War and Peace in Europe from Napoleon to the Kaiser: The Wars of German Unification, 1864-1871

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In three short, sharp military conflicts, the Kingdom of Prussia, led by Otto von Bismarck, defeated Denmark, Austria and France to create the new German Empire in 1871.  This lecture analyses these wars, their origins and their consequences, and explains how and why the Prussians were victorious, and how far Bismarck's studied moderation in the peace settlements was successful in preventing further conflicts.

This is part of the series of lectures, War and Peace in Europe from Napoleon to the Kaiser, which looks at the conflicts that tore Europe apart at various times during the 19th century.  It examines the origins, course and impact of six wars, or international conflicts, looking not just at their military aspects but also at how soldiers and civilians experienced them, the ideological influences that underlay them, and the social and cultural changes to which they gave rise.

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The Wars of German Unification 1864-1871


Professor Richard J Evans


Of all the war that took place in the nineteenth century, perhaps the most effective in gaining their objectives, the most carefully delimited in scope, the best planned, and the most clinically and efficiently executed, were the three wars fought by Prussia in the 1860s, against Denmark, against Austria, and against France. Not all of them went entirely to plan, as we shall see, particularly not the last of the three, but all of them were in nearly all respects classic examples of limited war, of the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz's dictum that war is politics continued by other means. After the muddle, incompetence and indecisiveness of the Crimean War, the wars of the 1860s seemed to belong to another world.

How and why were these three wars fought? I argued in my earlier lectures that the 1848 Revolutions, though they failed in many if not most respects, undermined the international order established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, opening up the international scene to new initiatives and instabilities. The joker in the pack here was the French Emperor Napoleon III, whose search for foreign glory and foreign victories as a way of legitimating his dictatorial rule at home led him into one military adventure after another, some successful, others less so. It was among other things French military intervention that secured victory for Piedmont-Sardinia over the Austrians in 1859, though the drive for Italian unity then became unstoppable, thanks not least to the activities of the revolutionary nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi, much to Napoleon III's discomfiture.

The unification of Italy had been a great international cause since well before the 1848 Revolutions, and Garibaldi's "thousand" volunteers included men from a wide variety of nations. All over Europe, Italian unification gave a tremendous boost to the idea of the nation-state, which had been so badly defeated only a decade before. New nationalist associations and pressure-groups began to form, and nowhere were they more active in Germany, where the Nationalverein, the National Association, was established in 1859 and rapidly won adherents amongst middle-class liberals. Two years later, the revivified liberals founded the Progressives  Party, whose aims included the election rather than appointment of governments and administrative bodies, the guarantee of civil and religious freedom, and, crucially, the effective replacement of the tradition-bound Prussian army, with its aristocratic officer corps, its independence from legislative supervision, as an institution answerable to the King alone, by a people's militia under the budgetary and supervisory control of parliament. Liberal nationalists knew that a major reason for their defeat in 1848 had been the failure of the national parliament assembled at Frankfurt to establish control over the armies of Prussia, Austria and the other states, and they were determined not to make the same mistake again.

There was one key difference between the liberals who had begun the abortive attempt to unify Germany in 1848 and their successors who sought to repeat the process a decade or more later. The experience of 1848 had taught them that the idea of a unified Germany with the boundaries of the German confederation was not a viable one. The Czechs in Bohemia objected to being absorbed into a state dominated by German-speakers. And just as important, the Habsburgs, as the reassertion of their authority in 1849 had shown, were not going to allow the parts of their Empire that fell within the borders of the German confederation to be lopped off and assigned to a new German nation-state. Even before the final defeat of the Revolution, therefore, most German nationalists had come to the conclusion that if Germany was going to be unified, it would have to be without Austria and Bohemia, without the Habsburgs. And that meant that it would have to be led by Prussia.

The problem was that Prussia was not a liberal state. The parliament had only very limited powers and controlled neither ministers nor the army. Progressives therefore began a major offensive to try to gain control over the army and put their militia plan into effect. By 1862, a year after their formation, when the limited franchise secured the middle-class Progressives a controlling position in the parliament, they had got nowhere. To make matters worse, the army introduced a new system of universal conscription and increased the length of service from two to three years, thus enormously boosting the size and influence of the army under its existing administration. So the Progressives exercised one of the few real powers of the legislature, the right to approve the state budget, and voted it down. Without parliamentary approval it would be illegal to collect taxes or spend money on keeping the government and administration going. And they were not prepared to grant it until they won the argument over the replacement of the army by a militia.

