Causes of the Franco Prussian War &

 A brief history of the Franco Prussian War

Both Napoleon III and Bismarck needed a war for political reasons . The war that started in 1870 could have started anytime after the Prussian victory against Austria in 1866 . It didn't because Napoleon III wanted more time to complete army reforms and Bismarck need time to gather southern German support for a unified Germany . But it was inevitable that some event would trigger a war .


Otto von Bismarck


Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) was the Ministerpräsident or Prime Minister of Prussia. Bismarck policies brought about 3 European wars which led to the unification of Germany. As a university student, he acquired a reputation for fighting and was a member of Hannovera, a famous dueling corps. More cosmopolitan than the average junker and spoke English fluently. Famous for his Sept 29,1862 speech " The great questions of the day will not be decided by speeches...that was the blunder of 1848...but by blood and iron.' Made Chancellor in 1871 and became known as the 'Iron Chancellor' and Germany consolidated economically and politically. The young Kaiser, William II, was too ambitious to have a strong leader like Bismarck and had him retire. No other German statesman was able to maintain Bismarck's complicated international act and Germany blundered into WWI.



 Otto von Bismarck: The Iron Chancellor


From 1868 on, Bismarck ( Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck - April 1, 1815 – July 30, 1898 ) Chancellor of the North German Confederation , prepared to accomplish the unification of the German Protestant  states of the north and the German Catholic south through a provoked war with France . Such a war would unite the German states quickly rather than the years or decades it might otherwise take . The Germans were divided culturally and politically, but they were united in their hatred for France since the Napoleonic Wars, when France had looted the German states and pressed an estimated 250,000 Germans into the French armies . Most countries had kept up citizen militias, usually separate from the regular forces. But the Prussians began to build up large trained reserves which were integrated into the army . By 1867 Bismarck had made Prussia supreme in Germany through victories against Denmark (1864) and Austria (1866) .


French political cartoon in Le Charivari in 1866

reflecting the growing fear of Prussia . Bismarck  is shown

sewing together the German states into a nation dominated by Prussia .

The caption reads

"Ce que c’est pourtant que de savoir se servir d’une aiguille.... mais, c’est un talent d’ ont il ne faudrait pas abuser."

“It is one thing to know how to use a needle.... But it’s a skill that should not be abused ."

The needle is a reference to the Prussian Dreyse needle gun, which helped Prussia secure a victory in the Austro-Prussian War of that year .




 1866 Battle of Königgrätz, the decisive battle of the Austro-Prussian War (1866) ,which shifted power away from Austrian and towards Prussian hegemony .



 The Austro-Prussian War (1866)


Bismarck wearing one of the famous spiked helmets or Pickelhaube. These were designed  by King Frederick William IV of Prussia in 1842 to make the Prussian army more distinctive. Made of leather with a metal front piece and spike, became popular in many armies, including the U.S. after the German victory in the war. Contrary to popular belief, the spike was never meant to be a weapon. Pickelhaube for sale.



 Bismarck, German film 1940 . A biographical film of Otto von Bismarck, the Prime Minister of Prussia, and how he and his policies - including aggressive war - helped to unite Germany.


Napoleon III




Napoleon III (1808-1873) Son of the brother of Napoleon I, Louis Bonaparte. In 1832, upon the death of the only son of Napoleon and his father in 1846, became heir to the Napoleonic line. After the final abdication of Napoleon, all Bonaparts were exiled from France . In 1840 he returned in a coup attempt in Boulogone and was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. He escaped to England in 1846. After the revolution of 1848, France became a republic and he was allowed to return to France . He was elected to the National Assembly and won the presidency in the same year. The French constitution forbade a president from serving more than one term, so he staged a coup and made himself dictator on Dec 2, 1851 and later emperor.



 Napoleon III


Napoleon III sought to defeat Prussia and recover all or part of the Rhine frontier lost after the defeat of Napoleon I and bring the rising upstart power Prussia to heel . The possession of the Rhine frontier may be summed up as the true cause of the war. But this frontier carries with it the mastery of Central Europe. Prussia's victory over Austria in the recent Austro-Prussian War of 1866 increased tensions with France which felt Prussia was growing too strong . Many French military leaders shocked by the Prussian defeat of the Austrians an Koniggratz in 1866 and urged military reforms . Since the defeat of 1815, France had become a subordinate power in Europe .


