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Among the conflicts that convulsed Europe during the nineteenth century, none was more startling and consequential than the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. Deliberately engineered by Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the war succeeded in shattering French supremacy, deposing Napoleon III, and uniting a new German Empire. But it also produced brutal military innovations and a precarious new imbalance of power that together set the stage for the devastating world wars of the next century.
In Bismarck’s War, historian Rachel Chrastil chronicles events on the battlefield in full, while also showing in intimate detail how the war reshaped and blurred the boundaries between civilian and soldier as the fighting swept across France. The result is the definitive history of a transformative conflict that changed Europe, and the history of warfare, forever.
Thank you to Simon Winder, for believing in the project and for his generous support along the way. Thank you to Nicolas Bourguinat, Alexandre Dupont, Rebekah Eklund, Colin Foss, Michael Graham, SJ, Colleen Hanycz, Beeto Lyle, Mareike König, David Mengel, the late John Merriman, Odile Roynette, Amy Teitelman, Gilles Vogt and Amy Whipple, for encouragement, support, and opportunities, and to the community of scholars engrossed in this conflict. My thanks and love as always to John Fairfield. My parents and nephew have brought much love to my life. This book is dedicated to my brother and sister, for the perspective they bring to all things.
The Franco-Prussian War transformed for ever the destinies of Europeans. It was the largest war in Europe between Waterloo and the Great War. Some two million soldiers took part, and more than 180,000 died. In this conflict, Germany unified, and France laid the groundwork for a lasting republic. It represented the decisive end to French dominance on the continent and the rise of Germany, in one of the most dramatic and one-sided defeats of any modern European army.
In July 1870, France declared war on Prussia, and soon faced a conflict with both the North German Confederation that Prussia dominated and the southern German states of Bavaria, Baden and Württemberg. France entered the war as an empire, headed by Napoleon III. After a series of bloody defeats, culminating at Sedan in early September, Napoleon III was overthrown in favour of a provisional, nominally republican government known as the Government of National Defence. Although the republicans attempted to continue the war, using volunteers to replace the wrecked and captured regular army, they proved to be no more successful than the Empire. Nevertheless, the German forces were now drawn into a six-month conflict that extended over nearly a third of French territory. In January 1871, the united German Empire was declared under Wilhelm I, and, shortly after, the French government finally agreed to an armistice.
This was not a war of angels. It featured nationalistic tribalism, poor leadership, unnecessary physical hardship, and spirals of violence that unfolded across the course of the entire conflict. Mobilized men and their families put their lives and ethical souls at risk for the sake of this dubious conflict. And this is what is so fascinating about the war: without moral clarity about the justness of their cause, individuals and townspeople had to navigate an uncharted landscape of war. Most tried simply to survive, while many strove to make something better than the reality the war presented to them.
We’ve largely forgotten this crucial war because of the decades of distance between us, the subsequent world wars and the creation of the European Union, which rests on the pragmatic relationship between France and Germany. Neither France nor Germany now includes this conflict among their favoured national histories.
Yet the Franco-Prussian War plays a foundational role in the world wars of the twentieth century. The war of 1870, with its large-scale, mechanized warfare that swept civilians up in a nationalistic conflict, anticipated the motivations, the assumptions and the emotional underpinnings of later conflicts. The line from Sedan to the Western Front was never a predetermined path, and still less complete are the linkages between 1870 and Vichy and National Socialism, yet the Franco-Prussian War provides a bridge from the Napoleonic Wars to the two world wars. It established the daunting challenge of how to face superior defensive weaponry, including long-range rifles, cannon and the early machine gun. It was both an era of global communication through telegraph and one in which orders were shouted on horseback. Armies moved by train yet could be lost to enemy reconnaissance simply by travelling beyond the horizon. The Franco-Prussian War contained novel practices as well. It was the first European conflict in which a nation housed thousands of prisoners of war and in which both parties had signed the Geneva Convention and allowed Red Cross volunteer organizations to care for sick and wounded soldiers. The war also featured the incorporation of colonial forces fighting on European soil and the advent of racialized army stereotypes in European conflict. Furthermore, it demonstrated the challenges of mobilizing a large population of citizen-soldiers over a broad sweep of territory for months at a time. Civilian administration, industry and manpower became disastrously embedded in service to the army.
The Franco-Prussian War also opened new questions about the role of civilians in western wars. The war represented the triumph of universal conscription, war experience and invasion over the civilian claim to peace and normality. Citizen-soldiers contemplated the reality of killing other men and the possibility of being killed. National Guardsmen in Paris tried on the personality of the militarized soldier, while returning home to their families in the evening. The French use of francs-tireurs, or guerrilla units, re-opened the question of the appropriate relationship between civilians and soldiers, both in the field and as occupiers.
