Header: A mural painted in 1884 by Carl Steffeck depicting General Reille delivering Napoleon III‘s letter of surrender to King Wilhelm I at the Battle of Sedan on September 2, 1870


With Austria relegated to the sidelines of German politics after the loss of 1866, Prussia took over the leadership of the German states, which still numbered in excess of a dozen. On the map, the changes were slight; the geography of the “German Confederation” was little altered by the disappearance of Austria’s unfortunate allies. More important changes occurred in the economic cooperation of the German states, especially in the critical sector of customs and tariffs. Despite industrialization and the rising importance of direct taxes, they remained a major part of every state’s income.

 Linguistic Map of Germany around 1870, with the names of the German border rivers as mentioned in August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben's "Song of the Germans", which became the national anthem in 1922
Linguistic Map of Germany around 1870, with the names of the German border rivers as mentioned in August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s “Song of the Germans”, which became the national anthem in 1922

The Deutscher Zollverein, the German Customs Union, had been steadily expanding in the nineteenth century from its profane origins as the Common Prussian Customs Tariff of 1828: soon it included the southern German states of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden, and in 1867 – Austria having been knocked out of the picture – most of the remaining German states joined up; the Duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and Mecklenburg and the Kingdom of Hanover. By 1869, the Zollverein’s and the German Confederation’s geographical borders were virtually identical. Following a slight update of the political structure, the German Confederation was renamed the “North German Confederation“, the only significant difference being the introduction of the universal male suffrage at twenty-one years of age.

Funnily enough, the first election results under the new terms caught Bismarck in a rare miscalculation: he had assumed that the victory over Austria would benefit his conservative parliamentary allies most, yet, in the event, the majority of the seats went to his enemies, the Liberals, and a few even to his nemeses, the Social Democrats and the Catholic Zentrum (Centre), party. Due to this unexpected failure of the German voters, Bismarck’s further plans hit a few parliamentary snags, but the Iron Chancellor proved himself fit to overcome mere human challenges.

His reasoning in regard to a possible German unification was that the passions of war might overcome the political impediments again – as they had done in 1866. If the southern states, in particular the outspokenly independent Kingdoms of Bavaria and Württemberg, were reluctant to follow his lead, the fervour of war might tip the scales. A suitable opponent and bogeyman was readily identified in the person of Napoleon III, Emperor of France.

It was true that, since 1815, open hostilities had not occurred between France and Prussia, but Bismarck, an experienced French hand on account of his tour of duty as Prussian ambassador in Paris in the 1850s, had a clear idea which buttons to press to inflame France with patriotic belligerence.

Napoleon III, nephew and successor of the great Corsican, who had proclaimed himself Emperor of France in 1852, was in dire need of military, or any other, glory. His Mexican war in support of Emperor Maximilian had been an unmitigated disaster [AD 1861-1867], and the military grandeur of the empire was in sore need of restoration. He had viewed with distaste the emergence of Prussia as the new German power; not so much as a matter of principle, of which he had none, but because he had cast a longing eye upon the Duchy of Luxemburg as the price for his neutrality in the Prusso-Austrian war of 1866. He was furious when Bismarck explained, after the victory, that, since Luxembourg did not belong to Prussia, it could not be ceded to France.

Bismarck interviewed Graf Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian General Staff, on the chances of a Prusso-French war. Moltke indicated that success seemed likely, and Bismarck went on to seek a suitable opportunity for war, a casus belli. He did not have to wait too long.

Otto von Bismarck, Secretary of War Albrecht von Roon and Chief of the General Staff Count Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder)
Otto von Bismarck, Secretary of War Albrecht von Roon and Chief of the General Staff Count Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder)

In 1869, the Spanish throne had been left without issue, once again, and after protracted discussion the Spanish crown council decided to offer the crown to Wilhelm’s cousin, Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern. When the news of the Spanish offer and the prince’s eventual acceptance reached Paris, Emperor Napoleon as well as his loyal subjects interpreted the message from Madrid as proof of a renewed German conspiracy to encircle France. Proper vigilance demanded to exert the necessary precautions at once; to nip the planned crime in the bud.

