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WHILE THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC WAS ENTERING UPON HER ORDEAL and the restless Napoleon III was consolidating his rule in France an event of great moment took place beyond the Rhine. In 1861 William I of Prussia ascended the throne of Frederick the Great, and marked the first years of his reign with three public appointments whose impact on European history and modern events is incalculable. Count von Moltke became Chief of the General Staff, Count von Roon Minister of War, and—most important of all—Count Otto von Bismarck was recalled from the Embassy in Paris to become Minister-President of Prussia. First as Chancellor of the North German Federation, and finally of the German Empire, this singular genius presided with a cold passion over the unification and Prussianisation of Germany, the elimination of Prussia’s nearest European rivals, and the elevation of William to the German Emperor’s throne in 1871. He was to serve, or dominate, William I and his two successors uninterruptedly until his clashes with the young Emperor William II finally and acrimoniously ended his tenure in 1890. Bismarck was well equipped physically, temperamentally, and by training for the gigantic rôle he played. He had served in the Prussian Civil Service and the Pomeranian Provincial Parliament before being appointed Prussian representative at the Federal Diet at Frankfort. He had travelled widely, and had also gained practical experience by managing the spacious family estates in Pomerania. His last two appointments before becoming Minister-President were at the Prussian Embassies at Petersburg and Paris. He retained from his early career rooted convictions on both ends and means, which he expressed freely and sometimes with brutal frankness. Absolute monarchy was his ideal and aim. Liberalism and Parliamentarianism were anathema. Prussia must be purged of weak and liberal elements so that she could fulfil her destiny of leading and controlling the German-speaking peoples. A decisive struggle with Austria was inevitable.

Before a background of intense, brilliant, and unscrupulous diplomatic activity the three hammer-blows that forged Germany were deliberately prepared and struck. These were the war with Denmark in 1864, by which the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein were attached to Prussia, the Seven Weeks’ War of 1866, in which Austria was crushed and her associates in Germany overrun, and as culmination the war against France in 1870.

To ensure freedom of action in other directions Bismarck had always been convinced that Prussia’s eastern frontiers must be secure. “Prussia must never let Russian friendship grow cold. Her alliance is the cheapest among all Continental alliances,” he had said in Frankfort. Prussia had stood aside from the Crimean War, and before long she had a further opportunity of demonstrating her calculated friendship for the Czar. In 1863 the Poles rose against Russia in a spasm of the hopeless gallantry that has so often characterised the history of that unhappy people. Bismarck gave the Russians his support and encouragement, and even allowed Russian troops to pursue the rebels over the Prussian frontiers. Polish independence, which he had always disliked and feared, was once more extinguished, and Russia was given a proof of Prussian goodwill and a hint of further favours to come.

In the same year Bismarck seized his chance to expand Prussia north-westwards and gain control of the port of Kiel and the neck of the Danish peninsula. With the death of the King of Denmark, without a direct heir, an old dispute about the succession to the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein came to a head. For centuries the Danish kings had ruled these Duchies as fiefs of the Holy Roman Empire. The Empire had vanished, but the Duchies remained an ill-defined part of the loose German Confederation created at the Congress of Vienna. Schleswig was half Danish in population and the Danes wished to incorporate it in their kingdom. Holstein was wholly German. The conflict of national feeling was inflamed by dynastic issues. Was the Danish king of the new line entitled to succeed to the Duchies? There was a rival claimant in the field. Mounting German patriotism was determined to prevent the parting of the Duchies from the German fatherland.

Bismarck knew well how to cast his line in these troubled waters. The German Confederation had already clashed with the Danes on the issue, and when the new Danish king assumed sovereignty over the Duchies Hanoverians and Saxons united in a Federal Army and occupied Holstein. At this point Bismarck intervened, dragging with him Austria. Austria was still a member of the German Confederation, and with her remaining Italian possessions in mind was hostile to the triumph of nationalism in outlying provinces. In January 1864 an Austro-Prussian ultimatum was dispatched to Copenhagen, and by July Denmark was defeated and overrun and Schleswig was occupied. That superb weapon, the new Prussian Army, had hardly been extended, and its future victims were scarcely made aware of its power.

