Franco-Prussian War 1870

Tensions over the balance of power in Europe caused a great deal of bloodshed in the 19th and 20th centuries and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was no exception; the relatively brief nine-month conflict would result in approximately a million casualties. Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismark sought to unify the various German states and principalities into a single national state and saw a war with France as an opportunity to inflame the nationalistic sentiments necessary to bring about German unification. France, under the leadership of President Napoleon III, saw a unified Germany under the leadership of the powerful Prussian military as too great a threat to the European balance of power. The spark for war was provided by the Ems Dispatch, a telegram that reported on perceived insults from the French ambassador to the Prussian King in July and was released in a public statement by Bismarck. The French declared war on July 19, 1870 and the militarily inexperienced Napoleon III took command of the French forces. Within months, it was clear the French had made serious miscalculations. Napoleon III was captured in the Battle of Sedan in September and spent the next six months as a prisoner of war. The far more advanced Prussian military possessed superior weapons technology and were able to quickly and effectively defeat the French. The war accomplished Bismarck’s goal of unifying the German state, and the territorial and political tensions between the French and the Germans would provide the impetus for the World Wars of the twentieth century.


French satirical map from July 1870 depicting European countries as caricatures of their leaders. Prussia is portrayed as a caricature of Bismarck kneeling on his neighbors and struggling to expand.

Speech of the Emperor Napoleon, 21 July 1870 Top

Source: Karl Abel. 1871. Letters on International Relations Before and During the War of 1870. London: Tinsley Brothers.

M. Schneider, President of the Legislative Body:

“Sire, – the Legislative body has terminated its labours, after voting all the subsidies and laws necessary for the defence of the country. Thus the Chamber has joined in an effective proof of patriotism. The real author of the war is not he by whom it was declared, but he who rendered it necessary. There will be but one voice among the people of both hemispheres, throwing the responsibility of the war upon Prussia, which, intoxicated by unexpected success and encouraged by our patience and desire to preserve to Europe the blessings of peace, has imagined that she could conspire against our security, and wound with impunity our honour. Under these circumstances France will know how to do her duty. The most ardent wishes will follow you to the army, whose command you assume. Anticipating the duties of a maturer age, your son will learn by your side how to serve his country. Our army, accustomed to carry the noble flag of France, is backed by the whole nation ready to recruit it. Leave the Regency without anxiety in the hands of our august Sovereign the Empress. To the authority her great qualities command will be added to the strength of the liberal institutions so gloriously inaugurated by your Majesty. Sire, the heart of the nation is with you and your valiant army.”

The Emperor replied:

“I experience the most lively satisfaction on the eve of my departure for the army at being able to thank you for the patriotic support which you have afforded my Government. War is justifiable when waged with the assent of the country and the approval of the country’s representatives. You are right to remember the words of Montesquieu, that ‘the real author of war is not he by whom it is declared, but he who renders it necessary.’ We have done all in our power to avert the war, and I may say that it is the whole nation which has, by its irresistible impulse, dictated our decisions. I confide to you the Empress, who will call you around her if circumstances should require it. She will know how to fulfil courageously the duty which her position imposes upon her. I take my son with me; in the midst of the army he will learn to serve his country. Resolved energetically to pursue the great mission which has been intrusted to me, I have faith in the success of our arms; for I know that behind me France has risen to her feet, and that God protects her.”

French Official Account of the Origin of the War, 21 July 1870 Top

Source: Karl Abel. 1871. Letters on International Relations Before and During the War of 1870. London: Tinsley Brothers.

Sir, – You are already acquainted with the series of facts which has brought us to a rupture with Prussia. The Communication which was made by the Emperor’s Government on the 15th of the present month to the great bodies of the State, and of which I have sent you the text, acquainted France and Europe with the rapidly succeeding steps in a negotiation in which, in proportion as we increased our efforts for the maintenance of peace, the secret designs of our adversary determined to render them impossible became evident. Whether the Cabinet of Berlin considers that war is necessary for the accomplishment of its long-cherished plans against the independence of the German States, or whether, not satisfied with having established in the centre of Europe a military Power formidable to all its neighbours, it desired to profit by the strength thus acquired to disturb definitively and for its own advantage the international equilibrium, the premeditated determination to refuse to us the guarantees most indispensable for our security as well as for our honour has been plainly manifest in the whole of its conduct.

