Franco-Prussian War

The result of failed diplomacy, the Franco-Prussian War made possible German unification, upset the balance of power in Europe, and laid the basis for the twentieth century’s world wars.

Summary of Event

The July, 1870, outbreak of war between France and Prussia and the latter’s German allies resulted from factors that had been building for more than a decade. Prussia and France had gradually moved toward a decisive struggle for hegemony on the Continent as other European countries stood aloof for various reasons. Great Britain concentrated on its overseas empire and paid little attention to the balance of power on the Continent. Austria was recovering from the defeat administered in 1866 by Prussia, which unified all of northern Germany (North German North German Confederation Confederation). Russia was suffering still from its defeat in the Crimean War. The newly formed kingdom of Italy was guided by its nationalist aspirations, especially the goal of making Rome the capital of its secular state despite the objections of the pope. For these and other reasons, no other European powers entered the struggle that erupted between Prussia and France. Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War (1870-1871)]
Prussia;Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War]
France;Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War]
Germany;unification of
Bismarck, Otto von
[p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War]
Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War]
[kw]Franco-Prussian War (July 19, 1870-Jan. 28, 1871)
[kw]Prussian War, Franco- (July 19, 1870-Jan. 28, 1871)
[kw]War, Franco-Prussian (July 19, 1870-Jan. 28, 1871)
Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War (1870-1871)]
Prussia;Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War]
France;Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War]
Germany;unification of
Bismarck, Otto von
[p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War]
Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War]
[g]France;July 19, 1870-Jan. 28, 1871: Franco-Prussian War[4440]
[g]Germany;July 19, 1870-Jan. 28, 1871: Franco-Prussian War[4440]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 19, 1870-Jan. 28, 1871: Franco-Prussian War[4440]
Gramont, Antoine-Agénor-Alfred
Gambetta, Léon
Leopold, Prince
MacMahon, Marie-Edme-Patrice-Maurice de
William I (king of Prussia)

From the time of Prussia’s defeat of Austria in 1866, many French and German citizens believed that war between France and Prussia was inevitable. The prospect of German unification under the leadership of a powerful Prussia not only was contrary to traditional French foreign policy but also was a threat to French dominance of Europe. France traditionally maintained excellent relations with the Roman Catholic states of southern Germany, such as Bavaria Bavaria , whose governments often distrusted the militaristic government of Protestant Prussia. Southern Germans shared the dream of a united Germany, however, and Prussia had clearly assumed the lead in the German nationalist movement.

Napoleon III, the French emperor, apparently believed that political unification of the major national groups would lead to international cooperation. Although he was not totally opposed to the goal of German unification, he realized that Prussia’s recent victories had increased Prussian power at the expense of French prestige. He attempted to redress the balance through negotiations whereby France would gain territory by annexing French-speaking areas such as Luxembourg Luxembourg . Prussia first approved and then rejected these arrangements in 1867. Afterward, the French government grew increasingly hostile to Prussian initiatives.

With this background of tension, the crisis that finally led to war was the Spanish provisional government’s search for a monarch to replace the ousted Queen Isabella II Isabella II . As one candidate after another proved either unworthy or unwilling to occupy the Spanish throne, the Spaniards turned to Prince Leopold Leopold, Prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen[Hohenzollern Sigmaringen] , a Prussian infantry officer and distant relative of King William I of Prussia. Both King William and his family were hesitant to permit Leopold to ascend the shaky Spanish throne. Only the combined efforts of the Spanish emissaries and of Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck persuaded the king to allow Leopold’s candidacy.

There is no doubt that from at least May of 1870, Bismarck encouraged Leopold’s candidacy, hoping it might provoke a crisis useful to the process of German unification. Bismarck apparently feared that France was growing stronger. In a May referendum, French voters had overwhelmingly endorsed both the leadership of Emperor Napoleon III and the creation of a constitutional monarchy. As Bismarck had expected, the French were enraged over their diplomatic defeat and the potential threat that placing a German prince on the Spanish throne posed to their security. Both the French government and French public opinion vigorously protested the prospect of Hohenzollern Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen[Hohenzollern Sigmaringen] kings encircling France. The fervor of their protest caused Leopold to withdraw his candidacy, with the approval of King William.

Léon Gambetta rallying fresh troops at Tours.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Antoine-Agénor-Alfred Gramont Gramont, Antoine-Agénor-Alfred , the French foreign affairs minister, then ordered the French ambassador to Berlin to obtain a promise from King William that he would never permit Leopold’s Leopold, Prince candidacy to be renewed. The ambassador met William I at Ems, where the king was vacationing. By editing the telegraphed account of this encounter, Bismarck made the episode appear more forceful and dramatic than it really was. When it appeared in newspapers, the condensed version aroused national passions in both countries, and France declared war on Prussia on July 19, 1870. Clearly Gramont and Bismarck each wished to humiliate the other, when peace might otherwise have been preserved.

The Prussians already had plans in place for invading their neighbors, while the French had not. The southern German states joined the northern states. The army of the North German North German Confederation Confederation was technologically advanced, highly efficient, well organized, and staffed with able officers. On the other side, a major reform proposed for the French military in 1867 had been left underfunded and incomplete. French generals had become complacent and unimaginative since their last major campaigns during the 1850’s.

