Bismarck, Napoleon III, and the Outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War The unification of Germany threw all of Europe off its axis. With the formation of this new power there were now five major powers instead of four. This would work to unsettle age-old alliances and confuse the entire European continent for more than twenty years. Not least among the nations swept of their proverbial feet was France. France was a rival with the German alliance long before it merged into one state, but the new stability of a unified Germany made it a much more powerful entity. France scrambled to try and establish a sense of security, immediately demanding compensation in the form of the Rhine’s west bank and Belgium, which Bismarck quickly denied (Howard 40).
It became quickly obvious that these two nations would be forced to a flashpoint and soon. As France feared for her safety, Germany feared as well. The recent revolutions and social upheavals in the Republic were not soon forgotten and Germany wanted to be safe from the possible flack that could be thrown her way by another such occurrence. Thus, Germany set her eye on recapturing the lands of Alsace and Lorraine from which Napoleon the Great had snatched decades before. No person worked harder at trying to cause war with France than German Chief of Staff Carl Moltke. He saw France as the “hereditary foe” (Hwd 41) and desired nothing more than to see her lose all of her ability to wage war on Germany.
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He begged often of Bismarck to go to war with their neighbor and drew up plans to do so. Finally, in 1866, with the building of four additional rail lines (Hwd 43) in Germany, Moltke was able to begin planning his attack. Meanwhile, the French began to catch on to what was heading their way. Warnings had been issued from Baron Stoffel, the French military attach in Berlin and from General Ducrot, commander of the 6 th Military Division (Hwd 44).
It seemed that the Germans were using the same tactic that they would use almost fifty years later, goading their enemies into an irrevocable stance and into war.
Ducrot urged the French that a pre-emptive strike across the Rhine would catch Germany off guard and they could march all the way to Berlin. However, the French military heads had no plan in effect for a possible altercation with Germany and did not until the war was eminent. They toyed with the idea of a possible alignment with Austria-Hungary, but their government was wary of such an arrangement but agreed to a triple alliance that included Italy. This would, the Archduke estimated, create a force of nearly one million allied troops against a force of roughly half-a-million Germans (Hwd 47).
Finally, the event that would spur the war came to pass. The Hohenzollern candidature for the Spanish crown had come open following the revolution against Queen Isabella in 1868.
The crown was initially refused by Prince Charles Anthony and then offered to his son Leopold with the influence if William I. Leopold reluctantly accepted the Spanish crown out of respect and servitude to Germany (Hwd 48).
The acceptance of the Spanish crown and the lack of anyone to announce it until considerable time had passed outraged the French and most of the remainder of Europe. France took it as a slap to the face; an attempt to undermine the security of her state. France demanded that no German prince should be considered ascend to the Spanish throne, which William refused to accept.
William dismissed the French ambassador, Count Benedetti. Bismarck got wind of this story and leaked to the press that, “His Majesty the King thereupon decided not to receive the French ambassador again, and sent to tell him through the aide-de-camp on duty that his Majesty had nothing further to communicate to the Ambassador.” (Hwd 55) Within weeks, the two nations would be at war. The question of Spain and the Hohenzollern Candidature was one that weighed heavily on Napoleon III’s mind. Spain, under poor leadership, had become both an economic and political headache for France. Napoleon feared that a crown allied with Germany could be very harmful to France’s interests at home and at sea (Corley 321).
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In an eventual war with Germany, why should he have to worry about a strong stance being taken against France by Spain Needles to say, he did.
He took a strong interest in the crown, even hoping that Isabella’s young son may be given the crown. However, his heart sank when he heard that the Spanish emissary had discussed naming Leopold to the throne. Napoleon then stepped-up his efforts for Isabella’s son Alfonso to take the crown by making her officially abdicate the throne to him (Cor 327).
However, the point was moot, as Leopold had accepted the throne. Napoleon did not overreact, as his people did, but still feared the worst. Soon after he accepted, Leopold declined once again and a crisis was put on hold.
Napoleon’s adviser sent Benedetti to William to get assurances that he would not allow Leopold to go back and take the throne. And the rest is history. Bismarck favored the candidacy of Leopold for “the reason of state.” (Sempell 111) He wanted to see on the Spanish throne a ruler that would not be overly influenced by Catholic alliances. Carl Anthony pressed Leopold to accept, but Leopold would only accept if ordered to do so by William. Eventually, Leopold gave in and did accept the candidacy. When Leopold rescinded, Bismarck was furious.
The standoff was over and Napoleon had won. However, it was Benedetti’s visit to William that helped Bismarck save face and continue with the lovely war he had hoped for. Following the Benedetti visit, William sent Bismarck a telegram detailing their meeting. In itself it was quite harmless and inoffensive to the French diplomat and the French people, but with a few lines crossed out and a word or two added, it was a perfect slap in the face. The telegram was given to the press and France was quick to declare war on Germany.
It seems funny to me how all of these wars start out with small misunderstandings and a little bit of conniving. If warring parties would actually sit at the table and listen to each other and be honest, war could probably be averted nine times out of ten. However, as in Bismarck’s case, things are usually much more complicated. That old devil.
8 Aug 2002 WAR AFTER NAPOLEON TO WORLD WAR II After the defeat of Napoleon and the French Empire, the world looked favorably upon options ... of diplomatic matters for resolution prior to the announcement of war. War was viewed by now the evilest of all acts and ... The United States increased military vehicle construction consistently throughout the war and always had more net count than the previous year ...
Corley, T. A. B. , Democratic Despot A Life of Napoleon III. 1961. Barrie & Rockliff, London.
Gerard, Albert, Napoleon III A Great Life in Brief. 1966. Alfred A Knopf, New York. Kent, George O. , Bismarck and His Times. 1978.
Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale. Howard, Michael, The Franco-Prussian War The German Invasion of France. 1962. The Macmillan Company, New York. Maurice, General J. F.
, The Franco-German War. 1900. Swan Sonnenschein and Co. , Lim. , London.
Sempell, Charlotte, Otto von Bismarck. 1972. T wayne Publishers, Inc. , New York.