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Franco-Prussian War

Franco-Prussian War


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The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War took place on 16th July 1870. It was an attempt by Napoleon III to preserve the Second French Empire against the threat posed by German states of the North German Confederation led by the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck. The International Workingmen's Association (IWMA) had declared at its conference the previous year that if war broke out a general strike should take place. However, Karl Marx had privately argued that this would end in failure as the "working-class... is not yet sufficiently organised to throw any decisive weight on to the scales". (1)

The Paris section of the IWMA immediately denounced the war. However, in Germany opinion was divided but the majority of socialists considered the war to be a defensive one and in the Reichstag only Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel refused to vote for war credits and spoke vigorously against the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. For this they were charged with treason and imprisoned. (2)

Marx believed that a German victory would help his long-term desire for a socialist revolution. He pointed out to Friedrich Engels that German workers were better organised and better disciplined than French workers who were greatly influenced by the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: "The French need a drubbing. If the Prussians are victorious then the centralisation of the State power will give help to the centralisation of the working class... The superiority of the Germans over the French in the world arena would mean at the same time the superiority of our theory over Proudhon's and so on." (3)

A few days later Karl Marx issued a statement on behalf of the IWMA. "Whatever turn the impending horrid war may take, the alliance of the working classes of all countries will ultimately kill war. The very fact that while official France and Germany are rushing into a fratricidal feud, the workmen of France and Germany send each other messages of peace and goodwill; this great fact, unparalleled in the history of the past, opens the vista of a brighter future. It proves that in contrast to old society, with its economical miseries and its political delirium, a new society is springing up, whose International rule will be Peace, because its natural ruler will be everywhere the same - Labour! The Pioneer of that new society is the International Working Men's Association." (4)

Peace activists, John Stuart Mill and John Morley, congratulated Marx on his statement and arranged for 30,000 copies of his speech to be printed and distributed. Marx thought the war would provide the opportunity for revolution. He told Engels: "I have been totally unable to sleep for four nights now, on account of the rheumatism and I spend this time in fantasies about Paris, etc." He hoped for a German victory: "I wish this because the definite defeat of Bonaparte is likely to provoke Revolution in France, while the definite defeat of Germany would only protract the present state of things for twenty-years." (5)

In a letter to the American organiser of the IWMA, Friedrich Sorge, Marx made some predictions about the future that included the First World War and the Russian Revolution: "What the Prussian jackasses don't see is that the present war leads just as necessarily to war between Germany and Russia as the war of 1866 led to war between Prussia and France. That is the best result that I expect of it for Germany. Prussianism as such has never existed and cannot exist other than in alliance and in subservience to Russia. And this War No. 2 will act as the mid-wife of the inevitable revolution in Russia." (6)

The war went badly for Napoleon III and he was heavily defeated at the Battle of Sedan. On 4th September, 1870, a republic was proclaimed in Paris. Adolphe Thiers, a former prime minister and an opponent of the war, was elected chief executive of the new French government. (7)

Theirs now aged 74, appointed a provisional government of conservative views and then travelled to London and attempted to negotiate an alliance with Britain. William Gladstone refused and when he arrived back in Paris on 31st October 1870, he was accused of treason. Felix Pyat, a radical socialist organized demonstrations against Thiers, whom he accused of threatening to sell France to the Germans. (8)

Karl Marx, who had been slow to attack Bismark because of his "pure German patriotism to which both he and Engels were always conspicuously prone" and the International Workingmen's Association issued a statement "protesting against the annexation, denouncing the dynastic ambitions of the Prussian King, and calling upon the French workers to unite with all defenders of democracy against the common Prussian foe." (9)

Marx later pointed out that it was "An absurdity and an anachronism to make military considerations the principle by which the boundaries of nations are to be fixed? If this rule were to prevail, Austria would still be entitled to Venetia and the line of the Minicio, and France to the line of the Rhine, in order to protect Paris, which lies certainly more open to an attack from the northeast than Berlin does from the southwest. If limits are to be fixed by military interests, there will be no end to claims, because every military line is necessarily faulty, and may be improved by annexing some more outlying territory; and, moreover, they can never be fixed finally and fairly, because they always must be imposed by the conqueror upon the conquered, and consequently carry within them the seed of fresh wars." (10)

In March 1871, the government made an attempt to disarm the Paris National Guard, a volunteer citizen force which showed signs of radical sympathies. It refused to give up its arms, declared its autonomy, deposed the officials of the provisional government, and elected a revolutionary committee of the people as the true government of France. Adolphe Thiers now fled to Versailles. Governments all over Europe were concerned by what was happening in Europe. The Times reported complained against "this dangerous sentiment of the Democracy, this conspiracy against civilisation in its so-called capital". (11)

The new government called itself the Paris Commune and attempted to run the city. Isaiah Berlin argues the committee was a mixture of different political opinions but did include the followers of Mikhail Bakunin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Louis Auguste Blanqui. The Communards had difficulty keeping control of the national guard and 28th March, on the day of the election, General Jacques Leon Clément-Thomas and General Claude Lecomte were murdered. Doctor Guyon, who examined the bodies shortly afterwards, found forty balls in the body of Clément-Thomas and nine balls in the back of Lecomte.

Adolphe Thiers now based in Versailles urged Parisians to abstain from voting. When the voting was finished, 233,000 Parisians had voted, out of 485,000 registered voters. In upper-class neighborhoods many refused to take part in the election with over 70 per cent refusing to vote. But in the working-class neighborhoods, turnout was high. Of the ninety-two Communards elected by popular suffrage, seventeen were members of the IWMA. It was agreed that Marx should draft an "Address to the People of Paris" but he was suffering from bronchitis and liver trouble and was unable to carry out the work. (12)

The Communards had difficulty keeping control of the national guard and on the day of the election, General Jacques Leon Clément-Thomas and General Claude Lecomte , two men blamed for being severe disciplinarians, were murdered. Doctor Guyon, who examined the bodies shortly afterwards, found forty balls in the body of Clément-Thomas and nine balls in the back of Lecomte. (13)

At the first meeting of the Commune, the members adopted several proposals, including an honorary presidency for Louis Auguste Blanqui; the abolition of the death penalty; the abolition of military conscription; a proposal to send delegates to other cities to help launch communes there. It was also stated that no military force other than the National Guard, made up of male citizens, could be formed or introduced into the capital. School children in the city were provided with free clothing and food. David McLellan suggests that the actual measures passed by the commune were reformist rather than revolutionary, with no attack on private property: employers were forbidden on the penalty of fines to reduce wages... and all abandoned businesses were transferred to co-operative associations." (14)

Karl Marx believed the actions of the Communards were revolutionary: "Having once got rid of the standing army and the police – the physical force elements of the old government – the Commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression... by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies. The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the apostles. The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state. Thus, not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it." (15)

Although only males were allowed to vote in the elections, several women were involved in the Paris Commune. Nathalie Lemel and Élisabeth Dmitrieff, created the Women's Union for the Defense of Paris and Care of the Wounded. The group demanded gender and wage equality, the right of divorce for women, the right to secular education, and professional education for girls. Anne Jaclard and Victoire Léodile Béra founded the newspaper Paris Commune and Louise Michel, established a female battalion of the National Guard. (16)

The Committee was given extensive powers to hunt down and imprison enemies of the Commune. Led by Raoul Rigault, it began to make several arrests, usually on suspicion of treason. Those arrested included Georges Darboy, the Archbishop of Paris, General Edmond-Charles de Martimprey and Abbé Gaspard Deguerry. Rigault attempted to exchange these prisoners for Louis Auguste Blanqui who had been captured by government forces. Despite lengthy negotiations, Adolphe Thiers refused to release him.

