The Red Cape
Last week we closed our mini saga on the Revolutions of 1848, by discussing how and why these revolutions mostly failed in their goals, but still anticipated much of Europe’s political and social development going into the 20th century. Today, we are going to set the stage for a topic that I have been looking forward to almost as much as I’m looking forward to finally getting into the First World War. The topic of today’s episode is very under-covered and often misunderstood, yet it is easily the most important conflict in the leadup to the First World War, one that not only set the stage for that conflict in Western Europe, but would have had a profound impact all on its own on the history of the world even if the First World War had never broken out. Today we will set the stage for the Franco-Prussian War. Today’s episode also has several maps attached to it, as it is important to understand how the borders in western and central Europe shifted during this critical period.
Recall that last week we ended by inaugurating the first President of the Second French Republic: Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, or simply Louis Napoleon. As you may remember from episode 2, this man was actually the nephew of the legendary French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and in that episode I referred to him as Napoleon III. Well, that was not just because of his familial connections to the old French Emperor. When Louis Napoleon was elected as President of the French Republic at the end of 1848, he started referring to himself not simply as Monsieur Président, but rather as Prince President Bonaparte. This was…not a good sign for those wanting to maintain a democratic government in France.
And as it turns out, fears about Prince President Bonaparte’s autocratic/imperial leanings were not unfounded. In December of 1851 the President led a military coup which toppled the three-year-old Second French Republic, and instituted a new constitution in January of 1852. This constitution was thoroughly autocratic, and while it maintained the pretense of democratic government, still calling itself a republic with legislative bodies and with Louis Napoleon still ruling as a President, all political power was put directly in his hands. In fact, if do you remember from episode 2, when we described how the constitutional charter Louis Philippe governed under declared him to be the supreme head of the state, and all that? Well this constitution lifted language directly from that earlier document, stating that, “The President of the Republic is the Head of the State; he commands the land and sea forces, declares war, makes treaties of peace, alliance and commerce, appoints to all the offices, and makes the regulations and decrees necessary for the execution of the laws.” I mean, this is almost verbatim taken from the charter of the July Monarchy. And this constitution of 1852 was even more autocratic than that government, as it went on to say of the Prince President, “Justice is administered in his name. He alone has the proposal of the laws. He has the right to grant pardons. He sanctions and promulgates the laws and the senatus-consulta.”
Yet Louis Napoleon was crafty. He did not simply declare himself dictator by virtue of pure might. In the preamble to this constitution, the ‘Prince President’ declared that, “If I no longer possess your confidence, if your ideas have changed, there is no need to shed precious blood. It suffices to deposit in the urn a contrary vote. I shall always respect the decision of the people.” He then held a popular referendum, open to all adult males in France, asking whether or not the people approved of his seizure of power and the new constitution. This referendum came back with a resounding vote of seven-million, three-hundred and forty-thousand “YES” votes, and only six-hundred and six thousand “NO” votes. Now whether or not these vote totals were at all legitimate is highly debatable, and personally I would air on the side of them being exaggerated if not just made up out of whole cloth. But Prince President Bonaparte now had a few things going for him that would allow him to establish his new de facto dictatorship.
First, officially he had a very clear popular mandate from the people to do what he liked, and this was a tactic he would regularly use to justify his actions. Initiate a further power grab, and then justify his actions after the fact by holding a stage-managed referendum that showed broad popular support. But the thing is, whatever the actual vote totals of this referendum were, Louis Napoleon really was very popular. As we saw last week, during the Presidential election of 1848 Louis Napoleon won nearly 75% of the vote in his own right, and this election could not have been doctored in the Bonaparte’s favor as he was, obviously, not yet in power. And while a small yet sharp insurrection in Paris had followed the coup of December 1851, this revolt was A) pretty small and never really threatened the regime, and B) was quickly and easily put down by the regular French Army, who mostly supported the Prince President. In addition to the loyalty of the army, which is obviously critical to any dictator’s survival, Bonaparte was pretty broadly popular among the peasants of France, who made up some 70% of the population, even if the more liberal and democratic-minded people of Paris had no use for him.