This, without doubt, has been the plan devised against us. An arrangement mysteriously prepared by unacknowledged agents would, had it not unexpectedly come to light, have brought affairs to a point at which the nomination of a Prussian prince as a candidate for the throne of Spain would have been suddenly revealed to the assembled Cortes. A vote carried by surprise, before the Spanish people had been allowed time for reflection, would, it was hoped, have declared Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern the heir to the sceptre of Charles V. Thus Europe would have had to face an accomplished fact; and speculating upon our deference to the great principle of popular sovereignty, it was calculated that France, notwithstanding a passing displeasure, would yield to the ostensibly expressed wishes of a nation for whom its sympathies are so well known.

Immediately upon becoming informed of the danger, the Emperor’s Government did not hesitate to denounce it to the representatives of the nation, as well as to foreign Cabinets. Against this manoeuvre public opinion became its most legitimate auxiliary. Impartial minds everywhere have not failed to comprehend the real state of things. They have quickly understood that, if we were deeply affected at finding ascribed to Spain, for the exclusive benefit of an ambitious dynasty, a part so little in harmony with the loyalty of that chivalrous people, so little in conformity with the instincts and traditions which unite it with us, we could not entertain a thought of departing from our constant respect for the independence of its national resolutions. It was felt that the unscrupulous policy of the Prussian Government was the sole cause of action. It was that Government, in fact, which, not holding itself bound by the common law, and despising the rules to which the greatest Powers have had the wisdom to submit, sought to impose upon hoodwinked Europe so dangerous an extension of her influence. France has taken up the cause of maintaining an equilibrium – that is to say, the cause of all nations – threatened as she is with the undue aggrandisement of one royal House. In acting thus, is she, as it is sought to impute to her, acting in contradiction to her own maxims? Assuredly not. Every nation, we declare it with pleasure, is the mistress of her own destinies. This principle, strongly maintained by France, has become one of the fundamental laws of modern politics. But the rights of each nation, like the rights of each individual, are limited by the rights of others, and it is not permissible that one nation, under the pretext of exercising its own sovereignty, should menace the existence or the security of a neighbouring nation. It was in this sense that one of our great orators, M. de Lamartine, said, in 1847, that when the choice of a Sovereign was to be made by our neighbours, we had never the right to assert claims, but had always a right to exclude pretensions.

This doctrine has been admitted by all Cabinets in circumstances analogous to those in which we were placed by the pretensions of the Prince of Hohenzollern, and notably in the Belgian question of 1831, and the Greek questions of 1830 and 1862. In the affair of Belgium the voice of Europe has spoken, for it has been the great Powers which have decided upon it. The three Courts which took in hand the cause of the Greek people, being animated by a regard for the general interest, agreed, among other points, that the throne of that country should not be accepted by any Prince of their families. The Cabinets of Paris, London, vienna, Berlin, and St. Petersburg, represented at the Conference of London, imitated that example, and laid it down as a rule to govern the conduct of all Powers which should be engaged in a negotiation that might affect the peace of the world thus rendering a solemn homage to that great law, the equipoise of strength, which forms the basis of the European political system. In vain did the national Congress of Belgium, despite the resolution, persist in electing the Duc de Nemours. France adhered to the engagement she had entered into, and refused to accept the Crown brought to Paris by the Belgian deputies. But in her turn she insisted upon others practising the same abnegation as herself, and required the exclusion of the Duc de Leuchtenberg, who had been proposed as a rival candidate to the French Prince. In Greece, on the occasion of the last vacancy of the throne, the Emperor’s Government opposed the election either of Prince Alfred of England or of another Duc de Leuchtenberg. England, recognizing the weight of the considerations adduced by us, declared at Athens that the Queen would not authorise her son to accept the throne of Greece. Russian made a similar declaration respecting the Duc de Leuchtenberg, although, by reason of his birth, that Prince could not be absolutely considered as a member of the imperial family. Finally, the Emperor Napoleon spontaneously applied the same principles in a note inserted in the Moniteur on September 1, 1860, disavowing the pretensions of Prince Murat to the throne of Naples.

Prussia, which we have not failed to remind of these precedents, appeared at one moment disposed to yield to our just demand. Prince Leopold withdrew his pretensions, and there was reason to hope that peace would not be disturbed. But this hope soon gave place to renewed apprehensions, and subsequently was superseded by the certainty that Prussia, without seriously withdrawing any of her pretensions, simply sought to gain time. The language, at first hesitating and then decided and haught, held by the head of the House of Hohenzollern, his refusal to pledge himself to maintain in the future the renunciation he had sanctioned in the past, the treatment of our Ambassador, who was by a verbal message denied all farther communication for the furtherance of his mission of conciliation, and finally the publicity given to this most unusual proceeding by the Prussian journals and by the notification of it that was sent to all the other Cabinets, – all these successive evidences of aggressive intentions have removed all doubts even from the most prejudiced minds. Can there be any illusion when a Sovereign who commands a million of men declares with his hand upon his sword-hilt that he chooses to be guided by his own judgment and circumstances?