On 22nd May 1871, Marshal Patrice de MacMahon and his government troops entered the city. The Committee of Public Safety issued a decree: "To arms! That Paris be bristling with barricades, and that, behind these improvised ramparts, it will hurl again its cry of war, its cry of pride, its cry of defiance, but its cry of victory; because Paris, with its barricades, is undefeatable ...That revolutionary Paris, that Paris of great days, does its duty; the Commune and the Committee of Public Safety will do theirs!" (17)

It is estimated that about fifteen to twenty thousand persons, including many women and children, responded to the call of arms. The forces of the Commune were outnumbered five-to-one by Marshal MacMahon's forces. They made their way to Montmartre, where the uprising had begun. The garrison of one barricade, was defended in part by a battalion of about thirty women, including Louise Michel. The soldiers captured 42 guardsmen and several women, took them to the same house on Rue Rosier where generals Clement-Thomas and Lecomte had been executed, and shot them.

Large numbers of the National Guard changed into civilian clothes and fled the city. It is estimated that this left only about 12,000 Communards to defend the barricades. As soon as they were captured they were executed. Raoul Rigaut responded by killing his prisoners, including the Archbishop of Paris and three priests. Soon afterwards Rigaut was captured and executed and the rebellion came to an end soon afterwards on 28th May. As Isaiah Berlin pointed out: "The retribution which the victorious army exacted took the form of mass executions; the white terror, as is common in such cases, far outdid in acts of bestial cruelty the worst excesses of the regime whose misdeeds it had come to end." (18)

According to Marx this is what always happens when the masses attempt to take control of society: "The civilization and justice of bourgeois order comes out in its lurid light whenever the slaves and drudges of that order rise against their masters. Then this civilization and justice stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge. Each new crisis in the class struggle between the appropriator and the producer brings out this fact more glaringly... The self-sacrificing heroism with which the population of Paris – men, women, and children – fought for eight days after the entrance of the Versaillese, reflects as much the grandeur of their cause, as the infernal deeds of the soldiery reflect the innate spirit of that civilization, indeed, the great problem of which is how to get rid of the heaps of corpses it made after the battle was over!" (19)

In his best-selling pamphlet, The Civil War in France (1871), Karl Marx admitted that the International Workingmen's Association was heavily involved in the Paris Commune. Jules Favre, the recently reinstated foreign minister in France, asked all European governments to outlaw the IWMA. A French newspaper identified Marx as the "supreme chief" of the conspirators, alleging that he had "organised" the uprising from London. It claimed that the IWMA had seven million members. (20)

Other European governments also urged the punishment of IWMA members. Spain agreed to extradite those involved in the Paris Commune. Giuseppe Mazzini, the leader of the Italian nationalist movement, joined in the calls for the arrest of Marx, who he described as "a man of domineering disposition; jealous of the influence of others; governed by no earnest, philosophical, or religious belief; having, I fear more elements of anger than of love in his nature". (21)

British newspapers also complained about the dangers posed by Karl Marx. The Times warned of the possibility of Marx having an influence on the working-class. It feared that solid English trade unionists who wanted nothing more than "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work" might be corrupted by "strange theories" imported from abroad. (22) Marx wrote to Ludwig Kugelmann that "I have the honour to be this moment the most abused and threatened man in London." (23)

The German ambassador urged Granville Leveson-Gower, the British Foreign Secretary, to treat Marx as a common criminal because of his outrageous "menaces to life and property". After consulting with William Gladstone, the Prime Minister, he replied that "extreme socialist opinions are not believed to have gained any hold upon the working men of this country" and "no practical steps with regard to foreign countries are known to have been taken by the English branch of the Association." (24)

The publication of The Civil War in France (1871) upset several British trade union leaders and George Odger resigned from the General Council of International Workingmen's Association. It has been argued that the passing of the 1867 Reform Act had made the working class less radical. After the Paris Commune, the only areas where the IWMA made progress was in the the strongholds of anarchism: Spain and Italy. (25)

The French government signed the Treaty of Frankfurt in May 1871. This established the frontier between the French Third Republic and the German Empire, This resulted in France losing Alsace and Lorraine, Strasburg and the great fortress of Metz to Germany and involved the ceding of 1,694 villages and cities under French control to Germany. (26)

After his victory over the French, Otto von Bismarck, the President of Prussia, acted immediately to secure the unification of Germany. He negotiated with representatives of the southern German states, offering special concessions if they agreed to unification. The new German Empire was a federation made up of 25 constituent states. Germany occupied an area of 208,825 square miles and had a population of more than 41 million. Whereas in 1871, Britain occupied 94,525 square miles with a population of 21 million. Jonathan Steinberg has argued: "The genius-statesmen had transformed European politics and had unified Germany in eight and a half years. And he had done so by sheer force of personality, by his brilliance, ruthlessness, and flexibility of principle." (27)

Bismarck gained support for unification by allowing all men over the age of 25 the vote. Bismarck came to the decision that the best way of preventing socialism was by introducing a series of social reforms including old age pensions. In 1881 he announced that "those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state." When the issue was debated Bismarck was described by his critics as a socialist. He replied: "Call it socialism or whatever you like. It is the same to me." It has been argued that Bismarck's intention was to "forge a bond between workers and the state so as to strengthen the latter, to maintain traditional relations of authority between social and status groups, and to provide a countervailing power against the modernist forces of liberalism and socialism." (28)

In 1883 Bismarck introduced a health insurance system that provided payments when people were sick and unable to work. Participation was mandatory and contributions were taken from the employee, the employer and the government. The German system provided contributory retirement benefits and disability benefits as well. Germany was therefore the first country in the world to provide a comprehensive system of income security based on social insurance principles.

Bismarck explained: "The real grievance of the worker is the insecurity of his existence; he is not sure that he will always have work, he is not sure that he will always be healthy, and he foresees that he will one day be old and unfit to work. If he falls into poverty, even if only through a prolonged illness, he is then completely helpless, left to his own devices, and society does not currently recognize any real obligation towards him beyond the usual help for the poor, even if he has been working all the time ever so faithfully and diligently. The usual help for the poor, however, leaves a lot to be desired, especially in large cities, where it is very much worse than in the country." (29)

Bismarck believed that this insurance system would increase productivity, and focus the political attentions of German workers on supporting his government. It also resulted in a rapid decline of German emigration to America. He also hoped that it would reduce support for the socialists. After the passing of the Old Age and Disability Insurance Law in 1889, Bismarck thought it was safe to legalize the Social Democratic Party. (30)

Whatever turn the impending horrid war may take, the alliance of the working classes of all countries will ultimately kill war. It proves that in contrast to old society, with its economical miseries and its political delirium, a new society is springing up, whose International rule will be Peace, because its natural ruler will be everywhere the same - Labour! The Pioneer of that new society is the International Working Men's Association.

