Bismarck as editor: how the vacant Spanish throne, a doctored telegram, and a French empress sparked the surprise Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71
In May 1867, the Imperial Bonapartist French capital of Paris and its ruler---Napoleon III, formerly Prince Louis Napoleon---hosted the gala Great Universal Exposition that proved to be the high water mark of his tinsel-like Second Empire. At His Imperial Majesty’s side greeting the august assemblage of global royalty was his beautiful, Spanish-born empress, the former Eugenie de Montijo, whom he’d married because he couldn’t bed her otherwise.
Among the glittering host of foreign guests were three emperors, eight kings, one viceroy, five queens, 24 princes, seven princesses, nine grand dukes, two grand duchesses, two archdukes, five dukes, and a pair of mere duchesses to gild the French lily even more.
Within this elite group were Wilhelm I, King of Prussia, and his liberal minded Queen Augusta; his son and Heir to the Throne, Crown Prince Frederick, and his English-born wife, the former Princess Royal of Great Britain. This was Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, nicknamed Vicky, the future Empress Frederick and mother of the later Kaiser Wilhelm II. The ruling sovereigns addressed each other as “my dear Brother,” but their civility and good cheer during the military parades, gala ceremonies, and glittering balls masked the fact that Napoleonic France and Bismarckian Prussia were on an almost unavoidable collision course to a war that must, perforce, see one of them defeated and humbled, if not even overthrown.
An astute political figure in her own right, and---some alleged---the real Imperial ruler in Paris---the vain, impulsive Empress Eugenie feared that it would be her adoptive France. Indeed, following the shattering Prussian Army defeat of Austria-Hungary at the landmark Battle of Sadowa-Koniggratz in 1866, Her Majesty tearfully lamented to her courtiers that Austria’s debacle was “the beginning of the end of the dynasty.” She asserted that it would force France and the Prussians into war over the future unification of Germany, from which the French could not possibly stand aside and let it happen.
In addition---unlike the centuries old, established Royal-Imperial houses of Europe that could be beaten time and after time and still return home to rule their lands---the upstart Bonapartes must proceed from success to success, with failure abroad translating to political overthrow at home. This was as true in the late 1860s of the man French writer Victor Hugo called “Napoleon the Little” as it had been a generation earlier of his uncle, the Great Napoleon. Conversely, military adventures and foreign coups abroad helped to conceal the dry rot of the decaying regime domestically.
Still, the last thing that Napoleon III wanted was war with mighty Prussia, and neither did any of his Prussian guests during their celebrated visit to Paris in May 1867, yet all found themselves embroiled in it against their personal wishes, and all played significant roles as the gathering storm unfolded.
The man who helped launch it was Prussian Prime and Foreign Minister Prince Otto von Bismarck, the head of King Wilhelm’s government at Berlin. He was the mastermind behind the formation of the smaller Teutonic states into the North German Confederation following 1866, anchored in, and submitting to, Royal Prussia as its linchpin.
Prince Bismarck---who’d become Prussia’s “blood and iron Chancellor” in 1862 as the king’s ally in his fight with the Prussian parliament over needed Army reform---had met and dealt with Napoleon III many times previously, both in Paris and at Biarritz, where the married Prussian also discreetly kept a Russian mistress, Cathy Orlov. He’d found himself completely unimpressed with the Emperor of the French, characterizing him as “A sphinx without a riddle.”
While Chancellor Bismarck recognized that France was his most formidable Continental foe blocking the desired path toward eventual German unification under the aegis of Prussia, he believed that---when the time came---he could manage, bribe, or beat the wily French ruler. He was more concerned about being able to accomplish German unification without the intervention of the other major powers, who also had a vested interest---like France---in seeing it prevented: Romanov Russia, Habsburg Austria, and Victorian England.
As soon as he’d secured passage of the 1862 Army Bill through the Prussian legislature, Prince Bismarck began looking for ways to take advantage of foreign events that would help Prussia unify Germany on its own terms. Rather than having a detailed, pre-conceived plan (which he alleged was the case in his 1898 memoirs), Bismarck was the ultimate opportunist, waiting for just the right moment to strike. “One must wait for the Goddess of History to pass, then grasp the hem of her garment as she does, being carried along with it,” he noted.