We were thus brought to that extreme point which a nation, conscious of what is due to herself, cannot pass over with due consideration to her own honour. If the later incidents of this lamentable controversy do not sufficiently cast light upon the projects conceived by the Cabinet of Berlin, there is one circumstance, little known until now, that gives a decisive significance to its conduct. The idea of placing a Prince of the House of Hohenzollern upon the throne of Spain was not new. Already, in the month of March 1869, it was mentioned by our Ambassador at Berlin, who was immediately instructed to make Count Bismarck understand in what manner the Emperor’s Government would regard such an eventuality. Count Benedetti, in several interviews which he had upon the subject both with the Chancellor of the North German Confederation and with the Under-Secretary of State charged with the direction of Foreign Affairs, never permitted it to be doubtful that we could never allow a Prussian Prince to reign across the Pyrenees. Count Bismarck on his part declared that we had no reason to trouble ourselves about a combination which he himself deemed to be unrealisable; and during the absence of the Federal Chancellor, at a moment when M. Benedetti was impelled to show himself incredulous and pressing, M. de Thile pledged his word of honour that the Prince of Hohenzollern was not and could not become a serious candidate for the crown of Spain.

If the sincerity of such positive official assurances could be suspected, diplomatic communications would cease to be a pledge of European peace, and would become nothing but a snare and a danger. Thus when our Ambassador forwarded these declarations, under all reserve, the Emperor’s Government thought it proper to receive them favourably. It refused to doubt their good faith until the day came when of a sudden the combination of which they were the striking negation became obvious. By thus violating her pledged word, without even attempting in any way to release herself from it, Prussia addressed a defiance to us. Looking at the value attaching to the most solemn protestations of Prussian statesmen, it now became our imperious duty to protect our loyalty against future deceptions, and to require a positive guarantee. We therefore were bound to insist, as we did in fact insist, that a renunciation which hitherto had been surrounded by subtle distinctions should at last be definitive and substantial.

In history the Court of Berlin will bear the responsibility of this war, which it had the means of preventing, but which it determined to make against us. And under what circumstances has the Berlin Court sought this conflict? France, during four years, has given proofs of the greatest moderation; France has abstained, perhaps with too much indulgence, from invoking against Prussia treaties concluded through the mediation of the Emperor himself – treaties from the wilful forgetfulness of which have arisen all the acts of a Government which considered itself released from these obligations at the very moment of subscribing to them. Europe has been the witness of our conduct, and has contrasted it with that of Prussia. Let Europe now pronounce upon the justice of our cause. Whatever may be the fate of battle we await without uneasiness the judgment of our contemporaries, as well as that of posterity.

Napoleon’s Proclamation to the French Nation, 25 July 1870 Top

Source: Karl Abel. 1871. Letters on International Relations Before and During the War of 1870. London: Tinsley Brothers.

Frenchmen, – There are solemn moments in the life of peoples, when the national sense of honour, violently excited, imposes itself with irresistible force, dominates all interests, and alone takes in hand the direction of the destinies of the country. One of those decisive hours has sounded for France. Prussia, towards whom, both during and since the war of 1866, we have shown the most conciliatory disposition, has taken no account of our good wishes and our enduring forbearance. Launched on the path of invasion, she has provoked mistrust everywhere, necessitated exaggerated armaments, and has turned Europe into a camp, where reigns nothing but uncertainty and fear of the morrow. A last incident has come to show the instability of international relations, and to prove the gravity of the situation. In presence of the new pretensions of Prussia, we made known our protests. They were evaded, and were followed on the part of Prussia by contemptuous acts. Our country resented this treatment with profound irritation, and immediately a cry for war resounded from one end of France to the other. It only remains to us to leave our destinies to the decision of arms.

We do not make war on Germany, whose independence we respect. We wish that the peoples who compose the great German nationality may freely dispose of their destinies. For ourselves, we demand the establishment of a state of affairs which shall guarantee our security and assure our future. We wish to conquer a lasting peace, based on the true interests of peoples and to put an end to that precarious state in which all nations employ their resources to arm themselves one against the other. THe glorious flag which we once more unfurl before those who have provoked us is the same which bore throughout Europe the civilising ideas of our great revolution. It represents the same principles, and will inspire the same devotion.

Frenchmen! I am about to place myself at the head of that valiant army which is animated by love of duty and of country. It knows its own worth, since it has seen how victory has accompanied its march in the four quarters of the world. I take with me my son, despite his youth. He knows what are the duties which his name imposes upon him, and he is proud to bear his share in the dangers of those who fight for their country. May God bless our efforts! A great people which defends a just cause is invincible.