What the Prussian jackasses don't see is that the present war leads just as necessarily to war between Germany and Russia as the war of 1866 led to war between Prussia and France. 2 will act as the mid-wife of the inevitable revolution in Russia.

An absurdity and an anachronism to make military considerations the principle by which the boundaries of nations are to be fixed? If this rule were to prevail, Austria would still be entitled to Venetia and the line of the Minicio, and France to the line of the Rhine, in order to protect Paris, which lies certainly more open to an attack from the northeast than Berlin does from the southwest. If limits are to be fixed by military interests, there will be no end to claims, because every military line is necessarily faulty, and may be improved by annexing some more outlying territory; and, moreover, they can never be fixed finally and fairly, because they always must be imposed by the conqueror upon the conquered, and consequently carry within them the seed of fresh wars

Child Labour Simulation (Teacher Notes)

Richard Arkwright and the Factory System (Answer Commentary)

Robert Owen and New Lanark (Answer Commentary)

James Watt and Steam Power (Answer Commentary)

The Domestic System (Answer Commentary)

The Luddites (Answer Commentary)

Handloom Weavers (Answer Commentary)

(1) Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx (1939) page 191

(2) Francis Wheen, Karl Marx (1999) page 320

(3) David McLellan, Karl Marx: A Biography (1973) page 355

(4) Karl Marx, statement on behalf of the International Workingmen's Association (23rd July 1870)

(5) Karl Marx, letter to Friedrich Engels (17th August, 1870)

(6) Karl Marx, letter to Friedrich Sorge (1st September, 1870)

(7) David McLellan, Karl Marx: A Biography (1973) page 358

(8) René de La Croix de Castries, Monsieur Thiers (1983) pages 320-333

(9) Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx (1939) pages 184 and 185

(10) Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (1871)

(11) The Times (22nd March, 1871)

(12) Francis Wheen, Karl Marx (1999) page 326

(13) Donny Gluckstein, The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy (2006) page 231

(14) David McLellan, Karl Marx: A Biography (1973) page 358

(15) Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (1871)

(16) L'Humanité (19 March 2005)

(17) The Committee of Public Safety (22nd May 1871)

(18) Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx (1939) page 187

(19) Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (1871)

(20) Francis Wheen, Karl Marx (1999) page 331

(21) Giuseppe Mazzini, The Contemporary Review (July, 1872)

(22) The Times (16th April, 1872)

(23) Karl Marx, letter to Ludwig Kugelmann (28th June, 1871)

(24) Francis Wheen, Karl Marx (1999) page 332

(25) David McLellan, Karl Marx: A Biography (1973) page 366

(26) Howard M. Sachar, The Assassination of Europe, 1918-1942: A Political History (2014) pages 263-264

(27) Jonathan Steinberg, Bismarck: A Life (2011) page 311

(28) Kees van Kersbergen, Comparative Welfare State Politics: Development, Opportunities, and Reform (2013) page 38

(29) Otto von Bismarck, speech in the Reichstag (March 1884)

(30) Ernest Peter Hennock, The Origin of the Welfare State in England and Germany, 1850–1914 (2007) page 157


Franco-Prussian War Soldiers Found and Reburied 150 Years Later

Soldiers from the Franco-Prussian War reburied in Gravelotte in August 2020 / German War Graves Commission, Uwe Zucchi. A 1910 painting by Ernst Zimmer depicts German soldiers in the battle of Gravelotte.

Zita Ballinger Fletcher
August 25, 2020

Although the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War seems to be a forgotten chapter in history, the conflict made a startling reappearance when in June a local farmer near Metz, France, came face-to-face with human bones exposed on a forest riverbank. These were the remains of six Prussian soldiers, forgotten for 150 years until they caught the attention of French and German authorities. The remains were formally reburied in Gravelotte, France, in August.

International archaeologists work at the site. / German War Graves Commission media photo

The unusual discovery occurred in a stretch of privately owned forest south of Aubigny Castle. The bones had become visible due to soil erosion from splashing water along the riverbank. The owners of the castle cooperated with French authorities and the German War Graves Commission to facilitate archaeological excavation on the site.

The Franco-Prussian War is known today for its pomp and imperialism the unknown soldiers who live on in paintings of vast battlefields perhaps leave an impression in our memories with their dashing, colorful uniforms. In a strange twist of fate, pieces of these very uniforms somehow survived the ravages of time—becoming key clues in helping experts identify the remains.

Archaeologists found corroded green buttons, partially with double eyelets, and remnants of dark blue fabric stuck beneath epaulette buttons. These traces helped archaeologists to identify the dead as Prussian soldiers. As the archaeologists carefully removed soil layer by layer with brushes and scanned with metal detectors, they discovered additional bones and numerous metal objects.


A bloody battle from August 1870 depicted in "The Battle of Mars-La-Tour" by Emil Hünten.

Experts estimate the six soldiers were killed during or after the Battle of Colombey (known in French as the Battle of Borny) on Aug. 14, 1870. This was one of many bloody border clashes between the French and their German opponents led by the Prussians.

During this period in the war, the Germans achieved victories at a heavy cost. German commanders had little regard for the lives of their men and ruthlessly maintained pressure on the battlefield even as their troops were ravaged by the superiority of the French Chassepot rifle. By Aug. 18, 1870, casualties had amounted to an estimated 5,200 German and 1,100 French dead, with an additional estimated 30,000 wounded on both sides.


A German War Graves Commission worker points out the battle site on a map. / German War Graves Commission photo

This carelessness earned criticism in an Aug. 21, 1870, report from King Wilhelm I of Prussia, who demanded his officers make better use of their own intelligence and terrain so as to “achieve these same results with fewer [manpower] sacrifices.”

In an odd stroke of harmony, former enemies during the conflict came together to bury the Prussian dead at Gravelotte cemetery on August 14, exactly 150 years to the day after the unknown soldiers’ final battle.


Guests including French civic officials and German representatives attend the formal burial ceremony for the unknown soldiers at Gravelotte cemetery. / German War Graves Commission photo, Uwe Zucchi

About 50 guests attended from local French communities, including the mayor of Gravelotte and representatives of the city of Metz. German representatives were also present. French flag-bearers paid respects to the dead during the burial service, accompanied by songs from German youth group members. Attendees placed flowers and crosses on the gravesite. MH


Franco-Prussian War: the conflict that plunged Europe into a nightmare

The Franco-Prussian War, which erupted 150 years ago, gave rise to a grudge match that would send a continent hurtling towards two world wars. Michael Rowe tells the story of a 19th-century conflict that had catastrophic consequences for the modern world

This competition is now closed

Published: November 19, 2020 at 12:26 pm

On 7 October 1870, Léon Gambetta, strong-man of the French government, escaped from Paris in a gas balloon. The Franco-Prussian War had by then been raging for almost three months, and German forces were besieging the city. Gambetta hoped to raise new armies in the provinces to relieve the capital. It was an act of desperation, indicative of how low the fortunes of France had sunk.

