It’s July, 1870. In Europe, there’s been no Great Power war since 1815. But now, the growing rivalry between the French Empire and the German Kingdom of Prussia is set to explode – and all it will take is one telegram: https://youtu.be/Od4lVhcvnxw
Welcome to Glory and Defeat, the story of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71. Starting today, we’re going to cover the events of the war week-by-week, 151 years later.
In July 1870, Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck has dreams of a united Germany under Prussian leadership. Prussia already dominates the northern German states in the North German Confederation, but to bind the southern German states to Prussia, he needs another war – and he has the largest army in Europe to fight it with. French emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie also have dreams of a glorious French Empire – but the rise of Prussia in recent years is a threat to France’s position.
Continued French dominance in Europe, and a Germany united under Prussia: to achieve these dreams of glory would also mean risking defeat. All the two sides need is an excuse to fight. And as strange as it may seem, the crisis that starts the Franco-Prussian War begins in Spain.
The Spanish throne has been unoccupied since the 1868 revolution deposed Queen Isabella II. After much debate, the new Spanish government choose Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen to be their new king. Leopold belongs to a branch of the Prussian ruling house of Hohenzollern, but he isn’t a Prussian – and he only accepts the Spanish throne after three offers. Bismarck is delighted, but when the news arrives in Paris on July 3, 1870, it’s so explosive it’s dubbed the “Spanish bomb.” For Empress Eugénie, Prime Minister Émile Ollivier and Foreign Minister the Duc de Gramont, it’s unacceptable that the Prussian royal house might also rule Spain. Gramont though, senses a win-win opportunity. He reasons that Prussia can be humiliated and forced to back down; or there will be a war France will win.
Gramont makes his case in a fiery speech to parliament:
“We do not believe that respect for a neighboring people’s rights obliges us to suffer that a foreign power, by placing one of the princes on the [Spanish] throne […], can disturb the current equilibrium of the forces in Europe to our detriment, and put in danger the interests and the honor of France.” (Milza 53)
Gramont also sends ambassador Count Vincent Benedetti to Bad Ems, where Prussian King Wilhelm I was spending his holiday. Benedetti demands that Prussia force Leopold to refuse the Spanish offer, which outrages Wilhelm. He doesn’t recognize Gramont’s ploy and blames Bismarck for the crisis. The King does ask Leopold’s father Karl Anton to renounce his son’s candidacy on his behalf, which is done. Gramont is still not satisfied, and now insists on a declaration that no Hohenzollern will ever claim the Spanish throne again. On July 13th, in a serious breach of courtly protocol, Count Benedetti approaches King Wilhelm on the spa promenade and relays the new demand. Wilhelm refuses to make the declaration, and asks his advisor to inform Bismarck about the events in Bad Ems by telegram. This message to Bismarck is the original Emser Depesche, the Ems Dispatch. Bismarck now sees his chance to provoke war with France.
He modifies the dispatch’s wording to make it seem as though King Wilhelm had disrespected the French ambassador, and has it sent to all Prussian diplomats:
“His Majesty the King [then] refused to receive the French envoy again and informed him through an adjutant that His Majesty had nothing further to say to the Ambassador.” (Snyder 215)
The provocative Ems Dispatch, as manipulated by Bismarck, reaches French newspapers on July 14 - of all days, the French national holiday. And it works exactly as Bismarck intended.
The Ems Dispatch shocks the French government of Emperor Napoleon III. The Council of Ministers meets on the 14th, and Gramont is forced to justify the demands he made of the Prussians since the Council had never approved them. The Ministers are divided, but eventually accept the Emperor’s proposal for an international conference to resolve the crisis and avoid a war. But Empress Eugénie and War Minister Edmond LeBoeuf then pressure Napoleon III to scrap the conference and mobilize the army, and he gives in. This is an informal declaration of war against Prussia.
