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Russia and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71

Mike Wells argues that Russian decisions in July 1870 were of major significance for the history of Europe.

There are some turning points in history which never quite get their due consideration. A good example is the decision by Hitler to declare war on the USA in 1941. Obviously this is mentioned in all the standard books, but the explanations seem rather patchy for an event which changed the whole war and then had huge effects on the postwar period. Another of these neglected turning points may be the Russian diplomacy at the time of the Franco-Prussian War. For example, in Pflanze’s magisterial survey of Bismarck and unification (see Further Reading), Russian diplomatic actions in July 1870 get a few lines out of 600 pages. W.E. Mosse, while dealing in a penetrating and original way with relations between Russia and Germany in the period after Unification, has little directly on the importance of Russian diplomacy in 1870, simply telling us that ‘Russia was preoccupied with the neutrality of Austria and Denmark’.

Bismarck’s Diplomacy and Wars

Professor Tim Blanning has rightly pointed out the importance of Russian non-intervention in key periods of German history. Had Russia intervened during the wars that Bismarck fought against Denmark and Austria in 1864 and 1866, then the results might have been very different. As it was, Prussia defeated Austria and established the North German Confederation in 1867 without foreign interference. Neither of Prussia’s powerful neighbours, France or Russia, stepped in to prevent the emergence of a new central European power. 

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