Over the following weeks things got worse, with ordinary citizens in France’s famous capital reduced to eating cats, dogs, rats and horses. Memoirs and letters are full of debates over the relative merits of exotic meat sourced from the zoo, such as camel, antelope or elephant. Rats from breweries were (unsurprisingly) said to taste better than those caught in the sewers. Meanwhile, unscrupulous entrepreneurs started to peddle bizarre substitutes for basics like milk.

Emperor Napoleon III was primarily responsible for this disaster. A nephew of the great Napoleon who had conquered most of Europe, Napoleon III had made himself emperor of the French following a coup in 1852. Victor Hugo famously dismissed him as “Napoleon the Small”, but the French people expected great things of him. Nor were his achievements negligible: he rebuilt Paris, creating the city we know today and he reasserted French pre-eminence by defeating the Russians (with British help) in the Crimean War of 1853–56, and the Austrians in 1859, allowing for Italian unification.

Napoleon III was mid-19th-century Europe’s great disruptor. Unfortunately for him, and for France, an even greater disruptor emerged east of the Rhine, in the large German state of Prussia. His name was Otto von Bismarck.

When Bismarck became prime minister in 1862, Prussia was the weakest of Europe’s ‘great’ powers, just one of a patchwork of states that were yet to coalesce into the German empire. But its king, William I, was determined to rectify this through far-reaching military reforms, and appointed the maverick Bismarck to ram them through a reluctant Prussian parliament. Upon his appointment, Bismarck made his views clear in one of history’s more famous soundbites: “The great questions of the day are not decided through speeches and majorities but by iron and blood.”

Bismarck and Napoleon had a great deal in common. Both were conservative populists, and both recognised that the new force of nationalism sweeping Europe was something to be exploited rather than feared. Yet their attempts to harness this nationalist fervour set them on a collision course, one that would end in conflict.

The Franco-Prussian War, as that conflict is now known, was over in 10 short months, but its consequences were extraordinarily long-reaching. In a victorious and newly unified Germany, it helped make militarism the dominant ideology in a defeated and humiliated France, it fostered a seething desire for revenge. These toxic ingredients set the scene for further bouts of bloodletting – on a far greater scale – in the following century. It’s surely safe to say that without Napoleon and Bismarck’s battle for supremacy in 1870, Europe’s 20th century would have followed a very different trajectory indeed.

Napoleon’s wake-up call

The countdown to the Franco-Prussian War started with another war: that of 1866, when Prussia’s newly reformed army crushed Austria in seven weeks. This vindicated Bismarck at home and was a wake-up call to Europe. Prussia became the dominant power in central Europe and the other German states now looked to Berlin, not Vienna, for leadership.

This terrified France. Napoleon III’s initial panic response was to re-establish French prestige by annexing Luxembourg or even Belgium. He sought Bismarck’s agreement, but was rebuffed. Then, in 1868, a new European crisis started with the overthrow of Spain’s Queen Isabella II. Spain needed a new monarch and, as was often the case in this period, chose a member from one of Germany’s innumerable princely houses. Unfortunately that choice, Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern, was related to Prussia’s William. Not surprisingly, France went ballistic when this knowledge went public in July 1870. Napoleon III’s government, goaded by domestic opinion, tried to save face by forcing Prussia into vetoing the arrangement. King William was happy to oblige the French, as he had never liked the prospect of a close relative ruling an unstable country like Spain.

There things might have rested, but for the French then overplaying their hand. The French ambassador to Prussia met William at the spa resort of Bad Ems (13 July) and attempted to force a public climbdown, pressing him to block any future Hohenzollern candidacy. This backfired when William politely rebuffed the ambassador.

Bismarck was not present at Bad Ems, but had remained in Berlin, where an account of the exchange reached him in the so-called Ems telegram. Bismarck, in full knowledge of the likely consequences, then edited the telegram, deleting the diplomatic niceties, and released it for publication in the international press. This was Bismarck’s famous red rag, waved at the Gallic bull. The French duly rose to the bait and declared war, amid feverish jubilation on the streets of Paris.

The Franco-Prussian War, despite its name, saw France pitted against a coalition of German states who sided with Prussia. Their inhabitants increasingly saw themselves as fellow Germans and viewed the war against France as a national crusade. Prussia nonetheless provided the overwhelming majority of German forces, as well as the military leadership.

In technological terms, there was little between the belligerents: the French had better infantry rifles, the Prussians superior artillery. What gave the Prussians a decisive advantage was their numerical superiority at the outset, gained by very fast mobilisation, and above all superior military leadership.

“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” So stated Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian commander in 1870. Moltke was a new kind of military leader, more manager than charismatic warlord. He presided over the Prussian General Staff, an institution that planned operations and contingencies in peacetime. The regular rotation of staff officers back to their regiments ensured that best practice was spread throughout the army, which meant the overall commander could safely delegate to those best placed to seize opportunities that unfolded once hostilities commenced. This was the answer to the problem highlighted in Moltke’s quote above. Neither the French, nor other armies, operated in this way, and this showed in 1870.

Superior planning and numbers allowed the Prussians to concentrate along France’s eastern frontier. The French, without proper plans, quickly suffered setbacks and these destroyed the morale of Napoleon III, who had unwisely assumed personal command. The only sensible option for the French was to fall back and regroup, but Napoleon could not afford to lose face by retreating. The consequence was a series of major French defeats, starting with Gravelotte-St Privat on 18 August. This would prove the bloodiest engagement of the war, with a casualty rate that was a portent of 20th-century horrors. In just one 20-minute period, the Prussian Guard Corps alone suffered 8,000 men killed or wounded, due to an unholy combination of fast, modern weaponry and outdated attack styles involving massed ranks of men. At least the widespread introduction in this war of ‘dog tags’ – discs worn by soldiers that included their basic details – allowed for the identification of the dead.

Despite horrific losses at Gravelotte-St Privat, the Prussians won, thanks to superior artillery and better manoeuvring. Moltke then trapped most of the French army in the fortress of Metz. Political pressures intervened again on the French side and demanded a rescue effort. This resulted in the battle of Sedan (1–2 September), a second catastrophic French defeat in which Napoleon III himself was captured. News of this debacle reached Paris a few days later and caused regime change. The new republican Government of National Defence filled the political vacuum and proclaimed a war of national resistance.

The Franco-Prussian War now entered a new phase. Prussian forces advanced on Paris, which they besieged from 19 September. The French capital was too strong to be taken by storm, so needed to be starved into submission. While Léon Gambetta escaped to the provinces and raised new armies, irregular volunteers, known as Francstireurs, engaged in guerrilla tactics. The Prussians did not recognise them as legitimate combatants and shot them upon capture, burning down villages suspected of harbouring them.