And while, yes, it’s true that a lot of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s support came from the simple fact of name recognition – after all, he carried the name of easily the most famous and (for the most part) beloved leader in French history – he was in fact quite a skilled politician and most of his support was, I think, pretty genuine. At the end of 1852 he held another popular referendum (with a similarly unbelievable margin of victory of 7.8 million votes in favor and 250,000 against), asking the French voters whether they would support a return to empire. With this resounding “popular mandate,” on December 2, 1852, one year to the day after his coup d’état and forty-eight years to the day after Napoleon I’s coronation, Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. The Second French Empire was born.
Perhaps Napoleon III’s greatest political skill was in the realm of propaganda. He was not, like his much more famous uncle, a visionary legislator who created a new law code from scratch, nor was he a charismatic orator, nor a great administrator. He was certainly no general, though he did like to play dress up as one. But Napoleon III was able to cloak himself in a political ideology that was immensely appealing to the vast majority of the French people, and of all of his legacies I personally believe this one had the greatest, longest lasting impact. Where the old absolutist Bourbons had ruled by divine right, and the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe had ruled with a reserved nod to the “will of the people,” without ever really understanding it, and the Second Republic had attempted to revitalize (mostly unsuccessfully) that sense of popular sovereignty, Napoleon III appealed to the honor and glory of French nationalism. His taking of the regnal name “Napoleon” rather than Charles Louis, his love of ostentatious public celebrations, and his proclivity towards (as we shall see) military adventurism, all harkened back to the glory days of the original Napoleonic Empire, when France had been the master of Europe and had nearly become master of the whole world. And while in a speech at the city of Bordeaux in 1852 he had declared, “the Empire means peace,” the new Napoleon was eager to give France what it had been craving since it’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815: glory and conquest.
We will not discuss in too much detail the various military adventures of the Second French Empire, but I will give a quick rundown of where and why Napoleon III tried to project France’s military might. The first of these adventures came in 1853, when Czar Nicholas I of Russia invaded the massive yet declining Ottoman Empire in a grandiose attempt to seize the great city of Constantinople (the modern city of Istanbul). France and Great Britain joined forces to halt this invasion, with the British mostly concerned about checking Russian ambition to make sure they did not become too powerful, and Napoleon III mostly wanting a big war wherein he could demonstrate French martial valor, both to his people and the rest of Europe. The resulting Crimean War of 1853-1856 is not worth dwelling too much on here, except to say that although it was technically a Franco-British victory in that the Russians did not get Constantinople, the war was badly mishandled by all sides leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Also, this was, really, the first time that a war had broken out among European Great Powers since the fall of Napoleon I in 1815. It would very much not be the last.
Next came the Franco-Austrian War of 1859 or, as it is more commonly and more accurately known, the Second War of Italian Independence. After the movement of Italian liberation and unification (known in Italian as Risorgimento) had failed in 1848, Italians of all stripes were still bitter about having to live under the boots of either “native” absolutist monarchs who were really just puppets of Austria, or under Austria itself (in the case of those people in and around the cities of Milan and Venice). It also appears that many Italian leaders had learned from this failure, in particular, a wily Italian noble named Count Camillo Cavour, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Piedmont Sardinia. Cavour had actually joined his kingdom in the anti-Russian coalition that fought in the Crimean War, not so much because he cared which faraway empire controlled Constantinople, but to get on good terms with the new French Emperor. This strategy worked flawlessly, as Napoleon III was gratified by this commitment and charmed by the Italian Count.
