Essay (back to top)
Bismarck was a remarkable man, using deception, manipulation and bold lies to capture power and unify Germany. It is those characteristics that make it practically impossible to study and evaluate Bismarck’s true feelings and intentions. A.J.P Taylor put it best when describing Bismarck: “Bismarck himself has left, in speeches, conversations or his reminiscences, versions of all the principal events usually deliberately misleading”.(Taylor). But it was that attribute that would prove vital in the unification of Germany. Consider the Ems dispatch, when Bismarck published the shortened conversation between King Wilhelm and the French ambassador (demanding that Austrian Prince Leopold reject the offer of the Spanish throne), the dispatch provoked France to declare war on Prussia. Prussia would prevail in the Franco-Prussian War (1870), leading to Bismarck’s famous declaration of German unification in Versailles, France. Although Bismarck’s tactics were a bit immoral, without his initiative Germany might never have come to fruition. Dr. Eyck disagrees, arguing that Bismarck’s Wars were not essential to German unification; “Was it, indeed, quite impossible for the German nation, by its own free will, to form a united state?” (Eyck continues that quote with a series of questions implying no need for war)(173). The German people attempted to create a unified state in the revolutions of 1848 and failed, leading me to believe that the German people could not have accomplished this enormous feat without help from international conflict.
Germany would be nothing without Bismarck, his actions led to the formation of Germany and without his deception, manipulation and genius Germany would cease to exist.
Bismarck had the uncanny ability to play both sides of conflict to obtain his goals. In January of 1863 there was a large Polish uprising over Tsarist rule and many German citizens voiced their support for the Poles, but Bismarck saw an opportunity to gain favor with Russia and seized it. By backing the Russians he secured their backing in his goals of unification. There was nothing for him to gain by supporting the Poles (except public sympathy which he cared nothing about), and Bismarck understood the growing debate over a European balance of power. This strategic move may be overlooked by many, but it certainly contributed to his cause. Backing Russia opened the door for the founding of the League of Three Emperors in 1881, which accomplished its goal of keeping France isolated and keeping Russia and Austria on his side (at least for the short time that it lived). But creating the league proved difficult with a growing rivalry between Austria and Russia over Balkan disputes. Bismarck had to use some of his manipulation to form the league, getting Russia to join without Austria-Hungry knowing. Bismarck was able to play both sides of the fence, and his ability to create alliances and destroy them was an enormous gift to the German people.
With Russia in his corner Bismarck turned his attention to what he felt was German land Schleswig (under Danish rule). In 1863 the Danish parliament passed the November Constitution created a unified Danish state including Schleswig. Bismarck couldn’t have dreamt a better situation. The November Constitution was in direct violation of the London Treaty of 1851 giving Prussia and Austria international support. The majority of the population of Schleswig were German speaking and German feeling. An uprising created the perfect opportunity for Austrian-Prussian intervention. The war didn’t last long. With a quick Danish defeat in October of 1864, the Danes were forced to cede Holstein and Lauenburg and most of Schleswig. Bismarck was able to receive what he felt to be German land with international support and relatively small casualties. His plan was going well with just a couple of obstacles, one of which happened to be Austria.
Bismarck dreamed of a unified Germany under Prussian leadership, but this would prove difficult. Austria was still the President of the German Federation and it was not ready to cede its right to rule over Germany. His first obstacle was international intervention, because if Prussia were to declare war on Austria all of Europe would certainly be in an uproar. In October of 1865 Napoleon III declared France’s neutrality, mainly because France expected a Prussian defeat and abstaining from the war would give Napoleon III leverage in negotiations of land on the Rhine. Russia, who was a sworn enemy of Austria since the Crimean War and favored Prussia because of Bismarck’s backing in Poland, decided, to stay out of the conflict, which favored Bismarck. Disputed land between Italy and Austria (which Italians saw as their last step for unification) drove Italy into the arms of Prussia, and an alliance was formed in April of 1866. Austria and Prussia were in conflict over the Gastein Convention which stipulated control of the newly occupied territories from the War with the Danes. Bismarck was able to occupy Austrian land without intervention, eventually pushing enough buttons until war was declared. With international powers staying out the conflict and Italy on Prussia’s side, it was Bismarck’s war to win. The Austro-Prussian War or the Seven-weeks War ended on August 23, 1866 with the Peace of Prague, which Bismarck sped through to assure no international influence. The German Confederation was dissolved, Prussia annexed many of Austria’s former allies of the war and permanently excluded Austria from German affairs. The War gave Prussia the freedom to create the North German Confederation the next year and paved the way for Bismarck’s Kleindeutschland. Bismarck made sure not to isolate Austria and created the League of Three Emperors in 1881. Austria would prove to be a great ally in WWI.