In this stalemate, the King of Prussia, Wilhelm I, a conservative man of a military background who was already in late middle age by the time he came to the throne in January 1861, turned to the toughest and most conservative politician he knew: Otto von Bismarck, whose views were considered so dangerously reactionary that he had been forced to spend the last four years in effective exile as Prussian ambassador in St Petersburg.

On 23 September 1862, the King appointed Bismarck Minister-President and Foreign Minister. The liberals were horrified. A week later, Bismarck confronted the budgetary committee head-on. "Prussia", he told them, "must concentrate and maintain its power for the favorable moment which has already slipped by several times. Prussia's boundaries according to the Vienna treaties are not favorable to a healthy state life. 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." Nothing can have been more calculated to strike terror into the Prussian liberals.

But what exactly did this mean? In the first place, it is clear from the map that Prussia was indeed something of a ramshackle creation. While the core areas of the old Prussian state, East and West Prussia, lay outside the German confederation, the newest part of the Kingdom, Rhinepand-Westphalia, added by the Congress of Vienna, was separated from the rest of Prussia by the Kingdom of Hanover. The addition of the western areas was by the middle of the century proving to be a huge advantage to Prussia: traditionally a centre of manufacture and commerce, they were now undergoing rapid industrialization; they included the iron-and-steel powerhouse of the Ruhr, with its huge engineering and armaments firms like Krupps, and the eastern part of the vast coalfield that stretched across into Belgium and northwestern France. But they had to be governed separately, they had a different set of laws and administrative arrangements, and communication with the rest of the Kingdom was understandably very difficult. The Kingdom of Hanover, something of a political and economic backwater, had been ruled by the Kings of Britain until 1837, but fortuitously, the accession of Queen Victoria, who as a woman was debarred from becoming a German monarch because of the Salic Law, effectively severed Hanover's ties with the world's leading commercial and naval power. Bismarck thus saw the opportunity to join up the different bits of Prussia in a single state, not, as he said, by votes and resolutions within the German Confederation, but by force: force which he proposed to place in the service of German unification, not on the liberals' terms, but on his own.

In the meantime, Bismarck authorized the continued collection of taxes on the authority of the 1861 budget, and the business of government and administration continued on this undoubtedly illegal basis for four years. On the face of it, his reputation as a reactionary was thoroughly confirmed. But to perceptive observers it become clear that his reputation as a reactionary was by the 1860s no longer entirely true; or to be more precise, a reactionary in his principles and purposes he might have remained, but by this time he had become convinced that to achieve them, he had to use novel and even revolutionary means.

Otto von Bismarck, born on 1 April 1815, had become well known by the time of the 1848 Revolution as the wild man of the German right. His family background was in the Prussian aristocracy, the famous Junkerlandowning class, and in the service nobility that supplied the administrators to the Prussian state. After a youth spent dueling and having numerous affairs, he married a pious aristocratic woman, Johanna von Puttkamer in 1847, which seems to have turned him to a deeply religious, conservative and monarchical political position; in the Prussian parliament called in 1847, he belonged to the ultra-conservative faction and came out in support of the King's divine right to absolute rule. When the 1848 Revolution broke out, he tried, though without success, to get the peasants of his estate to march on Berlin to help defeat the revolutionaries. He was a passionate advocate of Prussian independence and Prussian power, and opposed the unification of Germany because he feared it would destroy Prussian independence. Not surprisingly, perhaps, in the reaction that followed the defeat of the revolution, the Prussian king appointed him in 1851 as Prussia's representative to the general meetings of the German Confederation, the loosely organized grouping of the German states that met in Frankfurt.

