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The Causes and Consequences of the Franco-Prussian War


The events leading up to the Franco-Prussian War extend back into the 1860s, following the Austro-Prussian War, and stem from France’s growing fear of the Prussian military machine and Germany’s expanding borders. German unification created a behemoth on France’s Eastern border, and following the decimation of Austria in 1966, France was afraid of the power of this new nation. In fact, the unification of German states had been a fear of the French government since the 18th century, when Chancellor Richelieu’s foreign policy stated that Germany must be kept in separate, feuding states to keep them from becoming too powerful.

The question is, did Napoleon III simply ignore the danger of a unified Germany in his animosity toward Austria, or did he have a plan to benefit from the Austro-Prussian War which failed? Either way, he certainly underestimated the power of the Prussian military. It seems that Napoleon, believing that the Austrians would gain the advantage early in the war, intended to join the Prussians against the Austrians at an opportune time, in exchange for Germanic lands along the Rhine, thereby expanding his own border. [Dukes, 261] However, he was most unpleasantly surprised when the Prussians overran the Austrian army in the space of a few weeks.

In the years to come, Napoleon made some foreign policy decisions that were suspicious at the very least, and often tended more toward stupid. Napoleon hungered after prestige in the eyes of the world, wanting the kind of power his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, had enjoyed before his empire was destroyed. He wanted to expand France’s lands, and since the plan to get the Rhinelands did not work out, he decided to look north to Belgium and Luxembourg instead. Prussian Chancellor Bismarck supported Napoleon in his claim for Luxembourg at first, but later did an about-face, apparently deciding that the best way to unite the independent southern German states (those which were powerful enough not to have been sucked into the North German Confederation after the Austro-Prussian War) to the rest of Germany was to stir up German Nationalism. [Grenville; 312] And the best way to stir up nationalism is to have a common enemy, in this case, France. Bismarck got Napoleon to write a formal document in 1867 stating his desires for Luxembourg and Belgium, and eventually published it in the London Times in 1870; thus eliminating England as a potential French ally, since England would not condone or allow aggression on Belgium. It is important to remember that at this time, most of Europe considered France to be the bigger threat, rather than Germany. [Briggs & Clavin; 123] Everyone was keeping their eyes on Napoleon III, watching to make sure he did not attempt to create a European empire as his uncle had done. This aggression towards the north was certain to lose France what friends she still had, and there were not many to begin with.

I have mentioned that Bismarck seemed to be manipulating events, publishing documents at opportune times, shifting his loyalty to his own advantage. It is still argued today whether Bismarck was merely taking advantage of opportunities that Napoleon’s stupidity afforded him, or if Bismarck was manufacturing these opportunities, manipulating events to ensure that Napoleon’s stupidity would lead him into carefully planned diplomatic traps. It is clear that Bismarck was using a conflict with France to bring the recalcitrant southern German states into the North German Confederation; not so much because he wanted a truly unified German state, but because a unified Germany under Prussian control (as the North German Confederation was), would bring more political power to Prussia. [Schroeder; 175] It is not an accident that the war is called the Franco-Prussian War rather than the Franco-German War. But Bismarck was savvy enough to know that he had to play upon German nationalism in the face of French opposition in order to achieve full Prussian control in Germany. As historian J.A.S. Grenville has said: “Bismarck’s success in the end lady in his ability to harness the 19th century force of nationalism to the traditional cause of the Prussian crown.”

The supreme example of Bismarck’s event-managing came in 1869, when a Spanish revolution forced Queen Isabella into exile, leaving the throne empty. Looking for a powerful ally, the leader of the Spanish temporary government approached the Prussian house of Hohenzollern, distantly related to the royal family of Spain, and offered the throne to Prince Leopold Hohenzollern. Note that the King of Prussia was also a Hohenzollern. When the French heard that they could potentially be surrounded by Prussian Hohenzollern kings, they raised an uproar. Now, Leopold had intended to refuse the offer, but Bismarck pushed him into it, intentionally fomenting trouble with the French. This was all Bismarck’s doing—King Wilhelm wanted to avoid trouble with the French, and did not really want Prince Leopold to pursue the Spanish throne. [Grenville; 325] Eventually the French outcry was too loud to ignore, and Wilhelm revoked his permission for Leopold to take the throne.

