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The Franco-Prussian War and German Unification

Prussia's victory against Austria in 1866 appeared ominous to France's Emperor Napoleon III. Bismarck was confident and interested in a showdown against French power. He wanted to complete the unification of Germany and calculated that a war against France would arouse a nationalistic fervor in the independent states of southern Germany and swing these states toward favoring unification with Prussia.

Bismarck created a diplomatic crisis over a matter of monarchical succession in Spain. France was opposed to a relative of the king of Prussia becoming king of Spain, and Bismarck managed to make the French feel insulted regarding a dispatch about a meeting between Prussia's King William and the French foreign minister – the EMS Dispatch. Like those of the US South eager for war, France's newspapers and members of parliament had little grasp of hard realities that would be unleashed by war. They were proud Frenchmen and believed that France was still the greatest power on the continent. France's generals were also focused on illusions and assured Napoleon III that France would win. Napoleon wanted to teach Prussia a lesson. Napoleon and his Prime Minister, Émile Ollivier, hoped that war would arouse patriotism and reduce political disunity in their country. On 16 July 1870, France's parliament voted to declare war, and the war began three days later.

Austria refused to join France against Prussia. Britain, Russia and Italy remained neutral. And believing that France was the aggressor, the south Germans sided with their fellow Germans to the north, as Bismarck had hoped.

However much the French entered the war believing they were superior militarily to the Prussians, at least in organization and preparedness it was the Prussians who were superior. The Germans were superior in railway development, and Prussia's military counted heavily on use of its railways and its well-developed telegraph system.

Prussia's military was moving quickly. On August 4, German troops crossed the border into Alsace – a province of France on the west bank of the upper Rhine, adjacent to Germany and Switzerland. In less than a month to the north at Sedan, 11 kilometers from what today is the Belgian border, the German army captured Napoleon III and 80,000 to 100,000 of his troops.

News of Napoleon III 's surrender was followed by outrage and a popular uprising in Paris. A provisional government was proclaimed. The Second Empire was overthrown by a popular uprising in Paris. A provisional government was proclaimed, calling itself the Government of National Defense. Without an emperor, it was considered a republic. France's Second Empire (the first by Emperor Napoleon I) was dead and on September 4th France's Third Republic (to last until 1940) was born.

Bismarck was looking to a negotiated settlement and not an occupation of France. He sent troops to Paris to encourage France's capitulation. His forces commenced the Siege of Paris on 19 September. The new French government called for the establishment of several large armies in the country's provinces. The plan was for the new armies to march towards Paris and attack the Germans there simultaneously from various directions, and armed civilians were supposed to create a guerilla force and attack German supply lines.

The German public clamored for their army surrounding Paris to shell the city. The German general, Von Blumenthal, who commanded the siege, was opposed to bombardment on moral grounds, and in this he was backed by other senior military figures, including the Crown Prince, and the supreme commander von Moltke. Nevertheless there would be shelling, said to have been something like 300 nightly.

Weeks passed and winter came while Parisians were cut off from food, hungry and reduced to eating cats, dogs, and even rats. They fantasized that they were holding off the Germans with their crude and makeshift weapons. On January 19th they had not been rescued by armies from the provinces, and the city decided to open negotiations for surrender.

On 28 January 1871 the Government of National Defense based in Paris began negotiations with the Prussians. It argued with Bismarck for six days. Bismarck agreed to end the siege and to allow food convoys to immediately enter Paris, including trains carrying millions of German army rations, on condition that the Government of National Defence surrender several key fortresses outside Paris to the Prussians. There were those outside Paris who refused to surrender and launched futile attacks against the Germans. Quickly a French National Assembly was elected to negotiate a formal settlement. It convened at Bordeaux on February 13 and chose Adolphe Thiers as the country's prime minister. He was a historian foolish enough to have supported Napoleon and the war, until he recognized its futility and fled to Britain. He had turned against the war and was lauded by many for what they saw as his wisdom.

The Government of National Defense had accepted Bismarck's demand that the Germans be allowed a victory parade in Paris, and on March 1, 30,000 hand-picked German troops marched down the Champs-Elysées, the French in Paris having left their streets empty and having shuttered their windows and shops. The show over, the German troops marched back out of Paris, and the French scrubbed their streets trying to erase the German presence.