This messy, dirty war dragged on for the remainder of 1870, to the discomfort of Bismarck who feared international opinion was swinging in favour of France. However, the defeat of Gambetta’s new armies in December meant that Paris was not going to be relieved, and with food running out there was no option but to seek a truce (28 January 1871) which ended the fighting. This created the conditions for French elections to be held, which produced a government with the authority to conclude a preliminary peace on 26 February. Though the new regime’s grip on power was threatened by the so-called Paris Commune, which briefly seized control of the capital in March, it nonetheless ratified the definitive Treaty of Frankfurt on 10 May.

Militarism off the leash

Few who ratified the Treaty of Frankfurt could have guessed the immense impact that the Franco-Prussian War would have on the continent of Europe – an impact that was, in the estimation of future British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, greater than the French Revolution. Geopolitically, Europe went from having a ‘soft’ centre, made up of lots of small separate states, to one with a hard core: impressed by Prussia’s military leadership, and driven by public opinion, Germany’s smaller states agreed to cede their independence to Berlin and form a single entity, the German empire. The big question that arose – and persists – is how such a powerful state can operate within the wider family of European nations.

Initially, things worked well enough. Bismarck used his undoubted political talents to preserve peace. However, when he fell from power in 1890, the more pernicious legacies of the 1870 war came to the fore, including militarism. All major powers in the late 19th century were militaristic, but newly unified Germany was more so than most. Prussia’s army, which formed the core of Germany’s military, emerged from the 1870 war with immense prestige. With Bismarck gone, no civilian leader had the stature to challenge its primacy. In Germany and across Europe, the military planner was let off the leash.

For France, defeat came as an awful shock made worse by the harsh treaty that followed, which inflicted the loss of the region of Alsace and part of Lorraine, and the payment of a large reparations bill. This humiliation nurtured a desire for revenge. A generation of schoolchildren grew up taught of the injustices of the peace settlement. In the 1890s, France exploited wider European unease at German power by creating an alliance, which in turn made Germany feel cornered.

This combination of militarism and bitterness created the perfect conditions for the next round of Franco-German conflict, the First World War, which on this occasion dragged in the rest of the world. Tragically, the millions of lives lost between 1914 and 1918 resolved nothing – and it was only after countless more died in the Second World War that the architects of Franco-German reconciliation built an edifice that still dominates Europe’s political landscape.

Chief among these architects were West Germany’s chancellor Konrad Adenauer and French president Charles de Gaulle. Both had fathers who fought in the Franco-Prussian War. Both originated from regions that bordered each other’s nations, and which had been contested throughout the centuries. There may or may not have been a sentimental dimension to their thinking.

The two statesmen also calculated that partnership within a European framework would enhance their ability to influence world events now largely shaped by the two new superpowers, America and the Soviet Union. This is what Adenauer meant when he told one of his French interlocutors that “Europe will be your revenge” shortly after the Suez debacle of 1956, when the US forced France and Britain to back down.

Both de Gaulle and Adenauer recognised the futility of the cycle of Franco-German wars initiated a century previously, and on 22 January 1963 concluded the Élysée Treaty, ushering in a new period of Franco-German friendship. Within this treaty’s framework other initiatives have flowed, designed to extend the relationship from the level of the state to society more broadly, through ideas such as youth exchanges, town twinning and joint history textbooks for schoolchildren. Within these textbooks, the Franco-Prussian War is not forgotten, but rather treated as a shared historical experience.

For Europe more broadly, including Britain, the Franco-German partnership as it now stands raises its own questions. Other European countries fear marginalisation when key decisions are essentially agreed beforehand by Paris and Berlin. Deeper integration is proposed as the best way of empowering these other states, and at the same time resolving the issue first created in 1870: how to run a continent with such a hard core. However, this integration process has spawned its own set of problems. Seen in these terms, it is clear that the legacy of the 1870 war still helps determine our continent’s everyday politics and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Michael Rowe is reader in European history at King’s College London


The Wars of Prussia (1792-1871): From the French Revolution to the Franco-Prussian War

Prussia is a country that no longer exists. The last hundred years or so of it’s existence Prussia was one of the most powerful of the several dozen independent German states. Originally founded by the Teutonic Knights, Prussia evolved over several centuries of war with neighboring Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Sweden, Austria, other German states, as well as the old foe in France, to become a very efficient, militarized nation that was able to successfully unite the various pieces of Germany into a single, united German Empire. The following list of Prussian wars shows the progression of wars and conflicts that enabled Prussia to grow. While part of the coalition against the radical French Revolution in the 1790s, and as one of the conservative forces that put down the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, Prussia evolved from an absolute monarchy to one of the more democratic parliamentary monarchies in Europe by the 1870s. With a population that was (compared to most of Europe at the time), fairly well-educated, and possessing a growing industrial economy, Prussia was well-placed to assume leadership of a united Germany. Unfortunately for Germany and the rest of Europe, the hard feelings left over from the Franco-Prussian War would fester and be one of the leading causes of World War One.

Wars of the French Revolution/Napoleonic Wars-The French overthrew their king and created the First Republic. European nations ruled by kings and emperors were shocked and frightened by the overthrow of King Louis, and attempted to end the Revolution.

War of the First Coalition (1792-1795)-Prussia, along with other royal powers who feared the threat represented by the bloody French Revolution against royalty and monarchy, invaded Revolutionary France in an attempt to crush the Revolution and restore the French monarchy to power. France raised huge citizen armies to battle the relatively small, professional armies of the invading powers. The French armies defeated the allied forces and preserved the Revolution.

War of the Fourth Coalition (1806-1807)-Prussia and Austria were defeated by France. Prussia was forced to accept a French army of occupation and had to become an ally of France, contributing troops to his ongoing wars.

Polish Uprising Against Prussia (1806)-The Poles were successful in part because of aid from the French against Prussia.

French Invasion of Russia (1812-1813)-Prussia was a forced ally of France. Some 20,000 Prussian troops accompanied Napoleon’s huge, multi-national army into Russia, the subsequent defeat of Napoleon led to Prussia breaking free of French control and renewing their fight against the French Emperor.

War of the Sixth Coalition (1813-1814)-Prussia joined Russia, Austria, Sweden, and other allied nations in the final push to defeat Napoleon. The Battle of Leipzig in Germany was the turning point, forcing Napoleon to retreat back to France. Allied forces followed, invading France and marching into Paris. Napoleon surrendered and was sent into exile on the island of Elba.

War of the Seventh Coalition (1815)-This was the shortest of the Napoleonic Wars. With Napoleon’s return from exile on the island of Elba, the Coalition powers scrambled to put their armies in the field against Napoleon. Only the British and the Prussians had forces available, and both of these allies marched forward to engage Napoleon and his resurgent French Empire. The British under Wellington, and the Prussians under Blucher met Napoleon on the battlefields of Belgium, near a town called Waterloo. There, in one of the most dramatic battles in history, the British and Prussians put an end to the threat represented by Napoleon.