Bismarck’s finest hour would come in the Franco-Prussian conflict. The two powers had been at opposite ends for decades and a war was practically inevitable. The situation escalated when the Spanish throne became vacant in 1868 and the Hohenzollern royal family was invited to take the throne. France strongly opposed the invitation and urged King Wilhelm I to decline the offer and Wilhelm did so. Napoleon III then asked Wilhelm to apologize and renounce any Hohenzollern ties to the throne. Bismarck took this event and ran with it. Bismarck’s primary goal was to polarize both sides and create an international uproar over the situation. Bismarck took the conversation and tweaked it a bit, making the French feel that Wilhelm disrespected Napoleon and making the Germans feel as if the French disrespected the Wilhelm. Bismarck published the dispatch, which came to be known as the Ems dispatch. The Ems dispatch did its job, creating a huge buzz and provoking France to declare War on Prussia. The war was very successful from a Prussian standpoint, Bismarck and his men controlling Paris for weeks. On January 2 nd, 1871 Germany declared its Nation under Prussian rule in the Hall of Mirrors, and Kleindeutschland had been achieved. Bismarck also received international respect by defeating France so quickly. Bismarck had accomplished his goal in a very short amount of time and created the Germany of his dreams. His attitude of Iron and Blood may not be liked by many, but it certainly did the job.
Francis Loewenheim, in his review of Bismarck and The German Empire, criticizes Eyck’s lack of key issues in certain parts of his book. Loewenheim discusses “… importance of Bismarck’s efforts at Frankfurt” and “the disastrous panic of 1873...and its effects on Bismarck’s subsequent domestic policies.” (Loewenheim). Loewenheim brings up a great point: The Peace of Frankfurt was an essential part in Germany becoming a power in Europe. Although Bismarck did not want to annex Alsace-Lorraine (or any form of Reich expansion) it was an important treaty and essential to Bismarck’s rise to Imperial Chancellor. It was at the Peace of Frankfurt where the King decided to make Bismarck Prince. Dr. Eyck devotes three pages to the Arnim Affair, and the same number of pages as to the section on universal suffrage. I fail to see the true importance of the Arnim affair, if not to only show how ruthless Bismarck is, even to a boyhood friend. The section of suffrage lacked a true debate. Which system would help Bismarck in the immediate future and which would be more advantageous in his latter years as chancellor? Bismarck and German electorate didn’t see eye to eye on many issues, and perhaps voting would have created difficulties in accomplishing his plans. When Bismarck was pushed out by the Kaiser, perhaps voting could have come to his aid and brought him back to power. It is an interesting topic, which Eyck could have paid a bit more attention to.
Snyder’s review discusses the unbiased approach of Dr. Eyck’s work:
Unlike those German historians who start out with the premise that the superman Bismarck did no evil, saw no evil and heard no evil, Dr. Eyck evaluates the Chancellor’s good along with the bad. He shows how Bismarck fashioned a united, strong and powerful Germany, but he also recognizes that the German sense of freedom and individual independence, or justice and humanity, had been lamentably weakened by power politics and by the personal regime which the Chancellor imposed on his countrymen.(Snyder).
