Germany 1849-1866 Kaiserreich 1871-1890
Foreign Policy


The expression Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) , widely used in English language historical literature, is incorrect, as the war was fought between France and all those German states which joined in the German unification in 1871. The Battle of Sedan was decided by Bavarian troops which forced the French into the fortress of Sedan.
In German language historical literature, an expression translating to Franco-German War is used. This expression implies a definition of Germany without Austria.

Bismarck's Unification of Germany, 1862-1871

A.) The Situation in 1862

When Otto von Bismarck was appointed chancellor of Prussia by King Wilhelm IV. in 1862, the liberal democratic attempt to unify Germany had failed (1848/49). There was a widespread sentiment among the Germans, especially among the urban and protestant Germans, in favour of unification. Under similar conditions, Count Camillo Cavour had engineered Italy's unification in 1859/60. As in Italy's case, there were a number of obstacles to Germany's unification. Among them were foreign powers' interests in Germany :
Foreign Interests in Member Territories of the German Confederation, 1815-1870
The Netherlands
Holstein, Lauenburg (Duchies)
Luxemburg (Duchy), Limburg (Province)
Hannover (on the British throne ruled the Hanover Dynasty)

Then, there was Austria, an Empire German by tradition and character (administration), but in which Germans accounted for only about 12 % of the population and which was a multinational state. The Greater German Solution would mean the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire and was out of the question. So, the only option would be unification according to the Smaller German Solution, without the German territories held by Austria, under the leadership of Prussia. Still, Austria was against this model; Austria still held the presidency in the German Confederation, and many of the smaller state administrations, fearing Prussia's dominance, leant on Austria.
Then, Prussia, faced, to a lesser extent, Austria's dilemma. The Prussian provinces of Posen, West Prussia and East Prussia were not part of the German Federation, West Prussia and Alsace and large parts of Switzerland, had a German speaking majority.

B.) The Man

Otto von Bismarck was a nobleman, raised in the spirit of Prussian Bureaucracy, in loyalty to Prussia and the Hohenzollern Dynasty. He had been Prussia's ambassador to Russia (1859-62) and to France (1862) before having been appointed chancellor in 1862. He kept distance to Prussia's diet and baffled everybody by stating that Germany's unification would have to be achieved by BLOOD AND IRON. He expanded the military budget, knowing that the recently invented NEEDLE GUN would give Prussia's army an advantage in the field - it could be reloaded 3 times as fast as the hitherto used guns. Bismarck was regarded an outsider.
In 1871, unification being accomplished, sceptical criticism and mockery gave way to admiration. Bismarck had turned the dream of many into reality and, by defeating the French, turned lack of confidence (as a political nation) into pride tending towards overconfidence.

C.) The Wars Leading to Unification

In 1863, during the Polish uprising in Russian Poland, Bismarck supported the Russians, while public sympathy was with the Poles. Bismarck thus secured Russian goodwill for his policy of unification. In 1863/64 the Danes played into Bismarck's hands. They passed a constitution declaring Denmark, including Schleswig, a unitarian state, thus violatng the Treaty of London of 1852 which guaranteed Schleswig's autonomy. The German-feeling population majority of Schleswig, together with the Holsteiners and Lauenburgians, rose in rebellion. Prussia and Austria declared war (German-Danish War, 1864); the Danes were quickly defeated; Denmark ceded Schleswig and Lauenburg to Prussia, Holstein to Austria.
In 1866 Bismarck provoked Austria into declaring war (Austrro-Prussian War or Seven Weeks War). A number of other German states - Bavaria, Nassau, Hessen-Kassel, Hannover, joined the Austrian side. The Prussians were victorious in the BATTLE OF SADOWA (Königgrätz), and quickly a piece was concluded. Austria ceded Holstein to Prussia and withdrew from the German Confederation. It also ceded Venetia to Italy, which gained Bismarck Italy's goodwill. Else, Austria lost nothing; Bismarck's demands had been moderate in order to facilitate good German-Austrian relations afterwards. Prussia annexed Holstein, Hannover, Nassau, Hessen-Kassel and the city of Frankfurt (which had been neutral during the war). French Emperor Napoleon III. warned Prussia not to extend its influence south of the Main river. The states to the north of it established the North German Confederation in 1867, a confederation clearly dominated by Prussia.
Napoleon III. wanted to gain territory for France and eyed at Luxemburg, a concession Bismarck was willing to make. However, Germany's public opinion was strongly against it, and Bismarck gave in, placing Prussian troops into the fortress of Luxemburg (1867), angering Napoleon III.

Stamps issued by Norddeutscher Postbezirk (North German Postal District, an equivalent to the Northern German Confederation. The stamps show that the establishment of an economic unit was not easy : the district included three different sets of currencies, the Groschen currency (Northern Germany), the Kreuzer currency (Southern Germany) and the Schilling currency (Hanseatic cities).

