Causes of the Franco-Prussian War


The Franco-Prussian War was one further episode in the long struggle between Germany and France which resulted from the centuries-old French policy of attempting to advance the French border to the line of the Rhine. This policy, which had been in action since the time of Richelieu and Louis XIV in the Seventeenth Century, had three main objectives: to push the French frontier to the Rhine, to maintain a policy of intervention in Germany across the Rhine which was intended to keep it disunited and in turmoil, and to use the Rhine as a basis for establishing French hegemony in Europe. The policy required the French to gain control of what were the oldest culturally-developed German territories, and was certain to lead to recurring political and military confrontations with assorted German states. Furthermore the French policy provoked interventions from non-German states, as it was a constant threat to the "Balance of Power" in Europe.

However Louis XIV attempted to justify his actions with historical myths and legal fictions the basic policy always remained the same. After the Revolution the objectives remained as before but were now publicly supported by the idea of "natural frontiers" (the Rhine and the Alps). Another result of the Revolution was the period of Napoleonic intervention and rule in Germany (which included the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, a political structure which was one of the reasons that the French had been able to constantly pursue their policy for so long), which for the Germans ended with the "Wars of Liberation" of 1813-15. This period also saw the first stirrings of the idea of a united Germany, but it was to take a long time before there was any clear concept of how this might be achieved and in what form.

After 1815 the French did not actively pursue their attempted advance to the Rhine for some time, but it remained a powerful presence in all the groups involved in French politics, and was effectively a national tradition they all identified with.

The situation in Germany after 1815 had a Prussian presence on the Rhine (this particularly the result of British policy intended to strengthen the western German borders and thereby contribute to European security), and saw the creation of the "Deutsche Bund" (German Confederation), which was generally incapaple of an active foreign policy let alone of a military offensive. This new constellation was ultimately unacceptable to the French and was seen as a symbol of defeat. Already in the years after 1815 Royalists, liberals, radicals, socialists, agreed on this and this feeling lasted well beyond the defeat of 1870-71 (Clemenceau said on more than one occasion that the revanche prepared for during the Third Republic in the years after 1871 counted for Waterloo as well as Sedan).

If the order established after 1815 was to be overthrown, then removal of the heart of it, Prussia`s position on the Rhine, was the main objective. However this was going to be difficult in a Europe now at peace, and France would have to wait until it collapsed or work towards undoing it. There was another matter which was steadily altering the overall situation, this was the increasing desire in Germany for unity and self-determination, something which would eventually make the French expansionist policy intolerable to the Germans.

Napoleon III began to actively develop a foreign policy incorporating the advance to the Rhine in the early 1860s. His government was not in a strong position inside France (Lord Clarendon once told Queen Victoria that he would pursue a policy of expansion abroad to cover this, this view was held by other elements outside France as well). He repeatedly attempted to persuade Austria to join with France in action against Prussia, he came up with various schemes regarding the future of the South German states, there was the suggestion that an independent German buffer state be set up west of the Rhine, at various times he attempted to gain Luxemburg, Belgium, parts of Germany west of the Rhine for France; the demands France made for German and other territories as "compensation" after the Prussian victory over Austria in 1866 were described by Bismarck as "like the consequences of a lost war" for Germany. Napoleon had tried various schemes for keeping the South German states apart from Prussia, but in the end it was the French policy based on reaching the Rhine that helped Prussia to secure military agreements with these states, which came into effect in 1870 and led to united German armies taking the field. Prussia steadfastly refused to accept any of these demands or schemes.

There was great hostility to Prussia in particular in all areas of French society, elements in the French Army looked forward to a war, and by the late 1860s war looked increasingly likely. Many in Germany regarded it as inevitable, for example Moltke since the late 1850s. He started serious planning for war with France long before 1870, and it was the increase in manpower that became available to Prussia after 1866 that finally enabled him to plan for what happened in 1870, namely the deployment of huge armies in the Rhineland in a short time and the subsequent rapid defeat of the French Imperial Armies. Many Germans saw a war with France as an opportunity for a now united Germany to gain revenge for two centuries of French aggression and expansionism.

The event which led to war was the attempt by Spain to persuade Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen to take the throne (for Spain he was an ideal choice, a Catholic married to a Portuguese princess, and with family links to the King of Prussia and ancestors including the Murats and Beauharnais which Spain hoped would lead to good relations with France and Prussia). Bismarck played a major role in persuading the Prince to accept the offer; a Hohenzollern King in Spain would open valuable new markets to the growing German industries, and bring political benefits in the form of a friendly state in the French rear. King Wilhelm I. of Prussia refused to become involved in the matter other than to tell Leopold that the decision was entirely his own to make. Bismarck`s involvement was outside normal diplomatic procedures and when Leopold finally accepted the offer he hoped the matter would be settled before the French were able to intervene in any way and would be presented with a fait accompli; events turned out otherwise and Paris learned of his acceptance before he was confirmed as King, and a huge uproar resulted. Naploeon III had been aware that Spain wanted Leopold as King, and he had told the French Ambassador in Berlin Benedetti that a Hohenzollern on the Spanish throne would be unacceptable to France and would have to be prevented, but his government had not undertaken any diplomatic activities to make this opinion known. And when Leopold`s branch of the Hohenzollerns withdrew his acceptance as a result of the uproar the French had a victory and could possibly have made it very difficult for Bismarck in front of the other powers, however they attempted instead to humiliate Prussia and this led to the famous Ems Telegram, which Bismarck cleverly reworded thereby creating massive support in Germany for the ensuing war. The French were intent on going to war at this stage and the telegram merely hastened the inevitable.

The French objectives as presented by the Foreign Minister Gramont to the Russian Ambassador in Paris in August 1870 displayed the traditional policy in action. There was to be one straight annexation by France, the Saar coal basin; Prussia to be returned to the borders of pre-1866, the dispossessed rulers to be given land and titles back, enlargement of the middle-tier German states with former Prussian territory, and the establishment of state groupings in Germany which would permanently prevent Prussian supremacy. A neutral German state on the west bank of the Rhine was included in these plans. These were the minimum French objectives- the breaking of Prussian power, and the establishment of a series of more or less equal-sized states. Gramont also suggested to the Russian Ambassador that when French armies stood in Berlin, Russia might take Danzig in return for remaining neutral. This discussion with the Russian Ambassador took place shortly before the opening battle occurred at Wissembourg.

The American Ambassador to Prussia, George Bancroft, said at the Foreign Office in Berlin on 12th October 1870 that leading statesmen and public opinion in the USA regarded the present war as an act of defence by the German side, with the object being to protect Germany against further wars of aggression by her western neighbour, of which there had been many during the previous three centuries, by establishing a more secure frontier.

The French continued their traditional policy in a period in which Germany was heading for unification, and searching for new ways and forms in the process. The Germans now expected to be secure against threats from outside, and France certainly provided one. In addition the Germans were determined to decide their own political future and were prepared to defend their right to do so. In the end the uniting Germany created a new situation in Europe which was incompatible with the old French policy, and war resulted. The fact that in 1870 France went to war and not Napoleon and his army was shown by the way the new Republic was able to raise large armies and continue the war for some months after Napoleon`s government collapsed.

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© Martin Tomczak 2002 1