May 10th in German History: The Franco-Prussian War Ends

Frieden von Frankfurt am Main.jpg
The Treaty of Frankfurt. Image Credit: Wikipedia

With the exception of the Napoleonic Wars, the Franco-Prussian War was perhaps the most important in 19th century Europe. It saw the Kingdom of Prussia and her German allies quickly defeat the armies of Napoleon the Third and occupy Paris, surprising the neutral powers and destroying the Third French Empire. Its most significant result, however, was that it directly led to the formation of the German Empire. The Franco-Prussian War ended on May 10th with the Treaty of Frankfurt.

The Franco-Prussian War was the culmination of Otto von Bismarck’s, the Minister-President of Prussia, efforts to create a united Germany under Prussia and make it the dominant power in Europe. To this end, he had created wars with both Denmark and Austria to secure control of more territory and force Austria out of Germany. After the end of the Austro-Prussian War, Prussia was the leader of the North-German Confederation and had annexed a great teal of territory. Further, it had defensive military alliances with the states in Southern Germany. The opportunity to finalize unification came when a Prussian prince was offered the throne of Spain. The French demanded that the prince refuse this, and further than the King of Prussia promise that never would a member of the Prussian royal family hold the Spanish throne. Bismarck edited the King’s reply, the Ems Telegram, to make it more contentious and offensive. Napoleon the Third, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was pushed by popular outrage and his own desire to make up for past foreign policy failures and so declared war on Prussia. As France was the aggressor, all of the German states united behind Prussia and nations like Italy, Britain, and Russia did not join to help France. The French initially invaded Germany, but were quickly pushed back. Their armies were destroyed at the Battles of Sedan and Metz, and Napoleon the Third was captured. The French were outnumbered, had inferior artillery, and had inflexible commanders and so often found themselves outmaneuvered and forced to retreat even if they held a strong position. After Napoleon was captured, the French government attempted to form new armies. These armies were unable to stop the advance of the Prussians who surrounded Paris, defeating all attempts at a breakout or relief. Once Paris surrendered, the war effectively ended, and German troops marched through the streets of the city. Before the war ended, the German Empire was proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. The Treaty of Frankfurt formally ended the war. The clauses of the treaty were as follow: Germany would annex Alsace and part of Lorraine, the population of those territories would have until October of 1872 to move to France or stay in the annex regions and become German citizens, established the parameters of the 5 billion franc reparation that France would pay, and set the terms of the German occupation of France until the reparations were paid.

Although the Treaty of Frankfurt ended the Franco-Prussian War, it created permanent animosity between France and Germany. The annexation of French territory created revanchism within France that would see France take any opportunity to weaken and oppose Germany. As German was a rising power that threatened to upset the balance, France would find allies against Germany in Russia and Britain. The Franco-Prussian war was a great German victory, but it created the diplomatic situation that would see Germany outnumbered and surrounded in the First World War. Ironically, the Allies designed the Treaty of Versailles to mirror the Treaty of Frankfurt in its harsh reparations and annexation of territory. The lesson of the Treaty of Frankfurt is to be lenient when dealing with defeated foes. If a nation’s enemies not wiped out completely, merely wounded, they will do everything they can to exact revenge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: