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

This is the other half of the chapter on the Franco-German war starting from, “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.”


Bismarck, who, as we have seen, used all his moderation in the moment of his wonderful triumph over Austria, now used all the energy and dash he was capable of to precipitate a terrible conflict with France. In both cases he was guided by the soundest and coolest considerations of policy. In both cases he was right. The question of war or peace is one that most people are unable really to discuss; for nothing short of a very complete or comprehensive knowledge of war gives us the means of placing the great question in its right perspective. Such a knowledge of war is of very rare occurrence. They who constantly preach peace and condemn men like Bismarck have not learnt the great lesson of war, that war in the right time with the right means saves many a nation sacrifices very much greater than those entailed by the war. One has only to compare the policy of Bismarck with that of Austria in 1870 in order not only to approve of Bismarck’s so-called Machiavellian manœuvre, but to consider his whole policy as one eminently meant to secure the true benefits of peace. It is self-evident that Austria in 1870 ought to have joined France unconditionally. It is evident that Austria ought to have learnt, if not from the bygone events of her own history in the eighteenth century, at any rate from the palpable mistake of Napoleon in 1866, that it was her duty to attack Germany in the East as soon as Germany invaded France in the West; just as Napoleon in 1866 ought to have invaded Prussia in the West when Bismarck attacked Austria in the East. Instead of that, Austria – ever unready – abstained from joining in the colossal conflict. The Emperor Francis Joseph neglected what was then his chief duty – that is, to become a strong and faithful ally of the French; to reduce the possible victories of Prussia; to recoup his position and to raise Austria to the international position that she occupied in the eighteenth century, when Maria Theresa, in a spirit of infinitely greater statesmanship, never missed an opportunity of interfering in the great international affairs of Europe. The peaceful policy of the Emperor Francis Joseph in 1870 has, as we now know, been the death-blow of Austria-Hungary in her position as an international Power. Austria has at all times lived more by pressure from abroad than thanks to cohesion from the inside; and since 1870, when she excercised no pressure upon, nor received any from, the rest of Europe, she has necessarily drifted into interior anarchy, and has been the prey of the most unruly, aimless, and hopeless party struggles.

The peaceful policy of Austria in 1870 has entailed upon her the greatest losses, economic, moral, and political; losses infinitely greater than any loss she could have sustained in 1870 by joining the French against Prussia.

The war between Prussia and France at once manifested the inner unity of the German nations; for the Southern states in Germany – Bavaria, Würtemberg, and Baden – at once joined Prussia and the Northern states, and under the leadership of Moltke, of the Crown Prince Frederick, and of Prince Frederick Charles, the German armies invaded France, and in nearly every single battle worsted the French; even when, as at Gravelotte, the Germans had not the superiority of numbers. It is needless to dwell here on the details of the war, the various tragic scenes of which are still within the memory of many. It is well known how absolutely unprepared the French were; it is equally well known that while each individual German officer was full of the most independent and daring initiative, the French officers and generals, from Bazaine and Marshal MacMahon downwards, lost all initiative and every particle of that famous French resourcefulness which in 1859 had carried Napoleon’s army victoriously through the Italian campaign, although the French army, then as in 1870, was very sadly unprepared and ill-provided for.

The most incapable of the French generals was Bazaine, the commander of Metz. At the first blush it appears inexplicable why the German generals, none of whom had seen or experienced a great war, except the war of 1866, which lasted only a few weeks, should prove so immeasurably superior to the French generals, every one of whom had gone through numerous campaigns previous to 1870. In fact, it must be said that in 1870 theory proved infinitely superior to practice; and the German officers, mere theorists, so to speak, undid all the plans, practice, and routine of the French generals. The explanation of this remarkable puzzle may be found in the fact that the experience of the French generals was great indeed, but it had been acquired, not in Europe and against European armies so much as in Mexico, in Algiers, in China; that is, against nations of a civilization and science inferior to that of Europe. We have only lately seen that a war with an ever so small European nation is an affair of a totally different character from wars against black, yellow, or mixed races. The Germans were prepared for that war, and for over two generations had studied all its possibilities in the minutest detail.

After the terrible disaster of Sedan and Metz came the siege of Paris. The French, maddened by their unprecedented disasters, accepted for a time the guidance of Gambetta, a man of energy and insight, but one who lacked the more ruthless virtues of an efficient dictator. He was able to create new armies, to offer to the Germans a resistance of the Loire and in the north of France which in many ways was more efficient than that offered to the Germans by the old regular army of France. The Germans were, after October, 1870, unable to repeat those wholesale captures of armies which characterized the first stage of their war with France; yet Gambetta, it must now be said with regret, was not quite a match for the entirely different situation created in France through the German victories. Not a Gambetta, a Danton was needed. Gambetta, who rightly pursued the policy of resistance to the bitter end, ought to have done away with all the elements of possible opposition to his right plans.