The French hoped that  Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte ( April,20 1808 – January,9 1873), the nephew of the famous Napoleon I, could restore the power and prestige of France. Louis-Napoleon launched a major rebuilding plan for Paris to make it again the capital city of a new French led Europe . Louis-Napoleon was the popularly elected president of France in 1848, however, the French Constitution did not allow a president to serve more than one term of four years. Louis-Napoleon therefore staged a coup d'état and crowned himself emperor on December 2, 1851. The new French Empire of  Napoleon III needed a victory after the recent reverses such as the recent failed Mexican adventure which ended in 1867.  Napoleon III had broad support among the rural farmers, but there was growing discontent and even riots against his autocratic rule in urban areas .


Napoleon III hoped a good short war would restore faith in his Empire . It is very probable that the French were counting on the old dissensions of the German races. True, they dared not look upon the South Germans as allies, but they hoped to reduce them to inactivity by an early victory, or even to win them over to their side. Prussia was a powerful antagonist even when isolated, and her army more numerous than that of the French,


A Prussian prince to assume the throne of Spain ?

Prince Leopold


There remained only to find a pretext for war . This presented itself in 1869, when the Spanish Cortes or parliament offered the throne of Spain to Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (1835 - 1905 ), nephew of King Wilhelm I  (1797 -1888 ) of Prussia . The Spanish throne been vacant since a revolution in 1868 had deposed the Bourbons. Bismarck saw the Spanish offer as another way to possibly provoke war with France if he could place Prince Leopold on the Spanish throne. If that happened, France would have two German Hohenzollern monarchies on its borders .

The Foreign Secretary of France, Agenor Duc de Gramont (1819 - 1880 ), described by Bismarck as "the stupidest man in Europe."

 Agenor was largely responsible for the bungling of the negotiations between France and Prussia arising out of the candidature of Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen for the throne of Spain, which led to the war .

However, the prince and the king were not much interested in the offer . He might be chased from the throne as Maximilian had been in Mexico or Queen Isabella in Spain in 1868 . Upon Bismarck's insistence, Leopold Accepted the offer . On July 2, 1870, the Spanish informed the French ambassador of their choice . When the  French minister of foreign affairs, Antoine Alfred Agénor, Duc de Gramont, heard of it he hurriedly convened the legislature and made a threatening speech . Gramont knew the French army was weaker than the Prussian army, but he assumed that if war came he would have the support of Austria , which lost a war to Prussia in 1866 and Denmark, which lost Schleswig and Holstein to Prussia in the Second Schleswig War of 1864 . However, there was no formal alliance between France and Austria or Denmark .

Gramont informed the French ambassador that he insisted the King Wilhelm renounce the offer . Bismarck was away on holiday, and King Wilhelm, afraid of risking war, complied . Both Gramont and Bismarck were disappointed by this .


 Popular French print of the Siege of Paris

A red rag for the Gallic bull - Bismarck's reworded Ems Telegram



Just as the crisis seemed to be coming to a close, Gramont rekindled it on July 12, 1870 by informing  the French ambassador to Prussia Count Vincent Benedetti (1817 - 1900 ), to inform King Wilhelm that he must sign and publish a document renouncing all future claims to the Spanish throne . This is where pushed the point too far . Napoleon III announced in a newspaper interview that any future Hohenzollern (German) candidature for the Spanish throne would be a cause for war . Wilhelm was insulted and refused this request .  

Bismarck, confident neither Britain nor Russia would become involved in the matter, prepared for war . Now all he needed was the spark . A report of this incident was telegramed to Bismarck,who was elated to hear of it . However, instead of declaring war right away, he sought a way to engineer the French into declaring war on Prussia first, so the south German states would join the north German alliance and insure the neutrality of the other great powers . Bismarck reworded the telegram as to arouse a war fever in France and the Germanic states .  He reworked the telegram to make it appear the King Wilhelm had rebuffed the French ambassador ( Count Benedetti ), and the ambassador had insulted the king . Bismarck's released statement to the press that became known as Ems Dispatch. This was leaked to the press in Berlin and France, causing a nationalist frenzy in both countries . His editing, he assured his friends, "would have the effect of a red rag on the Gallic bull. "

As a result, the French Chamber on July 19, 1870 declared war on Prussia and rejected Britain's offer to mediate. There was not universal support for the war in the French legislative body as some republicans realized the bad position it would place France in  . The German states, seeing France as the aggressor, came to Prussia's support .