Justification of the War published in the Journal Officiel, 4 August 1870 Top

Source: Karl Abel. 1871. Letters on International Relations Before and During the War of 1870. London: Tinsley Brothers.

It is not with Germany we are at war: it is with Prussia, or, more properly, with the policy of Count Bismarck. Duly respecting patriotic sentiments and the principles of nationality, the Emperor and his Government have never assumed towards the great German race any but the most friendly attitude. When arresting at Villafranca the victorious march of our troops, his Majesty was influenced by a desire to spare himself the regret of being compelled to fight Germany in order to liberate the Peninsula. When, in June 1860, he visited Baden, he met King William, then Prince Regent of Prussia, the Kings of Bavaria, Wu:rtemberg, Hanover, and Saxony, the Grand Dukes of Hesse-Darmstadt, Baden, Saxe-Weimar, and the Dukes of Coburg and Nassau, and by tendering them the most cordial assurances, he offered loyally to those princes his friendship and that of France. When King William, in 1861, visited Compiegne, he received a cordial and courteous welcome. A short time before Sadowa the Emperor wrote to M. Drouyn de Lluys, his Minister for Foreign Affairs, a letter which sketched out the programme the most favourable for the prosperity of the Germanic Confederacy and the aspirations and rights of the German nation.

To accord to Prussia everything compatible with the liberty, the independence, and the equilibrium of Germany; to maintain Austria in her great position among the Germanic populations; to assure to the minor States a closer union, a more powerful organisation, and a more importation position – such was the plan proposed by his Majesty. The realisation of those ideas, so consistent  with the desires and the interests of all the German populations, would have been the triumph of right and of justice; it would have spared Germany the misfortunes of despotism and of war.

Let us compare the Emperor’s programme with the theories which Count Bismarck has succeeded in carrying out. For many years profound peace had existed among all Germans. For that peace the Prussian Minister substituted a war which broke up the Germanic Confederation, and created a yawning abyss between Austria and Prussia. By excluding from Germany a monarchy which was one of its principal sources of strength, M. Bismarck was a traitor to the common country. In order to augment Prussia, he sensibly diminished Germany; and the day is not far distant when all true patriots across the Rhine will reproach him bitterly for it. Not content with destroying the bonds which connected Prussia with the Germanic Confederation, he has not shrunk from brutally despoiling princes whose only crimes was their fidelity to Federal duties.

Let the countries which have been annexed to Prussia compare their present lot with their situation before 1866. Tranquil, rich, honoured, lightly taxed, they presented a pattern of moral and material prosperity. Popular dynasties established an intimate relationship between the people and the Government. Today those countries deeply regret the loss of their princes. Crushed under the weight of excessive taxation, with their commerce and manufactures ruined, with agricultural work left to be done by women; they are now required to lavish their gold and their blood for a policy whose violence is hateful to them. Hanoverians, Hessians, inhabitants of Nassau and Frankfort! it is not enough that you should be the victims of M. Bismarcks ambition; -the Prussian Minister desires that you should become his accomplices – you are worthy to fight in a better cause.

It is lamentable to behold to what lengths a monarch may be led, who, instead of listening to the dictates of his heart and mind, places himself under the control of an unscrupulous Minister. How far distant is the time when King William said, upon accepting the Regency, “Prussia should make none but moral conquests in Germany” ! If that Prince, whose intentions were loyal, and who had a respect for right had then been told that a day would come when, without cause or pretext, he would violently dispossess the most respectable princes of Germany, or that he would seize not only the crown but the private fortune of a Sovereign so irreproachable as the King of Hanover, or that in the ancient free city of Frankfort he would give a slap in the face to the long-established glories of German, – he would never have credited such a prediction. Will he, then, not distrust a Minister who only yesterday dared to reproach him for giving a courteous reception to the representative of France, and who maintained to the English Ambassador at Berlin that the conduct had provoked general indignation throughout Prussia?

