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Bismarck Goads France into War: July 19, 1870

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. See digital samples, here. A previous post relates the events that led up the story told here.

Otto von Bismarck in 1870

The Seven Weeks’ War had made Bismarck a hero in Prussia. Even the Liberals in the Landtag had changed their opinion of him. At the request of King Wilhelm I, they enthusiastically declared that everything Bismarck had done against the Prussian constitution had been legal. Many of the Liberals even discovered that they cared more about Prussian glory than Liberalism. They formed a new National Liberal Party that would in coming years work closely with Bismarck.

Bismarck, however, was not content with these past glories. He wanted to bring the southern German states into a union with Prussia and the northern confederation, but he knew that great obstacles stood in his way. The southern Germans distrusted and disliked Prussia, for various reasons. Some wanted to keep their local independence, and the Liberals among them thought Prussia’s government too oppressive. Most of Germany’s Catholics lived in the south, and they feared living under a Protestant power. They remembered that Prussia had imprisoned Catholic bishops who dared to stand up in support of the Church’s marriage laws.

Bismarck thought that it could be many years before the southern German states would consent to unite under Prussia. He was certain, however, that a war—a patriotic war—could overcome southern German reluctance and unite those states quickly to Prussia. It was just such a war that Bismarck was planning—a war against Germany’s “ancient foe,” France.

Emperor Napoleon III with his wife, Empress Eugénie

For centuries, France had been interfering in Germany in order to keep the German states disunited and weak. Cardinal Richelieu had done this in the Thirty Years War. Louis XIV had taken the states of Alsace and Lorraine from the German Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon I had overthrown the empire—and had inspired a war of liberation. And, most recently, Napoleon III had interfered in the peace talks following the Seven Weeks’ War, and was in part responsible for the failure of southern German states to unite with Prussia.

Bismarck knew he could count on deep, anti-French feelings in Germany—if he could find something to stir them up again. By his clever diplomacy, he had been able to convince the southern German governments to sign secret treaties of mutual defense with Prussia; but Bismarck needed to stir up the southern German people, not just their leaders. He was sure war with France would come; “It lay in the logic of history,” he said. Still, he had to make it appear that France, not Prussia, had started the war. Bismarck was certain a declaration of war by France would stir up the patriotism of all Germans, southern as well as northern.

Prince Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen

The opportunity Bismarck was looking for came in 1868 when the Spanish drove out their Bourbon queen, Isabel II, and asked a distant Catholic relative of King Wilhelm of Prussia to become king of Spain in her place. This relative, Prince Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, at first refused the offer; but then Bismarck intervened and encouraged Leopold to accept the Spanish throne. Bismarck hoped he could use Prince Leopold to stir up trouble with France. Bismarck knew Napoleon III would object to a Hohenzollern king of Spain.

Bismarck was right. Afraid of being surrounded by Hohenzollerns, Napoleon took action to keep Prince Leopold from becoming king of Spain. Napoleon sent his foreign minister, the Duke of Gramont, to Prussia to ask Wilhelm I to tell Leopold to refuse the offer. Wilhelm, who did not care whether Leopold became a king or not, agreed to Napoleon’s request. And the matter seemed to end there.

All, indeed, would have been well—if Gramont, the Empress Eugénie, and members of the French “war party” had not stepped in and convinced Napoleon to make another demand. The emperor told his ambassador to Prussia, Count Benedetti, to ask Wilhelm to forbid any Hohenzollern ever to sit on the throne of Spain. Benedetti had three meetings with the king at Ems, a resort in central Germany, but Wilhelm refused to make the promise Napoleon had requested. The meetings were cordial, and the king and ambassador parted on good terms. Afterward, Wilhelm sent a dispatch to Bismarck describing the meetings and telling him to do with the dispatch whatever he willed.

Wilhelm I, king of Prussia

Bismarck was depressed when he first saw the Ems dispatch. It seemed his plans had failed. But then he got an idea. He took the dispatch and rewrote it so that it appeared that Benedetti had been disrespectful to Wilhelm, and that Wilhelm had rudely dismissed the ambassador. Bismarck then had the press publish the dispatch.

The Ems dispatch appeared in the French newspapers on Bastille Day, July 14, 1870. Feeling against Prussia was already quite strong in Paris because of the Seven Weeks’ War (the French had looked upon the Austrian defeat as a French defeat), but this was something worse. The king of Prussia had rudely dismissed the French ambassador! The coarse German had insulted France! Such an insult could not go unavenged! Crowds gathered in Paris streets, crying, Á Berlin! Á Berlin! (“To Berlin!”). The French Legislative Body took up the demand, and Napoleon asked his minister of war if the army were prepared for war. “Down to the last button on the last gaiter of the last soldier,” was the reply. Thus assured, Napoleon asked the Legislative Body to declare war, and the legislators passed a declaration of war on July 19.

The Ems dispatch had the same effect in Germany as it had in France. Both northern and southern Germans were outraged that the French ambassador had shown disrespect to a German king! And then came the French declaration of war. Violence as well as insult! Zu Paris! Zu Paris! (“To Paris!”) people cried. The southern German governments pledged their support to Prussia, and young men and older men, from the north and the south, enlisted in the Prussian army. In a few short weeks, the Prussians had mobilized over one million men.

Thus by cunning and deceit did Bismarck whip up patriotic fervor in both France and Germany and bring on a war. He had pushed France to declare war first, so it would appear that Prussia was fighting a war of defense. And he had united all Germans in a common cause—to humble France, the “ancient enemy” of the German people. Germany would now be avenged for Richelieu, Louis XIV, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

While Bismarck was Mulling over War…

Less than a month before France declared war on Germany, Die Walküre, the second part of Richard Wagner’s great music cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungs, premiered in Munich. Here, Jonas Kaufmann sings Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond, Siegfried’s “Spring Song” from Act I of Die Walküre.

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Well, I am the author of the piece, and it would be amusing to many of my friends to hear that I am accused of being a francophile. It comes as a surprise to me. That being said, I stand by what I wrote, and I don't think it particularly pro-French or pro-German. Napoleon III at the time was looking for some war to fight to bolster his sagging reputation with his army -- something pointed out in the text from which the above is an excerpt. The excerpt indicates that Eugenie and the French war party incited Napoleon to make his demand through Gramont. Yet, it seems, Napoleon was not at the time, before the publishing of the altered…

Replying to

I have not claimed that Napoleon III was justified in declaring war on Prussia. I don't think he was. The French response betrayed all the foolishness of nationalism. Did Bismarck want to unite Germany as much as he wanted Prussian hegemony over Small Germany, for which union was the means?


Joe Dokes
Joe Dokes
Jul 20, 2022

So the French, who had long interfered in the German states, were ready to declare war over an insult when they were dictating to Wilhelm, and now it's entirely Bismarck's fault? Yet another one-sided story by an apologist for France, whose aspirations were always to dominate continental Europe.

Joe Dokes
Joe Dokes
Jul 22, 2022
Replying to

Well, "Bismarck Goads France into War" (the title) is one example that the author essentially blames Bismarck for the war that France declared. It's been routine for some time to accept that France was "tricked" into declaring war--because they were insulted?--without noting that they were just continuing their imperialistic practices. Keeping the German states divided was important to French domination of the continent. The article frames the French as "asking" Wilhelm I to tell Leopold not to accept the Spanish throne--they weren't really asking. This was reminiscent of the War of Spanish Succession. Napoleon III thought that Austria, recently defeated by Prussia, would ally with France in the war, yet another miscalculation by the emperor. Perhaps if the article was …

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