The French ambassador to Prussia, Vincent Benedetti, was urgently dispatched to the spa town of Bad Ems, where Wilhelm was taking the waters. Benedetti’s orders comprised two objectives: in the first instant, to demand that Leopold’s acceptance be withdrawn, and, for seconds, to demand Wilhelm’s public affirmation, in his capacity as the head of the Hohenzollern family, that under no circumstances any prince of the house was to accept a Spanish offer should one be renewed.

The demands were quite unusual, to say the least, for Napoleon III certainly lacked cause as well as authority in the matter. Wilhelm responded that nothing kept the Emperor of France from discussing the topic with Prince Leopold himself, who was a grown man, and he, Wilhelm, was not his mother. As far as the second demand was concerned, Wilhelm pointed out his lack of authority to speak for future Hohenzollern generations. Benedetti cabled to Paris, reported Wilhelm’s answers, and was advised to ask for a second audience, to repeat Napoleon’s requests. Such reiterated inquiries were not exactly good diplomatic style. Wilhelm’s secretary, Heinrich Abeken, summarized the second interview as follows in a telegram to 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 [for ever 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, on the advice of one of his ministers], decided, in view of the above-mentioned demands, not to receive Count Benedetti any more, 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.

His Majesty suggests to Your Excellency, that Benedetti’s new demand and its rejection might well be communicated both to our ambassadors and to the Press. (29)

Bismarck changed the text a bit and leaked it to the French press bureau HAVAS:

After the news of the renunciation of the Prince von Hohenzollern had been communicated to the Imperial French government by the Royal Spanish government, the French Ambassador in Ems made a further demand
on 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. (30)

Bismarck's Draft of the Dispatch from Ems
Bismarck’s Draft of the Dispatch from Ems

Bismarck had given the message a new edge.

He cut out Wilhelm’s conciliatory phrases and emphasized the real issue. The French had made certain demands under threat of war; and Wilhelm had refused them. This was no forgery; it was a clear statement of the facts. Certainly the edit of the telegram, released on the evening of the same day (13 July) to the media and foreign embassies, gave the impression both that Benedetti was rather more demanding and that the King was exceedingly abrupt. It was designed to give the French the impression that King Wilhelm I had insulted Count Benedetti; likewise, the Germans interpreted the modified dispatch as the Count insulting the King. …

The French translation by the agency Havas altered the ambassador’s demand (“il a exigé” – ‘he has demanded’) to a question . It also did not translate “Adjutant”, which in German refers to a high-ranked Aide-de-camp, but in French describes only a non-commissioned officer (adjutant), so implying that the King had deliberately insulted the ambassador by choosing a low-ranked soldier to carry the message to him. This was the version published by most newspapers the following day, which happened to be July 14 (Bastille Day), setting the tone and letting the French believe that the King had insulted their ambassador, before the ambassador could tell his story. …

France’s mistaken attitude of her own position carried matters far beyond what was necessary and France mobilized. Following further improper translations and misinterpretations of the dispatch in the press, excited crowds in Paris demanded war, just as Bismarck had anticipated. The Ems Dispatch had also rallied German national feeling. It was no longer Prussia alone; South German particularism was now cast aside.

Benedetti, the messenger for the Duke de Gramont’s demands for pointless guarantees (the Hohenzollern family had withdrawn Prince Leopold’s candidature on 11 July 1870 with Wilhelm’s “entire and
unreserved approval”), became an unseen bit-player; his own dispatches to Paris no longer mattered. In the legislative chamber, by an overwhelming majority, the votes for war credits were passed. France declared war on 19 July 1870. (31)

Which was exactly what Bismarck had expected. In a series of clandestine treaties with the southern and central German states since 1866, he had laid the foundation for the eventuality which now had occurred – war with France. In the case that France declared war on Prussia, as it had transpired, the German states had pledged their support to Prussia. Two more agreements Bismarck had negotiated sub rosa, with Russia and Austria, secured their neutrality in the events that now were unfolding. Napoleon could not find a single ally, and the German countries he had hoped to win to his cause now appeared on the side of Prussia, to defeat the third Bonaparte as they had defeated the first.