If we have witnessed with sorrow the excesses committed against the princes of North Germany, we have not been less grieved at the treatment to which princes of Southern Germany have had to submit. Can the peoples of Southern Germany have anyground of resentment towards France? Bavaria, immediately after Sadowa, did she not beseech us to preserve the integrity of her territory? and did we not hasten to help her? Who was it that demanded for the States of the South an independent national existence? Who was it that desired that the Sovereigns of those countries, instead of being transformed into crowned prefects, should preserve all the prerogatives of real sovereigns, so as to be able to protect the independence and liberty of their States? Full of respect for the qualities of those fine populations, honest and laborious, we knew that, ready as they might be to take part in a truly national war, it would sorely afflict them to be called upon to join in a purely Prussian war. Our traditional sympathies with the States of the South survive even in the present war; and we hope that the hour will come when the people of those States will perceive that we were their real friends. The Emperor has said so in his proclamation. He desires that the nations which compose the great Germanic race should freely dispose of their own destinies. To deliver Germany from Prussian oppression, to reconcile the rights of Sovereigns with the legitimate aspirations of the people, to put an end to incessant encroachments which are a perpetual menace to Europe, to preserve the Danish nationality from complete ruin, to compel an equitable and lasting peace, based upon moderation, justice, and right – such is the general idea which governs the present contest.

The war now beginning is not on our part a war of ambition – it is a war of equilibrium. It is the defence of the weak against the strong, the reparation of great iniquities, the chastisement of unjustifiable acts. Far from being influenced by motives of rancour or hatred, we enjoy that calmness which arises from the performance of a duty, and we appeal in full confidence to public opinion, the arbiter of peoples and kings. We desire that Germany, instead of placing her strength at the disposal of Prussian egotism and ambition, should reenter the paths of wisdom and of prosperity. The future will prove the elevated views which govern the imperial policy, and the Germans themselves will unite to render justice to eh loyalty of France and her Sovereign.

France Calling Europe to Her Assistance published in the Journal Officiel, 8 August 1870 Top

Source: Karl Abel. 1871. Letters on International Relations Before and During the War of 1870. London: Tinsley Brothers.

There occur in the life of nations solemn and decisive moments in which God gives them an opportunity of showing what they are and of what they are capable. That hour has come for France. It has sometimes been asserted that, though intrepid in the dash of success, the great nation supports reverses with difficulty. What is now passing before us gives the lie to this calumny. The attitude of the people is not one of discouragement; it is one of sublime and patriotic rage against the invaders of France, who in France must find their tomb.

All Frenchmen will rise as one man. They remember their ancestors and their children. They look back upon centuries of glory, and forward to a future that their heroism shall render free and powerful. Never has our country been better prepared for self-devotion and sacrifice. Never has it shown in a more imposing and magnificent manner the vigour and pride of the national character. It shouts with enthusiasm, “Up; to Arms!” To conquer or die is its motto.

While our soldiers heroically defend the soil of France, Europe is uneasy at the successes of Prussia. People ask themselves to what lengths the ambition of that insatiable Power would carry her, if she were intoxicated with a decisive triumph.

It is an invariable law of history, that any nation, which by inordinate covetousness disturbs the general equilibrium, turns all other countries into opponents. This truth cannot fail to be again demonstrated. Who is there interested in the resurrection of the German Empire? Who is there that desires the Baltic to become a Prussian lake? Can it be Sweden, Norway, or Denmark – countries that a Prussian triumph would annihilate? Can it be Russia – Russia, which is more interested than any Power in preserving the equilibrium of the North from German covetousness? Can it be England, which, as a great maritime Power and as the protector of Denmark, is opposed to the progress of the Prussian navy? can it be Holland, already so much threatened by the audacious intrigues of Count Bismarck?

With regard to Austria, the restoration of the German Empire to the advantage of the House of Hohenzollern would be the most fatal blow, not only to the dynasty of the Hapsburgs, but to the existence of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Prussia will certainly attempt to make promises to the Cabinet of Vienna, but it is well known what faith can be placed in Count Bismarck’s promise. Can any pretended guarantee ever be stronger than the ties which united Prussia to the germanic Confederation, and which Prussia, condemning all her duties and obligations, so violently tore asunder? The decisive victory of the Hohenzollerns would not be less fatal to Italy than to Austria. A Germanic Empire would, at any price, try to acquire a line of sea-coast. It would want one in the South as well as in the North, and would demand Venice and Trieste, as well as Kiel and Amsterdam. Thus the regeneration of Italy would be compromised.

