** war and social upheaval: Franco-Prussian War

War and Social Upheaval: Franco-Prussian War (1870-71)

Figure 1.--Telegraphs were installed throughout Europe in the 1860s. It was thus possible for the newspaper to report on battles in the Franco-Prussian War in a very timely fashion. Prince Wilhelm and his brother Henry followed their father's exploits closely. This boy's father may have been involved in the War as well. Image courtesy of the MDcollection.

The Franco-Prussian War is the 1870-71, conflict between France and Prussia that permitted the unification of a united Germany under the Prussian kingdom, overwealming the more liberal traditions of some other German states. The War was largely provoked by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (the Iron Chancellor) as part of his carefully crafted plan to unify German under Prussian leadership. This result was a huge, poweful state imbued with Prussian militarism and with the power to aggressively persue the new Germany's imperial ambitions. This fundmentally changed the European power ballance. The resulting defeat of Louis Napoleon by the Prussians in 1870 brought the Third Republic to power in 1871. One of the reforms they introduced were smocks for schoolboys, part of the new Republican ideal to reduce the influence of class and privlidge. The two northeastern provinces of France, Alsace-Loraine, were ceded to Germany in the Treaty of Frankfurt. These were both border provinces and there were already large numbers of German-speakers in both provinces, especially Alsace. The population was, however, largely French orientened--even some of the German families. The loss to France was so heart-felt in France that it almost made another war inevitable. One impact on boys' clothing was that when the Third Republic in 1871 mandated smocks in French schools, Alsace-Loraine were no longer part of France.


Prussia Chancellor Otto von Bismarck carefully crafted German Prussian policy during the 1850s and 60s to set the stage for German unification under the Prussian crown. Bismarck deliberately encouraged tensions between Prussia and France to gain the support of the south German states like Bavaria. He actively courted Russia and Italy to ensure their neutrality in the coming confrontation.

Crimean War (1853-56)

The Crimean War proved to be a costly venture for both sides in terms of both men and economic costs. Accounts vary, but Russian losses exceeded 100,000 men and the Allies lost more than 90,000 men. Russia was better prepared to accept the losses of men, but the finacial cost bankrupted the country. While the War itself was of relatively minor imoportance, the consequences of the War lead to a major realignment of the European ballance of power. Prussia was the one important European country that did not play an active role in the Crimean War. Prince Albert tried to obtain Prussian participation, but the Prussians refused. The result was in the coming decaded, the Russians were not disposed to intervene with first Austria and then France were threatened.

Danish War (1864)

Although now a little known historical footnote, the consequences of the Danish War were incalcuable. It was the first step in the organizatin of a future Germany under the most miliataraistic and conservative state in the German Confederation. There were German states with more liberal, democratic institutions (Bavaria, Hanover, and others) and less belicose, militaristic outlooks. The Danish War was the first step in Prussia's absorbtion of some of the more liberal German states such as Hannover and Hesse and the end of their constitutional monarchies. If there had been a more democratic, less miliatristic approch taken to German unification, the history of the 20th century may have been quite different. The Danish War was also an important step in changing the British perception of Prussia and Germany from a potential ally against their historical enemy France to a dangerous enemy. One particukarly implacable Prussia foe was created, the Princess of Wales Alexandra.

Austro-Prussian War (1866)

The German states in 1815 as part of the peace settlement following the Napoleonic Wars formed a loose federation known as the German Federation. The two principal powers within the Fedeation were Austria and Prussia. As the 19th century progressed the desire for a real united German state grew throughout Germany. As this desire grew in strength Austria and Prussia vied as to who would be the state through hich a united Germany woul be organized. Prussia tried to obtain allies within the Federation by offering territorial concessions. Some agreed and others refused. The Prussians next engaged the Austrian Army July 3 at K�niggr�tz and devestated it. The efficent Prussian Army backed by the kingdom's growing industrial power overwealmed the Austrians which was still operating with Napoleonic era tactics. The fate of the German Federation was sealed. Prussia's military victory was so overwealming that Chancelor Bismarck could virtually dictate the peace. It was a generous peace. There were no important anexations of Austrian territory and there was no triumful entry into Vienna, although King Wilhelm had demanded one. Bismarck argued against such demands. He did, however, use the opportunity to redraw the map of Germany and signifcantly expand the trritory of Prussia. Prussia annexed Hanover, Schleswig-Holstein, Hessen-Kassel (Kur-Hessen), Nassau, a part of Hessen-Darmstadt as well as the Free-city of Frankfurt/Main as new provinces. This was of major importance for the upcoming unification of Germany. The constitutions of several of these states were much more liberal and democratic than that of the Prussian state into which they were incorporated. The end of World War I is generally seen as the end of the German monarchies, but in fact the Prussians ended the patrimonies of many princely German families in the aftermath of the Austro-Prussian War.


