Notes From Emil Reich’s “Foundations of Modern Europe” Part III

I’m going directly into the next chapter with this one since they fit so well together. The first part goes as follows:



The victories of the Prussians in 1866; the ascendency of Prussia in Germany since the day of Sadowa, were events the importance of which was clear to many a statesman and diplomatist in Europe. Thiers, Edgar Quinet, and other leading politicians and public men of France, clearly pointed out that Bismarck could not possibly rest on the laurels of his Austrian campaign; that he was necessarily striving to complete the unity of Germany, which in 1867 was yet far from being completed. Bismarck in 1866 had united the Northern states of Germany into the North-German Confederacy; but the Southern states – Bavaria, Würtemberg, and Baden – were not yet combined with Prussia. It is a question quite open to historical discussion whether Bismarck could not already in 1866 have brought about the unity of the Northern with the Southern states of Germany. In fact, many a modern historian has reproached Bismarck, with great show of justice, with a deliberate plan of retarding the unity of all Germany between 1866 to 1870. Bismarck, it is said, whose military success over Bavaria in 1866 had been as complete as his success over Austria, might have very well forced Bavaria and other Southern states of Germany to join the North-German Confederacy. In that way the Franco-German war might easily have been avoided, and the unity of Germany secured in a peaceful manner, without the terrible loss in men and money entailed by the gigantic war in 1870 and 1871.

It cannot be denied that in the preceding arguments there are some elements of truth; and Bavaria, although at all times highly differentiated from the rest of Germany, and more especially from Prussia, might have been persuaded to join the North-German Confederacy without the terrible war against France. On the other hand, Bismarck’s considerations were of a deeper, and, on the whole, of a juster nature. He felt that the Sough-German states could not be permanently held as members of a united Germany, unless a great and successful war would put an end to any attempt at local separation, and to the numerous centrifugal tendencies of the Catholic Church and Catholic sovereign families in the south of Germany. Moreover, it is well known that those Southern states in 1867 as well as in 1740 or 1645, were always coquetting with France, and had, by secular tradition and habit, a policy of friendship, nay, of alliance, with the French. These old historical traditions and tendencies, Bismarck rightly felt, could not be efficiently combated by anything short of a successful war against France, in which the Bavarians too would be obliged to undergo the sufferings and to accept the sacrifices necessary to the completion of the great plan. Bismarck, therefore, made no definite attempt at persuading Bavaria, Würtemberg, and Baden from 1866 to 1870 to join the North-German confederates.

In France, the fates of the nation were partly in the hands of Napoleon III., partly in those of an obstreperous, hysterical, and aimless opposition. Napoleon III., at no time a great statesman, was then moreover enfeebled and rendered practically useless by his physical inability – he suffered from stone disease – and his plans were easily overridden by those of his wife Eugénie. The Empress was one of the most beautiful women in Europe. In body endowed with the most astounding vigour and health, she was in mind a narrow, resourceless, and badly advised woman, whose only plan was to secure the inheritance for her son Louis (Lou-Lou). She was intimately connected with the Catholic Church, with the French clergy, and prevailed upon Napoleon to extend to the Pope considerations and regards that from a political standpoint were most injurious to France; and, like so many other female sovereigns of France, she had a genius for ignoring the right man, and for encouraging the wrong minister. For even at that time there was no lack of information about the coming danger. Colonel Stoffel, who was the military attaché in Berlin, never ceased informing the Emperor (whom he had aided in writing the life of Cæsar) about the superior organization of the Prussian army. In fact, Stoffel had the clearest impression of the hopeless inferiority of the French army as against the army of Prussia. When the disaster deprived Napoleon of his throne, several of the most incisive reports of Stoffel to the Emperor on the Prussian army were found – unopened – in the bureau of the Emperor. In Parliament also, Adolphe Thiers repeatedly implored the Deputies to abstain from any hostility to Germany, and although Thiers’s imprecations may have been somewhat interested, in that he did not want to increase the power of the opposition in Parliament by encouraging their anti-Prussian politics of the French Parliament, there was a large element of honesty and truth. Everybody felt that Napoleon’s mistake in 1866 of having abstained from an attack on Prussia immediately after Sadowa had caused an irreparable loss of prestige to France, and more particularly to the Napoleonic dynasty. The opposition in the French Parliament constantly attacking Napoleon, and forcing him in the end to very broad and considerable concessions, positively refused to help him in the reconstruction of the army; and there is now, in the light of the latest memoirs of that time, little doubt that the opposition is more directly responsible for the terrible military disasters of France in 1870 and 1871 than even Napoleon himself. By refusing to give any supply for the military force, the necessity of which Napoleon, Marshal Niel, and several other leading military officials had clearly seen and pressed upon the nation, the French Parliament increased the inferiority of France and so raised the boldness of Prussia, which, as we know, was most minutely informed about every public or secret move of the French Government and the French military authorities.