Battle of Sedan, September 1 and 2, 1870
Battle of Sedan, September 1 and 2, 1870

For the first time since the defeat of the Turks at Vienna in the seventeenth century, a concerted German army took to the field. The campaign of 1870 subsequently became the apotheosis of modern military staff planning, because it largely went as scheduled. For the first time in a substantial European war, the railway lines became the principal means of troop transportation and the coordination of train movements the decisive factor for the appropriate deployment and subsequent supply of the forces. The opening skirmishes along the borders were mostly won, as Moltke had expected, and followed up by a large-scale thrust into the Lorraine. The main axis of the approach aimed at the Meuse River, the crossing of which the French had to deny the enemy at all cost, because it was the last natural defence line on the way to Paris.
Napoleon III had come to Sedan in person, where the French troops were chiefly deployed. Moltke’s plan was to encircle the French army, by the simultaneous forward movement of two pincers north and south of their defensive position, and to use the river to block their retreat. The operation succeeded, and on September 2, 1870, Napoleon III and the French army were forced to surrender. In numerical terms, the Battle of Sedan became the largest victory of modern times achieved in a single encounter: over 100,000 French soldiers had to march into captivity. The emperor’s capitulation vaticinated the eventual success, even if mopping-up operations and a protracted siege of Paris kept the German soldiers busy for a few more months.

Bismarck and Napoleon after the Battle of Sedan
Bismarck and Napoleon after the Battle of Sedan
The Hall of Mirrors, Versailles
The Hall of Mirrors, Versailles

On January 18, 1871, in the great Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles, the assembled German princes declared the establishment of a new “German Empire”, and unanimously elected Wilhelm I, King in Prussia, to the dignity of “German Emperor” [not ‘Emperor of Germany’]. Since the new entity was technically only an “eternal” federation – as the treaty said – of sovereign princes, who remained independent to various degrees, the Second Empire was not and never became a centralized state like France or Russia.

Anton von Werner's famous painting - Proclamation of the Emperor, January 18, 1871
Anton von Werner‘s famous painting – Proclamation of the Emperor, January 18, 1871
Parade through Paris, Match 1, 1871
Parade through Paris, Match 1, 1871
Victory Celebration in Berlin
Victory Celebration in Berlin

Yet soon flaws appeared in Bismarck’s grand design, which was appropriately called a “revolution from above”. Unification was not a result of the will of the German people but a covenant of thirty-six German princes, who agreed on elevating one of their number to emperor but little else. The German bourgeoisie had been unable to achieve the same political emancipation the citizens of the United States, England or France had secured: not for a lack of trying, but for the bloody repulsion of the reform movement of 1848. The German peoples’ efforts had collapsed in the horror of soldiers that fired upon their own families, and suffocated in the subsequent terror of the political police. These dreadful experiences must not be underestimated: together with the horrors of the Thirty-Years-War still alive in the folkish subconsciousness, they explain much of the political apathy that abounded in Germany before 1871. For the bourgeoisie, Bismarck’s “top-down” revolution only amplified the feeling of being excluded from political decisions. Peter Watson explains:

In a real sense, and as Gordon Craig has pointed out, the people of Germany played no part in the creation of the Reich. “The new state was a ‘gift’ to the nation on which the recipient had not been consulted.” Its constitution had not been earned; it was a contract among the princes of the existing German states, who retained their crowns until 1918.

To our modern way of thinking, this had some extraordinary consequences. One result was that the Reich had a parliament without power, political parties without access to governmental responsibility, and elections whose outcome did not determine the composition of the government. This was quite unlike – and much more backward than – anything that existed among Germany’s competitors in the West. Matters of state remained in the hands of the landed aristocracy, although Germany had become an industrial power. As more and more people joined in Germany’s industrial, scientific, and intellectual successes, the more it was run by a small coterie of traditional figures – landed aristocrats and military leaders, at the head of which was the emperor himself. This dislocation was fundamental to “Germanness” in the run-up to the First World War.