The growing power of Prussia, especially after the Prussian triumph in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) was viewed with great concern by French Emperor Napoleon III. French secuity had been greatly aided by Italian and more importantly German disunity. Napoleon's bungling led to a short war with Austria (1859) and the unification of Italy (1861). Now France was facing the even more dangerous unification of Germany. France under Napoleon, like Prussia, prepared for War, but less competently than the Prussians.

Rebellion in Spain

A catalist for war arose in Spain. A revolution in Spain during 1868 throughout Queen Isabella and left the throne vacant. Victorious rebel leader General Prim chose Prince Leopold of the house of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, the Catholic branch of the Prussian royal family. Bismarck enouraged Prince Leopold to accept the offer, anticipating the French respnse. It is not known just what Bismarck wanted here. He did not neceassarily want war, although he was against war. He apparently at least see some gains for Prussia. [Ludwig, p. 337.] Bismarck is disturbed when King Wilhelm advises his couisin to draw back. Prince Leopold's father rejected the offer on his son's behalf after the French protested. The French were fearfull of facing the Hohenzollerns on two sides.

France Declares War

Bismarck considered it important that France be considered the agressor in the coming war. That would motivate other German states like Bavaria to join the Prussians as well make less likely the intervention of other European states. Emperor Napoleon III also did not want war. [Ludwig, p. 336.] He was swayed by political pressures from patriots who desired to humiliate the Prussians. The unwiesly aggressive French foreign minister, the duc de Gramont, demanded Prussian assurances. While King William I of Prussia (later Emperor William I) advised his cousin to reject the Spanish throne, he refuses to comply with the French demans. Bismarck further stokes the crisis by clevely condensing what has become known as the "Ems dispatch" in such a way that it ignited a furious reaction when published in France (July 14). The Prussians began to mobilize with an order efficently telegraphed troughout the country (July 15, 1870). France's mobilization was hampered by a series of bureaucratic inefficies. Finally Napoleon III fell into Bismarck's trap and declared war (July 19). As Bismarck anticipated, the French declaration of war created sympathy for the Prusians throughout Germany. The other German states enthusiastically joined the Prussian North German Confederation, even those with lirrle sympathy for the Prussians. For this reason, the War is also known as the Franco-German, rather than Franco-Prussian War.

The War

The people of France and German, Prussia, enthusiastically supported the War. The Prussians were, however, much better prepared for the War. Almost from the onset, the outmatched French army was on the defensive.

Imperial phase

The War began with a series of rapid German victories. German Imperial forces were headed by the capable Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke. The French Imperial forces were personally headed by Napoleon III himself, but active command devolved on Marshal Bazaine. The Germans on August 4 crossed the French frontier moving into Alsace. The Germans won the initial engagement at Wissembourg. Other victories followed at Woerth and Spicheren in which the French losses were substantial. The Germans forced the French forces under Marshal MacMahon to Ch�lons-en-Champagne, forming a wedge between the two principal French commands, the forces under MacMahon And those under Bazaine concentrated around the fortress at Metz. Bazaine attempting to join with MacMahon, but was defeated at Vionville (August 16) and Gravelotte (August 18) and forced to retire to Metz. This allowed the Germans to move on Paris. Napoleon III and MacMahon attempted to releave Bazaine led to the catrotrophic disaster at Sedan where the French were overwealmed (September 1). MacMahon surrendered his 100,000 French soldiers and Emperor Napoleon was captured. A devestated Louis Napoleon, tearfully surrendered his sword to King Wilhelm (September 2). With this the major units of the French imperial army were defeated.