Britain played no effective part in this affair. Palmerston would have liked to intervene, for Britain had guaranteed the integrity of Denmark by the Treaty of Berlin in 1852, which he himself had helped to negotiate. Before the blow fell he had said in the House of Commons: “We are convinced—I am convinced at least—that if any violent attempt were made to overthrow [Danish] rights and interfere with that independence those who made the attempt would find in the result that it would not be Denmark alone with which they would have to contend.” But the Cabinet was hesitant and divided and was not prepared to back these imprecise assurances. Queen Victoria held fast to the views of the late Prince Consort and favoured the rise of Prussia. Moreover, Palmerston himself, who had started his Ministerial career during the wars against Napoleon I, was suspicious of France. If a general war were unleashed, he feared that Napoleon III might seize the Rhineland and dangerously augment his power in Europe. In fact France turned down tentative British proposals for joint action, conscious that Britain could only put an army of 20,000 on the Continent and that her contribution to a war with Prussia and Austria might well be limited to the easy but indecisive task of naval control of the Baltic. Napoleon III was hoping instead to exact compensations from Prussia, without recourse to war. He was unsuccessful in his double diplomacy. Russia, for her part, was in debt to Bismarck, and with an eye to the future refused to be involved. In these circumstances Palmerston felt he could do no more than press for conferences and mediation. It is not the only time in British history when strength has been lacking to reinforce bold words. Palmerston’s words had given the Danes a false sense of security and tempted them to obduracy in an argument where legality did not entirely lie on their side, though some justice did. An ominous precedent was thus set for what the Germans politely called Realpolitik, while Britain and France looked on. Realpolitik meant that standards of morality in international affairs could be ignored whenever material advantage might be gained. In this instance Denmark, the small victim, was not extinguished, nor were the peace terms unduly onerous. Then and later Bismarck knew the value of a certain hard magnanimity to the vanquished.

The outcome of the war with Denmark was soon to furnish the pretext and occasion for the next and far more important step of eliminating Austria from the German Confederation and vesting its leadership in Prussia. Schleswig and Holstein had become a condominium of Prussia and Austria. Bismarck played upon the awkwardness of this arrangement, maintaining a screen of protests against the indignant but long-suffering Austrians. At the same time he sought support in other quarters. In 1865 he visited Napoleon III at Biarritz. No accurate record of what was said was kept, but Bismarck presumably reiterated the theme he had for some time been impressing on the French Embassy in Prussia: if Prussia was given a free hand against Austria, France might expect Prussian sympathy in extending herself “wherever the French language was spoken.” Belgium was clearly meant. Moreover, France could mediate in the final stages, and might even expect a territorial reward in South Germany.


Napoleon promised nothing, but was not unreceptive, and Bismarck went home content. He had not committed himself to paper.

Of equal importance was the friendship of Italy, for she too was moving towards unity. Cavour and Garibaldi, as has been related, had brought almost the whole of the peninsula under the rule of the house of Savoy. But Venice, Trieste, and the Southern Tyrol remained in Austrian hands. For these territories the Italians yearned. In April 1866 King Victor Emmanuel signed a secret treaty with Prussia agreeing to attack Austria if war broke out within three months.

The stage was set. France was neutralised. Russia was benevolent. Italy was an ally. Britain counted little in the matter, but in any case her sympathies lay with the Italian Liberation movement, and her relations with Austria had not been good for some years. The provocation to war of Austria and her associates in the German Confederation followed with precision.

Within ten days of the outbreak of war Hanover, Hesse, and Saxony were occupied. The King of Hanover, grandson of George III, fled to England and his country was incorporated in Prussia. Thus disappeared the ancient Electorate which had given Britain her Protestant dynasty in 1714. The Hanoverian State funds were later judiciously used among the ruling circles of other German states to mitigate their resentment against Prussia. The main Prussian armies then marched south into Bohemia, while Bismarck’s agents stirred up the Hungarians in the Austrian rear. After a week of manœuvring, in which the Prussian staff made a remarkable use of railways as an aid to the strategic concentration of their forces, the decisive battle was joined at Sadowa. Over 200,000 men were engaged on either side. The Prussians used a new breech-loading rifle, and its rapidity of fire was conclusive. The Austrians sought to overcome their disadvantage by coming to close quarters, but their belief in their superiority in the use of the bayonet, a vanity common to many nations, proved unfounded. The years of endeavour of Moltke and his Generals bore fruit. The Austrian Army was shattered.

