The War of 1870

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright November 2013


The War of 1870 was fought between Germany and France. It was the crowing achievement of Otto Von Bismarck, Chancellor of Prussia and the newly created North German Confederation lead by Prussia.

This war was the last in a series of splendid little wars masterminded by Bismarck. It was splendid and short, but it had one big surprise come out of it: The Paris Commune. This Commune experience was unexpected at the time and it became an inspiration for the socialist and communist revolutionaries that the world experienced in the first half of the 20th century.


Germany and Italy of the 1650's through 1850's were the playgrounds for the Sport of Kings: war. As France and England evolved from collections of feudal domains into nation states, the areas that are now Italy and Germany stayed politically fragmented and stayed the places where wars were fought. Aspiring kingdoms on all sides took their turns to march armies across these lands -- French, Austrians, Prussians, Swedes, Poles and Russians.

In the 1750's and 60's the Seven Years War rocked the region harder than usual. In addition to being an exciting war in the German lands, this was, in fact, a world war. Western European colonies, such as those of the Spanish, French and English in North America, partook in the fighting as well. (The French and Indian War) The British were on the winning side in this one, but it nearly bankrupted them. In part because of the austerity then forced upon the British Empire, this war was followed quickly by another that started in 1777, and would end with the North American colonies becoming the United States (The Revolutionary War). This one also spread world wide and ended in 1783. This one France and allies won. But unlike Britain in the Seven Years War, the French government was fully bankrupted by this effort, and in 1789 the French Revolution began as French citizens vented their outrage.

And other things around the German lands were changing as well. In the 1800's the first stage of the Industrial Revolution was sweeping through France, England and the German lands. This was a game changer. The first example of how much this would change the game was the dramatic sweep of French Revolution armies across Europe right to the edge of Russia. France had industrial muscle, revolutionary zeal, and Napoleon's military brilliance. Whew! An unbeatable combination that became legendary, until the combined Russian and Spanish campaigns of 1812 showed that Napoleon could overreach himself.

(The end of this era is the famous battle of Waterloo. But this is another curiosity of history. The era actually ended in 1813 when Napoleon recognized he was beaten and abdicated. But that ending was so smooth and painless that it couldn't make a good story end. Two years later in 1815 Napoleon returned to rule France and fought a desperate battle at Waterloo. He was tangibly defeated there, and that is the ending event history remembers.)

Napoleon's brief rule of the German area changed thinking there. The hope for a unified German state was seriously rekindled. In 1848 another big surprise rocked the world. Popular unrest swept across Europe from France to the Russian borders. It also spread in China and Latin America. But the zeal did not transform into concrete changes -- the zealots of the time could not agree on what to turn this zeal into, so instead they turned it into squabbling. And over the following couple years reactionary forces regained control and clamped down. For the conservatives, the monarchists in particular, this was a deeply scary time.

The reactionaries were back in control, but the causes for the unrest were still there and better solutions still needed to be found. Industrialization was still sweeping the lands and changing what were good ways to get things done.

In the German area two men rose to the occasion and took full advantage of the circumstances: The Prussians Otto Von Bismarck, as Chancellor, and William I as king. They worked hard and ingeniously to take advantage of the unrest. They worked hard and effectively to do two things:

o Work out effective government-run social programs for the people of Prussia to settle the unrest in their homeland

o Unify the lands between Prussia and the Rhine river into what would become the German Empire

These were tasks that would take a heady mix of diplomacy and military prowess, and this pair plus the Prussian military had the talent to accomplish it. History gives Bismarck most of the credit, but all were necessary.

The Lead up to 1870

The Germans wanted unification, the big question was who would do it? The two major contenders were Austria under the Hapsburgs and Prussia. Other contenders, and in this era of uncertainty they could not be counted out, were the other mid-size states of Germany such as Bavaria, and some Pan-German movement that wasn't connected with any state. This was what the unrest of 1848 had almost brought about.

The Hapsburgs had been the dominant influence in the German lands for a long time. They had contested with the French, Russians and Prussians for over a century. Getting them out of the running was the first success of the Bismarck/William team. In some fancy diplomatic footwork in 1865/66 concerning the succession of Schleswig and Holstein, lands between Denmark and Germany, Prussia first allied with, then turned on Austria. They won the Austro-Prussian War. This was a splendid little war which put Austria out of the running and let Prussia dominate what was now called the North German confederation.

Bismarck and team were careful all through this period to cultivate good relations with the Russians. But the French were another matter. Trying to maintain good relations with France was like trying to maintain good relations with a schizophrenic neighbor. Ever since the French Revolution began in 1789 the government of France had flip-flopped between republic, monarchy, and a few other styles, roughly every decade. In 1870 it was a monarchy again under Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon I. As the Austro-Prussian war ended Napoleon III was not happy about this sudden resurgence of Prussia and this new confederation.

Napoleon III had started his rulership with a lot of respect, but in these crucial years of the late 1860's Bismarck played him like a fiddle. Through various maneuvers and deceits he isolated Napoleon and the French from potential European allies, and he even got the French to declare the war.

The War and the Surprise

The war part of this was another splendid little war for the Prussians and their enthusiastic German allies. The French armies were defeated, surrounded and surrendered in two months. Neat stuff!

Then came the surprises: the French people, rather than surrendering along with the armies, decided to keep fighting. They formed yet another French republic (the fourth). The Prussians responded by surrounding Paris and besieging it. They were gentle, rational, in the siege. At first they didn't even bombard it. They just waited for the French people to come to their senses and sign a peace treaty. That sort of happened in January of 1871, and the Prussians left. But the French kept arguing among themselves.

In Paris the Paris Commune started. In the countryside south of Paris the citizens did a mix of arguing over whether this Fourth Republic/Commune was a good idea, a lot didn't think so.

Times now got really strange... even for these strange times. Bismarck and team got the Germans to agree to a German Empire. While that was happening the Parisians were doing more experimenting with radical governing styles. The Commune itself lasted for only two months -- March through May of 1871. But it became legendary as the first attempt at a socialist government, with a lot of flavors of anarchy and internationalism mixed in as well. People such as Karl Marx were following its progress closely. At the end of those two months the conservatives got well enough organized to attack Paris. In May the fighting got very nasty and became known as "La Semaine Sanglante", and the conservatives ousted the Communes.

But the Commune legend lived on... vividly, and inspired many socialists and communists of the early 20th century.

Yet another small war with big surprises.


--The End--