Bismarck and the Foundation of the German Empire - J. W. Headlam

The War with France and Foundation of the Empire


On July 31, 1870, Bismarck left Berlin with the King for the seat of war, for, as in 1866, he was to accompany the army in the field. For the next few months indeed Germany was to be governed from the soil of France, and it was necessary for the Minister to be constantly with the King. Bismarck never forgot that he was a soldier; he was more proud of his general's uniform than of his civil rank, and, though not a combatant, it was his pride and pleasure that he should share something of the hardships and dangers of war. He was as a matter of fact never so well as during the campaign: the early hours, the moderate and at times meagre food, the long hours in the saddle and the open air, restored the nerves and health which had been injured by the annoyances of office, late hours, and prolonged sedentary work. He was accompanied by part of the staff of the Foreign Office, and many of the distinguished strangers who followed the army were often guests at his table; he especially shewed his old friendliness for Americans: General Sheridan and many others of his countrymen found a hearty welcome from the Chancellor.

It was not till the 17th of August that the headquarters came up with the fighting front of the army; but the next day, during the decisive battle of Gravelotte, Bismarck watched the combat by the side of the King, and, as at Königgrätz, they more than once came under fire. At one period, Bismarck was in considerable danger of being taken prisoner. His two sons were serving in the army; they were dragoons in the Cuirassiers of the Guards, serving in the ranks in the same regiment whose uniform their father was entitled to wear. They both took part in the terrible cavalry charge at Mars-la-Tour, in which their regiment suffered so severely; the eldest, Count Herbert, was wounded and had to be invalided home. Bismarck could justly boast that there was no nepotism in the Prussian Government when his two sons were serving as privates. It was not till the war had gone on some weeks and they had taken part in many engagements, that they received their commissions. This would have happened in no other country or army. This was the true equality, so different from the exaggerated democracy of France,—an equality not of privilege but of obligation; every Pomeranian peasant who sent his son to fight and die in France knew that the sons of the most powerful man in the country and in Europe were fighting with them not as officers but as comrades. Bismarck was more fortunate than his friends in that neither of his sons—nor any of his near relatives—lost his life; Roon's second son fell at Sedan, and the bloody days of Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte placed in mourning nearly every noble family in Prussia.

From Gravelotte to Sedan he accompanied the army, and he was by the King's side on that fatal day when the white flag was hoisted on the citadel of Sedan, and the French general came out of the town with the message that Napoleon, having in vain sought death at the head of his troops, placed his sword in the hands of the King of Prussia.

The surrender of Sedan was a military event, and the conditions had to be arranged between Moltke and Wimpffen, who had succeeded MacMahon in command, but Bismarck was present at the conference, which was held in his quarters, in case political questions arose. As they rode down together to Doncheroy he and Moltke had agreed that no terms could be offered except the unconditional surrender of the whole army, the officers alone being allowed to retain their swords. Against these conditions Wimpffen and his companions struggled long, but in vain. Moltke coldly assured them that they could not escape, and that it would be madness to begin the fight again; they were surrounded; if the surrender were not complete by four o'clock the next morning the bombardment of the town would begin. Wimpffen suggested that it would be more politic of the Germans to show generosity; they would thereby earn the gratitude of France, and this might be made the beginning of a lasting peace; otherwise what had they to look forward to but a long series of wars? Now was the time for Bismarck to interfere; it was impossible, he declared, to reckon on the gratitude of nations; at times men might indeed build with confidence on that of a sovereign and his family; "but I repeat, nothing can be expected from the gratitude of a nation." Above all was this true of France. "The Governments there have so little power, the changes are so quick and so unforeseen, that there is nothing on which one can rely." Besides, it would be absurd to imagine that France would ever forgive us our successes. "You are an irritable and jealous people, envious and jealous to the last degree. You have not forgiven us Sadowa, and would you forgive us Sedan? Never."