The Paris suburb of St. Cloud after the siege

 Too see a larger image click here .

France at the time a population of roughly thirty eight million. That of the North German Confederation, amounted to nearly thirty-one million. The South German States, excluding Austria, numbered nine million. Thus the balance in point of population is slightly in favor of Germany. The French navy, with its fifty-five iron-clads and their 1,032 guns, against the Prussian navy, with but four such vessels and their fifty guns, and similar disparity in other classes of war steamers, was indisputably superior. The French army had been brought up to eight hundred thousand, Prussian army has also been steadily increased, until it contains six hundred and fifteen thousand, of whom four hundred and fifty thousand are in active service, while the reserve of Prussia, consisting of the entire male population of military age,  enabled it to bring into the field, for a defensive campaign, a full million of thoroughly drilled soldiers. Thus, in a military point of view, France and the North German Confederacy seem to be not very unequally matched.


The Germans, with a national army organized under universal military service, efficient use of railroads and innovative Group artillery quickly proved their superiority to the French and won a decisive battle at Sedan on Sept 1 - 2 1870,where Napoleon III was captured .

French surrender at Sedan


Paris surrendered in January 1871 after being under siege from Sept 19, 1870  . The treaty of Frankfurt was signed on May 10, 1871 . France ceded Alsace, except Belfort and eastern Lorraine to Germany and agreed that a German army could occupy northern France till an indemnity of five billion Francs was paid .


The proclamation of King William I as emperor at Versailles, by Anton von Werner

 (Die Proklamation des Deutschen Kaiserreiches 1877)

 For a larger image click here .

Map of the North German Federation

and the German Empire 1871

 For a larger image click here .

On Jan 18, 1871 at Versailles ( which was made the German military headquarters ) William I was proclaimed The German emperor ( Kaiser ) . The creation of a unified German Empire destroyed the balance of power that had been created with the Congress of Vienna after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Under the new constitution the south German states were virtually annexed by the North German Federation . There were 25 states in the new German Empire : 4 kingdoms ( Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg ), 6 grand duchies, 5 duchies, 7 principalities and 3 free cities . The Kingdoms of  Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg each had their own armies which formed the German army under the emperor's command in time of war .


German victory parade in Paris. The Parisians were defiant in the face of defeat and were prepared to fight if the entry of the German army into the city . Before the Germans entered Paris, National Guards removed large numbers of cannons away from the Germans' path and store them in "safe" districts. This was to be one of the factors leading to the Paris Commune . The Germans entered Paris briefly and left again without incident .


Germany quickly established itself as the main power in Europe with one of the most powerful and professional armies in the world . In France, anger at the Germans over the loss of Alsace and Lorraine and the large indemnity would led to a permanent state of crises between the two states and their seeking revenge with a large indemnity against Germany after their defeat in World War I and trigger events which would lead to World War II . The war also influenced Italian history and its struggle for unification. With the outbreak of war, Napoleon withdrew his garrison from Rome. With this garrison gone, the Italian national army was able to take the Papal State of Rome in 1870.


Victorious German troops march through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 16, 1871. Ever since this day it was traditional for German troops to march through the gate on their return from war .

 To see a larger image click here .

The arrival in Strassburg of part of the indemnity. France was required to pay an indemnity of 5 millard gold francs by the terms of the peace treaty.


There was great French bitterness over the Treaty of Frankfurt which ended the Franco Prussian War and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine . When the European crisis of 1914 came, many Europeans felt the coming war would be brief as the Franco Prussian War had been. Here French Cuirassiers , looking much like their predecessors from 1870, are cheered as they ride toward the front in 1914 .



Comparisons of the Armies