The Franco-Prussian War was more than an historical event

  • Themes: History, War

The conflict of 1870/71 set the tone for the extreme violence of both World Wars.

A German battery firing on Paris during the Franco-Prussian War.
A German battery firing on Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Bismarck’s War: The Franco-Prussian War and the Making of Modern Europe by Rachel Chrastil (Allen Lane, 512pp; £30)

In January 1871 a European colossus rose from the smouldering battlefields of the continent. The newly formed Germany had been moulded together from its constituent pieces in the heat of war against France. Now the largest and most populous state in central Europe, it was destined to dominate the continent – for better or worse.

The Prussian and German Crown Prince Frederick III keenly felt the responsibility this placed onto the shoulders of his 12-year-old son, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II. ‘May he grow up a good, upright, true and trusty man,’ he wrote in his diary mere days after the German Empire had been proclaimed, ‘It is truly a disquieting thought to realise how many hopes are even now set on this boy’s head.’

We now know that Frederick’s concerns were entirely justified. His son would lead the young German state into the bloody battlefields of the First World War – a conflict that proved catastrophic for him and his country and one that inflicted such violence on the continent that its convulsions made more armed conflict and the largest genocide in history possible.

It is through the lens of hindsight that we tend to see the unification of Germany in 1871 and the conflicts that led up to this point. The search for the root causes of what some have dubbed the ‘German Century’ has led many to 1871. The so-called unification wars which Prussia fought against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870-71) are said to be a prelude to the First World War and subsequent conflicts.

Not so in Rachel Chrastil’s new book Bismarck’s War: The Franco-Prussian War and the Making of Modern Europe. Chrastil, a historian of modern Europe at Xavier University in Ohio, has dedicated her latest work entirely to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 – not because it provides the starting point of ‘a direct line to the Franco-German conflict at the heart of the Great War,’ a causality she rejects, but because, she argues, it made the atrocities of the World Wars ‘more thinkable.’

The core of this important distinction and one of the many strengths of Chrastil’s book is her focus on the human experience of conflict. Due to the comparative brevity of the Franco-Prussian War – active fighting lasted just over six months from July 1870 to January 1871 – and its immense political consequences for Germany and France, we have a tendency to overlook the role of ordinary people caught up in events and with them an important aspect of the modernity of the conflict.

The sheer scale of the Franco-Prussian war meant that it left a deep mark on the continent. The largest European conflict between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War, it required two million soldiers, 180,000 of whom died. In contrast to many other works on this conflict, Chrastil dedicates large sections to what this actually meant for individuals and families, an approach we are much more familiar with in the context of the First World War, where diaries, postcards and family connections play a much larger role in conveying the history of conflict.

Chrastil introduces her readers to individuals such as Dietrich von Lassberg, a 22-year-old officer in Munich, who confided in his diary how euphoric he and his brother Rudolf were when they were told that their native Bavaria would join Prussia in its fight against France. Ominously, Chrastil notes that his ‘mother and siblings did not share the joy’.

Like many other young men up and down the German lands, Lassberg threw himself wholeheartedly into the preparations for war: breaking in his boots on a painful march to nearby Tölz, giving Alpine roses to a lady along the way and enjoying the songs sung by the locals in honour of their imminent departure. Like many other young men, Lassberg worried that ‘a big unknown, perhaps even grim future’ lay ahead of him, one in which ‘it was even possible that I would never see my family again’.

Lassberg spent his last evening, 23 July 1870, with his younger siblings Berta, Franz and Georg (ten, eight and seven years old respectively) before they accompanied him to the station at 6am, shouting a last ‘Hurrah’ as they parted. Then Chrastil impactfully tears her readers out of Lassberg’s Bavarian family idyll: ‘In the coming months, he witnessed and participated in acts of violence that he had never thought possible.’

If this seems a pattern more commonly associated with the wars of the twentieth century, the theme continues in Chrastil’s extensive descriptions of military operations. One of the most chilling examples is the artillery bombardment of central Paris in January 1871, which the German forces launched ‘not for direct military purposes but to immiserate the population and incline them towards peace’.

For three weeks, the terror was relentless. Starting on 5 January, shells rained down on the city for four or five hours each night. In total between 6,000 and 7,000 shells were fired from up to five miles away as terrified Parisians sought refuge in cellars. In total, the military effect was fairly limited – only 1,500 buildings were damaged. Nevertheless the bombardment of Paris ‘caused distress far beyond its damage to the city and its inhabitants,’ Chrastil concludes in an analysis that could have been written about the German airship raids of Britain in the First World War or about the Blitz even if the scale of the bombings had by that time increased.

As in other large-scale conflicts, the violence of the Franco-Prussian War also spilled into the civilian sphere. Chrastil describes graphically how in France political instability mingled with anxiety about the military situation to create a potent tension that didn’t take much to ignite.

In the village of Hautefaye in the Dordogne region, 500km south-west of Paris, a horrific incident happened on 16 August 1870, when France was already losing the war it had only declared a month earlier. It fell to local nobility to break this news to the people, which they tried to do at a fair that day. The drunken and angry villagers turned on the messengers immediately accusing them (falsely) of being Prussian agents or financiers of the enemy’s war effort. Some of the aristocrats escaped but a 32-year old nobleman by the name of Alain de Monéys was chased down by the pitchfork-wielding mob and then tortured for two hours before being burnt alive. Such spontaneous eruptions of violence paint a more complex and disturbing picture of a war that is so often remembered merely as a political event.

In laying bare the complexity and modernity of the Franco-Prussian War in granular detail, Chrastil sometimes neglects analysis in favour of narrative arcs. Readers are for instance told of the varying responses to the declaration of war – from the fears of the tens of thousands of Germans who lived in Paris in 1870 to the favourable views of many Americans who compared the position of being invaded to their own recent experience in the American Civil War, which had ended just five years earlier. Yet the collection of fascinating anecdotes ends without any attempt to compare, contrast or come to a conclusion about the reactions to the conflict – a pattern that is repeated throughout the book.

Bismarck’s War should be read for what it is: engrossing narrative history that offers a great overview of the Franco-Prussian War and includes many well-selected and surprising details that have the potential to diversify and change perceptions of this important conflict even in readers who know the era well. Chrastil offers a solid contextualisation of the conflict within the seismic changes of the European balance of power it catalysed, even if this is not the central focus of the book.

The mosaic of glimpses into the human hopes and tragedies of the Franco-Prussian War leaves one thinking long after the last page. War is always more than an historical event. Even Bismarck himself, for whom the conflict was a highly successful political undertaking, was fully aware of its human costs. When a dinner guest asked him in 1867 whether it might not be expedient to provoke a French attack on Prussia, he responded ominously: ‘Anyone who has looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.’


Katja Hoyer