So, in 1859, when Piedmont Sardinia launched a war against the Austrians to drive them out of Italy once and for all, Napoleon III declared war on Austria in support of this movement. Long story short, the war was successful, and Piedmont-Sardinia gained control not only of Milan, but almost all of the rest of the Italian states save principally Venice which was still held by Austria, and the territory surrounding Rome, still claimed by the Pope. This led to the declaration of a united Kingdom of Italy in 1861. This was a glorious victory not only for Italian nationalism, but also for French arms. Also, Napoleon III was able to get the new Kingdom of Italy to gift the city of Nice to France in the peace negotiations, essentially as payment for services rendered. That was also nice (haha, get it? NICE? NICE? Ok, sorry. Moving on).
These were mostly great successes for Napoleon and his new Second French Empire, but those of you who know some Mexican history know that Napoleon is about to faceplant so, so hard in a military boondoggle in North America. In 1862 the French launched an invasion of Mexico. This is the one that no one in, for example, the United States would ever have heard of were it not for the fantastic Mexican victory over the French Army at the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. AKA, Cinco de Mayo. But this victory did not end the war. Napoleon III had ambitions to install a puppet government in Mexico under “Emperor” Maximillian, the brother of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, as a French client, in order to establish a base of power for France in the Western Hemisphere. Napoleon was, of course, only able to indulge in this ambition because the United States was, at the time, engaged in their Civil War from 1861-1865, and was thus unable to do anything about this extremely provocative (and frankly, ludicrous) act of blatant conquest. Unfortunately for Napoleon, and fortunately for the people of Mexico, this attempt to turn Mexico into a French client state was totally unsuccessful, as the French were unable to permanently occupy the country and were dogged for years by an almost uniformly united Mexican people opposing this attempt to conquer them. By 1866, with the U.S. Civil War now concluded with a victory for the Union, Napoleon was forced to abandon this dream of an empire in the Americas after receiving a none too subtle threat from the United States, who had been carelessly leaving leftover weapons and ammunition from their civil war on the Mexican border for Mexican opposition forces to use against the French. Napoleon was thus forced to pull his French army out of Mexico, leaving the hapless Maximilian to be captured and executed by the Mexicans.
This total military failure was of course extremely embarrassing and not a little bit destabilizing for Napoleon III who, after all, had pretty much premised his seizure of power on a promise to return to the French their previous status as a world conquering military powerhouse. But while this was an unmitigated disaster for the regime, the adventure in Mexico would not be what would ultimately destroy the Second French Empire, though it certainly did not help. What would destroy the Empire were two forces that were soon to bring upon France total and complete diplomatic and military disaster, and set the stage for the First World War, both for France specifically and the world generally. The first of these forces was German nationalism. The second was Otto von Bismarck.
In these first few episodes, I have dropped a lot of names on you, without ever really fleshing any of these people out. That is mostly because while these people were important to the events we have covered they are, in and of themselves, not particularly important to the story of the First World War. And, frankly, they are almost all going to be long since dead and buried by the time 1914 rolls around, so I don’t really want you to worry about them too much. But now, we come across a person who, though he too will be dead by 1914, actually is important to the story of the First World War in his own right, and his is a name I actually want you to remember.
Otto von Bismarck was born on April 1, 1815, in the Prussian town of Schönhausen, in what is today the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. He was born into a family of middling rank Junkers, which was the name of the Prussian nobility who staffed the Prussian Army’s officer corps. Yet his mother, Wilhelmine Mencken, was relatively liberal and enlightened for her class and upbringing, and desired more for her son than to be just another blunt and humorless military officer. If this was her wish, her son was the perfect vehicle for such an ambition. Though our image today of Bismarck is that of the grizzled old statesmen, as a boy he was, to quote his biographer Edward Crankshaw, “intelligent, rebellious, intensely emotional, [and] bursting with undirected vitality.” So, Wilhelmine arranged for her young son Otto to attend school in Berlin with the sons of up and coming bourgeois commoners, rather than having him educated by private tutors as was customary for the Prussian nobility.