The war furthermore saw a great expansion in state powers and the ability of government to shape the circumstances of broad swathes of population. Paris became the first modern city to face both wartime shortages and random bombardment. German civilians living in Paris faced the suspicion and ire of French citizens and the French government. At the same time, again and again, individuals, towns and organizations were obliged to fend for themselves, to improvise their reactions to life and death situations for which there had been no state preparation and little guidance. Readers around the world avidly devoured newspaper accounts of the conflict from correspondents on the ground, fuelled by telegrams that could reach across the Atlantic. Newspapers in besieged cities such as Paris, Metz, or Strasbourg, cut off from the outside world, had to manage with scraps of rumours. Citizens formed fire brigades and sought to alleviate the suffering of their fellow countrymen.
The war of 1870 saw the remaking of political relationships both great and small, through violent actions and highly symbolic actions. Political fortunes were made and undone. The German states unified, contrary to centuries-old rivalries, in the fulfilment of German nationalism as a conservative, reactionary force. In France, the declaration of war represented a moment of national unity. Soon after, Napoleon III’s Second Empire tumbled to ruins. The fissures in the French Left deepened, while the markers of social status flattened and re-formed under the stresses of invasion. For many, the war demonstrated the continuation of the reactionary peasant against the urban revolutionary. To Karl Marx, the siege of Paris and the Commune that followed were the true harbinger of socialism. To Giuseppe Garibaldi, the war pitted the Universal Republic against the forces of monarchism and clericalism. To Pope Pius IX, the war spelled the destruction of the temporal power of the Catholic Church.
Finally, the conflict between France and the German states was a war of emotions, from start to finish. Tight-lipped stoicism had no place in the Franco-Prussian War, except maybe for the Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke. Memories of the war are replete with tears, outbursts of anger, wounded pride, oratorical flamboyance, pitiable suffering, quixotic charges and the literal bestowing of laurels. All this emotion undergirded a conflict in which impersonal bombardment, long-range rifles and devastating machine guns threatened to dehumanize civilians and soldiers on all sides.
‘War! War with France!’ On 15 July 1870, the Munich native Dietrich von Lassberg, a twenty-two-year-old officer, thrilled to the announcement that Bavaria would soon join Prussia to fight against Napoleon III’s imperial army. His brother Rudolf, also in the army, was delighted at the news too, though Lassberg’s ‘mother and siblings did not share the joy’.1 This moment of euphoria, of a Bavarian soldier exulting to fight alongside Prussians instead of against them, encapsulated the power of war to create unity.
The declaration of war represented a key turning point in a long path that, in the end, led to German unification. In the early nineteenth century, Germans seeking the national union of dozens of German states within the German Confederation (established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815) had aligned themselves politically with constitutionalism and liberal democracy, grounding their justification less in a common monarchy than in their German-ness. The dream of a German nation-state had come close to fruition during the revolutionary years of 1848–49, only to be undermined by division on the Left and crushed by reactionaries. In the decades that followed, the conservative Prussian statesman Bismarck threw his weight behind the effort to forge German unification under an authoritarian, Prussian, monarchy, rather than under a liberal democracy as planned by the earlier revolutionaries. In a speech demanding military preparedness at the Budget Committee of the Prussian House of Representatives, he declared, ‘The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood.’2
Prussia undertook three wars in quick succession, now known as the Wars of German Unification. At the time, nobody, not even Bismarck, had a precise plan mapped out. However, the Prussian minister-president shrewdly took advantage of diplomatic situations to play powers both great and small against each other. The wars were less about the direct conquest of territory and more about demonstrating to everyone involved the utility, or even the inevitability, of a Prussia-led unified German state that would heavily influence, but not completely overturn, the delicate balance of the five Great Powers.
First came the war against Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein, duchies that were ruled by the king of Denmark without being incorporated into the Danish kingdom. When the king created a new constitution that directly incorporated Schleswig into the kingdom in 1863 – unlike Holstein, Schleswig included Danish speakers and was not part of the German Confederation – Bismarck objected. He demanded a new constitution, and in 1864 the Danes fought back, assuming that France and Britain would join on their side against Prussia and Austria. The Danes proved friendless and were quickly defeated. The Treaty of Vienna gave Prussia administration of Schleswig, which afforded them the port of Kiel and a military corridor through Holstein, now under the administration of Prussia’s tenuous and uneasy ally Austria. Not surprisingly, Prussia and Austria themselves now were headed for war.