We now know from German military writers that the Germans could not have continued the war for another two or three months, after January, 1871. The winter was terribly cold; Bismarck, as he tells us himself in his memoirs, spent sleepless nights in apprehensions of international interference; the financial resources of Germany began to be exhausted, and a popular and implacable war, in the manner of the Spanish resistance to Napoleon, would have forced the German army to retreat, and might possibly have deprived them of Lorraine, if not of Alsace too. However, in the French nation, as usual, there were strong parties filled by nothing but personal ambition, who, in the collapse of the old régime, welcomed an opportunity for raising themselves into power. Of these parties Adolphe Thiers was the head. He wanted peace, and peace by all means, for he knew that peace meant his own coming to power. He had been unsuccessful in his long and wearisome travels to the various courts of Europe, asking for help and intervention. Bismarck – and that is his greatest diplomatic feat – had so completely isolated France that neither England nor Russia, let alone Austria, seriously thought of intervening; although, as we have seen, such intervention was to the vital interest of Austria, and, as we now see, would have been no mistake on the part of England. Surely it would have paid England to retard somewhat, by intervention, the precocious growth of German ascendency. However, Bismarck was quite successful, and peace on terms proposed by Thiers was impossible. Peace was Thiers’s great steppingstone to power; that alone explains why Gambetta ought to have despatched Thiers in one way or another, so as to carry out Gambetta’s own plan of unflinching resistance. Gambetta, however, lacked the power and deep if cruel insight of Danton; and, after the occupation of Paris, France was obliged to accept, in 1871, the terms of peace dictated by Bismarck at Frankfort-on-the-Main, by the terms of which France lost Alsace altogether, and the portion of Lorraine inhabited by German-speaking people; and, moreover, was obliged to par an indemnity of £200,000,000 sterling (1,000,000,000 dollars). The real cost of the war to France was 5,000,000,000 dollars, and but for the immense wealth of the country the war would have ruined it financially as it did politically.

There can be no doubt that the terrible military disasters inflicted on France by the Germans have done to that old and historic country of Europe an incalculable harm; harm, it must be admitted, incomparably more severe than any losses that a continuance of the war after February, 1871, could have possibly brought upon France. On the other hand, the Germans at Versailles – that is, in the very palace of Louis XIV., who in the seventeenth century had so deeply humiliated the Prussian Elector and the Germans generally – constituted themselves into the German Empire. King William of Prussia accepted the new dignity rather reluctantly; and there were great difficulties about the title, which was finally settled as King William, German Emperor. Thus the great political concepts of Bismarck, to bring about the unity of Germany by a successful war with France, rather than by negotiations and treaties with and between German sovereigns themselves, was completely realized; and Germany, that had hitherto been a lax and inefficient conglomeration of small and big sovereignties, was now launched on a great career of political and commercial prosperity, and is now attempting to become a world-power.

The fate of Napoleon is well known. Like his uncle, the great Napoleon, he repaired to England and died in exile. The great Napoleon wanted to accomplish too much and failed; Napoleon III. wanted to accomplish too little and failed. The great Napoleon obeyed the dictates of his own vast mind; Napoleon III. obeyed the dictates of an ambitious and intellectually inferior woman. France herself was in a desperate position. The indemnity she was able to pay off very soon; but the terrible reaction from her dreams of glory, from her conceit, from her irregular ambition and disorganized home policy, was the most appalling that has ever come over any modern nation. She had lost all prestige in the eyes of her contemporaries; from having been the leading nation in Europe she sank down to a second-rate and third-rate Power. Yet people were mistaken in considering France lost and fallen forever. Military defeats have as yet not really ruined a great nation. A nation worsted in fight may lose much, but she is sure to recover. It is the nation that does not fight, like Austria, that loses all the forces of possible recovery; because, like nature, mankind is made by constant fight, and a sentimental and effeminate desire to peace is the forerunner of a nation’s complete extinction.


End of chapter.

I’d like to mention that the conversion in parentheses from pounds sterling to dollars was in the book and was not done by me despite the parentheses. I mention this because I tend to use that writing style and I didn’t want to cause any confusion by not clearing it up. Since I didn’t put it in myself, that also means that the numbers have not been adjusted to their modern equivalents by taking inflation into account – something which I don’t plan on doing anyway. I think the amount of zeros makes it clear, without adjustment, that France lost a lot of money either way.

P.S. I’ve decided to continue in the book by going backwards to the unity of Italy. The French Revolution posts will then come sometime after the Unity of Italy ones.

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