This may have been a scandal had Bismarck’s family been important enough to warrant a scandal. But though a noble, Bismarck and his family were not considered rich nor important enough to staff the highest rungs of the Prussian state nor army. He himself did not appear on the radar of the government until 1848 when, as we saw last week, he wormed his way into the royal court in crisis. Once there, he helped King Friedrich Wilhelm IV convince the Prussian peasantry to vote for conservative candidates in Prussia’s first parliamentary elections, to secure for the king a legislature that firmly supported the old absolutist role of the King in Prussia. This adroit reading of the political situation and useful service to the King put Bismarck on the map, and he quickly became a highly influential force in Prussian politics.
Now Bismarck has a reputation today as being a once in a millennia genius who never made any mistakes in his career and who was always at least five steps ahead of his allies and opponents alike. And while Bismarck was indeed a highly skilled politician and diplomat, and while I personally think that Germany would have been much better served in the First World War had it had a politician of Bismarck’s caliber in charge of it, we should be careful not to lionize him too much. It is worth keeping in mind that while he was a highly effective political leader and while he was probably more intelligent and savvy than most of his contemporaries, Bismarck was A) a human being who was fully capable of making mistakes, and B) an extremely cold and cynical man, at least in terms of his politics. To quote biographer Edward Crankshaw again, “on a number of occasions he (that is, Bismarck) spoke very movingly about the fearful responsibility of sending men to be killed or maimed on the battlefield. On the other hand, at no time, so far as is known, did he ask himself whether the very fact that his aims could be achieved only by war did not put a question-mark against those aims.”
Bismarck also had difficult to describe political views, even for his day. Though a monarchist through and through, and someone who devoted his every waking hour to preserving and even strengthening the position of the Prussian King, as we have seen Bismarck was entirely willing to use the politics of democratic participation as one of his tools towards increasing monarchical power. He was extremely religious, though constantly doubting and questioning his Lutheran faith, which I suppose is not that uncommon among the truly faithful. He even went so far as to say that, “if I did not put my trust in God I should certainly place none in my earthly masters…A resolute faith in life after death – for that reason I am a royalist, otherwise I am by nature a republican.” This seems totally contradictory – to be “by nature” a republican yet in fact being a monarchist due to religious faith. Yet Bismarck was able to maintain this seemingly counter-intuitive identity with perfect confidence and candor.
Another thing worth keeping in mind about Bismarck is that while, yes, he is about to successfully spearhead the cause of German unification, he was not ever really a German nationalist. Rather, I think it’s fair to say that Bismarck’s first loyalty was always to Prussia, and that he saw German nationalism as a useful vehicle to increase Prussia’s power and influence. Thus, when he was appointed as Prussia’s foreign minister in 1862, it was Bismarck’s overriding goal to unify the German states under Prussian leadership and dominance. And whatever else you can say about Bismarck, he was uniformly successful in this goal.
On September 30, 1862, the new foreign minister of the Kingdom of Prussia Otto von Bismarck rose to deliver a speech to the Prussian Parliament (a body Bismarck had himself helped to create). The subject of the speech was ostensibly budgetary issues specifically with regards to the military. A member of the parliament had earlier given a speech calling for a reduction in Prussia’s military budget, and in response the new foreign minister gave a speech that would come to define not just his legacy, but the culmination of an entire era of European geopolitics.
“Germany is not looking to Prussia's liberalism, but to its power; Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden may indulge liberalism, and yet no one will assign them Prussia's role; Prussia has to coalesce and concentrate its power for the opportune moment, which has already been missed several times; Prussia's borders…are not favorable for a healthy, vital state; it is not by speeches and majority resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood.”
Otto von Bismarck may have been one of the most duplicitous and double-dealing diplomats in European history. But when he said that “the great questions of the time” would be settled by “iron and blood,” hell and damnation if he didn’t mean it.
Before we finally get to the outbreak Franco-Prussian War, we have to quickly discuss the first two of the three “wars of German unification.” It’s hard to briefly describe what these wars were about and why fighting them furthered the cause of German unification. But in short, Bismarck believed he needed three things to complete his vision for the project. First, he needed to whip up the feeling of German nationalism not just in Prussia, but all the German states. Second, he needed to demonstrate once and for all that Prussia, not Austria, was the great Germanic state, and force Austria out of any future union of Germany, as they were the only country that could rival Prussia for influence in a united Germany. And third, he needed to unite all of the German people, under Prussian leadership, against a foreign aggressor.