They could not therefore modify the terms in order to win the gratitude and friendship of France; they might have done so had there been prospects of immediate peace. One of the officers, General Castelnau, announced that he had a special message from Napoleon, who had sent his sword to the King and surrendered in the hope that the King would appreciate the sacrifice and grant a more honourable capitulation. "Whose sword is it that the Emperor Napoleon has surrendered?" asked Bismarck; "is it the sword of France or his own? If it is the sword of France the conditions can be greatly softened; your message would have an extraordinary importance." He thought and he hoped that the Emperor wished to sue for peace, but it was not so. "It is only the sword of the Emperor," answered the General. "All then remains as it was," said Moltke; he insisted on his demands; Wimpffen asked at least that time might be allowed him to return to Sedan and consult his colleagues. He had only come from Algeria two days before; he could not begin his command by signing so terrible a surrender. Even this Moltke refused. Then Wimpffen declared the conference ended; rather than this they would continue the battle; he asked that his horses might be brought. A terrible silence fell on the room; Moltke, with Bismarck by his side, stood cold and impenetrable, facing the three French officers; their faces were lighted by two candles on the table; behind stood the stalwart forms of the German officers of the staff, and from the walls of the room looked down the picture of Napoleon I. Then again Bismarck interfered; he begged Wimpffen not in a moment of pique to take a step which must have such horrible consequences; he whispered a few words to Moltke, and procured from him a concession; hostilities should not be renewed till nine o'clock the next morning. Wimpffen might return to Sedan and report to the Emperor and his colleagues.

It was past midnight when the conference broke up; before daybreak Bismarck was aroused by a messenger who announced that the Emperor had left Sedan and wished to see him. He hastily sprang up, and as he was, unwashed, without breakfast, in his undress uniform, his old cap, and his high boots, shewing all the marks of his long day in the saddle, he mounted his horse and rode down to the spot near the highroad where the Emperor in his carriage, accompanied by three officers and attended by three more on horseback, awaited him. Bismarck rode quickly up to him, dismounted, and as he approached saluted and removed his cap, though this was contrary to etiquette, but it was not a time when he wished even to appear to be wanting in courtesy. Napoleon had come to plead for the army; he wished to see the King, for he hoped that in a personal interview he might extract from him more favourable terms. Bismarck was determined just for this reason that the sovereigns should not meet until the capitulation was signed; he answered, therefore, that it was impossible, as the King was ten miles away. He then accompanied the Emperor to a neighbouring cottage; there in a small room, ten feet square, containing a wooden table and two rush chairs, they sat for some time talking; afterwards they came down and sat smoking in front of the cottage.

"A wonderful contrast to our last meeting in the Tuileries," wrote Bismarck to his wife. "Our conversation was difficult, if I was to avoid matters which would be painful to the man who had been struck down by the mighty hand of God. He first lamented this unhappy war, which he said he had not desired; he had been forced into it by the pressure of public opinion. I answered that with us also no one, least of all the King, had wished for the war. We had looked on the Spanish affair as Spanish and not as German."

The Emperor asked for more favourable terms of surrender, but Bismarck refused to discuss this with him; it was a military question which must be settled between Moltke and Wimpffen. On the other hand, when Bismarck enquired if he were inclined for negotiations for peace, Napoleon answered that he could not discuss this; he was a prisoner of war and could not treat; he referred Bismarck to the Government in Paris.

This meeting had therefore no effect on the situation. Bismarck suggested that the Emperor should go to the neighbouring Château of Belle Vue, which was not occupied by wounded; there he would be able to rest. Thither Bismarck, now in full uniform (for he had hurried back to his own quarters), accompanied him, and in the same house the negotiations of the previous evening were continued; Bismarck did not wish to be present at them, for, as he said, the military men could be harsher; and so gave orders that after a few minutes he should be summoned out of the room by a message that the King wished to see him. After the capitulation was signed, he rode up with Moltke to present it to the King, who received it on the heights whence he had watched the battle, surrounded by the headquarters staff and all the princes who were making the campaign. Then, followed by a brilliant cavalcade, he rode down to visit the captive sovereign.

Napoleon III and Bismarck


Bismarck would at this time willingly have made peace, but there was no opportunity of opening negotiations and it is doubtful whether even his influence would have been able successfully to combat the desire of the army to march on Paris. On September 4th, the march, which had been interrupted ten days before, was begun. Immediately afterwards news came which stopped all hopes of a speedy peace. How soon was his warning as to the instability of French Governments to be fulfilled! A revolution had broken out in Paris, the dethronement of the Emperor had been proclaimed, and a Provisional Government instituted. They at once declared that they were a government of national defence, they would not rest till the invaders were driven from the land, they appealed to the memories of 1792. They were indeed ready to make peace, for the war, they said, had been undertaken not against France but against the Emperor; the Emperor had fallen, a free France had arisen; they would make peace, but they would not yield an inch of their country or a stone of their fortresses. With great energy they prepared the defence of Paris and the organisation of new armies; M. Thiers was instructed to visit the neutral Courts and to beg for the support of Europe.