Polish Uprising of 1830-Though the main focus of the Polish uprising was in the Russian-ruled portion of Poland, a smaller and shorter rebellion took place in Prussian-ruled Poznan.

The First Schleswig War (1848-1851)-The German Confederation, backed by Prussia, attempted to “liberate” the area of Schleswig from Denmark. The German effort failed.

Wars of German Unification

The Second Schleswig War (1864) -Prussia and Austria joined together to fight against Denmark for the Danish territories of Schleswig and Holstein. The two powerful German powers defeated Denmark fairly easily.

The Austro-Prussian War/Seven Weeks War (1866)-The long political, economic, and diplomatic debate over who would dominate the future of Germany was settled in this Seven Weeks’ War as superior Prussian military might defeated the Austrians. One result of this short war was the expulsion of Austria from Germany. Until the forced annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Austria was not considered to be a part of the “German Nation.”

The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)-This final war of German Unification pitted a united Germany, led by the Kingdom of Prussia, against the Second French Empire, led by Emperor Napoleon III. The united German forces defeated the French and occupied much of France. As a result of this war, all of the German states united into a new German Empire, led by the Prussian king. From this point on, Prussian history is melded into the history of a united Germany. Another result of this war was the harsh terms of peace dictated by the Germans on the French. France had to pay a large financial cost (enforced by German military occupation until it the war debt was paid off), as well as losing two border territories to Germany. The loss of Alsace and Lorraine galled the French and was a major point of hatred toward Germany. The French assumed that a new war with Germany would occur at some point, and they prepared for that day by increasing their military readiness and by entering into a series of alliances with other nations to help them in the future war with Germany. The Germans too, knew that a future war would occur with France, and also planned accordingly. That future war would begin in 1914, and would be known as the First World War. See also: Wars of Germany


Modern Tactics vs. Old World Pomp

One of the reasons that the French folded so quickly was due to the fact that Prussia had quietly been modernizing it’s military but not just in terms of technology. They had been taking notes from the recent military conflicts, including the Crimean War and the American Civil War, and were rapidly incorporating the best of what they were finding into their military strategy.

The new tactics being incorporated were revolutionary and rapidly outmatched the Old World thinking of the French forces. The Prussians used a heavy emphasis on attack, using small squads moving to achieve individual missions rather than being part of one large body of troops. The military doctrine at the time, while changing slowly, was still the old way of large infantry lines, supported by cannon batteries and flanking cavalry charges. In contrast, the Prussians broke down their armies into smaller groups, which were given broad objectives but no specific orders on how to achieve them.

The Prussians also used modern artillery in an offensive capacity to support the advance of the infantry, something that was also relatively new to warfare at the time. Combined with the Germans’ use of rail to move people and supplies around rapidly, this new way of fighting quickly outstripped the old way of fighting in spectacular and bloody fashion.

While Napoleon III was famous (or infamous depending on your perspective) for trying to rebuild and relive the glory days of his uncle Napoleon I, he was not caught completely still. Napoleon III had introduced a precursor to the machine gun to try and stop the fast moving German infantry, and he had a grand plan to mobilize millions of people to the front. The problem was neither of these things was fully realized at the time and were introduced alongside dated flamboyant officer uniforms and heavy use of ill-trained militia to bolster official troop numbers. The German innovations had been better studied and prepared for ahead of time and thus were more effective in this conflict.

The French would refine their advances that were just being brought about in 1870 in World War One with greater use of machine gun nests, artillery, and mass mobilization of the nation. At the time, the rapid and fluid movement of the German armies, combined with their modern and effective artillery, defeated the French army that was very much in a transition period at the time.


Causes for the War

The North German Union counted 24 million Prussians and 6 million other Germans in it’s population. Another 6 million Germans from the South German states were connected with the union by contractual obligations. France received nothing as compensation from the creation of a powerful German state, in terms of the number of inhabitants comparable to the population of France (36 million French). This was imposed on the internal political difficulties of the Emperor Napoleon III and the interest of Prussia in joining the South German kingdoms. Both powers sought to resolve their internal problems by victorious war with each other.

By the summer of 1870 Napoleon III felt the instability of his situation inside France. His influential wife, Empress Eugene, said, pointing to her son: “War is necessary for this child to reign.” Attempts to reach an agreement with Bismarck on the annexation of Luxembourg and even more so Belgium ended in nothing, the expansion of the French Empire in Europe could only take place militarily.

The cause for the conflict arose on July 1, 1870, when the Spaniards invited Prince Leopold from the side branch of the ruling Prussian dynasty Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen to the royal throne. The French, not without reason, saw a threat in the reign of the Hohenzollern dynasty simultaneously in Germany and Spain. On July 6, French Foreign Minister Duke Gramont declared in parliament that the French empire would not hesitate to start a war against Prussia if she “dared resurrect the empire of Charles V”.

Bismarck viewed the pressure of France as a convenient excuse for a war in which Prussia would have been the victim of an aggressive neighbor, but Prussian King William I forced his relative Leopold to officially abandon the Spanish throne. Nevertheless, Napoleon III, under the influence of his closest entourage and a false impression of the state of the French army, decided to accelerate the events. July 13, Paris demanded a written statement from Wilhelm with a commitment not to harm the interests of France in the future. The demand contained deliberate insolence, and the Prussian king refused to give such guarantees, promising to continue negotiations. Bismarck, after consulting with the chief of staff and the minister of war, arbitrarily changed the text on the negotiations for publication in the press in such a way that William refused to discuss the matter with the French ambassador at all. The French perceived it exactly as Bismarck had hoped.

The dynastic dispute turned into a cause for war, the cause of which was in the struggle for political domination in Western Europe. On July 15, the deputies of the French Parliament voted in favor of declaring war by 245 votes to 10. July 19, 1870 at a meeting of the North German Reichstag Bismarck announced the beginning of the war of France against Prussia.


Origins

Success in the latter endeavor would change European power relationships in ways France could hardly be expected to ignore. Contemporary opinion in fact laid primary responsibility for the events of 1870 at the door of Napoleon III, who allegedly forced a conflict to shore up his unstable regime. Beginning in the 1890s, responsibility was increasingly shifted to a Bismarck described as provoking war in the interests of German hegemony: "blood and iron" in a European setting. Late-twentieth-century scholarship emphasizes Bismarck's desire to keep as many options as possible open for as long as possible. He prided himself on being able to step into a situation and stir things up, confident that he could respond to confusion exponentially better than his associates and opponents. In the spring of 1870 he had his chance.

Bismarck's primary objective was resolving the German question in Prussia's favor. The argument that Bismarck's initial approval of Spain's offer of its vacant crown to Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (a branch of the ruling house of Prussia) was intended to provoke a war overstates Bismarck's belligerence while underrating his self-confidence. The Hohenzollern candidacy was designed to provoke a crisis with France. But it was so managed that at each stage the final initiative, the final choice, remained with Paris. Bismarck recognized that war was an extremely likely outcome of the situation. At the same time he was testing the intentions of the emperor and of France itself.