Three weeks later the Prussians were within reach of Vienna. At Bismarck’s vehement insistence the capital was spared the humiliation of occupation and the peace terms were once again lenient. Bismarck’s mind was already turned to his next move, and he set store by future Austrian friendship. “So to limit a victory,” he said, “is not only a generous but a most wise policy. But for the victor to benefit from it the recipient must be worthy.” Austria’s only territorial loss was Venetia, granted to Italy, but she was finally excluded from Germany and her future ambitions had inevitably to lie south-eastwards among the Slavs. So ended the Seven Weeks’ War. Prussia had gained five million inhabitants and 25,000 square miles of territory in Germany. The balance of Continental power had changed radically. A premonitory shudder went through France.

Napoleon III tried vainly to extract from Prussia some reward for his neutrality—a policy of asking for tips, as it was contemptuously called. But to a French demand for territories in South Germany Bismarck returned a blank refusal, and published both his and Napoleon’s Notes, thus raising suspicions of France and consolidating his own position in non-Prussian Germany. Belatedly France came to realise her full danger. In the logic of Bismarck’s methodical planning a Franco-Prussian war lay on the close horizon. In desperate haste Marshal Niel, Minister of War, set in train the reform of the French Army, and Napoleon cast about for allies in the forthcoming struggle. All was vain. Distraught by Napoleon’s increasing ill-health and diminished powers of decision and driven by the petulant arrogance of her Parliament and Press, France ran headlong on her fate.

The next four years were marked by growing tension, the steady increase of armaments on both sides, and incidents that lipped the brink of war. The position was perfectly plain to British statesmen and they did their best to mediate. Without a firm commitment to France or Prussia such attempts were necessarily doomed. Neither obvious national interest nor a liking for either side was strong enough to sway Britain. Napoleon’s unstable ambitions were suspect in London, and Bismarck, in the words of the British Ambassador in Berlin, seemed to have opted for a politique de brigandage.

Once again the German Chancellor succeeded in depriving his adversary of allies. In spite of French blandishments Austria stood aloof. Italy had no reason to turn against her Prussian ally of 1866. French troops still held Rome for the Pope, and a French defeat would compel them to withdraw. Russia, at Bismarck’s prompting, seized her advantage to break the treaty bonds placed on her movements in and out of the Black Sea. Bismarck was not greatly concerned with Britain. As he had put it some time before, “What is England to me? The importance of a state is measured by the number of soldiers it can put in the field.” Nevertheless in 1870 he sent to The Times newspaper the text of a draft treaty apparently proposed by the French four years earlier in which they sought to acquire Belgium in return for supporting Prussia. To Britain, a guarantor of Belgian inviolability, this made intervention on the French side even less attractive.

In that summer Bismarck delivered his stroke. A revolution in Spain had driven out the Bourbon dynasty and the Spanish throne had been vacant for nearly two years. The interim Spanish Government cast about for a suitable royal candidate from the great families of Europe, and the choice finally fell on Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a member of the elder branch of King William of Prussia’s family. The Prince declined the offer. Nevertheless, at Bismarck’s suggestion the Spaniards renewed their invitation, and this time it was accepted. The French reaction was violent. To the accompaniment of inflammatory speeches in Parliament the French Ambassador in Prussia was instructed to demand a revocation of Prince Leopold’s acceptance, which the French Foreign Minister described as “the disturbance to French detriment of the existing equilibrium of the forces of Europe and the endangering of the interests and honour of France.” Nowadays he would no doubt have spoken of encirclement. King William received these remonstrances patiently enough. He privately advised Prince Leopold to withdraw, and within forty-eight hours the Prince complied. The French Press exulted. With fatal importunity the French Ambassador was instructed to demand guarantees that the candidature would never again be renewed. This was too much even for King William. He put off the Ambassador courteously but firmly, and as soon as he was officially informed of Prince Leopold’s renunciation he sent the Ambassador a message to say that he regarded the matter as closed.