When evaluating Bismarck one cannot label him good or bad. Each situation has its good and bad with the ends justifying the means in most cases. Dr. Eyck has many negative feelings towards Bismarck and at times doesn’t give him a fair trial. In Dr. Eyck’s chapter about war with Austria he draws a simple, yet profound conclusion, “..although Bismarck was not from the beginning bent on war with Austria, he was engaged in a policy which made war unavoidable” (126-7). Dr. Eyck argues: had Austria not attempted to acquire Schleswig-Holstein, Bismarck’s policy would not have invoked war, but what he fails to discuss is Austria’s Presidency over the German Federation. Austria stood in the way of a unified Germany, not allowing a multi-nation state and not allowing Prussian rule. If not Schleswig-Holstein, then it would be some other small incident that would provoke a war. Another unfair assertion about Bismarck occurs during Eyck’s paragraph on the Ems dispatch. There is no question that Bismarck was devious in his cut and paste approach to the publication of the dialogue, but Dr. Eyck asserts that the war was provoked by Bismarck alone which is entirely false. Napoleon III is equally responsible for the war because he didn’t allow Prince Leopold to reject the offer of the Spanish throne on his own. By attempting to assert his power on foreign kings he further isolated himself and gives the German people a reason to demand war. I am in no way claiming that Bismarck has an unblemished record. He was an instigator and used every alliance to his advantage. Bismarck was a genius of his time. The Iron Chancellor was able to pit countries against one another, all of which worked to his advantage. But Bismarck was not the cold blooded man everyone perceives him to be. One account shows his remorse for the wars he conjured up: “Without me three great wars would not have happened and 80,000 men would not have perished.”. This quote is an excellent example of Bismarck’s brilliance. It shows remorse , but also alludes to his accomplishment providing the readers with two aspects, one of great compassion and compunction, and the other of his past victories to prove his strength. (But then again, everything Bismarck said must be taken with a grain of salt, because he was such a manipulator.) Germany and Bismarck knew that wars took a toll on military valor. But Bismarck understood that peace in Europe would come with the isolation of France. Bismarck maintained good relations with the other European nations. In 1872 he consummated his good relations with the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well as Russia in the League of the Three Emperors, maintaining good relations with Italy as well. Bismarck did not want to be a dominant power in Europe. This is evident in his involvement in the Treaty of Berlin, which made sure Russia didn’t expand further as a result of its military victories. The Russians felt they were robbed of what they believed to be rightfully theirs. This resulted in poor relations between Germany and Russia, and the League of Three Emperors would soon become the Dual Alliance in 1879, adding Italy in 1882 to form the Triple Alliance. Dr. Eyck believes Bismarck never chose between his two neighbors to the east, but I find it hard to agree with that assertion. Dr Eyck writes:
What he had really done was to choose between Russia and Britain-- and in favor of Russia. True he had drawn Austria closer to Germany by concluding a formal treaty of alliance. But he had at the same time succeeded in keeping clear the path to St. Petersburg… It [The League of the Three Emperors] was renewed in 1884, but expired in 1887 on account of irreconcilable differences between the Eastern policies of Russia and Austria.(268)
It is apparent in the Treaty of Berlin that Bismarck favored Austria over Russia, but Dr Eyck may have stumbled upon something. Austria and Russia could never form a lasting alliance due to conflicting interests, but Bismarck could maintain relations with both Austria and Russia separately. But in choosing Russia, Bismarck isolated Britain. A German-Austrian-Hungarian-Britain alliance could maintain peace in Europe without any conflict of interest. But Bismarck understood the fundamental differences that would disturb such an alliance. In his Reflections and Recollections, Bismarck voices a growing concern for a struggle in Europe, between “the system of order on a monarchical basis on the one hand, and the system of the Socialist republic on the other”.(269).
It was that brilliance which made Bismarck one of the greatest leaders of all time.Bismarck is nothing without Germany, but more importantly, Germany is nothing without Bismarck. Similar to a relationship between father and son, Germany has turned away from its father’s ways, but it must always understand that it is nothing without its creator.
Main article: Franco-Prussian War
The causes of the Franco-Prussian War are deeply rooted in the events surrounding the German unification. In the aftermath of the Austro-Prussian War (1866), Prussia had annexed numerous territories and formed the North German Confederation. Prussia then turned its attention towards the south of Germany, where it sought to expand its influence.