Tsarist Russia, angered by the Franco-British coalition that had defeated her in the Crimean War of 1854-56, stood aside from the coming Unification Wars, thus giving
Bismarck a free hand, and also no “second front” to the east, as bedeviled Imperial Germany during 1914-18 and her Nazi successor state in 1939-45. Allied with Austria in 1864, Prussia had prevented tiny Denmark from annexing the pro-German Duchies of Schleswig-Holstein in 1864, then beaten Austria herself in 1866 to establish unquestioned Prussian hegemony within Germany, and seized both duchies herself.
From Paris, Napoleon III had remained neutral, mainly because he believed that Prussia could not vanquish Austria alone and without allies, and thus would find herself tied down in a second Seven Years’ War that had almost been the end of Frederick the Great in the previous century. He---like many military observers---was frankly amazed at the speedy demise of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the Six Weeks’ War that was really decided within its first 10 days.
Queen Victoria’s vast British Empire had also stood aside in the “splendid isolation” that she’d adopted following the end of the Crimean War, a stance that she wouldn’t abandon until the emerging German threat only became clear in the late ‘90s. It also aided Bismarck’s cause immensely that most Britons admired plucky Prussia for having helped to defeat Napoleon I at Waterloo in 1815, and the fact that a former British Princess Royal would someday occupy a Prussian throne also didn’t hurt, either. Britain and Prussia had never fought each other, and few believed that they ever would.
For his part, time had not been kind to Napoleon III’s tottering regime in Paris. In March 1867, the French pressured King William III of Holland to cede Luxembourg to France, but Bismarck refused to countenance such a territorial acquisition, so it died, and the Emperor Napoleon found himself publicly embarrassed. There was worse to come: on June 19, 1867, the Austrian claimant to the Mexican throne, and Napoleon’s candidate---Emperor Maximilian---was shot by a Juarista firing squad. The French bayonets that had propped up his regime had been withdrawn in the face of diplomatic and military demands of the angered United States.
Once again, His Majesty Napoleon III was severely humiliated, a political setback that he could ill afford among the rising chorus of French republicanism in Paris that would erupt one day into open civil war. On top of everything else, the “Little Napoleon” was already a very sick man, with painful bladder gallstones. The Austrian disaster at Sadowa the year before had started Empress Eugenie thinking seriously about a Regency in which she ruled alone, to ensure that their throne would remain secure for their son and Heir, the Prince Imperial, nicknamed “Lou-Lou.” Worried that her Imperial husband would never agree to step down, she moaned, “We are marching to our downfall, and the best thing would be if the Emperor would disappear suddenly, at least for the time being.”
Ironically, none of the other major players in the drama foresaw the continental war that suddenly and unexpectedly burst about them all. Indeed, a French statesman opined on June 30, 1870, “In whatever direction we look abroad, we find no pressing problems. There has never been a time in history when the prospects of peace in Europe have looked better.” Two days later, everything changed dramatically, however.
What rudely burst their international bubble was the so-called “Hohenzollern candidature” for the vacant throne of Spain in Madrid, a crisis that began two years earlier, in 1868, when the unruly Spaniards ejected their corrupt and sexually promiscuous Queen Isabella II from her throne. In 1870, it was offered to the young Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, the Catholic branch of the mainly Protestant Prussian ruling House of Hohenzollern.
Neither Leopold nor King Wilhelm---as head of the family---was for acceptance of the Spanish offer, nor were Crown Prince Fritz and his ambitious wife Vicky. The scheming, Machivellian Prince Bismarck was for it, though, because he realized immediately that the prospect of a Hohenzollern ruling on both Imperial France’s Rhenish and Spanish frontiers was a political and military threat that no French ruler could ever accept, be he monarch or republican president.