It was during his eight years in this post that Bismarck really learned the realities of politics, and came to accept that, as he said, "politics is the art of the possible". As Prussian representative he quickly came up against the power of Austria, rejuvenated since the defeat of the revolution, and began to realize the threat this posed to Prussian ambition. Bismarck irritated everyone by insisting on enjoying the same privileges as the Austrian representative; if the Austrian delegate took off his jacket during a meeting, Bismarck would do the same; if the Austrian delegate lit up a cigar during a meeting, so would Bismarck. More seriously, as I've suggested, he began to see the advantages to Prussia in allying itself with the movement for German unification. Later in life, he reflected on the art of statesmanship. "People", he mused, "can't create or divert the stream of time, they can only travel on it and steer with more or less experience and skill, in order to avoid shipwreck."

The stream of time in the 1860s, following the enormous boost given to the movement for German unification by events in Italy, was, he recognized, flowing swiftly and unstoppably in the direction of a united Germany. Bismarck was determined that it would not lead the Prussian ship of state onto the rocks. Prussia had to be preserved, with its key institutions, a strong, professional, independent army, an authoritarian monarchy, a dominant landed and service aristocracy, kept as far as possible intact. Unifying Germany on these conditions, he gambled, would carry the liberals with him. They would be prepared to sacrifice a large portion of their liberal convictions for the sake of national unify, however achieved. "A statesman", he said on another occasion, "...must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment." In 1864 the moment had come.

The key, Bismarck realized, lay in engineering the destruction of the German Confederation and the expulsion of Austria, along with the troublesome Habsburg dominion of Bohemia, paving the way to the creation of a new German state in which Prussia would have the dominant role. The route to this lay through the notorious Schleswig-Holstein question. As the British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston noted, "The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated [that] only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad [thinking about it]. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it."

In essence, however, it concerned two autonomous Duchies of mixed Danish-German population on the border between the German Confederation and the Kingdom of Denmark. One was within the Confederation, the other was not. In 1848 Denmark had tried to incorporate Schleswig, leading to an uprising of the duchy's German inhabitants and military intervention by Prussia. In 1863 the King of Denmark died without an heir, and since the rules of succession allowed succession through the female line in Denmark but not in Germany, the succession of the new Danish monarch to the Duchy was not automatic, and there was a dispute over who should become Duke of Schleswig. Behind this rather arcane dispute, there was a clash between German and Danish nationalism, with one side backing a candidate who was Danish, the other a candidate who was German. [I will not give the names of any of the people involved, since they were all called either Christian or Frederick and it would only add to the confusion]. In addition, the Danes passed a new constitution that undermined the traditional power of German-speaking landed aristocracy in Schleswig; Bismarck demanded it should be withdrawn, and the Danes refused.

The dispute escalated until Bismarck persuaded Austria to join in annexing the Duchy to the German Confederation by force.  38,000 Prussian troops, eventually reinforced by 20,000 more, and 23,000 Austrian troops invaded Schleswig on 1 February 1864. In the midst of a snowstorm, the Danish army was forced to retreat from their defensive positions on the border to a line of fortifications near the town of Schleswig known as the Dannevirke. With only 36,000 troops, however, they were unable to avoid being outflanked - the marshes and waterways that protected them were all frozen solid, so on 5 February they retreated again, pushed back in a series of running skirmishes in which the Prussians, with their breech-loading rifles known as needle-guns, were easily able to outshoot the Danes, who were equipped with old-fashioned muzzle-loading guns.

The key fortress of Düppel was besieged and eventually stormed by 10,000 Prussian troops on 18 April with heavy losses on both sides. As negotiations in London ran into the sands, the German forces pressed on, expelling the last Danish troops from the Duchies by the end of June. As they advanced deep into Denmark itself, the Danes sued for peace. On 30 October they were forced to abandon the Duchies, which were now ruled respectively by Austria and Prussia; Denmark lost about a quarter of its population, including 200,000 Danish speakers, in the process.