Paris rose in rebellion when the population learned of the Emperor's surrender. Napoleon, aleady a German prisioner was deposed. A French republic was proclaimed and a provisional government of national defense was formed under the leadership of General Trochu, L�on Gambetta, and Jules Favre. The Germans refused to recognize the Republican provisional government. The new Goverment prepared the army and Parisain population to defend the city.

Republican phase

The Germans moved rapidly on Paris and surrounded it (September 19). The Germans began a siege and Parisians under the new French Republic valiantly resisted. A photographer named F�lix Tournachon, who is better known as Nadar, suggested that hot air baloons be used to maintain communications with the rest of France. Nadar had made the first aerial photographs during the 1850s. Gambetta escaped from Paris in a hot air balloon which the French had been employing for observations purposes. Gambetta sought to organize French provincial forces. Some French forces held out. Faidherbe made a gallant stand on the Loire, Chanzy in the north, and Bourbaki in the east. Bazaine's surrender of the fortress of Metz with its 180,000 man garrison (October 27) made further French resistance futill. Paris refused to surender to the Germans for 3 more months. The people began to sarve. A British reader of Hugenought origins writes, "The Franco-Prussian War seems almost back in the 'dark ages', but in fact was not that long ago. My cousin's Grandmother was French and I remember her telling us of the starvation they endured during the seige of Paris, with people eating any food they could get including dogs cat , mice and rats. She was nearly a hundred years old when she related the tale. it was just after we had returned from USA so it would have been about 1947-8. She must have been born in about 1850, so she would have been in her early-20s during that War (1870-71)." The Germans tiring of the seige began using its artillery began to bombard the city (December 17). Paris was finally forced to submit (January 28, 1871).

Armistace and Treaty

Finally Chancellor Bismarck and Adolphe Thiers finally signed an armistice on January 28. Even so, the fortress at Belfort resisted several more days before surrendering (February 16). The peace treaty, Treaty of Frankfurt, was signed later (May 10). Germany rejoiced, but the terms of the trety laid the foundation for World War I.


The Franco-Prussia War was surely the most important war of the 19th century after the Napoleonic Wars. For many at the time the importance was the elinimation of Napoleon III and the dominance of consrvative momarchial rule. The War also made possible the unification of Germany. This significantly changed the ballance of power in Europe. But it occurred at a time when the European powers were carving up Africa and Asoa. And Germany without a substantial navy was unvle to ontain a colonial empire merited by its self image. The unification occurred around Prussia, the most conservative and militaristic of the German states. The War left Germany convinced thzt theie security was ensured with the acquisition of new fortresses in Alsace Loraine. The German military was left convinced of the superority of the Germany Army. Alsace-Loraine raher than ensuring Germzn security, bought the perpetual emnity of the new French Republic. The French learned a very important lesson. Never go to war with Germany again without allies. French foreign policy was thus directed at developing treaty relations with Btitain and Russia. This was not possible while Bismarck was Chanvelloe, but when Wilhelm II became Kaiser, he quickly retired Bismsrck and pursue a new more belicose foreign policy. And the German Army was confirned in its traditional opinion that the path to cictory was rapid mobilization and deployment for a preemtive offensive.


The Franco Prussian War involved more than the fate of the countries involved. The restoration of conservative royal governments by the Congress of Vienna after the defeat of Napoleon was an attempt to turn back Europe to monarchial government. Despite the growing importance of the middle class, as late as the American Civil War, the United States was the only democratic Republic in the Western world. This is why Lincoln said in his Gettysburg address, that the Civil War would resolve the issue of whether "governments of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth". It also settled the issue of whether Europe would be giverened by liberal democratic republics or authoritarian military backed monrachies. Te revolutions that broken out in 1848 had gailed. The Franco-Prussian War created a new unified Germany with its Prussian military airistocracy that was the dominant continental power. One historian writes, "Military monarch, rather than socialism or liberalism, had won the battle for the 19th century." The terrible history of the 20th century with World War I and II was in many ways the consequence. [Mansel]