We appeal with confidence to the wisdom of Governments and peoples to root Prussian despotism out of Europe, to aid us, either by alliance or sympathy, in saving the European balance of power. There are favourable symptoms apparent in England. Great Britain is fully satisfied with the declarations we have so categorically and loyally given with regard to Belgian neutrality, protecting, as it does, our northern frontier. Great Britain shows herself ready to defend Belgium, should Prussia wish to violate that country’s territory. Sweden, Norway, and Denmark show an attitude trembling with patriotism. The Emperor of Russia honours our Ambassador with his particular goodwill, and the best-authorised organs of the Russian press hold a language unfavourable to the Prussian cause. Those Vienna journals which at first timidly manifested some sympathy for Count Bismarck are compelled to give way before public opinion, and now speak in terms harmonising with the true interests of Austria. The Emperor Francis Joseph, the King of Italy, and their Governments manifest dispositions more and more satisfactory towards us. Austria and Italy are actively arming. The Ministers of Vienna and Pesth obey a united impulse, and the moment approaches when Prussia will encounter from that quarter the most serious and grave embarrassment. Our diplomacy will not be less active than our army. France is making a supreme effort, and our patriotism rises equal to every danger. The more serious the circumstance, the more will the nation be energetic. All divisions cease, and the French press unanimously express the most practical and most noble ideas.

The cooperation of the Senate and Legislative body is about to lend fresh strength to our troops, and the France of 1870 will show the peoples of Europe that we have not degenerated.

Proclamation to Our Countrymen, by the Committee of the National Liberal party Top

Source: Karl Abel. 1871. Letters on International Relations Before and During the War of 1870. London: Tinsley Brothers.

War has become inevitable. From the plough, the workshop, the office, and the study of our brothers congregate to ward off an enemy that menaces the highest treasures of the nation. The army whose onslaught they are going to encounter is differently composed from our own. It consists of mercenaries and conscripts, without any educated and well-to-do people among them. For this reason it is liable to made a tool of by an unjust and frivolous Cabinet. Ever since the nephew of the Corsican obtained the throne of France by conspiracy, perjury, and every description of crime, his only means of concealing domestic decline has been to engage in foreign adventure. The French nation, humiliated at home, had to be reconciled to its fate by martial triumphs, flattering to its national vanity. Through cunning and force France was to be raised to an artificial supremacy over the rest of the world. To disturb the peace of Europe has ever been the only policy of Bonapartism, the vital condition of its existence. Since Louis Napoleon has ascended the throne, all his hypocritical assurances of pacific sentiments have never sufficed to give any one a firm confidence in the continuance of peace; since he has been reckoned among Sovereigns war has always been considered a mere question of time, and the utmost exertion of the industrious classes has been barely sufficient to cover the military expenditure of the various States. There is no country in Europe with which he has not meddled. He has quarrelled with all, menaced all. Even if a State allied itself to him, it was not safe from his treachery, as Italy experienced to her cost. The Poles were encouraged by him to rebel, only to be left to their terrible fate when it no longer suited him to play the part of patron. Neutral Belgium, German Luxemburg, and even some cantons of Switzerland, that tower of peace erected between contending nations, have at various times been the objects of his cupidity, and were only saved by the vigilance of the other Powers and their instinctive opposition to the immorality and mendacity of the Napoleonic polities.

As long ago as the Crimean war Napoleon looked out for a pretext for occupying the Rhine province. While we were fighting Austria he again had his eye upon the Rhine, and if we had not so quickly conquered, would have been down upon us and kindled universal war. Is it necessary to enumerate other instances of his disgraceful interference? Italy had to pay with two of her provinces for the French alliance; and at his hands, besides suffering many other indignities, was destined to provide the human bodies which first attested the efficiency of the ‘miraculous’ chassepot. In Spain, French influence has long been the strongest impediment in the way of progress; and although the independence of nations has ever been pompously paraded by him, Napoleon assisted the slave-breeders in America, invaded Mexico, and in Germany calculated upon Austria being victorious. That he has been mistaken in this latter calculation, that the German people have at last found and are steadily marching on their way towards unity, makes him perfectly restless. It was no very becoming act on the part of the French diplomacy, when we had defeated Austria, to come to us begging for a small douceur in the shape of a province or two to reward them for their evil-disposed neutrality; nor was it very honest on the part of the same worthies to attempt to deprive us of our Italian ally by bribery and deceit. Again, it was France who, by her perfidious intermeddling, prevented us from imposing such conditions of peace upon Austria as would have extended the ties of national unity to the Southern States, In thus keeping them out from the Confederacy Napoleon hoped to make the Southern Sovereigns tools in his hands and traitors to Fatherland.