The French placed two major armies in the field, and they were beaten in major battles at Sedan Sedan, Battle of (1870) and Metz. Napoleon III, who was extremely ill from kidney disease and in constant pain, joined the army of Marshal Marie-Edme-Patrice-Maurice de MacMahon. MacMahon, Marie-Edme-Patrice-Maurice de Political pressure from the ministers in Paris dictated the decision to attempt to assist the forces besieged at Metz rather than retreat toward Paris and raise fresh troops. The Prussians encountered and defeated MacMahon’s force near Sedan with superior artillery. Facing a disastrous defeat, Napoleon Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];capture of sought death in combat but was captured. He surrendered the French forces on September 1.

Opposition politicians in Paris immediately abolished the empire and declared a republic on September 4. Even as the French capital was besieged, these politicians formed a protest government, known as the Government of National Defense, to continue the fight against the Prussians. A fiery leader of resistance, Léon Gambetta Gambetta, Léon , escaped in a balloon. At Tours, he rallied fresh troops, who fought bravely until January 28, 1871, when Paris surrendered. An armistice was signed on the same day, but France’s Fort Belfort held out until February 16.

Meanwhile, Italy Italy;and Rome[Rome] had seized the opportunity to take over Rome, Rome;Italian occupation of where French troops had previously ensured the pope’s control of the entire city. The German princes and kings met at Versailles’ Versailles s Hall of Mirrors and declared William I the emperor of a united Germany. German unification was thus achieved in the heat of military conquest and under an authoritarian government. The Germans refused to negotiate until the French formed a new government, so a hurried election for a National Assembly was held in February; it resulted in a conservative majority. The assembly appointed a conservative monarchist to head its executive and negotiate peace terms. This government’s authority was later rejected by Democratic-Socialists in Paris, who formed the Commune and fought the assembly’s troops.


The peace terms imposed on France in the Treaty of Frankfurt Frankfurt, Treaty of (1871) , which was signed in May of 1871, were considered severe by prevailing standards. The Germans seized the French province of Alsace Alsace and one-third of the province of Lorraine Lorraine . These border areas contained rich iron Iron;in France[France] ore deposits, well-developed industries, and a population who wished to remain French. France was also required to pay a large sum of reparations in gold and accept a German occupation army.

In many ways, the peace terms of the Franco-Prussian War haunted Europe for decades. The Germans never governed Alsace-Lorraine in the same way as the rest of their empire and ceaselessly worried about French revenge. Feeling isolated and threatened by German power, France built a system of powerful allies which, in turn, alarmed the German government and helped precipitate World War I World War I[World War 01];and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] in 1914. When the Germans lost that war in 1918, they had to return Alsace-Lorraine to France, pay reparations to the victors, and accept an occupation force. These conditions, in turn, helped lead to World War II. The Franco-Prussian War left Europe more inclined to seek military solutions to problems, less democratic, more competitive, and more narrowly nationalistic than it otherwise might have been.

Further Reading

  • Bury, J. P. T. Gambetta and the National Defence: A Republican Dictatorship in France. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971. First published in 1936, this work provides a look behind the lines at besieged Paris and the French resistance after the battle of Sedan.
  • _______. Napoleon III and the Second Empire. New York: Harper & Row, 1968. An overview of the reign of Napoleon III with a clear treatment of the war.
  • Craig, Gordon A. Europe, 1815-1914. 3d ed. Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1989. This textbook gives a clear analysis of origins and results of the war.
  • Gall, Lothar. Bismarck: The White Revolutionary. Translated by J. A. Underwood. 2 vols. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990. This German writer stresses the essentially conservative nature of Bismarck’s policies.
  • Howard, Michael E. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France. New York: Dorset Press, 1990. This is the single most instructive and balanced book on the war in English.
  • Lerman, Katharine Anne. Bismarck. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. Careful examination of Bismarck’s exercise of power as a crucial means of understanding his personality and statecraft.
  • Medlicott, W. N. Bismarck and Modern Germany. London: English Universities Press, 1965. A concise account of the great chancellor’s role in founding unified Germany.
  • Price, Roger. The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Chronicles Napoleon’s political career, examining how he was elected president, devised a coup to establish the Second Empire, and used the empire’s power to initiate liberal reforms and wage a disastrous war against Prussia.
  • Taithe, Bertrand. Citizenship and Wars: France in Turmoil, 1870-1871. London: Routledge, 2001. Study of the political culture of France during its Third Republic, at the time of the Franco-Prussian War.

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte Becomes Emperor of France

Danish-Prussian War

North German Confederation Is Formed

Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War

Battle of Sedan

Prussian Army Besieges Paris

Kulturkampf Against the Catholic Church in Germany

German States Unite Within German Empire

Third French Republic Is Established

Paris Commune

Triple Alliance Is Formed

French Right Wing Revives During Boulanger Crisis

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Otto von Bismarck; Louis Faidherbe; Léon Gambetta; Friedrich von Holstein; Wilhelm Liebknecht; Napoleon III. Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War (1870-1871)]
Prussia;Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War]
France;Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War]
Germany;unification of
Bismarck, Otto von
[p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War]
Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War]