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Franco-German War,1870–71, conflict between France and Prussia that signaled the rise of German military power and imperialism. It was provoked by Otto von Bismarck (the Prussian chancellor) as part of his plan to create a unified German Empire.
The emergence of Prussia as the leading German power and the increasing unification of the German states were viewed with apprehension by Napoleon IIINapoleon III
(Louis Napoleon Bonaparte), 1808–73, emperor of the French (1852–70), son of Louis Bonaparte (see under Bonaparte, family), king of Holland. Early Life
..... Click the link for more information. after the Prussian victory in the Austro-Prussian WarAustro-Prussian War
or Seven Weeks War,
June 15–Aug. 23, 1866, between Prussia, allied with Italy, and Austria, seconded by Bavaria, Württemberg, Saxony, Hanover, Baden, and several smaller German states.
..... Click the link for more information. of 1866. BismarckBismarck, Otto von
, 1815–98, German statesman, known as the Iron Chancellor. Early Life and Career
Born of an old Brandenburg Junker family, he studied at Göttingen and Berlin, and after holding minor judicial and administrative offices he was elected
..... Click the link for more information. , at the same time, deliberately encouraged the growing rift between Prussia and France in order to bring the states of S Germany into a national union. He made sure of Russian and Italian neutrality and counted—correctly—on British neutrality. War preparations were pushed on both sides, with remarkable inefficiency in France and with astounding thoroughness in Prussia.
The immediate pretext for war presented itself when the throne of Spain was offered to a prince of the house of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a branch of the ruling house of Prussia. The offer, at first accepted on Bismarck's advice, was rejected (July 12) after a strong French protest. But the aggressive French foreign minister, the duc de Gramont, insisted on further Prussian assurances, which King William I of Prussia (later Emperor William IWilliam I,
1797–1888, emperor of Germany (1871–88) and king of Prussia (1861–88), second son of the future King Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg.
..... Click the link for more information. ) refused. Bismarck, by publishing the famous Ems dispatchEms dispatch,
1870, communication between King William of Prussia (later German Emperor William I) and his premier, Otto von Bismarck. In June, 1870, the throne of Spain was offered to Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a relative of King William.
..... Click the link for more information. , inflamed French feeling, and on July 19, France declared war.
The Course of the War
Partly because they believed France the aggressor, the states of S Germany enthusiastically joined the North German Confederation—just as Bismarck had hoped. The military conduct of the war was, for the Germans, in the hands of Helmuth Karl Bernhard von MoltkeMoltke, Helmuth Karl Bernhard, Graf von,
1800–1891, Prussian field marshal. Following his graduation from the Royal Military Academy of Denmark, he entered the Danish service, but resigned his commission in 1822 to join the Prussian army.
..... Click the link for more information. , a military genius. On the French side, Napoleon III took active command, but it soon devolved on Marshal BazaineBazaine, Achille François
, 1811–88, French army officer. He served in Algeria, Crimea, Lombardy, and Mexico, and in the Franco-Prussian War he was given (Aug., 1870) the supreme command by Emperor Napoleon III.
..... Click the link for more information. .
On Aug. 4, 1870, the Germans crossed the border into Alsace. They defeated the French at Wissembourg, pushed the French under Marshal MacMahonMacMahon, Marie Edmé Patrice de
, 1808–93, president of the French republic (1873–79), marshal of France. MacMahon, of Irish descent, fought in the Algerian campaign, in the Crimean War, and in the Italian war of 1859.
..... Click the link for more information. to Châlons-en-Champagne, and forced a wedge between MacMahon's forces and those of Bazaine, centered on Metz. Bazaine, attempting to join MacMahon, was defeated at Vionville (Aug. 16) and Gravelotte (Aug. 18) and returned to Metz. The Germans began their march on Paris, and on Sept. 1 the attempt of Napoleon III and MacMahon to rescue Bazaine led to disaster at Sedan. The emperor and 100,000 of his men were captured.
When the news of Sedan reached Paris a bloodless revolution occurred. Napoleon was deposed, and a provisional government of national defense was formed under General TrochuTrochu, Louis Jules
, 1815–96, French general. He fought in Algeria, in the Crimean War, and in the Italian war of 1859. In L'Armée française en 1867 (1867), he criticized the French army and urged its reorganization.