Given the enthusiasm among German nationalists in 1848 for the German cause in the Duchies, there was no question that the Prussian liberals supported these actions. Bismarck's next step, however, was more controversial. The war against Denmark had introduced yet another geopolitical anomaly into North Germany in the form of Austria's administration of the Duchy of Holstein, agreed with Prussia in the Gastein Convention of 1865. It was in Prussia's interest to incorporate it along with Schleswig, and Bismarck saw in the continuing disputes between the two states over the administration of the Duchies the opportunity for launching a war against Austria that would finally lead to the expulsion of the Habsburgs from Germany. When Austria appealed to the German Confederation to mediate in the disputes, Bismarck declared the Gastein Convention broken and invaded Holstein. Backed by the middling German states, Austria persuaded the German Confederation to mobilize against the Prussians, whereupon Bismarck declared that the Confederation no longer existed.

Bismarck had prepared the ground by securing an alliance with the Italians, who still needed to expel Austria from the remaining part of the North-East of the peninsula, which they still controlled, and the benevolent neutrality of the French, secured with a meeting with Napoleon III at Biarritz. Russia was still annoyed with the Austrians over their behaviour during the Crimean War, and had been assisted by Prussia in putting down a Polish revolt in 1861. Britain did not regard the conflict as relevant to its interests. The main obstacle to the war was King Wilhelm I of Prussia, who was reluctant to attack a fellow-monarch and nervous because of the strength and reputation of the Austrian army. It took Bismarck and the Chief of the General Staff Count Helmuth von Moltke a week to persuade him to agree.

In fact, the Prussian army was by this time appreciably stronger than the Austrian. The conscription reforms of 1862 had increased its strength and provided it with a large reserve force. Mobilization was carried out through military districts which could quickly send troops and reservists to the assembly point, while the ramshackle Austrian system of conscription would take far longer, and the well-developed railway network in Prussia had been carefully studied by the military, whose plans used it to concentrate their forces where they wanted; by contrast the Austrians had few railways, and mainly had to use traditional means - foot and horseback - to move their troops to the front. The Prussians had their breech-loading rifles, so-called needle-guns, which could reload and fire more quickly than the Austrian's muzzle-loaded weapons, though in fact the Austrians had the same advantage when it came to the use of field artillery. The Prussian troops could also reload their rifles while lying down under cover, while reloading a rifle through the muzzle required you to stand up and expose yourself to enemy fire.

The Austrians, still evidently resentful at Frederick the Great's annexation of the province from them in 1740, gathered their forces for an invasion of Silesia. Moltke moved the three Prussian armies in to counter the threat, brushing aside Austrian and Saxon resistance on the way, and the two forces met at Sadova or Königgrätz on 3 July 1866. King Wilhelm I was nominally in command, but in practice it was Moltke who called the shots. Not everything went smoothly for him. Problems with telegraph communication and organizing railway transport at the last minute meant however that only two of the Prussian armies had arrived by the time the battle began. Thus some 240,000 Austrian and Saxon troops faced a Prussian force of only 124,000. The Austrians might have been even stronger had they not had to deploy 75,000 troops to deal with an attack by a Piedmontese army in North-East Italy a week earlier, which they defeated at the Battle of Custoza.

After advancing and capturing the village of Sadova, the Prussian centre was pinned down by superior Austrian artillery fire, but as the Austrians began to advance, the Prussians' needle-guns began to mow them down and the balance of the battle began to change. Possibly the Austrians might have changed the situation with determined cavalry charges, but the terrain - much of it wooded - was difficult, and they chose not to do so. At 2.30 in the afternoon the Prussian Third Army, 100,000 men under the Crown Prince, finally arrived, charging into the Austrian right flank. The rest of the army advanced, and the Austrians began a general retreat at 3 o'clock. The Prussians lost 9,000 men in the fighting, killed, wounded, captured or missing, while the Austrian losses totaled over 40,000, more than half of them taken prisoner. The victory was decisive. The Austrians and their allies had no more forces to counter the Prussian attack. Three weeks later an armistice signed at Prague brought the war to an end.

