The Uses of History, 18 – France, Revolution #4, 1870-1, Part 4

(Image credit – Wikipedia)

“I did not doubt that a Franco-German war must take place before the construction of a United Germany could be realized. France, the victor, would be a danger to everybody—Prussia to nobody. That is our strong point.”

Otto von Bismarck, 1899-1900. Cited in Wikipedia, “Franco-Prussian War”

War broke out between France and the North and South German Confederations on July 16, 1870. Napoleon III’s puppet Parliament declared this war as a question of national honour. The pretext was the renewal of a scheme to put a Hohenzollern (the Prussian royal family) on the throne of Spain.

Once more we ask, “What business was this of France’s?” The balance of power in Europe was shifting, and France’s (Napoleon’s) pre-eminence was in question. German unity was on the near horizon, despite the French antipathy towards it. Such a unification would spell the definite end of France’s two century-old habit and ability of stepping directly into German territory and affairs when it seemed necessary to protect France’s dominance in Western and Central Europe.

Furthermore, Prussia’s rapid rise as both a military and industrial power was already threatening French status as Europe’s most advanced society and economy apart from the as-yet unchallengeable British paragon across the English Channel. Spain’s invitation to King Wilhelm of Prussia to allow one of his cousins to assume the vacant Spanish throne in 1868 had been thwarted by French opposition and a demand by Napoleon that German territory be ceded to France as insurance (and a de facto French bridgehead across the Rhine) that such a scheme of Prussian encirclement of France would not be renewed.

Such Machiavellian manoeuvring may seem strange to our ears now, but royal dynastic politics were still of some import at the international level in Europe in the 19th Century. There are plenty of parallels more recently, but they usually involve dictators and unscrupulous secret intelligence machinations by great powers rather than more public questions of national and royal honour.

In 1870, Spain’s throne was still vacant and the offer to Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Siegmaringen of Swabia was renewed. This time, Napoleon’s advisers suggested he seek a written guarantee from King Wilhelm that the offer would be refused and never considered again. Wilhelm actually drafted a conciliatory reply that did not give Napoleon all he wanted but was not aggressive in tone, but before it was dispatched, Bismarck subtly doctored it to sound imperious and bordering on indignant insolence to sensitive French ears.

When it was made public in France, there was a hue and cry that France’s and the Emperor’s honour be defended and the upstart Prussians be properly taught a lesson. War was declared, as noted above. Bismarck, the consummate opportunist, had seized the moment to bring his long-held ambition of German unification to final fruition. The North German Confederation dutifully followed Prussia to war with France, and the alliance with the South German Confederation was invoked. All Germany was at war with France.

The vaunted French army quickly found that they had finally met an opponent that was more than its match. A premature French offensive move into the Rhineland (Prussian territory) but was quickly repulsed, and the more rapidly mobilized German forces, using Prussia’s remarkably efficient rail system and centralized command system of the General Staff of the Army supported by telegraph, rapidly counterattacked into Alsace-Lorraine. Napoleon had taken the field himself in what all knew would be the defining confrontation in European power-politics in the 19th Century. Although French rifles were much superior to the Prussian, Prussian artillery proved superior, as did the Prussian strategy, morale, and tactical command. On Sept. 2, Napoleon himself was captured by the Prussians when one of France’s major armies surrendered with 104,000 prisoners after a catastrophic defeat at Sedan. France’s other major force still in the field was encircled and besieged at Metz.

The result in Paris and throughout France was the overthrow of the Imperial Government and the creation of a Provisional Government of National Defense and the founding of the Third French Republic, which would last until June 1940 when France was once more beaten by Germany under Adolf Hitler. The war would drag on till January 28, 1871 as the new Republic sought to mobilize the full strength of France to expel the invaders. Paris was besieged. All French efforts to relieve it failed, and the Republic finally negotiated an armistice.

As the siege had dragged on, on January 18, 1871, the delegates of the German states from both the North and South German Confederations met in Versailles in the famous Hall of Mirrors and proclaimed the establishment of the Second Reich, the German Empire, with King Wilhelm of Prussia as Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm I. (The First Reich had been the defunct “Holy Roman Empire” which Napoleon had abolished. Hitler’s Germany was the infamous “Third Reich”.) This action was a deliberate slap to France, symbolizing the end of French dominance in Europe and the rise of a great new nation. By proclaiming the birth of the German Empire in the palace of France’s longest reigning monarch, Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, 1642-1715, who for several decades had projected French power deep into the heart of Germany, Bismarck signaled the utter humiliation of France.

The new reality of a powerful, militarily potent, united Germany emerging in the dead center of Europe was of tremendous import throughout the continent. It destroyed the last vestiges of the Congress of Vienna system, and, in the immediate aftermath, threw France once more into bitter and protracted turmoil, which, taken altogether, constitutes the Fourth French Revolution. The shock was great in Europe, which had generally expected a solid French victory in this war.

The shock of defeat in France was shattering to both the political and social fabric of the nation. Sixty percent of Paris’ population was industrial and labouring working class. For them, the sudden collapse of the central authority and the German siege opened a door of opportunity. Socialists, communists, and anarchists all came out of hiding or exile, sometimes furtively making their way past authorities on both sides to be in Paris in the midst of the semi-chaos.

