only possible candidate could easily have caused a coup d'état by the army.

In the end, another Bonaparte would have saved France from military and political anarchy and from a potential rise to power of Joseph Bonaparte. Ironically, the Bonaparte in question was not an official member of the dynasty.

The Second Empire was about to enter a new era at the hands of Alexandre Colonna Walewski, bastard son of a Polish noblewoman and the first Napoleon.

Excerpt from The Polish Bastard: How Walewski Changed Europe by Francisco Diaz

Depending on which version one decides to believe, Walewski was either a cruel tyrant, perhaps responsible for the murder of Napoleon III, or a brilliant politician, willing to risk everything for the sake of France.

After all, many of the stories regarding Walewski were written by his supporters or by his many opponents, all willing to lie through their teeth about everything for their own sake.

Perhaps this is the reason why we know so little about the extraordinary meeting hastily arranged by Napoleon III's cabinet on January 9, 1858. No report was made that day and only later some people decided to write contradictory recollections about that meeting.

We know for certain that the first part of the meeting was centered around the testimony of the various doctors who were taking care of the Empress. Apparently, Walewski remained unflappable throughout the entire testimony, reading the medical reports and showing no particular despondency.

A few years later, one of the doctors told to a british journalist that the foreign minister was the only one who got up to shake his hand, while the other politicians in the room had begun shouting at each other. In addition to thanking the doctors for their work, Walewski reminded them that any indiscretion about the Empress's health would be considered treason and punished accordingly.

It is difficult to reconstruct the events of the next five hours after the doctors left the meeting. According to the testimony of Pierre Magne, Minister of the Economy at that time, Walewski was the first one to talk.

As if he had already prepared his speech well in advance, he began pointing to the bust of Napoleon III that stood behind him.

"My friends," he said as if he was talking about good weather, "this discussion is ridiculous. Since 1799, the fate of this country has been determined by iron and blood, not by ridiculous archaic rules. Why are you whining about tradition and laws of succession when we are the ones deciding what the law is? We are all heirs of Napoleon and it is time to act as such."

Although the veracity of Magne's testimony is questionable, it is undeniable that at the end of the meeting Walewski had become one of the most powerful men in France.

It took nearly six hours of voting, but in the end the cabinet voted to appoint Empress Eugene regent for Napoleon IV. Although it was unlikely that she would have ever awaken from her coma, the cabinet established that being alive was sufficient to be appointed regent.

The end of the meeting also saw the formation of the Government of National Defense, that is the group of ministers who would have taken over the functions of the late emperor until the Empress awoke or Napoleon IV came of age.

Contrary to expectations, Walewski did not candidate himself as leader of the new government. Demonstrating a remarkable degree of prudence and aware of the lack of support, Walewski preferred to support Achilles Fould's candidacy for the position of Prime Minister. [2]

Walewski probably thought that Fould wasn’t going to last last long in his new role. And he was right.

[1] To the point even Napoleon III started calling him Plon-Plon ("The one who fears lead") IRL.
[2] IRL he was one of the earliest supporters of Napoleon III and he was appointed Minister of State between 1852 and 1860. However he had also been politically damaged by his previous alliance with the Orlianists and conversion to Protestantism. ITTL this makes him the perfect figurehead.
Last edited: