The Uses of History, 17 – France, Revolution #4, 1870-1, Part 3

(Image Credit – Wikipedia – Battle of Koniggratz, July 3, 1866, by Georg Bliebtru)

The wiliest international statesman of the 19th Century was Otto von Bismarck, Minister-President of Prussia (1862-71) and then Chancellor of Imperial Germany from 1871-1890. It is perhaps not too much to say that the unification of Germany in 1871 was almost entirely his doing.

In the 1860’s, France under Emperor Napoleon III was the undisputed leading military power in Europe. Any plan of uniting Germany would have to somehow either render France a neutral observer or include defeating France in battle.

The reader might fairly wonder why the unification of Germany was any of France’s business. The answer is that since the Thirty Years War (1618-48), France had taken a very active interest in German affairs. When the Thirty Years War ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, France had established itself as Austria’s main rival in exercising influence in Germany. That influence had been fairly won by direct French intervention in crucial moments on German battlefields.

As confusing as this may seem, let us remember that Germany in the 1600s was not a nation but a geographical region in the middle of Europe, divided into approximately 300 petty-states, with a few larger ones in that mix, such as Brandenburg (later expanded as Brandenburg-Prussia, and then just Prussia) Bavaria, and Saxony. France saw its sphere of influence as including western Germany, chiefly the Rhineland (the area between France and the Rhine River) and Bavaria. The presence or control of any other major power in that area would be interpreted as a threat to France, and counter to King Louis XIV’s, the “Sun King”, (1642-1715) great ambition of eventually annexing all territory between France’s eastern frontier and the Rhine River. That, with the Alps and the Pyrenees in the south, he dubbed France’s “natural frontiers”.

Napoleon the Great had finally done what Louis never completed despite great effort through long long wars in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. The Great One had annexed all those lands plus much more directly into his French Empire between 1806 and 1810. It had all been lost after Napoleon’s first defeat in 1814. By 1860, Napoleon III had successfully restored France’s pre-eminent military and diplomatic position in Europe as the #1 power to be reckoned with in any further major readjustment of important borders. He had also added two small provinces to France itself in Europe and overseen a considerable expansion of France’s Empire in North Africa and South-East Asia. Once more, a Bonaparte Emperor looked upon South-West Germany as his legitimate zone of influence. However, the Rhineland already belonged to Prussia since the Peace of Vienna in 1815, and Napoleon did not look favourably upon further Prussian ambitions southward.

When Bismarck became Minister-President of Prussia in 1862 at the behest of King Wilhelm I, he was given a mandate to rebuild and modernize Prussia’s army with the aim of being able to face any probable conflict with another major power. Bismarck succeeded over the next eight years. He also told the King that Prussia would unite Germany and he would become the first Kaiser (Emperor) of the united nation of Germany within ten years!

Wilhelm and Bismarck developed a tight working relationship based on mutual respect and trust. Bismarck promised a modern, well-equipped, first-rank army capable of winning any war it might have to engage in. He promised to support it by strong industrial development, including armaments industry and a first-class railway network to facilitate trade and commerce and rapid military deployment. He took strong measures to make these promises a reality. Prussia sent military attaché observers to the United States during the Civil War, and, watching how a modern nation used its railways and industry to manage a tremendous winning war-effort, learned a great deal which would soon be applied to great effect in Europe.

In 1864, Bismarck engaged in a minor war with Denmark to gain control of Schleswig and Holstein, two small Danish provinces on the northern edge of Germany. Still needing to avoid conflict with Austria, Bismarck manoeuvred the Danes into declaring war to defend their claim to the two Duchies. Austria joined Prussia in invading and defeating the Danes. The two great powers split rule of the two Duchies between them.

Two years later, Austria cancelled the agreement about the two formerly Danish Duchies. For Bismarck, the moment had come to remove Austria from direct involvement in Germany. Prussian declared war.