We submitted to his arrogance on all these occasions, as also when the Luxemburg affair was brought upon the carpet, because we hoped to be able to avoid war .But his latest demands, and the manner in which they have been preferred, exceed everything that has gone before. To mask his domestic embarrassments, to save his throne, which would otherwise succumbn to the hatred and contempt of his own subjects, the sanguinary adventurer has embarked in his last military job. In taking up the gauntlet thrown down to us we are actuated by a sense of honour, and also by a desire at last to free ourselves from the dangers and solicitudes of the fictitious peace we have endured so long. More injurious than open war, the armed peace we have submitted to has exhausted our resources, undermined our industry, stopped the advance of our culture, and, worst of all, kept us in constant dread of the sword suspended over us by a hair. In contending against the execrable system of Bonapartism, we shall be fighting, not only for our independence, but for the peace and culture of Europe. Unknown to the Germans is the lust of conquest; all they require is to be permitted to be their own masters. While protecting our own soil, language, and nationality, we are willing to concede corresponding rights to all other nations. We do not hate the French, but the Government and the system which dishonours, enslaves and humiliates them. The French have been inveigled into war by their Government misrepresenting and calumniating us; but our victory will be their emancipation also. We are firmly convinced that this will be the last great war the German nation is destined to undergo, and that the unity of our race will be the result of it. The God of justice is with us. The insolent provocation of the French despot has done away with our internal divisions. The Main is bridged over even now. Party divisions are extinct, and will remain so as long as our united strength is required to overthrow the common enemy, the enemy of Germany and humanity alike. Inspired by the magnitude of the task before us, we are all united; a people of brethren, who will neither tarry nor rest until the great object has been accomplished.

Speech of King William at the Opening of the North German Parliament, 19 July 1870 Top

Source: Karl Abel. 1871. Letters on International Relations Before and During the War of 1870. London: Tinsley Brothers.

Honoured Gentlemen of the North German Reichstag, – When I bade you welcome the last time you assembled in this place, I expressed my cheerful thanks that my efforts to realise the wishes of the nation and satisfy the necessities of civilisation by preserving unbroken peace had, under God’s blessing, been crowned with success. If a menace of war has now impose the duty on the North German Governments of summoning you for an extraordinary session, you will fully share our conviction that the Confederacy has not sought to develop the power of the German people with a view to endanger the interests of peace; and that if we are now obliged to invoke the national strength to shield our independence, we are only obeying the commands of honour and the requirements of duty.

The Spanish candidature of a German Prince, the appearance of this Prince on the scene, and his subsequent withdrawal, are matters with which the federal Governments had nothing to do; our interest in the affair being limited to the fact that the Government of a friendly and much-tried country saw in this candidature the guarantee of a peaceful and orderly Government in Spain. The Government of the Emperor of the French has made these events a pretext, in a manner long unknown to diplomacy, for declaring war against Germany. Even after the original pretext has been removed, the Emperor’s Government abides by this resolution with a contempt for the right of nations to enjoy the blessings of peace, of which we find analogous examples in the history of former rulers of France.

If Germany in former centuries silently bore such outrages on her rights and honour, she only did so because, disunited as she was, she did not know her strength. Now, when the ties of an intellectual and constitutional union, first knit by the war of liberation, are drawing the various States of Germany more and more closely together – now, when the defences of our country leave no loophole for a foreign foe to creep in – Germany has both the will and the power to repel the renewed insults of France. It is no vainglorious feeling which induces me to speak thus. The Federal Governments and I myself act in the full conviction that victory and defeat lie in the hand of the God of battles. We have carefully weighed the responsibility which, before the judgment seat of God and the tribunal of history, must fall upon the head of him who drives two peaceable nations, in the very heart of Europe, into a destructive war. The peoples of Germany and France, who both equally enjoy and desire the blessings of Christian civilisation and increasing prosperity, are called to a nobler emulation than the bloody rivalry of arms. Those who rule in France, by deliberately misleading the great nation which is our neighbour, have known how to profit by the justifiable, but sensitive patriotism of that country for the gratification of their own personal interests and passions.

The more deeply the Federal Governments feel that they have done everything compatible with honour and dignity to preserve to Europe the blessings of peace, and the more apparent it is to all impartial observers that the sword has been forced into our hands, the more confidently do I – supported by the unanimous approbation of all the Governments of Germany, of the South as well as the North – appeal to the patriotism of the people of Germany, and summon them to defend their honour and independence. In fighting for our freedom and our rights against the insolence of foreign invaders, we shall be following the example of our fathers. We have no other aim in this war than to secure a lasting peace for Europe. God will be with us, as He was with our fathers.

Prussian Reply to the French Declaration of War, 20 July 1870 Top

Source: Karl Abel. 1871. Letters on International Relations Before and During the War of 1870. London: Tinsley Brothers.

The imperial Government of France have presented through their charge’ de affaires a document, of which you will find a copy enclosed, containing the declaration of war. This is the first and only official communication we have received from the French Government on the subject which has engrossed the attention of the world for the last fortnight.

The motives for the war declared against us are stated to be: his Majesty’s declining to pledge his word that the elevation of a Prussian prince to the Spanish throne shall at no time hereafter take place with his consent; and the alleged notification of the Cabinets of our refusal to receive the French Ambassador and to negotiate farther with him.

