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. 

Bismarck and the Cartoonists

W.A. Coupe explores the polarised opinions aroused by the 'Iron Chancellor', as revealed in the German press.

The current controversy in Germany as to whether a statue of Bismarck should be erected in front of the Bundestag building in Berlin represents merely a further stage in an often acrimonious debate that has been going on since Bismarck (1815-98) first entered politics.

Was the architect of German political unity a force for good or evil in the history of the German nation?

In the political cartoons of his own day Bismarck appeared in both guises. On the one hand, he was admired and honoured as the man whose unique resolution and political wisdom had re-established national unity and grandeur; but on the other he was reviled and hated as the arrogant and intolerant aristocrat who rode roughshod over the true wishes of the people and poisoned the well-springs of German political life.

The intention here is to examine cartoons appearing in two of the principal satirical journals of the period, the Berlin Kladderadatsch, and the Frankfurter Latern, which represent the two extremes.

Bismarck, Prussia and German nationalism

Edgar Feuchtwanger assesses Bismarck's controversial career and legacy.

'In the beginning there was Bismarck'. This is how a leading German historian, Thomas Nipperdey, opens the second volume of his history of Germany from 1806 to 1918. 'In the beginning there was Napoleon' is the sentence opening the first volume. Few would dispute that Napoleon and Bismarck were the two most important personalities in the establishment of a modern German nation state, though it remains a matter of debate how much importance one can attach to single personalities in interpreting major historical events. Ideologies as well as material circumstances have to be part of the interpretation; and both the rise of German nationalism and the coming of industrial society were clearly necessary factors in the unification of Germany. Nevertheless it is paradoxical that Napoleon was not a German, while Bismarck was above all a Prussian, whose relationship with the idea of Germany was far from straightforward. It is the purpose of this article to explain why Bismarck, a member of the pre-industrial Prussian aristocracy, played so central a role in the creation of the modern industrial German state.

Bismarck’s Prussian apprenticeship

The Bismarck Debate

Bruce Waller looks at recent debate about modern Germany's greatest statesman.

Bruce Waller | Published in History Review

Historians strive to accumulate and record the facts of the past: with diligence they can obtain a high degree of accuracy. They also attempt the more difficult task of interpreting that past; here certainty, if it is more than banal, is an ungrateful and resourceful captive, yearning to escape. We know a great deal about Bismarck, but each of us sees him differently. Our own individuality is important, but so is our place in time, in society or on the globe.

The Bismarck debate

Before the First World War most Germans looked on the founder of their empire with admiration, though not necessarily with love. But there were also those who thought that he had robbed Germans of liberty. After the war the voice of criticism was muted. Germans blamed defeat in World War I on his successors and jealous foreigners. Bismarck's work was seen as 'creative' in the 1860s and as peaceful afterwards. In the late 1930s and early 40s his 19 years of peace embarrassed the authorities who preferred to honour Frederick the Great, a man small in stature but large in warlike endurance. The first breath of criticism therefore occurred under National Socialism. This upsetting fact was to facilitate the post World War II revival of respect and even veneration for Bismarck: if the Nazis did not honour the iron chancellor, then he must have been worthy!

Reading History: The Bismarck Debate

D.G. Williamson looks at the varied works relating to the 19th-century European statesman.

Despite the current tendency to concentrate on the socio-economic background to German unification, it is impossible to ignore the dominating figure of Bismarck. Few would disagree with Gooch that next to Napoleon I ‘he fills the largest space on the nineteenth-century stage', yet as a principal author of what Disraeli called 'the German Revolution', which was to change the balance of power in Europe and ultimately to lead to two major wars in the first half of the twentieth century, the nature of his achievements is still of immediate importance to us today. Viewed in retrospect from 1918, or still more from 1933 or 1945, the debate on the causes of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the constitutional settlements of 1867 and 1871, the changes of economic policy in 1879 and Bismarck's ceaseless manipulation of the political parties and interest groups take on a direct and sometimes uncomfortable relevance.