For the first of these goals, Bismarck looked to the Danish province of Schleswig-Holstein. Now, some of you may have been disappointed that in our entire discussion of the Revolutions of 1848, I did not once mention the controversy surrounding the province of Schleswig-Holstein. That is because, frankly, it is so complicated and the details surrounding the issue so minute that I could not find any way to discuss it in our 1848 episodes without getting completely lost in the weeds. As the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston once said about the issue, “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business – the Prince Consort, who is dead – a German professor, who has gone mad – and I, who have forgotten all about it.”
To massively, massively oversimply the issue, Schleswig and Holstein are two regions in what is today, and what was in the mid 19th century, the southern half of the Kingdom of Denmark. There is a map attached to today’s episode showing exactly where. These were once independent feudal territories, just one amongst hundreds if not thousands in old medieval Europe, that had long ago been acquired by the King of Denmark, though not ruled as a part of the Danish Kingdom but instead held in personal union by the King of Denmark, in a similar situation as the old Hungarian relationship with Austria: two different “countries,” sharing a single ruler. The people who lived in these territories were about evenly split between Danish speaking and German speaking, with the rule being in general that the northern realm of Schleswig was mostly Danish, and the southern realm of Holstein was mostly German. In the long ago of medieval feudalism, the ethno-linguistic makeup of these territories was of concern to exactly no one, and all that mattered was that the King of Denmark had acquired legal title to them. But by the 19th century, with the concept of nationalism sweeping throughout all the people of Europe, this became a huge point of contention between the Danes and the Germans. Basically, the Danes believed the whole territory was an inseparable part of the Danish homeland, while the Germans believed that the lands filled mostly with German speaking people ought to belong to a united Germany. Again, I am massively, massively oversimplifying this.
Bismarck correctly deduced that if the Prussians pressed this issue, they could score a lot of prestige among German nationalists of all stripes. So, in 1864, Bismarck as foreign minister of Prussia demanded that Denmark cede all of the territory of Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia. The Danes refused, and in the resulting war the Prussian Army obliterated their Danish opponents, and within months the war was over resulting in a total Prussian victory. People throughout the German confederation rejoiced at this victory for German nationalism.
But just as important to Bismarck as uniting the German people into a single country was to make sure that the Austrians were kept out of any future German union. He had quite cleverly convinced the Austrians to join in the war against Denmark, and after the resulting victory, the territory of Schleswig in the north was to be controlled by Prussia, and Holstein in the South by Austria. Bismarck then used a minor dispute over this joint occupation as an excuse to declare the German Confederation, which as we know had been established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, dissolved. This was obviously hugely provocative, and Austria immediately declared war on Prussia. But once again, the Prussian Army proved itself to be just vastly superior to its opponents. We will go into more detail on what made the Prussian Army so dominant in this period next week, but suffice it to say that the Prussians rapidly invaded Austria with an army of 250,000 men, and at the pivotal battle of Königgrätz on July 3, 1866, (in what is today Czechia) the Prussian Army annihilated the Austrian Army, achieving a complete rout of the Austrians while inflicting four casualties on the Austrian Army for every one they sustained. At the following peace treaty, the abolition of the German Confederation was confirmed, and in its place a new entity was created called the “North German Confederation.” The North German Confederation, which as you can see is shown in one of this week’s maps, was officially a diplomatic union of all of the northern German states, excluding Austria as well as Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg in the south. But, in reality, it was really just Prussia annexing a huge chunk of land, effectively doubling its size. The upshot of this was that in all future unions of German lands and states, Austria would be purposefully excluded to the sole benefit of Prussia.
