The past couple of posts in the series have focused on the rise of Prussia in the 1860s. They beat the Danes in the Second Schleswig War of 1864, before then allying with the Italians to thrash the Austrians in 1866. All of this was under the guidance of Bismarck – the Iron Chancellor – and it seemed to demonstrate the growth of Prussian power. The next port of call for this Prussian rise was France: a defeat of the French would leave German affairs entirely at the hands of Prussia. The scene for 1870 was set…
The Franco-Prussian War: 1870-71
The 1860s is a momentous decade in German history. Prussia – under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck – won a series of famous wars that pushed out the influence of rival empires, before culminating in the union of German as a solid nation state. In 1864 Denmark was defeated, whilst in 1866 it was the turn of Austria. These wars had left Prussia in a situation of dominance in Germany, having become the dominant leaders of the newly created North German Confederation. Bismarck and Prussia were riding high, however, elsewhere in Europe, the alarm bells were ringing.
The growth of Prussian power had France rattled. Under the rule of Napoleon III (nephew of the great Napoleon Bonaparte) the French nation – having flirted with democracy – had become an empire once again. Napoleon III had proved successful in the Crimean War, and had set out to become the arbiter of all affairs on the European continent. In order to face down the critics at home, Napoleon sought greater prestige in order to check the growing Prussian state, resulting in a humiliation when he failed to annex the duchy of Luxembourg.
After all of these antics war between the two states seemed inevitable. The crunch was a comic event that highlights the tension between both states. Bismarck – that wily international player – provoked a crisis over the succession to the Spanish throne. He trumped up a dispatch to make it appear that the King of Prussia had acted in an outrageous and discourteous way to a French ambassador, thereby humiliating French honour. It appeared to re-open ancient wounds between the two peoples, stretching back hundreds of years and comprising dozens of wars. Napoleon III had been waiting for his chance to strike, and the moment had come.
War raged between July 1870 and ended in May 1871. Initially Napoleon had been convinced that the French would be victorious, thereby papering over the reality that France had become isolated on the international stage, much as Austria was back in 1866. Although the French had been first to declare war, it was the Prussians – alongside their German allies – who took the advantage by invading north-western France.
The French, with a large army heading towards Metz in the hope of relieving a siege, were defeated at the famous Battle of Sedan in early September 1870. It was a catastrophic loss, with their emperor captured and humiliated, and a large number of men killed or wounded. Napoleon’s capture led to a revolution in France, the Commune of Paris, the fall of the Second Empire, and birth of the Third Republic.
Despite this change, the Third Republic could do little to stem the dominance of Prussia in the field. Paris was put to siege and fell in January 1871. This victory demonstrated the strength of the Prussians, who shortly united the German states and themselves into a German empire under the leadership of the Prussian king (the second Reich). Furthermore, territory was taken from the French, notably Alsace-Lorraine, which would endure enmity between the two nations for decades to come.
For France, the war was a drastic game-changer. The empire had been dissolved, their emperor completely embarrassed and disgraced (he would die a couple of years later in 1873), whilst their new republic faced insurrection. In Paris the infamous Commune was declared, holding power in the capital for two months. Although the Third Republic would take back control, it was never entirely popular with the French people. The following decades would see a large amount of soul-searching within the French nation, as well as a willingness to learn from past mistakes. In the future, France would not face the German colossus alone, but would seek out friends to help them.
The unification of Germany is one of the greatest events of nineteenth century European history. The chief factors in German unification can be put down to both the strength and might of the Prussian army, as well as in the diplomatic skill of Bismarck. An empire was forged that would change history, principally in Germany’s dramatic growth industrially and militarily. This growth would be problematic for the existing powers, such as Great Britain (in terms of naval rivalry), as well as France and Russia (in terms of continental dominance). The outcome would be two world wars within the following eighty years, in which Germany would crumble, rise, turn to ashes and be reborn yet again.