France was strongly opposed to the annexation of the Southern German States (Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Baden and Hesse), which would have created too powerful a country next to its border. In Prussia, a war against France was deemed necessary to arouse German nationalism in those States that would allow the unification of a great German empire. This aim was epitomized by Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's quote: "I knew that a Franco-Prussian War must take place before a united Germany was formed." Bismarck also knew that France should be the aggressor in the conflict to bring the Southern German States to side with Prussia, hence giving Germans numerical superiority.
The immediate cause of the war resided in the candidacy of a Prussian prince to the throne of Spain –– France feared encirclement by an alliance between Prussia and Spain. The Hohenzollern prince's candidacy was withdrawn under French diplomatic pressure, but Otto von Bismarck goaded the French into declaring war by altering a telegram sent by William I. Releasing the Ems Telegram to the public, Bismarck made it sound as if the king had treated the French envoy in a demeaning fashion. Six days later, France declared war on Prussia and Southern German States immediately sided with Prussia.
French Emperor Napoleon III and Prime Minister Émile Ollivier's eagerness to relieve France from internal political convulsions also contributed to France's declaration of war on Prussia.
European wars and the balance of power: 1865–1866
In October 1865, Napoleon III, ruler of France, met with Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck in Biarritz, France. It was there that the two men struck a deal— France would not get involved in any future actions between Prussia and Austria or ally herself with Austria if Prussia did not allow Austria to claim Venetia. When Austria and Prussia met in May 1866, Bismarck honored the agreement made in Biarritz the previous year and refused to allow Austria to have Venetia. Austria then attempted to guarantee Italy Venetia if they remained neutral, but the two nations were unable to agree on a suitable arrangement as an alliance formed earlier in the year bound Italy to Prussia. Napoleon III then committed a serious blunder by agreeing with Austria in a treaty to accept Venetia by allowing Austria to go to war with Prussia, a move which violated the agreement Napoleon had made with Bismarck.
After Prussia emerged victorious over the Austrian army at the Battle of Königgrätz (also known as Sadowa or Sadová) in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, negotiations were being held between Austria and Prussia in July and August of that year. It was during that period that Napoleon III first discovered that a bladder stone was causing him great pains, created from gonorrheal infection. His condition was so bad during those negotiations that he was forced to retire to Vichy to recuperate, removing himself from Paris. Although the emperor favored neutrality as to not upset events, certain members of his circle thought it was an unwise move, considering the opportunity to prevent Prussia from becoming too strong. One of these men, foreign minister Édouard Drouyn de Lhuys, convinced the emperor to plant 80,000 men on the eastern border to convince Wilhelm I to maintain the balance of power in Europe. Despite this important victory, de Lhuys was subverted by several other ministers, and Napoleon III changed his mind, reverting to a position of neutrality. This change of heart would end up causing de Lhuys to ultimately lose his position. Napoleon III's wife Empress Eugénie, who took an active part throughout his rule, referred to this time much later as "the critical date, the Empire's fatal date; it was during these months of July and August that our fate was sealed! Of all that period, there is not a single fact, not a single detail that has not remained in my mind."
Franz Joseph of Austria accepted Bismarck's terms under the Peace of Prague. Using this to his advantage, Bismarck declared the German Confederation of 1815 null and void, and created a new network of states under Prussian control. Frankfurt-am-Main, Hannover, Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel), Holstein, Nassau, and Schleswig were annexed outright while Hesse-Darmstadt, Mecklenburg, Saxony, the Thuringian duchies, as well as the cities of Bremen, Hamburg, and Lübeck were combined into a new North German Confederation that governed nominally and was actually controlled by Prussia herself.
Bismarck was approached soon after the end of the war by Napoleon III's ambassador to Prussia, Vincent Benedetti. Benedetti brought with him a secret proposal by Napoleon III that France would approve of Bismarck's acquisition of the northern German states and their control over the southern German states if Prussia remained neutral while France annexed Belgium and Luxembourg. France had earlier guaranteed the independence of Belgium in the Treaty of London in 1839 as an "independent and perpetually neutral state", making the proposal a tacit agreement to break their promise. Bismarck was very surprised since he had already gained a powerful position in Europe by the armistice, and called Napoleon III's request among others later "like 'an innkeeper's bill' or a waiter asking for 'a tip'." He asked Benedetti to provide the proposal in writing, and the ambassador obliged his request. This document was to be important to Bismarck later on, to great effect.
