In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Germanic states that once formed the Holy Roman Empire were in the process of increased cooperation with the possible end goal of gradual unification. One of the architects of this coalition was the great statesman, the Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who had been working for years to bring about the formation of a Prussian-led German Empire. In 1866, during the Austro-Prussian War, the Prussians had defeated their rivals for dominance over the Germanic states, which now excluded Austria. After this, Bismarck believed that further war was necessary to unite the entirety of the North German Confederation and the remaining Southern German states against a single enemy under one banner. It was in France that Bismarck would find his opponent, long seen as the predominant power in Europe and feeling challenged by the rise of Prussia. These states would clash in the era-defining Franco-Prussian war, bringing about the formation of modern Europe.
Germany: A Rising Power
Napoleon I reshaped the political map of Europe through his military victories and subsequent defeat. The Holy Roman Empire, a loose coalition of German states that had lasted for centuries, saw itself defeated and broken up under the French Emperor’s reign, while Prussia itself was defeated and became a French satellite state in 1806. The result of this humiliating defeat was a massive series of domestic reforms aimed at modernizing and strengthening Prussia both economically and militarily.
Joining in against their former rulers in the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, Prussia was awarded a significant amount of territory that effectively doubled its population and gave it a substantial amount of industrial capacity, especially in arms manufacturing. With this single act, a new major European power had been formed, one which set off a race for dominance and hegemony over the German-speaking states of central Europe. The driving force behind Prussia’s rise to absolute prominence was the appointment of Otto von Bismarck to the position of Prime Minister by King Wilhelm I in 1862. Considered by contemporaries and historians to be a statesman of near-mythical status, Bismarck wasted no time in setting about his plan for a united Germany and was undeniably the single most influential person in the rise of the German state.
The plan to grow Prussia into a regional powerhouse and unite Germany under Prussian hegemony would span over three wars in short succession, all against different opponents but all intimately tied to one another.
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The first was the Second War of Schleswig in 1864, in which Prussia, with support of the Austrian Empire, invaded southern Denmark, claiming territories it had wished to obtain since the First Schleswig War in 1848. This time, the difference was in a complete reorganization and improvement of the Prussian military, which proved immensely effective on the battlefield.
Soon after, the two allies found themselves at odds over the territories gained from Denmark, triggering the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. While seemingly the conflict was over land administration, the reality was that Austria and Prussia were, at this point, locked in a struggle for dominance in central Europe. For centuries, Austria had been the main power within the former Holy Roman Empire and had been in a leadership position in the German Confederation formed after Napoleon I’s defeat in 1815. Bismarck intended to finally wrest control of Germany and its future from Austria once and for all.
With the help of Italy, Prussia and its allied states decisively crushed the Austrian-led coalition of German states in what is sometimes known as the Seven Weeks’ War. This war led to both the expulsion of Austria from any future German state and directly to the formation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire one year later.
The Road to the Franco-Prussian War
Like the wars that preceded it, the cause for the Franco-Prussian War would, in fact, be rooted in the Austro-Prussian war itself. France had long since considered itself the dominant power of continental Europe, even after the defeat of Napoleon and the First French Empire. By 1852, a Second French Empire had formed under Napoleon III, who, despite the name, was in fact a nephew to the famous Napoleon Bonaparte.
As the leading continental power in Europe, elements of the French government attempted to have Napoleon III mobilize the French military in order to ensure that there would be no territorial changes in Germany as a result of the Austro-Prussian war without its allowance. Ultimately, no troops would be sent, and in the wake of the war, Prussia annexed huge swaths of northern Germany while absorbing many of the other states into its North German Confederation. Despite this, the French public insisted on compensation, and its government demanded territory from Prussia, including parts of Bavaria, which was part of the Southern German States, the still independent parts of Germany that had allied with Austria in the previous war. These demands, when shared with the Bavarians by Bismarck, forced the former opponents into a military alliance, setting the stage for the upcoming war, and further driving all of Germany closer to unification.
Even with France’s place as the nominal power on the continent, it was clear to much of the French population that Prussia was a rising star, big enough to challenge the French Empire. Somewhat ironically, of all France, Napoleon III was perhaps the least interested in war with Prussia. While he did believe that France would defeat Prussia in an outright war, the emperor’s worsening health problems impeded his desire to engage in a large-scale war.
Beyond Napoleon III, it seemed as though the entirety of France desired war; the public and certain members of the government, including Napoleon’s wife, Empress Eugénie, demanded that France re-assert its rightful place in Europe. Much of the French military was eager to avenge the defeat for which Prussia had played a hand in at Waterloo which brought the First Empire to an end.
