Bismarck's War: The Franco-Prussian War and the Making of Modern Europe

Image of Bismarck's War: The Franco-Prussian War and the Making of Modern Europe
Release Date: 
September 5, 2023
Basic Books
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“a decisive event in the making of modern Europe . . .”

The Franco-Prussian War is one of many significant European historical events that most Americans are unfamiliar with. But as the author of this new volume begins, the war “transformed forever the destinies of Europeans.” The war was a precursor to many of the important events of the 20th century and was one of the most significant wars in modern European history. Seemingly caused by another endless dynastic succession crisis, the war brought about significant political and strategic changes on the heart of the continent and brought into being the modern German state.

The man at the center of the conflict, Prussian Chancellor Otto Bismarck, continued to prove his political and strategic prowess just as he did in the wars with Denmark and the Austrian Empire. As the author notes, instead of waging war against other German states as they did in 1866, now the Prussians were uniting the North German Confederation and the last four major independent German states into a combined conflict with France. Bismarck not only brilliantly maneuvered the French into initiating the conflict, he also ensured their diplomatic isolation so that no other country would provide military assistance.

The war had multiple phases, each presenting unique challenges to both the French and Prussian leadership. On the French side, Emperor Louis-Napoleon commanded the French armies, but he was both uncertain and over-controlling, a serious detriment to the command structure and ability of the army to swiftly maneuver to meet the expected Prussian invasion of first the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and then northeastern France. The combined German forces under Count von Moltke were able to move swiftly to the offensive, but also experienced command problems as both armies sought to control the movements of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and all their artillery and logistical trains with limited communications capability.

The initial conflict between the main armies ended swiftly, with the maneuvering by the armies along the border regions ending with the surrender of the French Emperor Louis Napoleon and half the French army at Sedan and the other half of the French Army surrounded and under siege in the city of Metz. As the author notes, although the Germans won nearly all the opening battles, they were not overly tactically proficient, suffered heavy casualties in frontal assaults and in nearly every encounter if the French had more decisive leadership and launched counterattacks when the German offensive was spent, they might have carried the day and the battlefield. But Louis-Napoleon would not relinquish any real command authority, so the more decisive Prussians were able to retain the initiative.

However, even after the surrender and eventual abdication of Louis-Napoleon, Bismarck was not able to quickly impose terms on the French as their government fell into disarray while trying to continue the conflict. The new government styled the Government of National Defense did not want to enter into any negotiations that would involve the loss of French territory while the Germans were demanding relinquishing the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine as part of any peace. The war now entered what today would be termed a hybrid war where the French tried to continue raising new armies to challenge the Germans on the battlefield, while also attempting to wage an insurgency against the forces occupying almost a third of France. This guerilla war turned particularly brutal, and the author describes numerous atrocities carried out by the Germans against French civilians after being attacking by irregular forces, foreshadowing the new danger that non-combatants would be under as they came into long-term contact with both soldiers on campaign and as an occupying force.

As the winter of 1870 continued, even the loss of the remaining French regular army from the surrender at Metz did not begin negotiations for peace. But as winter moved into 1871, both sides were becoming more willing to enter negotiations as Bismarck feared other European nations might take advantage of the prolonged stalemate and the new French government wanted to maintain its control and remove the occupying forces.

The most decisive political action for Europe was not on the battlefield but in the chambers of the Palace of Versailles, now the headquarters of the German occupation force. Bismack finally achieved his goal of complete German unification when the North German Confederation and the remaining German independent monarchies agreed on a merger with Prussia and to make the Prussian King the new German Emperor. The back-room politics and monarchical maneuvering are described in detail and even after the shared sacrifice on the battlefield, the final agreement was not assured until Wilhelm I was finally crowned Kaiser Wilhelm on January 18, 1871.

Finally, sheer exhaustion and a sense of urgency on both sides leads to the Treaty of Frankfort that ends the war in March 1871. The terms were not particularly onerous compared to the settlements of the World Wars and both sides quickly moved on with planning for the next war expected by both countries. Militarily the war introduced several new technologies and capabilities that foreshadowed World War. The use of railroads, breechloading rifles, improved rifled artillery, and even primitive machine guns improved both the speed of mobilization and the lethality of combat. Both societies faced major upheavals, with French civilians in the wake of battle, particularly women, experiencing significant disruption that would soon be magnified in the early 20th century.

One thing that would have been extremely helpful, given the author’s narrative of the sweeping campaign of August 1870, would have been more battlefield maps. Although there are about half dozen maps at the beginning of the book, the wide range of maneuvers and the influence of geography on the military decision-making process is very hard to understand for someone not familiar with the geography of northeastern France and the German border regions.

For the military history enthusiast, the book really shows how this war was the transition from the sweeping battles of the Napoleonic Era to the grinding industrial warfare of 1914 trenches. The last successful cavalry charges in Europe occurred during this war and the first hint at how civilians would no longer be able to avoid the direct effects of war. As the title describes, it really was a decisive event in the making of modern Europe, for better or worse.