The true views of Napoleon III on the subject of the balance of power in Europe can be found in a state circular handed to every diplomatic representative for France. In this paper dated September 1, 1866, the emperor saw the future of Europe after the Peace of Prague in this manner:
- "Policy should rise superior to the narrow and mean prejudices of a former age. The Emperor does not believe that the greatness of a country depends upon the weakness of the nations which surround it, and he sees a true equilibrium only in the satisfied aspirations of the nations of Europe. In this, he is faithful to old convictions and to the traditions of his race. Napoleon I foresaw the changes which are now taking place on the continent of Europe. He had sown the seeds of new nationalities: in the Peninsula, when he created the Kingdom of Italy; and in Germany, when he abolished two hundred and fifty three separate states."
Domestic agenda in France and Prussia
French prestige and politics
Main article: Second French Empire
France's position in Europe was now in danger of being overshadowed by the emergence of a powerful Prussia, and France looked increasingly flat-footed following Bismarck's successes. In addition, French ruler Napoleon III was on increasingly shaky ground in domestic politics. Having successfully overthrown the Second Republic and established the Bonapartist Second Empire, Napoleon III was confronted with ever more virulent demands for democratic reform from leading republicans such as Jules Favre, along with constant rumours of impending revolution. In addition, French aspirations in Mexico had suffered a final defeat with the execution of the Austrian-born, French puppet Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico in 1867.
The French imperial government now looked to a diplomatic success to stifle demands for a return to either a republic or a Bourbon monarchy. A war with Prussia and resulting territorial gains in the Rhineland and later Luxembourg and Belgium seemed the best hope to unite the French nation behind the Bonapartist dynasty. With the resulting prestige from a successful war, Napoleon III could then safely suppress any lingering republican or revolutionary sentiment behind reactionary nationalism and return France to the center of European politics.
Bismarck and German nationalism
Prussia in turn was also beset with problems. While revolutionary fervour was far more muted than in France, Prussia had in 1866 acquired millions of new citizens as a result of the Austro-Prussian War, which was also a civil war among German states. The remaining German kingdoms and principalities maintained a steadfastly parochial attitude towards Prussia and German unification. The German princes insisted upon their independence and balked at any attempt to create a federal state that would be dominated by Berlin. Their suspicions were heightened by Prussia's quick victory and subsequent annexations. Before the war, only some Germans, inspired by the recent unification of Italy, accepted and supported what the princes began to realise, that Germany must unite in order to preserve the fruit of an eventual victory.
Bismarck had an entirely different view after the war in 1866: he was interested only in strengthening Prussia through the eyes of a staunch realist. Uniting Germany appeared immaterial to him unless it improved Prussia's position. Bismarck had mentioned before the war the possibility of ceding territory along the Rhine to France, and Napoleon III, urged by his representatives in France, used these casual references by Bismarck to press for more of the territory that Prussia had received from Austria. These discussions, leaked by Bismarck to the German states in the south, turned former enemies into allies almost overnight, receiving not only written guarantees but armies that would be under the control of Prussia.
Alliances and diplomacy
Diplomatically and militarily, Napoleon III looked for support from Austria, Denmark, Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg, as all had recently lost wars against Prussia. However, Napoleon III failed to secure revanchist alliances from these states. Denmark had twice fought Prussia during the First and Second Wars of Schleswig (a stalemate in the 1848–50, and a defeat in 1864 against a confederation of North German states and Austria under the leadership of Prussia), and was unwilling to confront Prussia again. As part of the settlement of the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, secret treaties of mutual defense were signed between Prussia and Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg. What made them especially significant was that not only were they secret, giving Napoleon III a false sense of security, but Bismarck had used Napoleon III's earlier demand of territory along the Rhine to drive the southern German states into his arms. By these treaties, Prussia would defend all of the southern German states with its military power as long as their states joined the Northern Confederation in defense of Prussia. It was a bargain that would gravely threaten the French empereur and his designs on restoring French pride.