That conflict erupted in 1866 and lasted just seven weeks. After securing the neutrality of Italy and France, Prussia marched into Holstein and left the German Confederation. The Confederation – including the states of Hanover, Saxony, Bavaria, Baden and Württemberg – then declared war on Prussia. The Prussians swiftly dispatched the Austrian and other German armies, notably at the crucial battle of Königgrätz. Bismarck ended the conflict quickly – before Moltke could send his troops to Vienna – to avoid intervention from third parties.
In the Treaty of Prague (1866), the dissolved German Confederation was replaced by the North German Confederation, a union of twenty-two states and principalities north of the Main river, with a Reichstag and dominated by Prussia, with King Wilhelm as president (and king of Prussia, of course) and Bismarck as federal chancellor. Bavaria signed a treaty promising to ally itself with Prussia in case France attacked that state, and Prussia annexed Hanover, Frankfurt, Nassau, Hesse-Kassel and Schleswig-Holstein, too. But with Bavaria, Baden, Württemberg and part of the Grand Duchy of Hesse still outside the North German Confederation, it was clear to most observers that Bismarck would seek an opportunity to compel their incorporation, too – not through conquest, but through shared victory.
France provided the most likely target. After 1866, it was clear that, unless savvier leaders took the helm, France and Prussia were heading for conflict. The previous decade had left too many black eyes and bad feelings for Napoleon III to stomach any further ambitions on the part of Prussia. France had been embarrassed in Mexico in the early 1860s in its efforts to replace the Mexican Republic, sidelined in Poland in its struggle for independence from Russia, and brushed off for its neutrality in 1866. Amid that war crisis, Napoleon III had demanded (in vain) that, in return for his not intervening, Prussia allow France to annex Belgium and Luxembourg, a demand that Bismarck used to his advantage four years later.
In the early months of 1870, Napoleon III seemed to have solidified his position after over two decades in power. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Emperor Napoleon I, had led France since 1848. He leveraged his name and his claims to support the working class to secure election to the presidency immediately following the revolution of 1848 that had established the Second Republic. On 2 December 1851, he staged a coup d’état that dismantled the republic, and one year later he declared himself emperor, heading a regime known as the Second Empire. For years, he enjoyed widespread support among the upper classes and the peasantry, and fostered business and industry, banks and public works. Exports increased, particularly in the metallurgical industry and luxury goods. Entrepreneurs gained access to capital while French investors supported many major construction projects, including railroads and the Suez Canal.
The radical generation of 1848, devastated by Napoleon III’s dismantling of the Second Republic, scattered into exile or retreated into private life. Nevertheless, despite Napoleon III’s intentions to establish a Bonapartist dynasty, curtail free association and impose censorship, a broad republican culture developed during the Second Empire. Thanks to a strong economy that supported the growth of a middle class of businessmen and professionals, civil society blossomed in the 1850s and 1860s through Freemasonry, the Paris bar, universities, the arts world, as well as through Jewish and Protestant consistories.
Napoleon III maintained universal male suffrage (France was the only European country that could make this claim), while assuring that electors had few real choices. Ministers were responsible to the emperor himself, not to electors, and only the emperor could propose legislation. Napoleon III brought conservatives along by promising social order and by making peace with the Catholic Church.
In the 1860s, Napoleon announced his intention to create a ‘liberal empire’, in which he aimed to deflate the opposition by co-opting some of their goals. In 1860, France and Britain concluded a liberal trade agreement. Soon, the National Assembly had been granted the right to approve the national budget. Press and labour restrictions were relaxed. In 1868, Napoleon III permitted freedom of assembly, leading to a proliferation of clubs and associations. Rather than dismantle opposition, however, these changes provided additional means for republicans to garner support. Young idealists of 1848, now twenty years older and more experienced, still imagined a future where Frenchmen could freely elect their leaders, though the precise nature of that future remained highly contentious. A few opposition political leaders managed to gain seats in the Corps Législatif.
After an embarrassing 1869 election, the emperor proposed constitutional reforms granting significant power to the legislature. He then called for a plebiscite in May 1870, asking whether voters approved of the liberal reforms that had taken place since 1860. This cunning wording neutralized the ability of voters to express the desire for more radical change. The May 1870 plebiscite therefore passed with a vote of 83 per cent, carried throughout France, except in Paris and Marseilles.
In the summer of 1870, then, Napoleon III’s position appeared commanding, yet it was impossible to tell just how strong the opposition had grown. Furthermore, France in early July 1870 had no allies, no formal plans, and no clear military objectives.