This also led to the formal dissolution of the “Austrian” Empire and the creation of the “Austro-Hungarian” Empire or, more properly, the Dual Monarchy. Basically, after being so completely crushed in the war with Prussia in 1866, the Hungarian political leadership demanded that Austria make Hungary a co-equal and fully autonomous partner in the empire, or they would declare independence. Emperor Franz Josef, seeing no choice, agreed to the demand, and from that point forward Hungary would be an almost totally autonomous part of the Empire, now called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Also, and I’m just going to shoehorn this in here, but in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War, the new Kingdom of Italy opportunistically attacked Austria and seized from them the city of Venice. Just figured I’d mention that.
To be honest, I am personally not too sure how much of this was all planned out in advance by Bismarck, and if so how early on, or if it was all just opportunistically seized upon in the moment. Probably, it is a combination of the two, but which exact parts were planned out and which were improvised is really hard to say. Regardless, the goal of German unification was nearly complete.
To finish the job, Bismarck needed to convince the other German states to the south, specifically the aforementioned Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg, to voluntarily join into a single German Empire, as he felt that the union would not last if these states were simply conquered. No, what Bismarck needed was some common provocation, provided by some universally feared and disliked enemy, to unite all the German peoples into a common war of defense. Enter Napoleon III and the Second French Empire.
The French had been growing increasingly worried about the obvious threat provided by a newly expansive and increasingly aggressive Prussia. This was, I think, not only a genuine worry in the French government, but also a fairly reasonable one. And given how the ensuing Franco-Prussian War is about to unfold for France, I think these fears turned out to be entirely justified. Yet it was not just for reasons of national security that the French were about to poke the Prussians in the eye with a stick. Just as important, if not more so, was the faltering popularity of Emperor Napoleon III.
The military disaster in Mexico had been coupled with a rise in popular agitation against the French Emperor. While it had essentially no power, the French Empire had a legislature called simply “the Legislative Body,” which was elected by universal manhood suffrage (yet another way Napoleon III could claim a popular mandate for his rule). In the early years of the Second French Empire, this body was always filled with men in full support of, or at least resigned to, Napoleon III’s regime. But by the latter years of the Second Empire, the French electorate had started voting for more and more people openly opposed to the regime. In the last election of Napoleon III’s reign, held in May of 1869, more than half of votes cast were for candidates openly opposed to the Empire, either from liberal monarchists or out and out republicans. The regime was only able to hold on to its majority in the Legislative Body due to heavy gerrymandering and not a little bit of naked ballot stuffing.
Napoleon III was in a dangerous position, and he knew it. He was losing the support of the people, and his popular support had been the only way he had been able to maintain his absolute rule over France. And this sense of the weakness of the regime was made more palpable by the recent Prussian victories over Denmark and Austria. When Napoleon III demanded that Prussia allow him to annex the German speaking territory of Luxembourg in the middle of the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, the fiery orator Adolphe Thiers rose in the Legislative Body and quipped, “when a hunter is ashamed of returning from the chase with an empty bag, he goes to the butcher, buys a rabbit, and stuffs it into his bag, letting the ears hang out. Voilà a Luxembourg!" Not that Napoleon III would even get his rabbit; Bismarck flatly refused the demand, and Napoleon III meekly backed down, as most of his army was in either Mexico or Algeria and could not force the Prussians to do anything.
As Napoleon III saw it, the only way he could regain his popular support, and protect France from a clearly aggressive Prussia, would be to launch a war against Prussia before it became too strong. So Napoleon III stated that if Prussia annexed any of the three southern German states – again, Baden, Bavaria, and Württemberg – that France would immediately declare war. Yet what would ultimately spark the coming Franco-Prussian War turned out not to be an annexation of more territory by Prussia, but a otherwise totally insignificant diplomatic tiff.
I am going to oversimply this, but basically, there had been a revolution in Spain in 1868 that had tossed out the ruling Bourbon dynasty (yes, that Bourbon dynasty). In September of 1869, the Spanish government offered the Spanish crown to Prince Leopold von Hohenzollern, the nephew of the Prussian King Wilhelm I (who had succeeded to the Prussian throne in 1861). The Spanish hoped that this would help form an alliance with the rising powerhouse of Prussia, but Napoleon III and the French government declared that this would be unacceptable, and if this Prince Leopold accepted the Spanish crown, that France would immediately declare war on Prussia.