It was one of the greatest anachronisms of history and had two effects that concern us. One, the middle class, excluded politically and yet eager to achieve some measure of equality, fell back on education and “Kultur” as key areas where success could be achieved – equality with the aristocracy, and superiority in comparison with foreigners in a competitive, nationalistic world. “High culture” was thus always more important in imperial Germany than elsewhere and this is one reason why … it flourished so well in the 1871-1933 period. But this gave culture a certain tone: freedom, equality, and personal distinctiveness tended to be located in the “inner sanctum” of the individual, whereas society was portrayed as an “arbitrary, external and frequently hostile world.”

The second effect, which overlapped with the first, was a retreat into nationalism, but a class-based nationalism that turned against the newly created industrial working class (and the stirrings of socialism), Jews, and non-German minorities. “Nationalism was seen as social progress, with utopian possibilities.”

Against the background of a developing mass society, the educated middle class looked to culture as a stable set of values that uplifted their lives, set them apart from the “rabble” (Freud’s word) and, in particular, enhanced their nationalist orientation. The “Volk,” a semi-mystical, nostalgic ideal of how ordinary Germans had once been – a contented, talented, apolitical, “pure” people – became a popular stereotype within Germany. (32)

Needless to say, such “contented, apolitical, pure’ people” had never existed outside of the imagination of overzealous history professors and racist journalists. But the “popular stereotype” worked, and resulted in a sort of anti-Socialist and anti-ultramontane nationalism, not truly directed against other nations, rather against the “enemy within” – liberals, democrats, socialists, Catholic, Jews, and so forth – against whose “internationalist” designs Prussian secular and Protestant clerical authorities never tired to warn the burghers. It was essentially a nationalism of the upper strata of society, who attempted to ensnare the support of the bourgeois middle class against the assorted enemies of Kultur. The Second Empire’s nationalism almost amounted to a negation of the effects of industrialization, of modernity, in some ways even of the enlightenment. Its character remained medieval.

The core of this “internal” nationalism was formed more or less, during  the years following the foundation of the Empire, by the nucleus of the “Folkish Movement“(‚Völkische Bewegung‘), to whom we – and the world – more or less owe the First and Second World Wars. It absorbed the “bloody romanticism” of the Napoleonic era [see the article by Elke Schäfer] and was later perceived and used as useful spectre by the elite. Not without reason did the idealized depictions of the “Germania”, below two by Philip Veit, always held swords in their hands.

When a “Deutsche Arbeiter Partei”, a ‘German Workers’ Party’ was founded in Bohemia (i.e. technically Austria) before World War I, its agenda was not to advance the cause the working class, as one naively might assume, but to protect the interest of German workers over Czech or Moravian workers. The German people, meanwhile, remained the political wards of the old elites, which were absolutely unwilling to give up the precious authority they had barely regained after the shocks of the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 and the Napoleonic wars. The constitution, which the nobility tailored according to its fears and needs, could truthfully be called anachronistic in its obvious fear of democracy and liberalism.

Berlin around 1900

For the “satisfied, apolitical and pure” Germans, whose picture was frequently summoned by the officials of the empire, did not do too well, unless they were born as nobles. German industrialization went over their dead bodies – Bismarck’s social legislation was not born of his passion for the suffering of the working class, but were his minimum concessions to prevent the socialist revolution. There was unofficial slavery – the Schwabenkinder – and living, working and living conditions in the cities were horrible. 3,279,021 Germans emigrated to the USA alone between 1870 and 1919.

Children working from age five ...
Children working from age five …

The constitutional framework of the German Reich did … differ sharply in key respects from that of Britain or France, whose diversely structured but relatively flexible parliamentary democracies offered better potential to cope with the social and political demands arising from rapid economic change.

In Germany, the growth of party-political pluralism, which found its representation in the Reichstag, had not been translated into parliamentary democracy. Powerful vested interests – big landholders … the officer corps of the army, the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy, even most of the Reichstag parties – continued to block this.

The Chancellor of the Reich remained the appointee of the Kaiser, who could make or break him whatever the respective strength of the Reichstag parties. The government itself stood over the Reichstag, independent (at least in theory) of party politics. Whole tracts of policy, especially on foreign and military matters, lay outside parliamentary control.