Austria and Italy
The Austrian Chancellor Count Friedrich Ferdinand von Beust was "impatient to take his revenge on Bismarck for Sadowa." As a preliminary step, the Ausgleich with Hungary was "rapidly concluded." Beust "persuaded Francis Joseph to accept Magyar demands which he had till then rejected.". However, Austria would not support France unless Italy was part of the alliance. Victor Emmanuel II and the Italian government wanted to support France, but Italian public opinion was bitterly opposed so long as Napoleon III kept a French garrison in Rome protecting Pope Pius IX, thereby denying Italy the possession of its capital (Rome had been declared capital of Italy in March 1861, when the first Italian Parliament had met in Turin). Napoleon III made various proposals for resolving the Roman Question, but Pius IX rejected them all. Despite his previous support for Italian unification, Napoleon did not wish to press the issue for fear of angering Catholics in France. Raffaele De Cesare, an Italian journalist, political scientist, and author, noted that:
- The alliance, proposed two years before 1870, between France, Italy, and Austria, was never concluded because Napoleon III [...] would never consent to the occupation of Rome by Italy. [...] He wished Austria to avenge Sadowa, either by taking part in a military action, or by preventing South Germany from making common cause with Prussia. [...] If he could insure, through Austrian aid, the neutrality of the South German States in a war against Prussia, he considered himself sure of defeating the Prussian army, and thus would remain arbiter of the European situation. But when the war suddenly broke out, before anything was concluded, the first unexpected French defeats overthrew all previsions, and raised difficulties for Austria and Italy which prevented them from making common cause with France. Wörth and Sedan followed each other too closely. The Roman question was the stone tied to Napoleon's feet — that dragged him into the abyss. He never forgot, even in August 1870, a month before Sedan, that he was a sovereign of a Catholic country, that he had been made Emperor, and was supported by the votes of the conservatives and the influence of the clergy; and that it was his supreme duty not to abandon the Pontiff. [...] For twenty years Napoleon III had been the true sovereign of Rome, where he had many friends and relations [...] Without him the temporal power would never have been reconstituted, nor, being reconstituted, would have endured.
Another reason why Beust's desired revanche against Prussia did not materialize was the fact that, in 1870, the Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Andrássy was "vigorously opposed."
In addition to the problems facing Napoleon III in obtaining potential allies, Bismarck worked feverishly to isolate France from the other European powers. Since 1863, Bismarck had made efforts to cultivate Russia, co-operating, amongst other things, in dealing with Polishinsurgents. This important move gained for Bismarck the neutrality of Russia if Prussia went to war, and it also prevented Austria from taking sides with France as Austria fully supported the Poles. When Alexander II came to France on an official visit in 1867, he was at the receiving end of an unsuccessful assassination attempt by Polish-born Anton Berezovski while riding with Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie. Tsar Alexander was very offended that not only the French courts had given Berezovski imprisonment instead of death but also the French press had sided with the Pole rather than Alexander. This experience forever shattered his views of France and saw in the reaction his visit had received why his father had despised the French.
In 1868, he held discussions with the Prussians, intending to counter a possible Austrian alliance with Napoleon III by Franz Joseph. If German forces were, for any reason, bogged down in the west, then Prussia's eastern and southern flanks would have been highly vulnerable. With his usual skill, Bismarck moved carefully to sidestep the nightmare. The Russian government even went so far as to promise to send an army of 100,000 men against the Austrians if Austria joined France in a war against Prussia. Whilst at Ems in the crucial summer of 1870 Wilhelm I and Bismarck had meetings with Tsar Alexander, also present in the spa town Alexander, though not naturally pro-German, became very comfortable with Prussian suggestions.
Bismarck also had talks at Ems with Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov, the Russian Foreign Minister, and was assured in mid-July, days before the French declaration of war, that the agreement of 1868 still held: in the event of Austrian mobilisation, the Russians confirmed that they would send 300,000 troops into Galicia. Bismarck now had all he wanted: a counter to Austria and the assurance of a one-front war.