In 1868 the throne of Spain became vacant. There were several candidates, among them a French Bourbon, a Savoyan and a Hohenzollern. French Emperor Napoleon III. demanded that King Wilhelm of Prussia, as head of the Hohenzollern family, would denounce his nephew's claim to the Spanish throne. Wilhelm complied. Napoleon demanded that Wilhelm would once and for all declare that the Hohenzollern family, now and for the future, would denounce her claims to the Spanish throne. Wilhelm refused, and Bismarck published an abridged version of the telegram containing the French demand. Napoleon III. felt offended; France declared war. In the Franco-German War (units from the southern German states fought on Prussia's side, and it was Bavarian troops that forced Napoleon's surrender at Sedan) were victorious; France had to cede Alsace-Lorraine and to pay reparations of 5 milliard golden francs (in American English : 5 billion).

Stamps issued by the victorious Germans for occupied Alsace and Lorraine. After the annexion, German stamps were used there.

On January 2nd 1871, in Versailles, Germany's princes elected Prussia's King Wilhelm IV. Emperor (Kaiser) Wilhelm I. The German Empire (Deutsches Reich) was established as a federation of states, with Alsace-Lorraine being a special province under military administration.

D.) The Legacy

In contrast to the treatment given to Austria in 1866, the conditions imposed on France in 1870/71 were harsh. For the following decades, the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine was a political goal of French diplomacy, and one of the roots for World War I.
Unification had been accomplished, with the approval of most, but not of all Germans. Especially in Hannover, annexed in 1866, the aversion of Prussia remained strong and Hannover's representatives in Germany's Reichstag, the Welfen, were in constant opposition. The Catholic Bavarians remained sceptical of the new Empire.
The army had been the most visible instrument by which unification had been achieved. In the German Empire, the defense forces were revered. The state failed to establish a mechanism ensuring state control over the army. As long as Bismarck was in charge (1862-1890), his chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke followed Bismarck. However, under Bismarck's successors the army developed into a state in a state. When World War I began, military reasoning (crossing Belgium t o get into France, the Schlieffen-Plan) won out over political reasoning. The breach of Belgium's neutrality was the main reason for chrging Germany with sole responsibility for World War I.

Bismarck and Unification, from Library of Congress, Country Studies : Germany
History of the 19th century in political cartoons : The Outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War; The Debacle, from ditto
The Franco-German War, from
The Franco-Prussian War, linked timetable by T. Shoberg
War with Denmark 1864, from historyhelp
Mark Seaborn, How much did Bismarck's success from 1862-70 depend on the errors and misjudgements of others?, essay from 1998
A. Kopp, The German War 1866, from Histofig, on the "Prusso-Austrian War"
DOCUMENTS Georg Moritz Wahl, Fürst Bismarck, from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, June 1890, from Cornell Digital Library Collection
A War Correspondent in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870, from Modern History Sourcebook
Maps : Staaten im Norddeutschen Bund, 1867, from IEG Maps
Frederick III, The Battle of Wörth 1870, from Documents in Military History at Hillsdale
Administration of the Prussian Army 1872, from Documents in Military History at Hillsdale
First address of the General Council of the International Working Men's Association on the Franco-Prussian War, 1870, from Marx' and Engels' writings
Second address of the General Council of the International Working Men's Association on the Franco-Prussian War, 1870, from Marx' and Engels' writing
Address of the General Council of the International Working Men's Association on the Civil War in France, 1871, from Marx' and Engels' writing
History of the 19th century in political cartoons : the cartoons (index; scroll down for the Prussia-related items)
Proclamation of the German Empire, from World Civilizations, eyewitness report
Otto von Bismarck, Contriving a War with France, memoirs excerpt from World Civilizations
Map : Prussia 1866, from Humboldt Univ. Berlin
Images from Chronik 2000 Bilddatenbank : Red Cross at the Düppeler Schanzen, 1864; Assault on the Düppeler Schanzen; Moltke's operation plan, 1866; Bismarck at Nikolsburg negotiations, 1866; Prussia's Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm on the battlefield of Sadowa, July 3rd 1866; Kg. Wilhelm I. on his way to the front, painting by Adolf von Menzel, 1870; Assault on the Spicherer Heights, Aug. 6th 1870; Helmuth Count von Moltke; Street Fighting in Sedan, Sept. 1st 1870; Gen. von Moltke outside Paris; 42 pounders firing at Paris; Negotiations leading to the surrender of Sedan, Nov. 2nd 1870; Otto von Bismarck and Napoleon III. (the latter a P.O.W.); Sept. 2nd 1871; Versailles, Jan. 2nd 1871 : Kaiserproclamation; Kaiserproclamation; Kaiserproclamation
Print : Bismarck at age 40, from Histoire du monde de 1er siecle a nos jours
REFERENCE The Franco-Prussian War and the Siege of Paris (pp.837-840), in : John Merriman, A History of Modern Europe, NY : W.W. Norton 1996
James Wycliffe Headlam, Bismarck and the Foundation of the German Empire (1899), posted by Gutenberg Library Online
Charles Sumner, The Duel between France and Germany (c.1871), posted online by Gutenberg Online Library

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on January 13th 2008

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