Ultimately, the feared Hohenzollern candidacy was finally renounced by the hapless Prince Leopold, but Napoleon III’s new Foreign Minister---the Duke de Gramont---wanted much more. He directed the French ambassador to Berlin---Count Vincente Benedetti---to extract such from King Wilhelm I. If he refused, “It will be war at once,” the duke blustered, boasting further, “and in a few days, we will be on the Rhine!”
It happened that His Majesty was taking a health cure at the resort spa town of Ems east of Koblentz, Germany on the Lahn River in Hesse-Nassau on July 13, 1870. He was strolling in its Kurpark with his aides when the French ambassador violated protocol and approached him directly.
Afterwards, Royal secretary Heinrich Abeken sent the following telegram to the Head of Government, Prince Bismarck: “His Majesty the King has written to me: ‘Count Benedetti intercepted me on the promenade and ended by demanding of me in a very importunate manner that I should authorize him to telegraph at once that I bound myself in perpetuity never again to give my consent if the Hohenzollerns renewed their candidature. I rejected this demand somewhat sternly, as it is neither right nor possible to undertake engagements of this kind forever and ever. Naturally, I told him that I had not yet received any news, and since he had been better informed via Paris and Madrid than I was, he must surely see that my government was not concerned in the matter…’…(The King) decided in view of the above-mentioned demands not to receive Count Benedetti anymore, but to have him informed by an adjutant that His majesty had now received (from Leopold) confirmation of the news which Benedetti had already had from Paris and had nothing further to say to the ambassador.”
This was the heart of the original Ems Telegram. Receiving it, Bismarck edited it into the so-called Ems Dispatch thusly: “After the news of the renunciation of the Prince of Hohenzollern had been communicated to the Imperial French government by the Royal Spanish government, the French Ambassador in Ems made a further demand of His Majesty the King that he should authorize him to telegraph to Paris that His Majesty the King undertook for all time never again to give his assent should the Hohenzollerns once more take up their candidature. His Majesty the King thereupon refused to receive the Ambassador again, and had the latter informed by the adjutant of the day that His Majesty had no further communication to make to the ambassador.” “This will be a red rag to the Gallic bull!” Bismarck chortled, and it was this second version that was released for publication to all diplomatic posts and news bureaus in Berlin.
A third version occurred when the French translation by the Havas Agency altered the ambassador’s demand into a question, and also translated the German term for adjutant into the French term for non-commissioned officer. It was this third version that was published the next day in French newspapers.
Thus, it occurred that both sides believed themselves simultaneously insulted: the Germans in having the much-revered Prussian monarch humiliated, and the French in having that King brushing off their representative before he could detail his message.
On the German side, only Prince Bismarck and the Prussian Army leaders wanted war, while the King, Queen, Crown Prince, and Crown Princess all opposed it. On the French side, everyone---both military and public, and foremost the Empress---was for the war, while the sick Emperor eventually was persuaded as well. Of the French marshals and generals, Eugenie later recalled, “They all vouched for our victory: ‘We shall swallow Prussia at one gulp!’”
Without having a single European ally, Napoleonic France declared war on Royal Prussia five days later as a result, on July 19, 1870. The overconfident French Army always intended to invade Germany first, but France suddenly found herself invaded instead. After losing several engagements, the major French Army was surrounded and defeated at the Battle of Sedan on Sept. 1st, with Napoleon III surrendered as well. On the 4th, the Third French Republic was proclaimed in Paris, and Eugenie sought asylum in neutral Britain. The Second Empire had fallen ignominiously and completely in a thunderclap.
In 1871, besieged Paris also fell, the Prussian Army staged a victory parade, and King Wilhelm was proclaimed German Emperor by his fellow Teutonic princes. Bismarck was named a Count, and militarily promoted to the rank of full general.
The last French Bonapartes all died in exile: the deposed emperor in England in 1873, the Prince Imperial in the Zulu War of 1879, and ex-Empress Eugenie in 1922, but not before the hated German Empire had fallen in 1918. The following year, an angry Berlin mob publicly burned the captured French battle flags and standards of 1870.
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