If France had left the issue there, the Franco-Prussian War might have been avoided. But Napoleon wanted it in writing that the candidature of Prince Leopold would never be renewed, and sent Ambassador Benedetti to procure that promise. Benedetti met King Wilhelm at Ems, demanding an official statement that he would not back a Prussian for the Spanish throne again. Wilhelm refused insistently, but cordially. However, when Bismarck received a transcript of the encounter, he edited the text so that Wilhelm’s refusal seemed highly abrupt and rude, not only to Benedetti’s request, but to the ambassador himself—and thereby, to France.

Bismarck had this edited version published in Paris newspapers, where it was read with outrage by the French public. The universal opinion in the press and public together was that France had been insulted, and they demanded war with Prussia to make amends. Now, to understand how a public outcry like this one could so influence an emperor who, despite his somewhat questionable foreign policy decisions, must have realized that the French military was woefully unready for a war with Prussia [Grenville; 339], we have to look back at the formation of the Second Empire. Napoleon, having first been elected President of the Second Republic, soon staged a coup, using propaganda to convince the French populace that the Assembly had plotted against him. This was accepted because the economy happened to take a turn for the better at the same time. He also used the Crimean War to build up French nationalism and pride. [Dukes; 250] Basically, the Second Empire was based on public opinion. Public support got Napoleon III in power and kept him there. Going against the wishes of the French people would have been a very dangerous thing for Napoleon to do. Rather than flout his subjects, Napoleon III declared war on Prussia on 19 July, 1870.
The French army surrendered by September of the same year, and the people of Paris, having declared the Third Republic and continued to hold off the Prussians, gave in under siege in January of 1871.

This defeat displaced France as one of the supreme powers in Europe, leaving her with no army, no emperor (Napoleon III abdicated his throne, and went into exile), and a large war debt. As France was blamed for the war, she was expected to pay for it, and Prussia demanded five billion francs in restitution—something like fifty billion francs in today’s money. Besides all this, Prussia annexed the border territory of Alsace-Lorraine, one of the most productive regions along the Rhine. This loss led to increased hatred between France and Germany throughout the late 19th and early 20th century—all the way up through World War II Alsace-Lorraine has remained a strong source of contention in Europe.

Germany, on the other hand, became the most powerful nation on the European Continent with its defeat of historically great France. The reluctant southern states had been forced into joining the North German Confederation at the outset of the war—they could not very well remain neutral, in the position they were in, and they had been as upset as the rest of Europe at Napoleon’s intentions to take the Rhinelands. After all, much of that land belonged to them! With their own territory threatened by France, they took the only acceptable route and sided with Prussia.

Bismarck, having achieved German unification, created the German Empire, or Kaisereich, declaring Prussia’s King Wilhelm to be Kaiser Wilhelm I. As far as Bismarck was concerned, he had won. Germany (ergo Prussia) had control of Europe, and he was quite content to rest on his laurels. However, the loss of the independent southern states began to make nearby countries feel a little more afraid of the new, larger Germany which was no longer had an independent buffer zone around it. Tension over the power of Germany continued to grow throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th century. [Schroeder; 182]



Briggs, Asa & Clavin, Patricia. Modern Europe 1789-1989. London & New York: Longman, 1997.

Dukes, Paul. A History of Europe 1648-1948: The Arrival, The Rise, The Fall. London: Macmillan, 1985.

Grenville, J.A.S. Europe Reshaped 1848-1878. Great Britain: Fontana/Collins, 1976.

Schroeder, Paul W. “The creation of Prussia-Germany.” The Nineteenth Century. Ed. T.C.W. Blanning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.


This paper originated as a paper for Topics in History: European History 1914-1945, Harlaxton College, Spring, 2002.

©2002 by Jandy Stone