Bismarck then made Benedetti's earlier draft public to The Times in London that demanded Belgium and Luxembourg as the price for remaining neutral during the Austro-Prussian War. Sensitive to the threat of a major power controlling the strategically significant Low Countries and the English Channel coastline, the United Kingdom government in particular took a decidedly cool attitude to these French demands, and the British people were disturbed by this subversive attempt at going back on Napoleon III's word. Therefore, Britain as a nation did nothing to aid France. The Prime Minister, William Gladstone, expressed his thoughts on the matter to Queen Victoria by writing to her that "Your majesty will, in common with the world, have been shocked and startled." Though it had enjoyed some time as the leading power of continental Europe, the French Empire found itself dangerously isolated.
Main article: Luxembourg Crisis
The king of the Netherlands, William III, was under a personal union with Luxembourg that guaranteed its sovereignty. Napoleon III had taken note that the king had amassed certain personal debts that would make a sale of Luxembourg to France possible. However, Luxembourg lies astride one of the principal invasion routes an army would use to invade either France or Germany from the other. The city of Luxembourg's fortifications were considered "the Gibraltar of the North" and neither side could tolerate the other controlling such a strategic location.
The pressure on Bismarck to object not only came from his monarch William I, but from Chief of Staff of the Prussian army Helmuth von Moltke. Moltke had additional reason to object: he desired war with France, stating flatly, "Nothing could be more welcome to us than to have now the war that we must have." Bismarck balked at such talk about war. He refused to actually engage France on the basis that he firmly believed that Prussia would gain a far more decisive advantage by merely opposing the sale and that Napoleon III could be thwarted due to his fear of war with Prussia.
Assuming that Bismarck would not object, the French government was shocked to learn that instead Bismarck, Prussia and the North German Confederation were threatening war should the sale be completed. Napoleon III had let precious months peel away in trying to complete the transaction, allowing Bismarck time to rally support to Prussia's objection. To mediate the dispute, the United Kingdom hosted the London Conference (1867) attended by all European great powers. It confirmed Luxembourg's independence from the Netherlands and guaranteed its independence from all other powers. War appeared to have been averted, at the cost of thwarting French desires.
The Spanish throne had been vacant since the revolution of September 1868, and the Spanish offered the throne to the German prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a Catholic as well as a distant cousin of King Wilhelm of Prussia. Leopold and Wilhelm I were both uninterested, but the wily Bismarck was acutely interested, as it was an opportunity to once again best Napoleon III. Bismarck persuaded Leopold's father to accept the offer for his nation, and it was accepted instead by Leopold himself in June 1870.
The Hohenzollern crisis and the Ems Dispatch
On 2 July 1870, "Marshall Prim [who held power in Spain] announced in Madrid that the Spanish government had offered the crown of Spain to Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern."  Fearing that a Hohenzollern king in Prussia and another one in Spain would put France into a two-front situation, France this time was determined to stand up to the expansion of Prussian influence. Napoleon III at this time was suffering the most unbearable pain from his stones, and the Empress Eugénie essentially was charged with countering the designs of Prussia. She had a vital interest in the crisis as she was of Spanish blood and a member of the royal line. The secretary of foreign affairs, Duc Antoine de Gramont, was directed by the Empress to be the principal instrument by which France would press for war should Leopold ascend the throne. Gramont delivered a speech in front of the Chambre législative, proclaiming that "We shall know how to fulfill our duty without hesitation and without weakness." The fatal mistake would soon come as a result of Gramont's inexperience, for he counted on alliances that only existed in his mind.
