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New Glory & Defeat Episode: The End of the Franco-Prussian War

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

This week on Glory and Defeat: after 6 months of bitter and bloody fighting, the guns fall silent and the Germans march into Paris. https://youtu.be/Q3kVaW-A3Xc

Last week, the German Empire was officially proclaimed at Versailles, and yet another French attempt to break the siege of Paris failed. This week, the Franco-Prussian War comes to a messy end and unleashes ghosts that will haunt the future.

The French Government of National Defense is facing a catastrophic situation in late January 1871. Every attempt to break the siege of Paris has failed, and the Germans step up the bombardment of the city starting January 21. The shortages of food, fuel and medicine in Paris have caused mortality rates to skyrocket: more than 19,000 Parisians die in January 1871, nearly four times pre-siege monthly deaths, though only 107 of these deaths are attributed to the bombardment. The political atmosphere is explosive, and the government fears that an uprising like the one that failed in October 1870 might succeed if it breaks out again – there are already riots in the capital. All these factors have broken the French will to resist, and the government requests an armistice.

Many Germans long for peace as well, and the population is tiring of the daily casualty lists in the papers. Writer Gustav Freytag sums up the mood:
"Restless and undaunted, the soldier marches [on], but his bravery is no longer the fresh warlike fire of August [1870], but the stern, firm grip of the worker who wants to bring things to an end. [...] But when the German drives forward the endless lines of prisoners, and when he marches through the charred ruins of a French village, he looks indifferently on success and destruction. Only rarely is singing heard on the march and in billets." (Deuerlein, 310)

Negotiations for a ceasefire take several days. French Foreign Minister Jules Favre’s weak position is made clear by his own troops, who break out in a spontaneous cancan when they see him on his way to the peace talks. The Germans stop bombarding Paris on the 26th, and on January 28, the two agree to a three-week armistice that will take effect on the 31st.
The Germans also start to deliver food to starving Parisians. German writer Friedrich Gerstäcker witnesses the desperation firsthand:
"The people shouted to our soldiers, 'Give us bread! […] Even the children stuck their heads through [the barricade] just to be a little closer to the Prussians, who had been so feared until then, to get a piece of bread [...] Some of [our soldiers], thank God only a few, took advantage of the poor people and [sold] the long but very light loaves of white bread […] for two, three, even four francs. Those who had the money gave it, oh so willingly! But hundreds did not have it. [...] Next to me stood an old soldier [who] slowly shook his head: ‘To the Devil with this war! Hol’ der Teufel den Krieg!'" (Gerstäcker, 185)
But the Germans maintain the blockade of Paris even after the ceasefire to ensure the terms are met. The French must clear the city’s forts and disarm combatants; leave only 12,000 National Guardsmen under arms to maintain order; pay 200 million Francs in war dues; and surrender the garrison’s 200,000 Chassepots and 2000 guns. Parisian regiments may keep their standards and officers their swords.

For French writer Edmond de Goncourt, the armistice is a disgrace: "Ah, une main française a-t-elle pu signer cela! […] C’est bien la fin des grandeurs de la France. Ah, could a French hand have signed that! [...] This is the end of the greatness of France. " (Goncourt, 213) For the city’s starving workers and poor on the other hand, the ceasefire is a relief, for the time being.

The Paris government is surprised that Bismarck spares the city a total surrender. He does this to keep what he sees as a stable French government in office. The armistice even allows for French elections to take place February 8, in which residents of German-occupied and soon-to-be-annexed Alsace and Lorraine are allowed to vote. French voters send a majority of monarchist representatives to the Constituent Assembly in Bordeaux, while the radical left does poorly except in Paris.
Conservative French voters in the provinces send a clear message to the new government: sign a peace treaty and end radical political experimentation. The election is not necessarily against the republic and in favour of restoring the monarchy – it is a victory for the peace party and a defeat of bellicose politicians like Leon Gambetta. The new President is conservative liberal Adolphe Thiers, whom the Germans find more reliable than the outgoing Government of National Defense.

A ceasefire has silenced the guns in most of France at the end of January, but it does not apply to the east, where the French Armee de L’Est suffers a historic humiliation.