An international incident is what one of the parties involved wishes to define as an international incident. Negotiating room remained in the first days of July, particularly after Leopold withdrew his candidacy in the face of French hostility. But a French government enjoying its triumph overplayed its hand by demanding that Prussia guarantee the candidacy would not be renewed. Bismarck's negative reply was interpreted in Paris as a justification for a war Bismarck by now also believed inevitable. On 15 July the North German Confederation issued its mobilization orders.


The Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War

Through the first half of 1870 a confrontational fever with Germany spread throughout France. On July 15 Emperor Napoleon III led his nation "into one of the most disastrous wars in her history." (1) The Franco-Prussian conflict did not officially commence until July 19, 1870. In the course of its first weeks it produced a series of demoralizing defeats for the French. The army of Napoleon III "went to war ill-equipped, badly led, trained and organized, and with inferior numbers." (2) On August 19, one French army was trapped in the fortress of Metz and on September 1, the Empire of Napoleon III came crushing down when a second army was captured at Sedan with the Emperor himself. Three days later the news reached Paris and the fall of the Empire was proclaimed. The Empress left for England and a provisional government took power. (3) For the next five months, the "city of lights," as Parisians had proudly proclaimed "the center of the universe," was transformed. It became an army camp--French soldiers, National Guardsmen, volunteers-within, Prussian forces without. Luxuries, and then basic necessities slowly disappeared. Food became scarce, and the inhabitants resorted to edibles normally associated with other species. The government under General Trochu and leaders like Victor Hugo, Jules Favre, and Adolphe Thiers, tried to govern internal as well as external pressures. Finally, on January 27, an armistice was signed. It brought temporary calm to the capital, before the storm of the Paris commune and the second siege arrived.

The new government in Paris, after the defeat at Sedan, was composed in part by publicists, politicians, lawyers, and teachers who had opposed Louis Napoleon's coup d'etat in 1851. "The Government of National Defense" was the official title, and nearly all kinds of political opinions were included, with the exception of the Bonapartists. The actual power rested with the Legitimists, Orleanists, and other conservatives. General Trochu, military governor of Paris and an Orleanist, held the presidency. Others included Leon Gambetta-minister of the Interior, General Le Flo- Minister for War, Jules Favre-Minister of Foreign Affairs and vice-president, Victor Hugo, Count Henri Rochefort-journalist and political enemy of Napoleon III who spent many years in prison, and Adolphe Thiers-the old minister of Louis Phillipe who went on diplomatic missions for the new republic. (4) Besides the day-to-day operation of the government, the three main objectives of the Government of National Defense were the procurement of a favorable peace treaty, enlistment of the aid of foreign powers, and the military preparation of Paris. The first objective got off to a bad start on September 6 when Jules Favre announced, "France would not give up an inch of her territory nor a stone of her fortresses." (5) This attitude went counter to that of Otto Von Bismarck, Chancellor of Germany, who saw the cession of territory as being as indispensable to the Prussians as it was inadmissible to the French. Bismarck demanded the immediate turnover of Alsace-Lorraine as well as Metz, Strasbourg, and Mont-Valerien (the fortress commanding Paris). Bismarck's proposals were rejected and the government was forced to defend the city and continue the war. Negotiations continued however, nothing concrete came out of them until the end of January when Jules Favre was sent to Versailles to discuss the terms of armistice. By this time Paris had been bombarded, food and other essential stores were nearly exhausted, and Prussian victories throughout the rest of France were a daily occurrence.

The armistice was to set up the preliminary conditions for a peace treaty to be signed. Its terms included the surrender of all French fortifications, except those serving as prisons laying down their weapons with the exception of the Army which was to act independently for the maintenance of order, the immediate exchange of prisoners, and Paris was to pay 200,000,000 francs for war reparations within a fortnight. Also, anyone leaving the city needed a French military pass. (6) Back in September, the French government began pursuing the second objective, acquiring foreign aid, when Thiers was sent to England, Austria, and Russia to enlist help. He was sympathetically welcomed, but was unable to shore up any support. Only America showed enthusiasm for the new French Republic, however they were not yet ready to intervene on their behalf. Thiers tried again in October with the same results. From that point on he was used solely as the representative of the French government in the ongoing negotiations with Bismarck. Prior to the investment of Paris, the provisional government made efforts to prepare the military forces of the city. These efforts included: manpower allocations, defensive fortification and supplies. Troops were brought back from the surrounding provinces. General Vinoy's forces, which escaped capture at Sedan, were later consolidated with those of the provinces. Together they became the Provincial Mobile Guard. Meanwhile the National Guard furnished sufficient manpower to increase its size from 90,000 to more than 300,000 men. (7) Another aspect of the military preparation was the establishment of strong defensive fortifications. The forts in the vicinity of Paris were abandoned because it would have required too much work and time to get them ready, and the decision was made to move the defensive lines closer to the city's environs. All forests and wooded areas deemed favorable to enemy advantage were cut. Thus were the forests of Montmorency, Bundy, Boulogne, and Vincennes treated. The allocation of supplies was vital to the defense of Paris. Barracks, hospitals and factories for the manufacture of military hardware were established all over the city. Railway shops became cannon foundries, while tobacco factories became arsenals. The Louvre was transformed into an armament shop after the art gallery was moved for safekeeping. Balloons were constructed at the Orleans railway stations. (8) Hotels, department stores, theaters, and public buildings served as hospitals. The Tuileries and the Napoleon and Empress Circuses became barracks. (9) When in action, all the forces were under the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and subject to military law. Most of these actions centered on small sorties, unassumingly called "reconnaissances." In late September 1870, the objects of the sorties were to test the tenacity of the troops and probe the Prussian circle to determine its vulnerability. As for the Prussians, once the city was surrounded and more troops made available for the siege, the question was whether to bombard the capital or starve it into surrender. In his diary entry for October 8, Crown Prince Frederick states, "we shall certainly have to make up our minds to a bombardment of Paris. but to postpone as long as possible their actual accomplishment, for I count definitely on starving out the city." (10) The bombardment did not begin until January 4. The arrival of the shelling did not panic the Parisians. They had been expecting it since October.