This threat seems to have worked, as King Wilhelm I declared that he would not allow his nephew to take the Spanish throne. Yet on July 12, 1870, the French ambassador met with Wilhelm at the resort town of Bad Ems in Western Prussia. He told King Wilhelm I that his withdrawal of Leopold’s candidacy for the Spanish Crown was no longer good enough. The Prussian king would have to swear that he would never support any of his family members or countrymen becoming the King of Spain. Wilhelm, who did not necessarily want a war with France over who would sit on the relatively insignificant Spanish throne, was nonetheless offended by this demand, and flatly refused. A Prussian government official then wrote up a short summary of this tense but polite exchange, and telegrammed it over to Foreign Minister Bismarck in Berlin.
This “Bad Ems dispatch”, as it came to be known, was exactly what Bismarck had been looking for. He proceeded to carefully edit this report to make it look more confrontational that it really was, and then publish the report in Prussian newspapers. This really was a masterstroke on Bismarck’s part. To the German audience who read this report, it appeared that the French ambassador had insulted the Prussian king, and by extension all of the German people, while the French audience would read this as a direct challenge from Prussia to France. Bismarck later called the Bad Ems dispatch “a red cape for the Gallic bull.”
Napoleon III then played right into Bismarck’s hands. On July 14, he began to mobilize the reserves of the French Army and place them on the border with the North German Confederation. Throughout Paris in the following days cries of “to Berlin!” and “down with Wilhelm!” and “down with Bismarck!” could be heard from every street corner and café. On July 19, France declared war on the North German Confederation. This was perfect for Bismarck, as now the French appeared the aggressors and the North German Confederation would now be forced to “defend” the German homeland. This, in turn, aroused the passion of German peoples throughout central Europe, not just in those lands controlled by Prussia. Soon enough the three southern German states – Baden, Bavaria, and Württemberg – joined in the patriotic defensive war against France. Meanwhile, in France, despite the apparent jubilation of starting a punitive war against Prussia, not everyone was thrilled by this development. When war was being debated amongst the mostly powerless French Legislative Body, a republican aligned delegate rose and declared, “we would be the first to stand for a national war in defense of our homeland. We will not stand for an aggressive, dynastic war!”
And that’s…kind of what this looked like. While the seeds for the nascent Franco-Prussian War clearly lay in Prussia’s ambitions on the one side and French apprehension about those ambitions on the other, Bismarck had deftly lured the French into appearing as though they were going to attack the German people because of, what, which random noble would sit on which random throne? And beyond that, it was pretty well understood by most people in France that Napoleon III was mostly interested in this war so he could cover himself in a little glory to shore up his regime. Whether you hated the Second French Empire or you were just kind of ok with it, nobody wanted to die for that cause. While triumphant cheers could be heard throughout Paris as the war was being declared, the recruitment offices remained disconcertingly empty. And next week, we will watch as this war that Napoleon III had started to maintain his imperial throne winds up utterly destroying it and him along with it.
Anderson, Frank Maloy. The Constitutions and Other Select Documents Illustrative of the History of France: 1789-1901. Minneapolis: The H.W. Wilson Company. 1904. (pages 544 and 559)
Celestin, Roger and Eliane Dalmolin. France from 1851 to the Present: Universalism in Crisis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Crankshaw, Edward. Bismarck. New York: The Viking Press, 1981.
Guyver, Christopher. The Second French Republic – 1848-1852: A Political Reinterpretation. Surrey: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Strachey, Lytton. Queen Victoria. New York: Harcourt Brace, and Company, 1921.
Wawro, Geoffrey. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2003.
Bismarck, Otto von. Excerpt from Bismarck’s “Blood and Iron” Speech (1862). http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=250&language=english