In a sense, the real battle only began at this point. Immediately after their victory, King Wilhelm and the generals wanted to push on and capture Vienna before imposing harsh terms on the defeated Habsburgs. But Bismarck, who had been present on the battlefield, knew that this would only lead to fresh resistance from the Austrians, and leave them bitter and resentful, ready to join in any future alliances against Prussia. In addition, there was no chance of extending the conquest to Austria's allies in south Germany such as the Bavarians. From Bismarck's point of view, the main, and clearly articulated aims of the war had been achieved. Austria had been expelled from Germany. Hanover, which had voted for the mobilization of troops against Prussia in June 1866, was occupied and annexed by the Prussians, and turned into a Prussian province, thus uniting the two halves of the Prussian state. For good measure he also grabbed other German territories, notably the previously self-governing city of Frankfurt, Germany's financial centre, which ahd also backed the wrong side in the war.

Bismarck now pressed ahead with radical changes in Prussia itself. On the day of the battle there had been fresh elections to the Prussian parliament that had resulted in a defeat for the Progressives. Bismarck might have seized the opportunity to reduce the power of parliament by changing the constitution to make it more authoritarian and legitimating the collection of taxes without parliamentary approval. But he knew that a modern government needed the support of the liberal middle classes in the long run, and that such a move would store up trouble in the future. He was aware, too, of the precarious international position of Prussia following its shock victory over Austria: internal disputes were the last thing he wanted in this situation. So he recognized the legitimacy of the Prussian legislature by introducing an Indemnity Bill, which invited the deputies to approve his illegal collection of taxes since 1862 retrospectively. As Bismarck intended, this divided the liberals, with a minority refusing to agree; but the measure was passed, among other things successfully sidelining the hard-line Prussian conservatives who had pushed for the introduction of a more authoritarian constitution.

Even more shockingly for conservatives, Bismarck now created a new union of 22 German states in the North German Confederation. Unlike the previous German Confederation created in 1815, this was a true state, with a parliament, the Reichstag, which, astonishingly, was elected by universal male suffrage, in contrast to the property qualifications that governed voting rights in Prussia itself. Here Bismarck was taking a leaf out of Napoleon III's book, with, indeed, parallels to the Reform Bill introduced by Disraeli in Britain in 1867. All three of these conservative statesmen recognized the need for popular legitimacy, and all of them thought that bypassing the liberal middle classes they could appeal to the loyal and conservative masses further down the social scale.

Just in case this step should prove too radical, however, Bismarck made sure that the Reichstag's powers were limited; it had the right to approve legislation but not to introduce it, and it could neither appoint nor dismiss governments and ministers, which remained the prerogative of the President of the Confederation, none other than King Wilhelm I of Prussia. Prussia's dominance, already obvious in terms of area, population and wealth, was sealed in the executive organ of the Confederation, theBundesrat or  Federal Council, where it could always effectively outvote the representatives of the other member states with 17 out of 43 votes and the ability to put irresistible pressure on the smaller states to support it. The President also commanded the joint army of the Confederation, and could summon and dissolve the Reichstag. Below the President was the Federal Chancellor, who was also the Minister-President of Prussia, or in other words Bismarck.

The effect of these arrangements was to ensure the continued survival of Prussia and Prussian institutions, above all the army, into the new era of the emerging German nation-state. At the same time, Prussian rule meant liberalization in many respects in backward, ramshackle areas like Hanover, winning over many liberals to the new arrangements. Indeed, the events of 1866 created enormous, unstoppable pressure amongst German nationalists for the creation of a fully united Germany by the extension of the North German Confederation to include the South German states that had opposed Prussia in the war with Austria, forcing liberalizing reforms on them as well.

Bismarck fed this enthusiasm in his speeches, encouraging for example the creation of a new criminal law code for the Confederation that he made clear would be extended to the whole of Germany when the moment came. The majority of German states were already members of the Customs Union, the Zollverein, which had created an extensive free-trade area across North and South Germany, excluding Austria, and the basis seemed to be there for the extension of economic union to political union. Everybody expected this to happen soon, though some, particularly in South Germany, regarded this as a threat rather than an opportunity. But how it was to happen was another matter.

The events of 1866 had major repercussions in the rest of Europe. After their defeat by Prussia, the Austrians realized that they could not continue to fight the Italians, despite the victory of Custoza, and capitulated, leaving the peace settlement to cede the rest of North-East Italy to the Italian state - an outcome that led to the jibe of a diplomat at a peace conference later in the century, that since the Italians were demanding more territory, he supposed they must have lost another battle. The crisis of the Habsburg monarchy in 1866 led to demands for equality by the Hungarian elites, and in 1867 the monarchy was divided into two autonomous and separately administered halves, becoming the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, united only by the presence of the same monarch, Franz Joseph, and a unified administration of the army and of foreign policy.

