The Franco-Prussian War overturned the balance of power in Europe. That balance, stable since the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1814-15, had depended on a rough equivalence among five European great powers: Britain, France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia.
It helped, too, that all five powers were preoccupied: the British and the French were building overseas empires; the Russian Tsar was expanding into Central Asia; the Austrian Habsburgs were sinking in a cauldron of national tensions; while the Prussians had the opposite problem, that the Germans were fragmented into petty states.
Between 1864 and 1871, this situation was transformed by the enforced ‘solution’ of the national question in Germany – the Prussian-dominated unification of the country by Bismarckian ‘blood and iron’. The Danish-Prussian, Austro-Prussian, and Franco-Prussian Wars had the intended effect of generating a tidal wave of German nationalist sentiment that overwhelmed the petty-potentates of the minor German states and compelled them to unite with Prussia. The Prussian King became the German Emperor in January 1871.
This meant a fusion of three forces: the Prussian Army, based on the Junker officer-caste of eastern Germany; the rising industrial power of the Rhineland in the west; and a vast pool of military manpower in an enlarged population of 41 million people. The new Germany, in short, was an amalgam of militarism, industry, and mass.
Rhineland capitalism experienced massive expansion after 1871. Within half a century, Germany had become Europe’s foremost industrial power. This expansion drove an ever more imperative search for markets – in the east, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, and in the wider world. That meant tension with the other great powers, both in Europe and overseas, and that in turn became an arms race that eventually exploded into world war.
From 1871 onwards, Imperial Germany was a rising power and a potential pan-European hegemon. Kaiser Wilhelm II took on the aspect of Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV of France, and, of course, Napoleon – a European ruler liable to over-master the continent. Germany found itself unable to prevent the formation of a hostile alliance and the danger of a ‘war on two fronts’.
Given its enormous geopolitical consequences, it is surprising that the Franco-Prussian War receives relatively little attention. Its impact on France was also prodigious: the fall of Napoleon III’s Second Empire; the Paris Commune of 1871; the establishment of the Second Republic; the advent of the burning question of Alsace-Lorraine in French politics.
Its military aspects also deserve close study, for here was a clash of armies of immense size and the most advanced weaponry, made possible by Europe’s industrial revolution. Formations as dense as those at Waterloo were shattered by the concentrated fire of steel guns, breech-loading rifles, and machine-guns.
Doctrine lagged hopelessly behind killing-power. The lessons of the American Civil War had been ignored. And even afterwards, with the experience of slaughter-pen battles like Gravelotte-St-Privat, the generals drew all the wrong conclusions and would repeat the mistakes in 1914.
Our guide to this fascinating conflict is David Porter, who first provides a strategic overview of the war, and then takes one of its most sanguinary battles as his exemplar of weapons and tactics.