The Paris Commune

Many of the city's more conservative middle and upper class had withdrawn from the city. The common people of Paris had favored the war and had displayed patriotic fervor, but military failures, economic deprivation and suffering had for some Parisians given life to another rebellion. Barricades went up again, and there was a call for all males to join a people's army, but many males instead went into hiding.

Back in November, during the siege, the Parisians had elected municipal councils, which they called the Commune. It consisted of some moderate republicans, some followers of the anarchist Proudhon, followers of the revolutionist Blanqui and members of Marx's International workingmen's association. The Paris Commune wanted to govern Paris without interference from the more conservative people outside Paris. Following the armistice with Germany in mid-February, the regime of Prime Minister Thiers, at Versailles, wanted to disarm Paris.

The Paris Commune proclaimed the separation of church and state and the nationalization of Church property. On April 8, 1871, the Commune regime removed all representations of religion from the schools of Paris. On April 11, French troops sent by Thiers began its siege of Paris. On May 21, 70,000 of Thiers' troops entered the city. They fought street to street, using artillery point blank. Thiers had ordered his troops to proceed with restraint, but his troops were angered by Communard resistance. As many as 30,000 Communards and innocent Parisians were summarily executed, and many others were imprisoned and deported. The Paris Commune was crushed. It was another disappointment for revolutionaries, including Marx and Engels, who had been surprised by the uprising – rather than having masterminded it as some were to claim. And with others favoring revolution they were left to contemplate reasons for the Commune's failure. note91

Settlement and the Second ReichGerman Pride

In May the Treaty of Frankfurt was signed officially ending the war between France and a newly unified Germany. The independent southern German states had been supporting their fellow Germans against the French, and they had agreed to unification with Prussia. Bismarck's victory added to German railways as a nation builder. Germany's railways had been the first of the great commercial enterprise in Germany. It had joined together in commerce the hundreds of local markets in Germany, and now, following economic unification, there was political unification. It marked the beginning of what would be known as the Second Reich, the German nation or empire with the Hohenzollern dynasty of kings. (The First Reich was what some called the Holy Roman Empire, ended by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806.)

France had accepted Bismarck's harsh terms – a $1,000,000,000 indemnity to be paid by France to Germany within three years. And France ceded to Germany most of Alsace and a large part of Lorraine. The German public had wanted the two provinces as part of their nation's triumph. Bismarck had been unenthusiastic about taking the two provinces, wanting to avoid a lasting and unnecessary enmity between the Germans and French. But he had given in to the public's demand, promising that he would return German rule to Alsace and Lorraine, which had been taken by France during the conquests of Napoleon I. With Alsace and Lorraine, the newly unified German state gained coal mines, iron ore deposits and some military advantages: higher ground, a shorter western border and a greater distance from its western border to its heartland. But the annexation was not popular among the people of Alsace and Lorraine and would leave bitterness with the French.

Germans had been uncertain about who would win the war, and the German victory was greeted with relief, exultation and pride. The Franco-Prussian war would be a source of pride to Germans into the twentieth century. In this age of social Darwinism some Germans thought of Germans as the fittest of peoples, and some saw Bismarck's successes as reason to respect the authoritarianism of his government.

The Papacy Loses Rome and Latium

One of the consequences of the Franco-Prussian War was the papacy losing the Rome and Latium. The papacy no longer had Napoleon III for support, and on 20 September 1870, Italian troops entered Rome. Pope Pius IX refused to accept Italy's occupation of the city, and he withdrew to his palace at the Vatican and declared himself a prisoner. Italy annexed Rome on January 18, 1871, and Italy's King Victor Emmanuel saw the unification of Italy complete. Addressing Italy's parliament he said:

The work to which we consecrated our life is accomplished. After long trials of expiation, Italy is restored to herself and to Rome.

Sources

"The Great Eastern Crisis," Chapter 11, Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918, by A J P Taylor,1971

Twilight of the Habsburgs: the Life and Times of Emperor Francis Joseph, by Alan Palmer, 1997

Bismarck, by Edgar Feuchtwanger, Routledge Historical Biographies, 2002

The Nineteenth Century: Europe, 1789-1914, edited by T C W Banning, Oxford University Press, 2000

The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, by Michael Howard, 2001

Age of Progess, by S C Burchell

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