The immediate war crisis began with conflict over the succession to the Spanish throne, with the guiding hand of Bismarck assuring that the crisis would support his goal of German unification under a strong monarch. It was Bismarck who encouraged the Spanish to offer the throne to Prince Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a relative of King Wilhelm. And it was Bismarck, taking advantage of the moment to check French ambition, who made sure that the ensuing dispute between France and Prussia could not be resolved peacefully. Much as they had chafed against Habsburg encirclement in centuries past, the French objected to Prince Leopold’s Spanish candidacy as an encirclement that threatened the European balance of power. The candidacy was withdrawn.
Yet, having stoked French public opinion in favour of war, many on the French imperial council did not have enough cover to back down, even if they had wanted to. The French foreign minister, the duc de Gramont, with the support of Napoleon III, pressed for a guarantee from Wilhelm himself, as head of the Hohenzollern family, that no similar future proposal would be made. This was a promise that no sovereign would make. King Wilhelm, in conversation at Ems with the French ambassador to Prussia, Count Benedetti, declined politely. Bismarck edited his response – known as the Ems telegram – to make the king’s refusal seem more abrupt and insulting.
In Paris, meanwhile, the minister of war, Edmond Leboeuf, agitated for quick mobilization, and Gramont continued to aggressively seek an opportunity for war. The Council of Ministers decided to call up reserves on 14 July. In the Corps Législatif on the following day, Gramont and Prime Minister Émile Ollivier presented the case for voting in favour of war credits. A few members of the opposition objected, notably Adolphe Thiers. Most, however, followed the tide of public opinion and the convictions of the ministers, and voted to support war credits, 245 to 10. France began to mobilize the next day, and officially declared war on 19 July.
In the days following France’s war credits vote, a massive and emotional reworking of allegiances rippled across Europe. In fields and urban squares, through telegraph wires and off printing presses, in public proclamations and private conversations, those caught up in the conflict sorted out their alignments, both chosen and imposed. They learned to become enemies with some; newfound partners with others, or – in the case of non-belligerent countries – to tread a careful line of neutrality. For many in Alsace or in Bavaria, the re-conception of their allies as enemies and vice versa was incomplete and jarring.
News of France’s vote on war credits reached Berlin on the afternoon of 15 July. An eyewitness reported that the news ‘is received with fearful solemnity. Every cheek burns with suppressed indignation. There is resolution too.’3 A crowd awaited the arrival of the king from Ems, scheduled for 8.40 that evening, around the flag-bedecked train station and along Unter den Linden and Friedrichstrasse. The royal procession finally arrived bearing the king, the crown prince, Bismarck and Moltke. The crown prince announced the war to the crowd, which shouted its approval with hurrahs. One observer noted, ‘There can be no doubt, the war henceforward will be popular in this country, and this means much. It means that everybody will act and make sacrifices for the country. It will be war to the knife.’4
Placards and handbills printed the mobilizations and were distributed around the city with the expectation that all would voluntarily co-operate. The four main railroads from the Elbe to the Rhine were stopped for private traffic and devoted to the conveyance of troops, so that – according to the plans discussed on 15 July – 240,000 men from the North German Confederation army would stand on the Rhine within five days, followed soon thereafter by reserves. Prussia ordered a general mobilization – not a partial one – from the first day.
By eleven o’clock that evening, ‘amazement has changed to joy. A whole city is intoxicated with gladness. Crowds go singing war songs, arm in arm, down the streets. Some shout, some laugh, and some indulge in witticisms.’ In mockery of France’s role in the diplomatic crisis over the crown of Spain, ‘One man takes another by the throat, and cries: “My neighbor’s daughter loves your nephew. He will have nothing to do with her; but if you do not declare that he will never marry her, I will knock you down.”’5 Lutheran hymns mixed with patriotic songs. The distance between piety and patriotism nearly vanished.
Across the German states, leaders rushed to show their devotion to the Prussian cause. In the free city of Hamburg, the Chamber of Commerce sent King Wilhelm a telegram expressing devotion to the honour of Germany, news that filled him with ‘pride and tranquility’.6 In Breslau, ‘stormy enthusiasm’ erupted at the news.7 In the Grand Duchy of Hesse, part of which had joined the North German Confederation in 1867, the prime minister declared on 20 July that the German frontier had been breached. His call for war credits was warmly approved ‘amid cheers for Germany, the King of Prussia, and the Grand Duke’.8 Even Frankfurt, the seat of the 1848 Confederation parliament that had lost its status as a free imperial city in 1866, now seemed to fully support a united Germany.