To this we briefly reply: his Majesty the King, with perfect respect for the independence and autonomy of the Spanish nation, and the right of the princes of the House of Hohenzollern to decide for themselves, has never thought of trying to place the hereditary Prince on the Spanish throne. The demand of assurances from his Majesty with regard to the future was arrogant and unjustifiable. The assumption of a mental reservation, or any hostile intention on the part of the King towards France, is a totally gratuitous invention.

The alleged notification to the Cabinets never took place; nor did we refuse to negotiate with the Ambassador of the Emperor of the French. The Ambassador never attempted to enter on official negotiations with his Majesty’s Government on this subject. He merely introduced the question in personal and private conversations with his Majesty at Ems.

The German nation, within and beyond the Confederation, has come to the conclusion that, in preferring these demands, the French Government wished to subject us to a humiliation which the country cannot endure; and that, contrary to the desire and intentions of Prussia, war has been forced on us by France.

The whole civilised world will acknowledge that the grounds for war assigned by France do not exist, and are nothing but pretence and invention.

The North German Confederation and the allied Governments of South Germany protest against this unprovoked attack, which they will resist with all the means that Providence has placed at their disposal.

You are requested to give a copy of this despatch and the enclosures to the Government to which you are accredited.

Address of the Parliament of the North German Confederation to King William Top

Source: Karl Abel. 1871. Letters on International Relations Before and During the War of 1870. London: Tinsley Brothers.

Most powerful King, most gracious King and Lord, – The solemn words which your Majesty, in behalf of the allied Governments, has addressed to us find a responsive echo in our hearts. One thought, one resolve, pervades all Germany at this grave juncture. With proud satisfaction has the nation witnessed your Majesty’s dignified attitude in rejecting a demand of unprecedented arrogance put forward by the enemy. Disappointed in his hope of humiliating us, the enemy has now invented a sorry and transparent pretext for levying war.

The German nation has no more ardent wish than to live in peace and amity with all nations that respect its honour and independence. As in 1813 – in those glorious days when we freed the country from foreign aggression – we are now forced again to take up arms to vindicate our rights and liberties against a Napoleon. As in those well-remembered days, all calculations based upon human frailty and faithlessness will be destroyed by the moral energy and resolute will of the German nation.

That portion of the French people which by envy and selfish ambition has been seduced into hostility against us, will, too late, perceive, the crop of evil sure to grow out of sanguinary battle-fields. We regret that the more equitably inclined in France have failed to prevent a crime aimed no less at the prosperity of their own country than the maintenance of amicable international relations in this part of the world.

The German people are aware that they have a severe and portentous struggle before them. We confide in the gallantry and patriotism of our brethren in arms, in the indomitable resolve of a united people to sacrifice life and treasure rather than suffer a foreign conqueror to set his foot on German necks. We confide in the guidance of our aged and heroic King, who, when a young man, more than half a century ago, warred against the French, and who, in the evening of life, is destined by Providence decisively to terminate a struggle he then began. We confide in the Almighty, whose judgment will punish the bloody crime perpetrated against us.

From the shores of the German Ocean to the foot of the Alps the nation has risen as a single man at the call of its allied Princes. No sacrifice will be too heavy for it to make.

Throughout the civilised world, public opinion recognises the justice of our cause. Friendly nations are looking forward to our victory, which is to free some from the ambitious tyranny of a Bonaparte, and to avenge the injury he has inflicted upon so many others. The victory gained, the German nation will at last achieve its unity, and on the battlefield, held by force of arms, with the common consent of its various tribes, erect a free commonwealth, which shall be respected by all peoples.

Your Majesty and the allied German Governments see us and our brethren in the South ready to cooperate for the attainment of this object. The prize of the war is the protection of our honour and liberty, the reestablishment of peace in Europe, and the promotion of the prosperity of nations.

With profound respect and loyal obedience,


King William’s Proclamation to the Prussians, 31 July 1870 Top

Source: Karl Abel. 1871. Letters on International Relations Before and During the War of 1870. London: Tinsley Brothers.

To My People.

Today, on the point of setting out for the army, to fight for the honour of Germany and the defence of all we most highly prize, I desire, considering the unanimity and resolution of my people, to issue an amnesty for political crimes and misdemeanours. I have instructed my MInisters to prepare a decree to this effect.

My people know, like myself, that on our side there were no hostile intentions and no desire to interrupt the peace of the world.

Since, however, we have been challenged, we are resolved, like our fathers, to brave the combat and save our country, with the assistance of the Almighty.



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