The French press immediately protested the prospect of a Hohenzollern on the Spanish throne, and on 6 July the new Foreign Minister, the Duc de Gramont [...] told the Chamber that France would not permit Prince Leopold to become King of Spain. [The French Premier Emile] Ollivier added that he had no doubt that Prussia would yield in the face of French firmness, but that 'if war be necessary, the government will not enter upon it without the consent of the Legislative Body.' Gramont's statement and Ollivier's mention of war were greeted with great enthusiasm by the deputies, and in the public galleries the ladies rose to their feet and waved their handkerchiefs as they joined in the wild applause. Next day the Paris press called for war with Prussia, and on 8 July their language was even more violent. The government instructed [Comte Vincente] Benedetti, the French ambassador to Prussia, to demand that King William should publicly refuse his consent to Prince Leopold's acceptance of the throne of Spain.
On 11 July, Benedetti spoke to King William at the watering spa at Ems, and asked him to refuse his consent to Prince Leopold's candidature; Bismarck was on holiday at his estates in East Prussia. King William agreed to order Prince Leopold to withdraw. Ollivier announced the Prussian surrender in the Chamber on 12 July and hailed it as a French triumph and a Prussian humiliation. Bismarck thought the same and considered resigning as Prime Minister. Gramont and Ollivier did not conceal their regret that the Prussians had given in; and the deputies and most of the press were disappointed that that there was to be no war. [...] Louis Napoleon sensed the public regret that there would be no war. 'The country will be disappointed,' he cabled to Ollivier on 12 July; 'but what can we do?' He was in complete agreement with the decision which was taken by the Cabinet on the same day to ask for further guarantees from Prussia and to require King William to give an undertaking that he would never in the future allow Prince Leopold to accept the crown of Spain. When Benedetti confronted King William on the promenade at Ems on the afternoon of 13 July and asked him to give this undertaking, the King was annoyed, refused to do so, and walked away a little abruptly.
Following this direct confrontation, which had bypassed diplomatic protocols, King Wilhelm then sent a message to Berlin reporting this event with the French ambassador, and Bismarck shrewdly edited it to make it "like a red tag to the bull" for the French government. The dispatch was edited as follows (with the words sent in bold):
Count Benedetti spoke to me on the promenade, in order to demand from me, finally in a very importunate manner, that I should authorize him to telegraph at once that I bound myself for all future time never again to give my consent if the Hohenzollerns should renew their candidature.I refused at last somewhat sternly, as it is neither right nor possible to undertake engagements of this kind à tout jamais. Naturally I told him that I had as yet received no news, and as he was earlier informed about Paris and Madrid than myself, he could clearly see that my government once more had no hand in the matter. His Majesty has since received a letter from the Prince.His Majestyhaving told Count Benedetti that he was awaiting news from the Prince, has decidedwith reference to the above demand, upon the representation of Count Eulenburg and myself, not to receive Count Benedetti again, but only to let him be informed through an aide-de-camp that his Majestyhad now received from the Prince confirmation of the news which Benedetti had already received from Paris, andhad nothing further to say to the ambassador.His Majesty leaves it to your Excellency whether Benedetti's fresh demand and its rejection should not be at once communicated both to our ambassadors and to the press.
This dispatch made the encounter more heated than it really was. Known as the Ems Dispatch, it was released to the press. It was designed to give the French the impression that King Wilhelm I had insulted the French Count Benedetti, and to give the Prussian people the impression that the Count had insulted the King. It succeeded in both of its aims- Gramont called it "a blow in the face of France", and the members of the French legislative body spoke of taking "immediate steps to safeguard the interests, the security, and the honor of France." On 19 July 1870 "Le Sourd, the French Chargé d'Affaires, delivered Napoleon's declaration of war at the Foreign Office" in Berlin. According to the secret treaties signed with Prussia and in response to popular opinion, Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg mobilised their armies and joined the war against France.
European public reaction
At the outbreak of the war, European public opinion heavily favored the Germans. For example, many Italians attempted to sign up as volunteers at the Prussian embassy in Florence, and a Prussian diplomat visited Giuseppe Garibaldi in Caprera. After the fall of Napoleon III following the Battle of Sedan, Bismarck's demand for the return of Alsace caused a dramatic shift in that sentiment, which was best exemplified by the reaction of Garibaldi soon after the revolution in Paris, who told the Movimento of Genoa on 7 September 1870, "Yesterday I said to you: war to the death to Bonaparte. Today I say to you: rescue the French Republic by every means."
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