Precautions were taken to protect all works of art. Sandbags were placed in the windows of the Louvre, the School of Fine Arts and other important buildings, while outside monuments were taken underground. The bombardment lasted twenty-three days, usually from two to five hours each night. In the end, the Parisians refused to be intimidated and the psychological advantage of this tactic was lost. The siege of Paris slowly made its impact in an area critical to survival: the economy. According to a correspondent for The Times of London, "Business for France is everywhere broken up, and one-third of the country is devastated and ruined." (11) The first segment to directly feel the enclosure was the import and export activity. In order to survive, Paris needed a self-supporting economy, while also channeling most of its resources for the defense. Factories were now employed in making military necessities, instead of consumer goods. When the siege dragged on, the prospects for a speedy recovery evaporated and finally gave out completely when the bombardment began as some of those factories, in conjunction with other businesses, were damaged. The Prussians might not have been purposely inclined to destroy the French economy, except in one particular area: food consumption. The government's failure to establish a census system early during the siege caused it to miscalculate on its supply of comestibles, playing into the hands of the invaders. The census did not take place until December 30 and it was discovered that Paris contained a population of 2,005,709 residents excluding the armed forces. (12) The government however, did ask foreigners to leave, but the number who did was offset by the arrival of refugees from the provinces. This number of inhabitants and the Prussian encirclement had disastrous consequences. Early in 1870, the price of food had increased and by the start of the Franco-Prussian conflict it was 25 percent higher. (13) Prices did not go much higher because the government announced the number of cattle, sheep, and hogs within Paris to be adequate. However, everyone, even the government, believed the siege would last a very short time, perhaps a maximum of two months. The situation did not change until the early days of October. A few days before October 15, butchers suddenly refused to sell more than a day's ration. On October 15, the official rationing of meat began and continued throughout the entire siege, each portion becoming smaller and smaller. Eventually, nothing was left and Parisians resorted to other types of meat. The first substitute for the regular meat diet was horse. Parisians disdained it, at first, and it took the Horse-Eating Society to inform the public of the advantages to eating horse. When it finally came down to eating them, all breeds were included, from thoroughbred to mules. With time even this type of nourishment became rare, so other meats were introduced into the diet. Dogs, cats, and rats (14) were frequently eaten. The animals of the zoo were added to this diet, including Castor and Pollux, the two elephants that were the pride of Paris. Only the lions, tigers, and monkeys were spared the big cats for the difficulty of approaching them, the monkeys because of "some vague Darwinian notion that they were the relatives of the people of Paris and eating them would be tantamount to cannibalism." (15)

During the middle of January, the government placed bread on the ration list, setting the daily quota at 300 grams for adults and half that amount for children. Parisians then realized that they were on the verge of starvation. As for the Prussians, this meant a quick solution to the conflict as Frederick III writes on his diary entry for January 7, "There is news from Bordeaux that provisions in Paris would be exhausted about the end of January, and at best could only last until early in February. I trust this may be true." (16) The terrible ordeal suffered by Paris between 1870-1871 was not their first, according to a German newspaper story reprinted in The Times. In 1590, Henry IV stood before Paris much like Bismarck was doing, and the city knew nothing worse. According to the story, the people of Paris forgot what meat was and they had to subsist on leaves or roots dug up from under stones. Terrible diseases broke out and in three months 12,000 people died. Bread no longer existed while all the dogs were captured and eaten. (17) The maledictions associated with siege warfare were no strangers to Parisians however, the peace treaty with Germany brought needed relief before the arrival of the Paris Commune with its own set of trials and tribulations.

1. "The French Army and Politics 1870-1970"- pg. 7

3. "The War Against Paris"- pg. 1

4. "The Siege of Paris 1870-1871"- pg. 6

6. "The War Diary of the Emperor Frederick III"- pg. 283

7. "The Siege of Paris 1870-1871"- pg. 22

8. Balloons served to carry the mail and diplomats outside the city safely from Prussian attack. Pigeons were used to carry messages. For more on this aspect of the siege read "Airlift 1870" by John Fisher.

9. "The Siege of Paris 1870-1871"- pg. 24

10. "The War Diary of the Emperor Frederick III"- pg. 150

11. The Times of London, 1870 edition

12. "The Siege of Paris 1870-1871"- pg. 43

14. The price of rats became so high that not everyone could afford this delicacy, which was considered of the highest quality since rats fed on cheese and grains.

15. "The Siege of Paris 1870-1871"- pg. 63

16. "The War Diary of Emperor Frederick III"- pg. 253

17. The Times of London, 1870 edition Bibliography Kranzberg, Melvin. The Siege of Paris, 1870-1871. A Political and Social History. Greenwood Press Publishers. Connecticut. 1950 Tombs, Robert. The War Against Paris- 1871. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1981 Allinson, A. R. (translator and editor)- The War Diary of the Emperor Frederick III- 1870-1871. Greenwood Press Publishers. Connecticut. 1926 Horne, Alistair. The French Army and Politics- 1870 to 1970. Peter Bedrick Books. New York. 1984


What were the Consequences of the Franco-Prussian War?

The consequences of the Franco-Prussian war proved very significant in the history of Germany, France and Italy. They were disastrous for Napoleon III and the Second Napoleonic Empire, but on the other hand, they proved highly encouraging to Italy and Germany.

1. The southern states of Germany had taken part in the war in support of Prussia. After the defeat of France at Sedan, these states were freed from the dominance of France. These states were included in the confederation of Germany.

The unification of Germany was completed. A federal constitution was framed. William I, the King of Prussia, was made the Emperor of the German Empire. His coronation was celebrated in the royal palace of Versailles on January 18, 1871.

2. The Franco-Prussian war also completed the unification of Italy. By 1866 all states of Italy had been united into one nation except Rome. This state was under the dominance of Pope. The French army had been staying there since 1849 for the assistance of Pope.

When the war broke out in 1870, Napoleon III called his army back to fight against Prussia. Victor Emmanuel, the king of Piedmont-Sardinia took the advantage of the opportunity and attacked Rome.

The army of Pope was defeated and Rome was captured by Victor Emmanuel. With this victory, the great work of the unification of Italy was completed. Rome became the capital of Italy.

3. The war proved to be the most disastrous in the history of France. The news of the downfall of Napoleon III at Sedan resounded throughout the world. On September 3, 1870 Napoleon III sent the message to Paris:

The army has been defeated and is captive, I myself am a prisoner.”

It meant that Napoleon III was no longer the head of the government of France. People began to shout: “Down with the Empire”, “Long Live the Republic”. The Second Napoleonic Empire was abolished and the Republican leaders proclaimed the Republic in France from the Hotel de Ville. It was called the Third Republic.

4. The treaty of Frankfort sowed the seeds of hostility and enmity between France and Germany. The provisions of the treaty were considerably humiliating to France.

It produced a feeling for avenging the insult in the hearts of the French. This treaty became the base of the foreign policy of Bismarck after 1871. No doubt, this hostility led to the First World War.

In this way, Bismarck completed the great work of the unification of Germany with his farsightedness, ability, and diplomacy. He proved that the problems of the country could be solved only by blood and iron.


The History Guy

This page shows conflicts between France and the "modern" state of Germany, a nation which developed partially as a result of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Though France and various German states and political entities fought wars from the time of Charlegmane, those conflicts are not part of this category.

Click on the blue links to access specific pages.

Franco-Prussian War (July 19, 1870 – May 10, 1871)--Major war between the Prussian-led German forces and the Second French Empire. This war helped cause the unification of Germany and paved the way for the ongoing hostility which was a leading cause of World War One.

World War I (1914-1918)

French and Belgian Occupation of the Ruhr Valley (Jan. 11, 1923-August, 1925)--Germany fell behind in war payments to the Allies due to the collapse of the German economy. France and Belgium invade and occupy the industrial Ruhr Valley region of western Germany until the re-payments are complete.

World War II (1939-1945)


Watch the video: This French General Saved Strasbourg From Total Destruction During the Franco-Prussian War 1870 (February 2023).

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