To Bismarck his sovereign’s diplomacy was gall. He believed the fruits of his work to be slipping away and his country to be set on a course of humiliation. Dining in dejection with Moltke and Roon in Berlin, he received from the King at Ems a telegram describing the latest events. The King’s telegram gave Bismarck discretion to publish the story if he thought it desirable. Bismarck seized the opportunity, and without literal falsehood so abbreviated the account as to give the impression that the French demands had been rejected in the curtest manner and that their Ambassador had been rebuffed. Well aware that the communiqué—now in Bismarck’s words “a red rag to the Gallic bull”—made conflict inevitable, the dinner party broke up content. Roon exclaimed exultantly, “Our God of old lives still, and will not let us perish in disgrace.” The French declaration of war followed within a week. The picturesque quality of the incident is somewhat marred by subsequent knowledge that the French Cabinet had decided on war in any case, if King William’s attitude was anything less than capitulation. Their deficient military intelligence had led some French leaders to the belief that their military preparation surpassed Prussia’s. The next forty days were to give a terrible answer to the contrary.

Prussia placed half a million men in the field, with the same number in reserve. Bavaria, which for two hundred years had supported France upon the European scene, now threw 150,000 men against her. The course of the struggle was brief and fierce. The French fought with all their native dash and gallantry and their infantry weapons were fully up to their enemy’s standard. But they were outdated and outclassed in the new dialectic of war, in transport, in the supply system, above all in staff work and training.

From the start things went ill for France. The mobilisation scheme, revised by the Emperor himself, was slow and fearfully confused. Officers searched for non-existent units; reservists in Alsace were sent to camps in the Pyrenees to be equipped before they joined formations within a few miles of their point of departure; many were only able, weeks later, to reach their regiments when these were already dispersed or in retreat.

The Germans advanced in three main armies, two, totalling 350,000 men, moving by converging routes on the French fortress of Metz, and the Crown Prince of Prussia, at the head of a force of 220,000, making for Strasbourg. Far in front of the armies drove a cloud of cavalry, blinding and confusing the French and providing their own staffs with accurate information. The greater number of the battles in the open field were joined almost inadvertently by the impetuous advance of the Prussian vanguard, which the excellent organisation of their main forces enabled them to exploit rapidly. On August 4 the Crown Prince defeated part of the French Army of Alsace under Marshal MacMahon at Wissembourg, and two days later, after a major engagement at Wörth, drove the main French force south towards Châlons. Simultaneously the Army of the Rhine, commanded by the Emperor, was compelled to fall back on Metz. At this fortress Napoleon handed over his command to Marshal Bazaine and joined MacMahon at Châlons.

By mid-August the first and second German armies had contrived to get between Metz and Paris. Bazaine fought three bloody battles, which reached their climax at Gravelotte on August 18, where the German cavalry, at great cost, turned the scales. He then retreated into Metz, where he remained with 180,000 of the best of the French Army, a passive and inglorious spectator of the swift development of Moltke’s plans. MacMahon and the Emperor advanced to the relief of Metz. The Crown Prince, who had by-passed Strasbourg, came up with the French near Sedan and forced them to retreat into that ancient fortified town on the Belgian frontier. The Germans, whose artillery had early showed a marked superiority, methodically surrounded the French positions and girded them with a circle of fire. Sedan was ill adapted for defence in modern warfare. As the Germans took possession of the heights above the town the position became untenable. After a desperate struggle Napoleon was forced to capitulate with 130,000 men. Only six weeks after the outbreak of war he surrendered his sword to the King of Prussia. Bismarck was present. Their last meeting had been as fellow diplomatists five years before at Biarritz.

Three weeks later the Germans had surrounded Paris, and within a few days Bazaine, through folly, weariness, or worse, as many Frenchmen believed, unnecessarily surrendered the great fortress of Metz. In 1876 a French court, unable to believe that he had acted on grounds other than of cowardice or treason, condemned him to death, though the sentence was not carried out.


The war seemed over. The French Emperor was a prisoner. The Empress had fled to England. Paris was firmly gripped by the besieging armies. A “Government of National Defence” held on in the capital, but in spite of the spirited efforts of one of its members, Gambetta, who escaped from the city in a balloon to stimulate resistance in the provinces, the last French armies on the Loire and the Swiss frontier were not able to achieve anything effective. In January 1871 the siege of Paris was ended.

Negotiations for an armistice opened in Versailles. This time Bismarck drove a relatively hard bargain and exacted a heavy return for every concession he made. The peace treaty with France was considered in its day to be severe. An indemnity of 5,000 million francs in gold was demanded, which was believed to be sufficient to engage the French economy for a long time. It was paid off in three years. The victorious army paraded through the streets of Paris. Alsace and Eastern Lorraine were ceded to Germany. Bitter indeed were the seeds sown thereby.