The war would also distract the public from domestic issues, though, the emperor and his government were held in high regard by the public at the time. Meanwhile, many in Prussia, including Bismarck, saw the war as not only inevitable but necessary in order to secure Prussia’s own place at the head of a united Germany.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Ems Dispatch. A conversation was held between King Wilhelm I and the French Ambassador, in which the French demanded that Prussia guarantee that it never interferes in Spanish Royal Succession, as they had prior, to which the King politely refused. Despite the rather cordial environment of the meeting, Bismarck publicly released a description of the events that painted a more insulting picture, which aimed to provoke both Prussian and French citizens.
Perhaps to the Chancellor’s delight, the French media mistranslated his communiqué into an even more insulting series of events, which he took no steps to correct. The result was so strong that protests erupted in France, with citizens demanding war. With this, the French government had no choice but to begin mobilization and declare war on the 19th of July, 1870.
The Franco-Prussian War’s First Phase
Despite the short, six-month duration of the war, there were two distinctly different phases: the French Imperial War and the French Republican War. Halfway through the conflict, the Second French Empire came to an end, abdicating in favor of the French Third Republic. The war commenced with a limited French incursion into Prussia. While France had a much larger population than Prussia, it would prove slower to mobilize with lower-quality troops, which would dictate the war’s opening phases.
On paper, it would seem as though the two sides were roughly even, with some 900,000 soldiers on both sides. However, the reality was that the advantages were far more heavily in favor of Prussia. In the years after Napoleon, Prussia had become a highly militaristic society with universal conscription and service for men. While the French had attempted to follow suit, the actual quality of these conscripts and reservists was far worse, often not given active training. Worse still, the French were still in the process of implementing some of these reforms when the war broke out. As a result, of those 900,000, Prussia fielded a vast majority, some 730,000 actual soldiers and 200,000 militia, all of which had received extensive training. Opposing them were only some 500,000 French and 400,000 militia, known as the Garde Mobile, who were of infamously low quality.
The first phase of the war saw several battles occur across southern Germany and France, with each following a similar pattern: French superiority in small arms inflicted high casualties on the Germans, with the Chassepot needle rifle far outperforming the German Dreyse needle gun. But the ultimate course of the battle would be won by far superior German artillery, officers, and training. The final battle in this first phase of the war was the Battle of Sedan, fought over the 1st and 2nd of September and resulted in a crippling defeat for France, with the capture of not only an entire French army but of Napoleon III himself. It was assumed that with this, the war would be over. However, Bismarck miscalculated the resolve of the French to fight on.
The Second Phase of the War and the German Empire
Although the Emperor, along with two full armies, had been captured, France refused to concede. Overthrowing the Imperial Government a mere two days after Napoleon’s capture, the National Defense established itself as the ruling force over France, beginning the Third French Republic.
Prussia pressed on, surrounding and besieging Paris, which people again assumed would bring an end to the war. While the new French government was willing to pay reparations and concede defeat, they and the French public were adamant that no territory at home or abroad would be lost to Prussia. Even with the near impossibility of winning the war at this point, the new French government wasted no time, and, in a rather stunning display of efficiency, managed to re-create a new military essentially from scratch.
In under four months, the new Republican army would dwarf the previous Imperial army, and even possess more equipment and artillery than the Imperial French forces ever had, all while the armories and factories of Paris were cut off from the rest of France. The impressive recovery of its armed forces and the changing attitude against Prussia abroad would threaten the German coalition, but repeated victories and a corps of battle-hardened veteran troops meant that France was unable to seize the initiative back from the Germans, leaving Paris to starve until there was little choice but to surrender.
At the end of January 1871, six months after the start of the war, France finally requested an armistice and agreed to turn over the Alsace-Lorraine regions. The proclamation of the German Empire was famously announced in the Palace of Versailles, with the union of the final German states to be ruled by King Wilhelm I, rechristened as the Emperor of Germany. Bismarck’s dream of a united Germany had finally come to pass, and not only was Germany now brought together under Prussian hegemony, but it was also now one of the world’s foremost powers.
While Britain was still considered the dominant world power, Germany was the undisputed master of continental Europe, boasting the largest and most well-trained army with a massive and competent officer corps to lead them. Everything had gone exactly to Bismarck’s plan, though the seeds planted with Germany’s unification would have long-reaching consequences. In the decades to come, mutual Franco-German enmity would fan the flames of war again and again, becoming a major cause in the outbreak of the War to end all Wars some forty years later.