Of course, not everyone was convinced of an inevitable victory, though the extent of German opposition is difficult to measure. Popular opinion is not the same as the exuberant public opinion expressed in newspapers when the press was so firmly dominated by the National Liberals, who were pro-unification and heavily influenced by Bismarck. The National Liberal press moved swiftly to clamp down on negative articles regarding the war, so our evidence of German scepticism comes from other sources. Panicked selling of stocks in Berlin betrayed investors’ real state of mind. In Hanover – like Frankfurt, a recent Prussian acquisition – some ‘went their own way, grumbling and embittered, out of hatred for Prussia, and even sympathised openly or in secret with the enemy’.9 At first, the religious press and some sermons saw the war in the traditional religious interpretation: it was God’s punishment. The faithful should be penitent. The liberal press declared these sentiments unpatriotic, and this interpretation did not outlast early German victories.
Despite the treaties requiring the south German states to mobilize, there was room enough for doubt in the minds of many observers. South German neutrality remained a real possibility right up to the Ems telegram. Many in Bavaria wondered why they should send their sons to die over a Hohenzollern candidacy for the Spanish throne. The Prussian leadership worried that Napoleon III’s threat of a quick invasion of the southern German states would keep them out of the war.
After Ems and the French declaration of war, however, the neutrality party collapsed. Baden was won over easily: the government in Karlsruhe did not want to be occupied by the French, and so the government ordered mobilization immediately. By raising the possibility of a front on France’s eastern border, Baden complicated France’s ability to anticipate just where German armies might concentrate. The Grand Duchy of Hesse hesitated but soon also joined the coalition. Württemberg quickly turned against the French when the public learned of the Ems dispatch.
Bavaria was the hardest area to convince. Count Otto von Bray-Steinburg, the Bavarian minister of state of the exterior and council president, recognized that if the Bavarians remained neutral, or sided with France and lost, they would be treated harshly by Prussia, whereas if they sided with Prussia and lost, France would still want to maintain Bavarian independence. Bray-Steinburg therefore persuaded King Ludwig to mobilize. It was harder to sway the parliament. Eventually, by 101 to 47, the parliament voted 70 per cent of the requested amount of war credits but refused to declare war, leaving that task to the cabinet. Bavaria went to war without a formal declaration.
The mobilization of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden clarified the nature and strength of the German position. ‘By manifesting a readiness to identify herself with Prussia,’ recorded one observer, ‘Bavaria has done much to prove that the war, so rashly and unjustifiably provoked, is a war with United Germany. Such is the conviction, and it is a belief which is fully warranted by facts.’10
“A vivid and informative story of these events and their consequences…Chrastil’s compassionate and thought-provoking history does justice to both sides of this legacy.”
“This is an impressive work, fluent, wide-ranging, vivid in its use of sources, and central to an understanding of Europe’s subsequent history.”
“A welcome new addition to the literature…[Chrastil’s] book is likely to become the standard account of the war in English.”
- “A brisk, invigoratingly intelligent read, full of the colorful personalities that governed the war but also full of the million anonymous civilian sufferers on French soil…Bismarck's War tells this grim story with superb narrative energy.” —Open Letters Review
“Engrossing narrative history that offers a great overview of the Franco-Prussian War and includes many well-selected and surprising details that have the potential to diversify and change perceptions of this important conflict even in readers who know the era well.”
“Marshaling a tremendous amount of information, Chrastil clearly demonstrates how this conflict set the stage for the world-shattering violence of the 20th century. It’s an outstanding synthesis of a complex and vicious war.”
“Rachel Chrastil colorfully describes how the Franco-Prussian War destroyed the long European peace established after Napoleon's defeat in 1815. Beginning as a midsummer cabinet war between monarchs, one of them Napoleon's nephew, Bismarck's invasion of France bogged down in winter rain and snow, and became a rancorous war of peoples that kindled the inferno of World War I.”
—Geoffrey Wawro, author of The Franco-Prussian War and A Mad Catastrophe
“Rachel Chrastil has written a fresh and compelling history of the most important European war between Waterloo and World War I. In rich and engaging detail, she shows how it laid much of the foundation for the wars of the twentieth century, even as it was seen at the time, and subsequently remembered, as a relatively conventional conflict. A tour-de-force.”
—David A. Bell, Princeton University
“Bismarck’s War brings the Franco-Prussian War to life through the words and deeds of participants both on and off the battlefield. Rachel Chrastil’s fascinating examination of the conflict compellingly narrates its military and political dimensions, and it puts the war in a global context, emphasizing its human cost and the international response to the humanitarian crisis it created. An engrossing, compassionate, and critical interrogation of a decisive historical event.”
—Carolyn J. Eichner, author of The Paris Commune
- On Sale
- Sep 5, 2023
- Page Count
- 512 pages
- Basic Books