The final text of the treaty was not signed for several months. Meanwhile France suffered one of the terrible consequences of a major and disintegrating military defeat. In March revolutionaries seized control of Paris, where the French garrison had been greatly depleted by the terms of the armistice. At first the movement, styled the Commune, was inspired by patriotic motives and called on the people of Paris, humiliated by the sight of the triumphant Prussian Army, to rise and continue the struggle. A half-hearted attempt to quell the insurrection failed, and the Provisional French Government withdrew to Versailles leaving Paris under the red flag. Bismarck released French prisoners of war to assist in the subduing of the capital, which now became a full-scale military operation.

As the Government forces under Marshal MacMahon advanced the character of the Commune changed. Its supporters lost interest in repelling the Prussian invaders and became increasingly vicious and bloodthirsty social revolutionaries. Hostages, including the Archbishop of Paris and many priests, were shot, and great national buildings were burned to the ground. MacMahon’s troops had to fight their way through barricade after barricade as they closed on the centre of Paris amid all the horrors of civil war. Merciless reprisals were taken on the Communards. By the time order was restored, after some six weeks’ fighting, the dead were numbered in tens of thousands. Twenty-five thousand alone are estimated to have been executed as the struggle proceeded. The movement did not spread to any extent to other cities in France. It had been hailed by Communists abroad, and Karl Marx, living in England, saw in it a vindication of the theories of class-warfare which he had been preaching for half a lifetime. In lineal descent from the revolutions of 1789 and 1848, the Commune left scars on the French body politic that are visible to this day.


In the month of the armistice the final touches were put to the tremendous edifice of German unity. Since the autumn the German diplomatic staffs had been at work at Versailles, and on January 18, 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors William I of Prussia received from his fellow sovereigns the title of German Emperor. There had been some dispute over the exact wording of the title. Bismarck, always ready to concede the form for the substance, had decided for the version most likely to spare the susceptibilities of the smaller states. As William left the Hall he pointedly ignored the titanic architect of his fortunes. He had wished to be styled Emperor of Germany.

On the day of the Battle of Sadowa Disraeli had addressed his constituents on the virtues of serene detachment from European affairs. He had none the less a true insight, as the sequel will show. Five years later it was still possible for Britain to be a benevolent, distressed, but somewhat distant spectator of the struggle. During the decade ending in 1870 the Royal Navy had been powerfully re-equipped with ironclad steamships which mounted rifled guns firing shell instead of shot. At sea the age of wood and sail was at long last over. The naval lessons of the American Civil War had been learnt. But on land the regular British Army remained by Continental standards a negligible quantity. The wars of the nineteenth century had not lasted long enough to show the military deployment of which an industrialised country was finally capable.

At Versailles Bismarck’s life-work reached its climax. In the face of every obstacle at home and at the cost of the deliberate provocation of three wars Prussia presided over Germany, and Germany had become one of the two most powerful nations on the Continent. The cost was great. France was embittered, determined on revenge and anxious to gain allies to help her. The Concert of Europe, founded at Vienna, was now fatally cracked and flawed. In the years that followed various efforts were made to revive it, sometimes with temporary success. But gradually the Powers of Europe drifted into two separate camps, with Britain as an uneasy and uncommitted spectator. From this division, growing into an unbridgeable chasm, the eruptions of the twentieth century arose. Britain was slow to recognise the transformation of the scene, and Disraeli—though he exaggerated—was in advance of his time when he declared that the victories of Prussian arms meant a German Revolution, “a greater political event,” he forecast, “than the French Revolution of the last century.” The era of armed peace had opened. Britain however, in the age of Gladstone and Disraeli, was absorbed in home affairs and in the problems of Ireland and Empire. But the days of an apparent disconnection between European and Colonial affairs were drawing rapidly to a close. Nevertheless so long as Bismarck led Germany, he was careful to do nothing to arouse British hostility. Meanwhile colonial quarrels increasingly darkened the Island’s relations with France. Not until Kaiser William II had dismissed the great Chancellor and plunged into provocative policies did Britain fully awake to the Teutonic menace.

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