..... Click the link for more information. , Léon GambettaGambetta, Léon
, 1838–82, French republican leader. A lawyer who achieved some note as an opponent of the Second Empire of Napoleon III, he was elected deputy in 1869 and joined the parliamentary opposition.
..... Click the link for more information. , and Jules FavreFavre, Jules
, 1809–80, French statesman. At first a partisan of the July Monarchy, he joined the republican opposition to King Louis Philippe. After the February Revolution of 1848 he was one of the leaders of the provisional government.
..... Click the link for more information. . Paris was surrounded by the Germans on Sept. 19, and a grueling siege began. Gambetta escaped from Paris in a balloon to organize resistance in the provinces. FaidherbeFaidherbe, Louis Léon César
, 1818–89, French colonial administrator. He was a leading participant in the establishment of the French colonial empire in Africa.
..... Click the link for more information. made a gallant stand on the Loire, ChanzyChanzy, Antoine Eugène Alfred
, 1823–83, French general. After service in Algeria, Italy, and Syria, he was refused a major command in the Franco-Prussian War because he was distrusted by the emperor Napoleon III.
..... Click the link for more information. in the north, and BourbakiBourbaki, Charles Denis Sauter
, 1816–97, French general of Greek ancestry. In the Algerian campaigns and the Crimean War he gained one of the highest military reputations in Europe. Offered the Greek throne (1862), he declined.
..... Click the link for more information. in the east, but the surrender (Oct. 27) of Bazaine, with a garrison of 180,000 men, made such resistance useless. Paris, however, held out until Jan. 28, 1871, suffering several months of famine. Though Bismarck and Adolphe ThiersThiers, Adolphe
, 1797–1877, French statesman, journalist, and historian.
After studying law at Aix-en-Provence, Thiers went (1821) to Paris and joined the group of writers that attacked the reactionary government of King Charles X.
..... Click the link for more information. signed an armistice on the same day, the fortress of BelfortBelfort
, city (1990 pop. 51,913), capital of the Territory of Belfort (a department), E France, in Alsace. An important industrial and transportation center, it has large cotton mills and metalworks. A major fortress town since the 17th cent.
..... Click the link for more information. resisted until Feb. 16.
Results of the War
In the war's aftermath, Thiers was named chief of the executive power in France, and provision was made for the election of a French national assembly, which met at Bordeaux. The assembly accepted (Mar. 1) the preliminary peace agreement, which was formalized in the Treaty of Frankfurt (ratified May 21, 1871). France agreed to pay an indemnity of $1 billion within three years—an indemnity fully paid before the term expired. AlsaceAlsace
, Ger. Elsass, former province and former administrative region, E France. It is separated from Germany by a part of the Rhine River. It comprises the departments of Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin, and the Territory of Belfort (a department created after the Franco-Prussian
..... Click the link for more information. , except the Territory of Belfort, and a large part of LorraineLorraine
, Ger. Lothringen, former province and former administrative region, NE France, bordering in the N on Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany, in the E on Alsace, in the S on Franche-Comté, and in the W on Champagne.
..... Click the link for more information. were ceded to Germany, which on Jan. 18, 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles had been proclaimed an empire under William I.
Paris refused to disarm and to submit to the Thiers regime, and the Commune of ParisCommune of Paris,
insurrectionary governments in Paris formed during (1792) the French Revolution and at the end (1871) of the Franco-Prussian War. In the French Revolution, the Revolutionary commune, representing urban workers, tradespeople, and radical bourgeois, engineered
..... Click the link for more information. was formed. The French troops loyal to Thiers began the second siege of Paris (Apr.–May, 1871). After the cruel suppression of the commune, peace returned to France.
Besides establishing the Third French Republic and the German Empire, the Franco-Prussian War had other far-reaching effects. Desire for revenge guided French policy for the following half-century. Prussian militarism had triumphed and laid the groundwork for German imperialistic ventures. The Papal StatesPapal States,
Ital. Lo Stato della Chiesa, from 754 to 1870 an independent territory under the temporal rule of the popes, also called the States of the Church and the Pontifical States. The territory varied in size at different times; in 1859 it included c.
..... Click the link for more information. , no longer protected by Napoleon III, were annexed by Italy, which thus completed its unification. These and other effects were links in the chain of causes that set off World War I.
See R. H. Lord, The Origins of the War of 1870 (1924, repr. 1966); D. Clarke, ed., Roger de Mauni: The Franco-Prussian War (1970); M. Howard, The Franco-Prussian War (1981).