The next day, the French parliament meets. After fierce debate, members resolve that war will be declared and vote war credits. The mood amongst many Frenchmen was heated, as Private Serpollet describes:
“Everyone here is fired up, all shout: Prussia, Prussia! Yesterday […] the band played La Marseillaise, everyone was jumping in spite of the 60 pounds we had on our backs. I wish you could be here when a new dispatch arrives: we don’t hear each other; we all run to the weapons rack […] we overturn the beds, we fight, we roll, the sergeants want to intervene, but we slam the door in their faces. Discipline is relaxed, we no longer see so many punishments [...]. When you talk to the French soldier about war, he wants to massacre everything. (Le soldat français quand on lui parle de guerre, veut tout massacrer.) (Girard 462)
Prussian writer Theodor Fontane isn’t in Paris, but later records what he had heard:
"Countless bands, some more than a thousand strong, marched through the streets often led by soldiers and preceded by the tricolor flag. They constantly shouted: 'Long live the war! Down with Bismarck!'. Thousands more joined them, applauded, or sang along to the Marseillaise. The police let everything go. [...] then torches appeared, and others lit street brooms on fire. The drunks swung and hurled them into the trees so that some began to burn along the boulevard. Then they went home at dawn.” (Fontane 39)
France is about to declare war on Prussia, and the press and many Frenchmen are infected with war fervor. These developments are also being reported in the German press, and Prussia and its allies are ready to react.
On the 15th, King Wilhelm I leaves Bad Ems to deal with the crisis from Berlin. Crowds of Berliners cheer his carriage from the station to his palace, and in the streets, thousands sing patriotic songs like the Wacht am Rhein and the Preußenlied. The night of July 16, Prussia and Bavaria mobilize their armies. In the Bavarian capital of Munich, 30,000 people gather to cheer King Ludwig II on the 17th, and the state parliament meets on the 18th. The debate is lively: some members support going to war under the defensive alliance with Prussia, while others only want Bavaria to maintain armed neutrality.
Some Bavarian lawmakers oppose joining the war because they’re worried about the safety of the Palatinate region which borders France. Pastor and parliamentarian Anton Westermayer shares those fears:
"Die spanische Thronfrage habe mit Deutschland nichts zu schaffen. The Spanish throne question has nothing to do with Germany; it’s merely a question of dynastic interests. Both sides made mistakes, and now peoples must bleed for the sensitivities of their princes […]. [I] do not want the Palatines to suffer the horrors of war […]. But if a thief gets into the neighbor's house, I must lock up my own house and cannot bring help to the neighbor." (Fontane 74)
When the dust settles, Bavaria has voted for war, and King Ludwig telegraphs the decision to the Prussian king in Berlin.
The southern Kingdom of Württemberg is also less than enthusiastic. Its leaders fear the Prussification of the kingdom, and endangering their good relations with neighboring France, but they mobilize anyway. The Grand Duchy of Baden also borders France, but has good relations with Prussia. If there is war, only Prussia can protect Baden, so the Grand Duchy mobilizes. Once the Grand Duchy of Hesse mobilizes, Prussian King Wilhelm I is now in command of an entire German army – and there is still no official declaration of war.
This week, the famous Ems Dispatch has given those who wanted war in France and Prussia the honorable excuse they need.
The French war party rallies around Empress Eugénie, who also wants to preserve the throne of her ailing husband for her son. Bismarck plans to use the coming war to unite Germany under Prussia – unlike the failed revolution of 1848, Germany is to be created not by the people, but by princes and generals. In his eyes, North and South Germans are now marching together against their Old Enemy to create a new Prussian Empire. The fact that Napoleon III and King Wilhelm I hadn’t actually wanted war was now irrelevant, and next week the Franco-Prussian War will officially begin.
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Mährle, Wolfgang (Hrsg.) : Nation im Siegesrausch. Württemberg und die Gründung des Deutschen Reiches 1870/71. Stuttgart 2020
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Louis L. Snyder, ed., Documents of German History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958