Prussia now used its vastly superior rail network to mass its forces in the south before Austria could fully move its numerically superior army to meet them at full strength. Most of the rest of Germany was taking Austria’s side, but Bismarck’s strategy was to take out Austria quickly and force its surrender before the collected force of the rest of Germany could do any real harm. In the event only Saxony fielded any sizeable force to help Austria. The Prussians brushed them aside. In addition, Bismarck made an alliance with newly united Italy, promising Italy Venetia in return for its aid against Austria. This drew off Austrian forces to the south.

On July 3, 1866, the new, modern Prussian army decisively defeated the main Austrian forces in a hard-fought battle at Koniggratz in Bohemia, now Czechia. The following peace was lenient for Austria, as Bismarck did not want to make Austria a bitter, permanent enemy. The rest of the German Confederation bowed to the result, and was dissolved. Germany, minus Austria, was soon reconfigured as the North German Confederation, under Prussia’s firm domination, and the South German Confederation, with Bavaria as its major component.

Bismarck was a realist and practiced what he dubbed “Realpolitik” – the politics of reality – in both domestic and foreign affairs. In day-to-day concerns, one does what is necessary to move things towards the greater goal one envisions. This requires flexibility in adapting to circumstances and waiting for the right moment to move decisively towards the greater aim.

Meanwhile, Napoleon III had suffered a setback in his foreign adventurism. This involved an ill-advised foray into Mexico from 1861-66. Mexico under Jaurez had defaulted on debt repayment to its European creditors – chiefly Spain, Britain, and France. The three powers sent an occupation force to Veracruz in early 1861. A year later, Britain and Spain withdrew after reaching a provisional arrangement with Juarez’s government, but the French stayed on, sending in substantial reinforcements and hoping to overthrow Juarez and create a new Mexican Empire with Archduke Maximilian of Austria as its Emperor – and a dependent of France.

This was a clear violation of the American Monroe Doctrine (1823) which declared that no European encroachment into the Americas beyond what already existed would be accepted by the United States, which would oppose such encroachment. Napoleon believed that France could get around this because, as of April 1861, the USA was embroiled in the tremendous crisis of the Civil War, and therefore either about to collapse, as many Europeans believed, or would be rather preoccupied until it was resolved.

When the Civil War ended in 1865 with a newly reunited USA now able to tell France to get out or face possible American intervention to restore Juarez as President and overturn the “Empire”, French troops wisely withdrew in 1866 rather than face a USA with the most battle-hardened army in the world equipped with the most modern weapons. By June 1867, Maximilian was dead, along with his key Mexican collaborators, and Napoleon III had egg on his face.

Bismarck and Prussia, on the other hand, were now clearly the masters of most of Germany. Bismarck was biding his time, now confident that the Prussian Army, along with support from much of Germany behind them, would be equal to the task of facing the French Army when the right opportunity presented itself.

In France, the opposition to Napoleon was growing more restive and bolder in its criticism, and there were signs of popular discontent with the restrictions on personal liberties, as well as signs that even the moderates were pushing for more freedoms, especially as they witnessed Britain’s labourers and middle-class gaining more freedoms and greater economic prosperity through hard-won campaigns for Parliamentary and social reform. In Prussia, Bismarck was creating similar conditions, and the Prussian economy, along with that of much of Germany, was booming and advancing rapidly into the industrial era.

Between 1867-70, there were a number of episodes, which we will not go into, that told Bismarck and Germany that French interference in Germany would have to be met with some measure of force in order to achieve final national unity, for which there was a growing pan-German nationalist appetite. Germany was no longer a mere geographical region, but a nation which had awakened to a sense of national destiny to be found among the Great Powers of the world. It was no longer acceptable to be held back by the hubris and sense of historical privilege of interference by France, which for two hundred years had dictated to Germany what degree of nationhood would be permitted within its own borders.

The opportunity Bismarck was sure would come presented itself in the summer of 1870.


Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher, Educational Consultant, and author in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for almost 50 years and has 4 grown children and ten grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He has recently published his first novel, Book One in a Historical Fantasy series called "Dragoonen". The first book is "Awakening" and is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. He is currently working on further books in this series and a number of other writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

2 thoughts on “The Uses of History, 17 – France, Revolution #4, 1870-1, Part 3

  1. Fascinating period of history!



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