In 1867, shortly after Prussia’s decisive military victories over Denmark (in 1864) and Austria (in 1866), a dinner guest asked the Prussian prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, about the prospect of a further armed conflict, this time against France. Would it be expedient to somehow provoke a French attack on Prussia in order to unify the German states against a common enemy? Bismarck rejected the idea: ‘Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.’
Three years later, however, that war had become a reality, and it would radically alter the balance of power on the Continent. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 was Europe’s bloodiest conflict between the Congress of Vienna (1814–15) and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Some two million soldiers saw action and more than 180,000 died. Prussia was joined by the southern German states of Bavaria, Baden and Württemberg, paving the way for German unification through war.
The formal cause of the conflict was a quarrel over the succession to the Spanish throne. Bismarck had encouraged Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a relative of the Prussian king, Wilhelm I, to stake his claim to the throne. For France and its ruler, Napoleon III, the thought of dynastic encirclement by the Hohenzollern family was unacceptable. Leopold eventually withdrew his candidacy, but Wilhelm refused to renounce his family’s claim to the throne for the future.
To be sure, the French emperor had additional reasons for going to war with Prussia. The conflict seemed like a good opportunity to deflect attention from domestic tensions and simultaneously stop Prussia’s ascent as a major European power to rival France. In the end, however, the war was a disaster for Napoleon III and a triumph for Bismarck, who had engineered it. His victory over France dramatically changed the European map and ended France’s de facto hegemony on the Continent.
Despite its significance, the Franco-Prussian War has received relatively little attention in the Anglophone world. One of Britain’s leading historians of war, the late Sir Michael Howard, wrote an excellent and still very readable account of the conflict, but that was more than sixty years ago. Since then, the field of war studies, broadly defined, has changed significantly and it is now characterised by a more pronounced interest in the human and social experiences of war.
Rachel Chrastil’s latest book, Bismarck’s War, is therefore a welcome new addition to the literature. It is precisely that human dimension of the war, the suffering of civilians and soldiers alike, that takes centre stage in Chrastil’s account. Instead of adopting the perspective of senior politicians and generals, Chrastil, a professor at Xavier University in Ohio, portrays the war from the perspective of ordinary soldiers and junior to mid-ranking officers, such as Dietrich von Lassberg, a 22-year-old from Munich, who confided in his diary how euphoric he and his brother Rudolf were when they were told that their native Bavaria would be joining Prussia in its fight against France.
Like von Lassberg, Bismarck and his generals viewed the prospect of war optimistically. The Prussian chief-of-staff, Helmuth von Moltke, felt so confident of victory that shortly after the French declaration of war he was lying on his sofa reading Walter Scott. A friend asked why he was seemingly so relaxed, to which Moltke replied: ‘Why not? Everything is ready. We’ve only got to press the button.’
Moving large numbers of troops by railway, Moltke managed to swiftly deploy three armies close to the French border. Already by 12 August, trains had moved some 640,000 troops, 1,700 horses and 1,600 artillery pieces to the front line. Yet achieving victory was not quite as easy as the Prussians had anticipated. The French initially inflicted heavy casualties on their advancing opponents, notably through the mitrailleuses, first-generation machine guns. Eventually, however, the more advanced Prussian steel cannons produced by Krupp proved decisive. By late August, some 130,000 French troops had retreated to Sedan, close to the Meuse river and the Belgian border. Moltke, overlooking the encircled city from the river’s left bank, was delighted: ‘Now we have them in a mousetrap.’
The French army leadership seemed fully aware of their desperate situation. ‘We are in the chamber pot,’ the French general Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot crudely put it, ‘and we shall be shat on.’ On 1 September, only six weeks after the outbreak of hostilities, Wilhelm I, Bismarck and some other German royals watched the destruction of the enemy from a nearby hilltop. The following day, the French emperor surrendered and went into captivity, leaving France once more a republic.
If Bismarck hoped that the victory at Sedan would end the war, he was soon proved wrong. The new French political leadership under the 32-year-old Léon Gambetta refused to acknowledge defeat and decided to continue the armed struggle. Gambetta himself dramatically escaped from besieged Paris in a hot-air balloon to lead a new mobilisation, first from Tours and then from Bordeaux. With large parts of the French army shattered or captured, Gambetta drew on guerrilla fighters, or francs-tireurs, who ambushed regular Prussian troops and killed a thousand of them. He was supported by the colourful Italian republican Giuseppe Garibaldi, who commanded some eighteen thousand men in the Vosges. Moltke responded to what he considered a violation of the rules of war with savage reprisals and executions of hostages.
In light of the brutal fighting and killing, even formerly enthusiastic volunteers such as von Lassberg became disillusioned: ‘How much is left out by the numerous painters of battles, who often give their dead a kind of beautiful and ideal appearance, so that you really seek to put yourself in their place! These beautiful, ideal corpses of soldiers do not exist!’
Chrastil excels in providing vivid descriptions of military operations and their impact on ordinary soldiers and civilians, notably in a chapter on the artillery bombardment of Paris, which began on 5 January 1871. For three weeks, artillery shells rained down on the city in an attempt to break the spirit of its inhabitants, who had been besieged since September the previous year. Terrified Parisians sought refuge in cellars. The siege also caused food shortages and made some desperate people eat domestic animals and more exotic fare, such as an elephant named Castor, housed in the Paris zoo. Those, like Gambetta, who could afford it escaped the city in hot-air balloons operated by the private Compagnie Nationale Aérostatique.
While the bloody siege of Paris and guerrilla fighting in the countryside were still ongoing, Bismarck used the political momentum of the victory at Sedan to achieve his objective of unifying Germany under Prussian leadership. On 18 January 1871, in a ceremony that took place in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, he proclaimed Wilhelm I as German emperor. A few months later, the new German state imposed a harsh treaty on the French, who by now had been defeated. France was required to pay an enormous indemnity of five billion francs and to cede the borderlands of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany.
Chrastil brings these events to life in a vivid way. Her book is likely to become the standard account of the war in English. What remains somewhat unclear, and could have been made more explicit, is how exactly she sees the ‘place’ of the Franco-Prussian War in the broader context of modern European history. She characterises the war as technologically modern, with advanced artillery being the decisive reason for Prussia’s victory, and as a ‘total’ conflict, in the sense that the lines between civilians and combatants were blurred, but she is hesitant to go beyond saying that the Franco-Prussian War made the two world wars ‘more thinkable and created their possibility’. A firmer conclusion about how the Franco-Prussian War contributed to the ‘making of modern Europe’ would have made this highly commendable book outstanding.