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The Birth of the German Empire: January 18, 1871

Siege of Paris, by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier

The Franco-Prussian War, as the 1870 struggle between France and Germany is now called, became a war of great importance to Europe and, indeed, the world. It helped bring about the overthrow of the pope’s ancient temporal power, and it was creating a new great power in the world. For, even while the siege of Paris continued, Prussia and the southern German archduchies of Baden and Hesse, along with the kingdoms of Württemberg and Bavaria, were discussing how best they might form a united Germany. As these talks continued, it became clear that the German states would not form just another confederation; they would form an empire. The king of Prussia would be its head, bearing the title of emperor or (in German), Kaiser.

Otto von Bismarck, in 1873

The union of all Germany under Prussia was a great triumph for Bismarck. It was the completion of everything he had been working for. He was having less success, however, in getting his way in deciding how the war was conducted. At the beginning of the siege of Paris, Bismarck had suggested bombarding the city; but both Roon and Moltke thought a bombardment (including civilian areas of the city) would be barbaric and immoral. The generals were joined by Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, and Bismarck was forced to back down.

The siege of Paris was cruel enough, without a bombardment. Brought to the point of starvation, the Parisians killed the animals in the zoo for food; they ate cats, dogs, and even rats. Without milk, almost all the infants in the city died. But at last, during Christmas week, in the bitter cold, German shells began falling on the city. Bismarck had overcome Moltke’s objections to a bombardment. Doing little damage to the city itself, the bombardment reduced the city’s fortresses one by one. It was clear that the defenders of Paris could not hold out much longer.

On January 18, 1871, during the last days of the siege, a most important event occurred in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Versailles, of course, was formerly the palace of the French Bourbon kings. It had been, as an official German report called it, “the center of a hostile power that for centuries had striven to divide and humiliate Germany.” Now, in Louis XIV’s palace, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, in the name of his fellow German princes, offered the imperial crown to King Wilhelm I. In the presence of Bismarck and the princes of the realm, Wilhelm accepted the crown; and with his own hands, he placed it on his head.

Ten days later, the long siege of Paris came to an end. France’s Government of National Defense agreed to a 21-day truce with the German Empire and then called for elections to form a new government. On March 1, a newly elected National Assembly under the presidency of Adolphe Thiers met at Bordeaux and there voted to abolish the French empire. Napoleon III’s empire, said the deputies, had been “responsible for the ruin, the invasion, and dismemberment of France.”

Adolph Thiers

France was once again a republic, and it was this “Third Republic” that signed the Treaty of Frankfurt with the German Empire on May 10, 1871. Bismarck had driven a hard bargain with the French. France had to give all of Alsace and part of Lorraine (along with the fortress cities of Metz and Strasbourg) to Germany, as well as pay an indemnity of five billion francs. German troops were to remain in France until the entire indemnity was paid. France agreed to these humiliating demands, for she had no choice. Prussia’s war machine had destroyed her army.

Though many in Germany thought the Treaty of Frankfurt was a just payback for all France had done to Germany over the centuries, it only wakened the desire for revenge in the hearts of the French. Bismarck had triumphed over Germany’s ancient “enemy,” but at a great price. Like a bad tree, the Treaty of Frankfurt was to bear bitter fruit in years to come. It would lead in the end to a far greater war as well as the downfall of the very empire that Bismarck had worked so hard to establish.

"Children's Games" in the Year of Defeat

In 1871, the year Paris fell, Georges Bizet, the French composer most known for his opera, Carmen, composed this suite of 12 miniatures, Jeux d'Enfants ("Children's Games") for piano for four hands.

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