Paris Commune

The head of the new rpublican government Adolphe Thiers after negotiating the virtual capitulation to the Prussians had to regain control of Paris. Paris was apauled by the terms of the armistace. The city refused to disarm and to submit to the Thiers regime. The population formed the Commune of Paris. The Paris Commune has been a subject of endless historical debate. There are mant interpretations. Some see it as a episode of mob rule. Others view it as the first effort at a socilaist "workers' state". The Commune took an increasingly radical left-wing shift, for example, arresting many clerics. Early efforts to take control of the city resulted in troops turning on their officers. Although the Paris comunards developed the reputation as Marxist revolutionaries, they were more concerned with fighting the Germans than the national bourgeoise. [Schivelbush] Finally troops loyal to Thiers began the second siege of Paris (April-May 1871). The Commune was suppressed with considrable bloodshed.


Few European wars ending in such major developments as the eablishment of the Third French Republic and the German Empire. There were other major consequnces of the War. As is often the case of a defeated country, France studied the Germans. There was considrable effort to in effect adopt the Prussian model in both the schools and army. [Schivelbusch] We have, however, few details yet on the precise details of how the Third Republic went about this. We have very few details at this time on the schools of the French Third Republic. Secondary school boys wore uniforms. There was a wide range of uniform styles. Uniforms were worn, however, before the War. The Third Republic instituted significant educational reforms, but we are unsure to what extent these reforms promoted militaruism and hatred of the Germans in French schools. French desire for revenge and reclamation of Alsace-Loraine strongly motivated French national policies after the War. As one historian explained, "From now on, every foreign enemy of the new born (Prussian) Empire could count on French support." [Fuller, p. 128.] The French persued a domesticpolicy of revanche, a national renewal. Frennch republicans tended to persue revanche through a colonial civilizing mission. Right wingers usually with a Catholic royalist outlook focused more on anti-German and anti-Semetic efforts. [Schivelbush] French hostility toward Germany was a major factor leding to World War I. [Winter and Baggett]. This time the French were to be better prepared militarily and even more importantly diplomatially--in large part because of the diastrous policies of Wilhelm II. It is ironic that Bismarck was in large part the creator of the German Empire. Wilhelm II who he also helped create was to both fire him and lead the German Empire to destruction.

Bismarckian Diplomacy

The hard terms of the peace imposed on France by the Germans is often compared to the soft terms offered the Austrians in the Austro-Prussian War (1866). The generous terms offered Austria helped make policy friendly relations and alliances after the war. The heavy indemnity and esspecially the annexation of Alsace-Loraine made France an impalcable enemy eventually leading to World War I. It is interesting to assess why two such different policies were pursued. Austria was a German state and a hard piece against a fellow German state would have been unpopular within Germany. As it was, the Prussians annexed several German states such as Hanover, Schleswig-Holstein, Hessen-Kassel (Kur-Hessen), Nassau, a part of Hessen-Darmstadt aswell as the Free-city of Frankfurt/Main. They had sidded with the Austrians. Interestingly King Wilhelm had been reluctant to launch the war, but once won he had to be disuaded by Bismarck from triumphly entereing Vienna and demanding a large indemnity. This caused sonme illwill, the King feeling that he had been cheated, With the Franch, Bismarck had no great interest in Alsace and especially Loraine. It was German public opinion that demanded that Alscace be annexed. German newspapers insisted that Alscae be annexed "as a guarantee against a future attack by our hereditary enemies". [Ludwig, p. 353.] The Army wanted Loraine because of the fortress at Metz. [Ludwig, p. 359.] Bismarck sensed future danger here. Before the War he had told a colleague, "Besides, if Prussia were to gain the victory over France, what would be the result? Suposing we did win Alsace, we would have to maintain our conquest and to keep Strasburg perpetually garisoned. This would be an impossible possition, for in the end the French would find new allies--and then we might have a bad time." [Ludwig, p. 356.] Despite these misgivings, Bismarck gave in. He was able disuse the King and generals in 1866 after defeating the Austrains. This time there would be no stopping them. [Ludwig, p. 353.] On this issue he did not want to take on German public opinion and the Army. Had Bismarck prevailed here he would now have been known as the greatest diplomatic genious in European history. Instead the future Kiaser Wilhelm II would manage to undo his great work in a single generation.