The other European powers did not regard these events as impinging very closely on their interests; apart, that is from France. With his grip on power loosening, Napoleon III became increasingly dependent on public opinion during the final phase of his rule, the era of the "liberal Empire". In May 1870 a new, more liberal constitution was put to a plebiscite, and with a fresh, anti-Prussian ministry in power, and major reforms under way enlarging the French army and providing it with better armaments and equipment, Napoleon III began to search for ways of limiting the threat to France which he saw in the emergence of a new strong power on the right bank of the Rhine. But he was unable to find any allies to back him up; the Italians were irritated by the French military defence of the Pope's remaining territories in and around Rome, where they had defeated an attempted invasion by Garibaldi in 1867; while the Hungarians did not want to see their newly acquired power jeopardized by a fresh conflict with Prussia.

Nevertheless, the French Emperor felt unable to remain inactive when on 2 July 1870 a member of a cadet branch of the Prussian royal family, Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, was offered the throne of Spain, which had become vacant through the abdication of Queen Isabella. France considered Spain part of its own sphere of influence, and thought that Bismarck and Wilhelm were behind the candidacy. The result, French public opinion thought, would be a Prussian threat from the south as well as the east. Napoleon III demanded not only the withdrawal of the candidacy but also a pledge from Prussia that it would never support a Hohenzollern candidacy for the throne of Spain in the future. Other European governments considered this to be going too far, put it down to the French Emperor's irritating and disruptive pursuit of international prestige, and expressed their sympathies for Prussia.

Bismarck won further sympathy by claiming at the time, and later, that Prince Leopold's candidature had come as a complete surprise to him. It was not until after the Second World War that documents from the Sigmaringen archive came to light showing that Leopold's father had consulted King Wilhelm I of Prussia as soon as the first tentative approach was made from Spain, and that Bismarck had advised the King to encourage the candidacy. This was not because he wanted a war; it was for him just another lever of diplomatic pressure. Indeed, when the French ambassador met Wilhelm at his spa retreat in Bad Ems, the King agreed to withdraw his support for Leopold, who retired to his Rhenish estate and never did become a monarch, although his son ended up as King of Romania. The desperate Spanish turned to the second son of the King of Italy, but he soon abdicated, irritated by constant intrigues and rebellions, and the Bourbon monarchy was eventually restored.

The matter seemed to be settled. The Prussian King had with some annoyance rejected the French ambassador Count Benedetti's demand that Prussia should never support a candidature like Leopold's in the future (according to one report he said to him: "You can kiss my arse"). Nevertheless, the French were privately prepared not to press the issue. So Wilhelm's staff sent a telegram to Bismarck reporting the outcome. Bismarck's published summary of the telegram may not seem at first sight to have been, as it is often described, much ruder than the original, indeed in some ways rather the opposite. But the key lay in the French translation of the word "adjutant of the day", which made it seem as if a very lowly non-commissioned officer had been sent to give Benedetti the brush-off. This insult was enough for the French to issue a declaration of war.

What were the reasons for Bismarck's behaviour? He was in the first place worried that pro-unification governments in South Germany, whom he had pressured into concluding military alliances with Prussia, were about to be overthrown. Secondly he was concerned that the Austrians were showing signs of coming round to support of the French, despite the reluctance of the Hungarian government. Thirdly the military reforms in France had not yet worked their way through fully, so that in the near future French military strength would be even more formidable than it already was. Finally it was clear that Napoleon III would continue to try and gain allies and make further demands on Prussia, reducing it to the status of a client state like Italy. The French could easily be made to appear the aggressors, undermining opposition to unification in the South German states. After the victory of 1866 Bismarck and Moltke were confident. Both sides proceeded to mobilize their forces.