Power was jealously guarded, in the face of mounting pressure for radical change, by the beleaguered forces of the old order. Some of these, increasingly fearful of revolution, were prepared even to contemplate war as a way of holding on to their power and fending off the threat of socialism. (33)

This willingness, however, was not restricted to Germany: most of the more reactionary monarchies of the continent, in particular Russia but also Italy, Spain or some Balkan countries, feared socialists much more than the armies of their fellow princes, with whom they could always find some arrangement. The foundation of the Socialist International [SI] (International Workingmen’s Association) in London 1864 spirited the spectre of communism worldwide. Yet whatever the real threat of socialism or any other modern development might truly signify, in certain respects, chiefly in its inner relations, the Second Reich showed a distinctly pre-modern character by design – as if nothing had changed since 1806. It could be seen most clearly in …

… the Reich’s federal structure, which was designed to take account of the special rights and sensitivities of the south German states in particular. The establishment of a Baden Legation in Berlin and a Prussian one in Karlsruhe [Baden’s capital] is an indication in itself of the remarkably “unfinished” character of the Reich’s structure – it is as if the development towards a modern, unitary constitutional structure had stopped at the half-way mark.

But the federal system of the Kaiserreich went further: in 1894 Baden Legations were also opened in Munich and Stuttgart, and a little later Russia even suggested that a Russian military attaché should be stationed in Bavaria. These legations were not merely courtesy institutions but represented an important component of the political structure of the Reich, and they were a pointer to the fact … that the Lesser German Reich, forged by war and diplomacy, in many respects continued to be governed by foreign policy methods even after its so-called unification.

Political Organization of the Empire

A related problem, frequently reported on by the Baden envoys, was the continued existence and indeed the constant growth of particularism, especially in Bavaria. The perceptive Baden envoy in Munich, Baron
Ferdinand von Bodman, reported in December 1895 from the Bavarian capital that “under the influence of the all-dominating court and of the Austrian-clerical [Catholic] party, all measures … are directed at building up Bavaria as a self-sufficient … state”. Above all in the two Bavarian army corps, according to Bodman, “the Reich and its head, the Kaiser, are being eliminated to the furthest possible extent.”

Count Anton Monts, the Prussian envoy in Munich, was convinced that “a process of detachment [by Bavaria] from the Reich was taking place,” Bodman reported. Similarly, the astute Arthur von Brauer, who had served for many years under Bismarck, observed in May 1893 that Bavarian particularism was making enormous advances. He wrote to the Grand Duke: “Under the influence of the Old-Bavarian party the monstrous idea is gaining more and more ground that south Germany should be placed under the special hegemony of Bavaria just as north Germany is under Prussia.” In 1898 the Grand Duke of Baden himself felt obliged to warn the Reich’s government against moving too close to the Catholic Centre party because the aim of this party was “to destroy the present Reich in order to create a new federal constitution with a Catholic head.“…

Whether they were based on a sober assessment of the objective circumstances or are ultimately explicable only in psychological terms, these anxiety complexes are of absolutely crucial importance in evaluating the political culture of Wilhelmine Germany. (34)

Imperial Coats of Arms

John Röhl‘s analysis above identifies one psychological factor in the new empire’s policies, but there was another, unspoken, psychological implication. What Bismarck had ultimately “superimposed over a highly fragmented society” (35) was a formula hatched to take account of the specific German situation, that is, foremost, its political particularism; thus nationalism had to be instilled and cohesion created from the outside, and top-down, instead of bottom-up, and by the people. Yet the decisive factor why Bismarck chose this strategy was that, unlike the crown of 1849, the result would be acceptable to his king. Essentially, an emperor’s new clothes were hung upon ye olde authoritarian Prussian regime.


Footnotes: [29] [30] [31] Heinrich Abeken, Otto von Bismarck – The Ems Dispatch, see Wikipedia

[32] Watson, Peter,The German Genius, Harper Collins 2010, ISBN 978-0-06-076022-9, pp. 112 – 113

[33] [34] Röhl, John C.G., The Kaiser and his Court, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-56504-9, pp. 112 – 113 and 153 – 154

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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