The Army of the East has been advancing towards Alsace in the hope of relieving the besieged fortress of Belfort, but General Bourbaki’s hesitation after battles at Villersexel and on the Lisaine put his army in a hopeless situation in the non-armistice zone. Journalist Friedrich Engels suspects this is part of the German plan:

"In this unparalleled example the conqueror, in true Prussian fashion, has extorted every concession which his momentary superiority allows him to. The armistice applies to the West, where Frederick Charles finds that he had better not go beyond Le Mans; it applies to the North, where Goeben is held up by fortifications; but it does not apply to the South-East, where Manteuffel's advance holds out the prospect of a second Sedan." (Engels, 311f.)
French troops are freezing, hungry, and sick, and morale is low after their defeats. Since the Germans cut off their escape routes west, they are trapped in mountainous terrain along the Swiss border. By January 26, Bourbaki has lost all hope and attempts suicide – the bullet grazes his skull but he survives. General Justin Clichant assumes command of the Army of the East in dire circumstances. They hear of the Paris armistice but don’t know that they’re excluded from it, so men and officers are confused when the Prussians continue to close in. After the final firefights cost 500 more French lives, on February 1, 1871 the 87,000 men of the Army of the East escape into neutral Switzerland. Danish volunteer Wilhelm Dinesen notes the exasperation of a fellow French officer:
"This is not war, this is a masquerade. I'm going to Switzerland now!" (Buk-Swienty, 334).
The Swiss disarm, intern, feed, and care for the exhausted French soldiers. Many of them are suffering from smallpox, which helps set off an international outbreak that will kill hundreds of thousands. The flight of the Armee de L’Est is one of the most humiliating moments in French military history. It is commemorated today by the 1881 Bourbaki Panorama museum in Lucerne and marks an important milestone in the development of the Swiss humanitarian tradition.

The end of the Army of the East is also the end of combat in the Franco-Prussian War. In February delegates extend the armistice and begin negotiations for a preliminary peace, and the Germans finally enter Paris.

After more talks, on February 26 Bismarck and Favre sign the preliminary peace. Germany annexes Alsace and part of Lorraine. France must pay war reparations of 5 billion francs, an enormous sum. German troops will be permitted to march into Paris and stay in France until the reparations are paid – which will turn out to be 1873. Most of the highly symbolic battlefields of 1870 are now in Germany, except for Mars-la-Tour and Belfort.
Another symbolic act is the German occupation of Paris on March 1. 30,000 troops march into the city and the new Kaiser holds a victory parade. But they only stay for two days, since the National Assembly in Bordeaux immediately ratifies the preliminary peace. Even so, proud Parisians like Edmond de Goncourt feel humiliated having enemy troops quartered in their homes:
"I don't know, but my door opening and giving way to these Germans […]
this prospect makes me suffer, and causes me physical pain." (Goncourt, 222)

German soldier Karl Zeitz sees the brief occupation of Paris and victory parade much differently:
"And now the thunder of the cannons also resounded. [...] The battalions stood as if cast from iron. The Emperor sprinted along the fronts, greeting them. In bright joy, in manly pride, the eyes of his soldiers shone towards him […] Everyone was filled with a feeling of great pride at being able to carry our victorious arms into the heart of the enemy country". (Zeitz, 405, 407).
But glory and defeat are a dangerous mix. German painter Ludwig Pietsch is horrified to see the Paris crowds take revenge on French women thought to have talked or flirted with Germans:
"They tear off the clothes of those unfortunates after they have beaten them bloody, or tie them together above their heads, brush and whip their naked bodies to the immense amusement of the 'heroes of freedom' [in the crowd]." (Pietsch, 513)
British journalist William Howard Russell is mistaken for a German and saved from an angry mob by the timely intervention of a French officer.

The Treaty of Frankfurt formally ends the Franco-Prussian War on May 10, by confirming the terms of the preliminary peace signed in February. 45,000 Germans and 140,000 Frenchmen are dead. The united German Empire is now the strongest power on the continent, a power born of blood and iron rather than liberal democratic patriotism. Bismarck hopes to preserve these victories through diplomacy, but there’s no guarantee that future German leaders will not turn to blood and iron again.
France is a republic born of defeat, humiliation, and bitterness. In the decades to come, the peoples of Asia and Africa will pay the price for the restoration of French prestige through empire, but nationalists will keep the open wound of revanchisme alive for a future reckoning with Germany. Although there will be peace among the powers until the fateful summer of 1914, in spring 1871 there is to be no peace within France. Even before the Frankfurt Treaty is signed, revolutionary zeal and workers’ misery explodes in the Commune – Europe’s first great socialist experiment that ends in a bloodbath of civil war.

1871 Glory & Defeat

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