This was by far the largest war to be fought in Europe since the defeat of the first Napoleon. Prussian and North German mobilization was rapid, with a million men reporting for duty within three weeks, and nearly half a million armed and equipped and transported by train to the French frontier. The German needle-guns were outclassed by the more modern French breech-loading chassepot, but Krupps' breech-loading field guns could fire further and much more rapidly than the French artillery, still consisting mainly of muzzle-loading brass cannon. Above all, however, the French mobilization was slow and confused, and the chain of command through the Prussian General Staff - the only one in Europe at the time - was far more decisive and effective. The Prussian troops scored too by their superior dash and commitment, notably at the battle of Mars-la Tour, where 30,000 of them defeated a French force five times larger.

Nevertheless, in the end it was numbers that counted. By the time of the first encounters, the French had only been able to bring 250,000 men to the front, many of them inadequately armed and supplied. In a series of major battles, most notably at Gravelotte, where 112,000 French troops were defeated by a German force 188,000 strong, the French armies were driven back, taking refuge in the citadel of Metz. An attempt at relieving the fortress led to a disastrous defeat on 31 August 1870 at the Battle of Sedan, where 100,000 French troops were captured, including Napoleon III himself. Two months later, 180,000 more French troops surrendered at Metz. Altogether in the war, the French lost 140,000 killed and roughly the same number wounded, the Germans 45,000 killed and twice as many wounded. This was war on a scale unseen anywhere else in the 19th century except in the American Civil War.

It was also, arguably, the first national war, involving the mass mobilization of national public opinion on both sides, a significant pointer to the future. The Battle of Sedan should have brought the conflict to an end, just as the Battle of Sadova had brought the Austro-Prussian War to an end. Bismarck was certainly anxious to conclude an armistice as soon as possible, to avoid intervention by othe European powers. But things did not go according to plan. Napoleon III was deposed and a republican Government of National Defence took over, spurred by patriotic fervour to carry on fighting. The new government mobilized another 500,000 troops and the German forces spread out to occupy a large part of France, while the French mounted a series of small forays and assaults from their remaining fortresses, causing considerable damage to the occupying troops. Fatally, however, this emboldened them to attempt open warfare, and with poor morale, low-quality personnel, and ineffective leadership, they were decisively defeated. In the meantime the German armies had laid siege to Paris, where the republican authorities were overthrown and replaced by a short-lived revolutionary Commune. By the time a general armistice was signed at the end of January Paris was starving; Bismarck allowed food supplies in, the Commune was defeated with massive loss of life by the republican 'forces of order' in May, and the French Third Republic came into being, dominated by the forces of social and political conservatism.

The peace terms imposed by Bismarck, who once more successfully rejected attempts by Moltke and the army to go further, included a large financial indemnity payable by the French, and the annexation of the two provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. These stored up lasting resentments that were to find their eventual outlet in 1914. To add insult to injury, Bismarck organized the proclamation of the new German Empire, with the institutions of the North German Confederation extended to include the south German states as well, in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, on 18 January 1871. On 9 February 1871, the Leader of the Opposition, Benjamin Disraeli, addressed the House of Commons with his assessment of the war:

"This war represents the German revolution, a greater political event than the French revolution of last century...Not a single principle in the management of our foreign affairs, accepted by all statesmen for guidance up to six months ago, any longer exists. There is not a diplomatic tradition which has not been swept away. You have a new world, new influences at work, new and unknown objects and dangers with which to cope, at present involved in that obscurity incident to novelty in such affairs. We used to have discussions in this House about the balance of power. Lord Palmerston, eminently a practical man, trimmed the ship of State and shaped its policy with a view to preserve an equilibrium in Europe. [ . . . ] The balance of power has been entirely destroyed, and the country which suffers most, and feels the effects of this great change most, is England."

Whether or not he was right, and what the longer-term consequences of the wars of German unification were, will be the subject of the last two lectures in this series.

©Professor Richard J Evans, Gresham College 2010

This event was on Thu, 04 Feb 2010

Professor Sir Richard Evans

Professor Sir Richard Evans

Professor of Rhetoric

Professor Sir Richard Evans FBA was Provost of Gresham College from 2014-2020. He is a world-renowned historian and academic, with many of his books now acknowledged as seminal works in the field of modern history. He was Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge from 2008 until his retirement in September 2014. 

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