With the Armistice with Germany in place as January ended, it became a question of the Provisional Government, now led by Thiers, an old opponent of Napoleon III as President, establishing its validity by gaining control of Paris. As long as the German siege forces remained stationed nearby, pending a peace treaty, the city was in a state of suspended animation. The Republican Government convinced the Germans to let the National Guard keep their arms in order to maintain order in the metropolis, but the Guard itself was divided between middle class citizen-soldiers and a large majority of working class citizen-soldiers. In addition, there were 20 000 regular troops in garrison, and the non-middle-class populace felt none to kindly towards these representatives of a central authority which many felt did not represent them.

Two attempts to seize power by the radical factions in the city, assisted by working class National Guard units, failed in October 1870 and January 1871. In March, the Regular Army units were ordered to seize the cannons stationed on the Hill of Montmartre, which the radical National Guard had established as a bastion against the projected return of the Provisional Government. This led to a pitched battle on March 18, 1871. The Army was beaten back, and Paris fell under the sway of the radicals, who were far from united except in their rejection of the Third Republic as a bourgeois state set to reimpose middle class and industrialist tyranny. The Middle-Class units of the National Guard were disarmed and Paris was once more besieged, but this time by the newly reformed Regular Army of the Republic. The “Commune” became the city government, elected by those who dared to vote the right way if they knew what was good for them. The radicals spat on and burned the Tricouleur, the National flag of the first French Revolution and the Bonapartists, and raised the red flag of radical anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist revolution.

The agenda of the radicals in Paris was like a strip of fly-paper which attracts all kinds of winged ideas, from abolishing marriage and family to abolishing capitalism altogether and total decentralization of political and social power, to more moderate ideas that would today be found “normal” in a liberal social democracy – such as free universal education and health care, old-age pensions, disability pensions, the full enfranchisement of both men and women, heavy taxes on wealth, total secularization, the humiliation of representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, and many more. With such a disparate set of goals being fervently forwarded, little practical work could be done by a city council representing the arrondissements. They really had no mandate except the threat of violence and possible assassination from one unhappy group or another on opponents. In the meantime, the city’s finances fell into chaos and relied on confiscations of wealth and property, with the inevitable skimming and rake-offs to ideologues pronouncing one set of principles while giving in to the usual temptations power presents to victors, no matter how transient.

The German occupation force looked on and permitted the French Army to move on the country’s turbulent capital. Most of the trapped citizens tried to lay low as things came to a head and the Army was sent in to reassert national authority. From May 21-28, the “Bloody Week”, Paris became a war zone. By its end, the devastation was terrible in sections of the city, such as Montmartre, where the disparate insurgents had entrenched themselves. After some fierce engagements, the National Guard melted away. The Army was bent on vengeance for the turmoil and rebellion which had, by this point, challenged France’s very national existence while it had lain prostrate at the feet of a conqueror. Detailed studies on the casualties have been wildly at variance, ranging from 7000 communards dead at the low end to 15 000 at the high end. Seven to eight thousand fled into exile. Forty-three thousand five hundred were taken prisoner, of whom

“Trials were held for 15,895 prisoners, of whom 13,500 were found guilty. Ninety-five were sentenced to death; 251 to forced labour; 1,169 to deportation, usually to New Caledonia; 3,147 to simple deportation; 1,257 to solitary confinement; 1,305 to prison for more than a year; and 2,054 to prison for less than a year.”

Wikipedia – “The Paris Commune”

The Communards had also carried out reprisals and executions of their own on as many as 500 prominent representatives of the “forces of order and the Establishment”.

Some view the Commune as a failed Revolution. It has assumed the status of a sacred moment in extreme-leftist mythology. It was elevated to such by Marx, Mao, Lenin, as well as many lesser lights of Marxism and Anarchism, including more recent New Left ideologues such as Herbert Marcuse. Perhaps these exalted names in the pantheon of Leftist Revolutionary hagiography should be a cautionary sign to the soft-totalitarian neo-Marxists of the 21st Century that they are keeping rather dubious company in terms of historical models of true progress to the final social Utopia.

At the least, our reigning social, political, and economic trend-setters who seem so ready to adopt and adapt all the neo-freedom-ideological litanies being showered upon us from the heights of the ultra-Progressive intelligentsia should look at this episode with apprehension as to what can and well may really happen if all the strange new wisdom is given a clear path to implementation with matching authority to deal with dissent. The Commune was a recipe for social anarchy of the worst kind rather than a recipe for reforming a flawed system which had evolved over centuries and building something better while still respecting basic rights.

The Fourth French Revolution is thus a two-part story: (1) the end of the Bonapartist role in French history and France’s displacement as Europe’s premier continental power, along with its permanent adaptation of a democratic Republican constitution, and (2), for the most radical leftist ideologues, the tragedy of the failed, or thwarted, revolution within the Revolution.

The story of France is far from over in our ongoing saga. Her humiliation at the hands of Germany would breed terrible fruit within just more than 40 years, but it is time to shift our attention to Russia for the next few episodes.

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.

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