In spite of the lack of any military reform Napoleon, or rather Eugénie, became more and more convinced that a war with Prussia was absolutely indespensable in order to recoup the prestige of the Emperor’s reign, and the hopes of his son. Accordingly, a pretext was easily found, that that pretext was the well-known Hohenzollern question. One of the princes of the house of Hohenzollern, that is, related to the Prussian dynasty, was proposed as candidate for the Spanish throne, and Bismarck in the beginning acted as if he encouraged that candidature. The French Government affected to see in that move an attempt “to restore the Empire of Charles V.” The very exaggeration lying in these words clearly shows that Napoleon and Eugénie were only trying to find a pretext to make war on Prussia. Nothing could be more ridiculous than to see in the candidature of a Hohenzollern prince for the throne of Spain, a serious attempt at restoring a universal Empire. The French Government, however, affected to be greatly agitated by that candidature, and finally Benedetti, the French ambassador at Berlin, was despatched to interview King William of Prussia himself. King William readily admitted that the candidature of the Hohenzollern prince ought to be, and was to be, dropped. Under ordinary circumstances, the incident would have ended there. However, Grammont, the French foreign minister, determined to bring about a rupture with Prussia. Convinced as he was that the Southern states of Germany would join France against Prussia; confiding as he did in the absurd statement of Marchal Lebœuf, that the French army was completely ready “to the last button”; confiding likewise in the conditional promise of Austria to join France and in a similar, if vague, promise on the part of Italy; Grammont wanted to exercise pressure upon King William through Benedetti, to the effect that not only should King William undertake to discountenance a Hohenzollern candidature, but also that the King should give a formal promise never to entertain such a candidature in future. King William declined to give such a promise. The form in which he did that was neither offensive to France nor derogatory to his own honour. The interview between the King and Benedetti was at Ems, a watering-place on the Rhine. Bismarck, Moltke, and Roon, who had been anxiously watching the manœuvres of Grammont, and were hoping for an immediate rupture of relations and outbreak of the war, on receiving the answer of King William given to Benedetti, learnt to their dismay that the answer was so worded as to avoid any great affront. At this critical moment Bismarck, by omitting certain words of the King’s reply, and by abbreviating it in an artful manner, gave it the appearance of a most offensive declaration to France; and by this Machiavellian manœuvre, Bismarck secured what he and his two colleagues had been waiting for, that is, an instantaneous declaration of war on the part of France; for no sooner had the garbled reply reached Paris, than both Parliament and the Parisian people became frantic with indignation, and under the cries “à Berlin! à Berlin!” forced upon the Government a declaration of war.

This action of Bismarck, some twenty years later related by himself to an Austrian journalist, has been frequently held up as a specimen of his most ruthless and unrighteous policy. No doubt, in giving the King’s reply a version calculated to outrage French dignity, Bismarck acted upon purely political, that is to say, unsentimental principles. On the other hand the provocation really had come from France; the war was inevitable; and both Bismarck and Moltke knew that the French army was then, and just then, in a state of inferiority and unpreparedness, promising well for a rapid and complete victory of the Prussians. To neglect such a conjecture of circumstances, rightly seemed to Bismarck a failure in patriotism; and from a strictly historical, that is, practical standpoint, one cannot but approve a diplomatic move that has secured for Germany complete peace and prosperity for now over thirty-four years; and at the same time put the balance of Europe on a safer and steadier basis.

My schedule has been a bit hectic lately, but I should be able to finish with this chapter next week. Next I’ll either be moving on to the French Revolution or the unity of Italy. I haven’t decided which one yet…