Population Shifts

The Germans after occupying Alsace-Loraine did not expel French speakers or ethnic French families. The Treaty of Frankfurt gave the residents of the occupied region a choice. The population had to by October 1, 1872 choose between emigrating to France or remaining in the region and becoming German nationals. There were no etnic or linguistic tests. An estimated 100,000 people (5 percent of the population) emigrated, mostly to France. An example is the Stabler family which emograted to the United States. We do not know yet if there were regulations about how property could be repatriated to France. Occupied Alsace-Loraine became the Reichsland or Imperial Province of Elsass-Lothringen. It was administered directly by the Imperial government in Berlin. The Imperial Government granted a measure of autonomy (1911). This included their own flag and the Els�ssisches Fahnenlied as a provincial nthem.

Watch on the Rhine

"The Watch on the Rhine!" or "Die Wacht am Rhein!" is one of the most famous patriotic songs in German history. Max Schneckenburger wrote "The Watch on The Rhine" in 1840. It became very popular among Prussian and other German troops duting the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71).


As far as we know, the Prussian Army, soon to be Imperial German Army, conducted itself relatively correctly during the invason of France. At least we do not note extensive accounts of attrocities as they invaded France and marched to Paris. Perhaps a reader will have more information on this. Thus we are not ure why the German Army invading Belgium at the onset of World War I committed wide-spread attrocities. This becme a mainstay of British War propaganda and affected the international reputaion of Germany ong before Hitler and the NAZis seized power. It is not clear to us what changed within Germany and the Army High Command to account for the radically different behavior of German toops and commanders.

German Unification

Bismarck for most of his life was not an ardent prpponent of German unification. His love was for Prussia. Interestingly, the movement for German unifications came primarily from democratically minded liberals within Germany and not the Prussian junker class. Perhaps in part because unification was so promoted by the liberals, Busmarck in his early career had no enthusiasm for it. One of the tragedies of German history is that it was not the liberals that united Germany. It could have been very different. Crown Prince Frederick and his English wife Victoria were liberally minded. King Wilhelm's rule, however, was very long and Frderick ruled only a few before dieing of cancer and bdeing replaced by his son Wilhelm II. Germany was, however, united by Bismarck pushing and cajoling the King Wilhelm. Bismarck eventually devoted himself to the task of unifying the German states. This was accomplished through both diplomatic persuasion backed by a series of successful wars, earning him the title of "The IronnChncellor" and stamping the character of the new German Empire with Prussian anti-democratic military traditions.

Wilhelm II

Wilhelm II was still a boy--only about 11 years old when the Franco-Prussian War was fought. The War was to have a great impact on hios reign. It made a substantial impression on him as boy. His father was involved in the fighting and brought home war trophies to him. The next year he watched his grand-father be crowned Emperor. Surely some of his concept of his role as Kaiser was forged at this time.

Clothing Impacts

The resulting defeat of Louis Napoleon by the Prussians in 1870 brought the Third Republic to power in 1871. One of the reforms they introduced were smocks for schoolboys, part of the new Republican ideal to reduce the influence of class and privlidge.


Clarke, D. ed., Roger de Mauni. The Franco-Prussian War (1970).

Fuller, J.F.C. War and Western Civilization 1832-1932 (New York: Books for Library Press, 1st printing 1932, 2nd printing 1969).

Howard, M. The Franco-Prussian War (1981).

Kiernan, V.G. From Conquest to Collapse: European Empires from 1815 to 1960 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982).

Lord, R. H. The Origins of the War of 1870 (1966).

Ludwig, Emil. Bismarck: The Story of a Fighter (Little, Brown, and Company, 1927).

Mansel, Philip. Paris Between Empires: Monarchy and Revolution, 1814-1852 (St. Martin's, 2003), 559p.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery (Metropolitam, 2003), 404p.

Winter, Jay and Blaine Baggett. The Great War.


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Created: June 30, 2002
Last updated: 12:54 AM 7/16/2014