Under these circumstances it was Bismarck's duty to explain the German view; he did so in two circular notes of September 13th and September 16th. He began by expounding those principles he had already expressed to Wimpffen, principles which had already been communicated by his secretaries to the German Press and been repeated in almost every paper of the country. The war had not been caused by the Emperor; it was the nation which was responsible for it. It had arisen from the intolerance of the French character, which looked on the prosperity of other nations as an insult to themselves. They must expect the same feeling to continue:

"We cannot seek guarantees for the future in French feeling. We must not deceive ourselves; we must soon expect a new attack; we cannot look forward to a lasting peace, and this is quite independent of the conditions we might impose on France. It is their defeat which the French nation will never forgive. If now we were to withdraw from France without any accession of territory, without any contribution, without any advantage but the glory of our arms, there would remain in the French nation the same hatred, the same spirit of revenge, for the injury done to their vanity and to their love of power."

Against this they must demand security; the demand was addressed not to any single Government but to the nation as a whole; South Germany must be protected from the danger of French attack; they would never be safe so long as Strasburg and Metz were in French hands; Strasburg was the gate of Germany; restored to Germany, these cities would regain their defensive character. Twenty times had France made war on Germany, but from Germany no danger of disturbance to the peace of Europe was to be feared.

For the first time he hereby officially stated that Germany would not make peace without some accession of territory; that this would be the case, everyone had known since the beginning of the war. At a council of war directly after Gravelotte it was determined to require Alsace; after Sedan the terms naturally rose. The demand for at least some territory was indeed inevitable. The suggestion that from confidence in the peaceful and friendly character of the French nation they should renounce all the advantages gained by their unparalleled victories scarcely deserved serious consideration. Had the French been successful they would have taken all the left bank of the Rhine; this was actually specified in the draft treaty which General Le Brun had presented to the Emperor of Austria. What claim had France to be treated with a leniency which she has never shewn to any conquered enemy? Bismarck had to meet the assumption that France was a privileged and special land; that she had freedom to conquer, pillage, and divide the land of her neighbours, but that every proposal to win back from her what she had taken from others was a crime against humanity.

So long as the Provisional Government adopted the attitude that they would not even consider peace on the basis of some surrender of territory, there was no prospect of any useful negotiations. The armies must advance, and beneath the walls of Paris the struggle be fought out to its bitter end. Bismarck meanwhile treated the Government with great reserve. They had no legal status; as he often pointed out, the Emperor was still the only legal authority in France, and he would be quite prepared to enter into negotiations with him. When by the medium of the English Ambassador they asked to be allowed to open negotiations for an armistice and discuss the terms of peace, he answered by the question, what guarantee was there that France or the armies in Metz and Strasburg would recognise the arrangements made by the present Government in Paris, or any that might succeed it? It was a quite fair question; for as events were to shew, the commander of the army in Metz refused to recognise them, and wished to restore the Emperor to the throne; and the Government themselves had declared that they would at once be driven from power if they withdrew from their determination not to accept the principle of a cession of territory. They would be driven from power by the same authority to which they owed their existence,—the mob of Paris; it was the mob of Paris which, from the beginning, was really responsible for the war. What use was there in a negotiation in which the two parties had no common ground? None the less Bismarck consented to receive M. Jules Favre, who held the portfolio of Foreign Affairs, and who at the advice of Lord Lyons came out from Paris, even at the risk of a rebuff, to see if by a personal interview he might not be able to influence the German Chancellor. "It is well at least to see what sort of man he is," was the explanation which Bismarck gave; but as the interview was not strictly official he did not, by granting it, bind himself to recognise Favre's authority.

Jules Favre met Bismarck on September 18th. They had a long conversation that evening, and it was continued the next day at Ferneres, Baron Rothschild's house, in which the King was at that time quartered. The French envoy did not make a favourable impression; a lawyer by profession, he had no experience in diplomatic negotiations; vain, verbose, rhetorical, and sentimental, his own report of the interview which he presented to his colleagues in Paris is sufficient evidence of his incapacity for the task he had taken upon himself. "He spoke to me as if I were a public meeting," said Bismarck afterwards, using an expression which in his mouth was peculiarly contemptuous, for he had a platonic dislike of long speeches. But let us hear Favre himself:

"Although fifty-eight years of, age Count Bismarck appeared to be in full vigour. His tall figure, his powerful head, his strongly marked features gave him an aspect both imposing and severe, tempered, however, by a natural simplicity amounting to good-nature. His manners were courteous and grave, and quite free from stiffness or affectation. As soon as the conversation commenced he displayed a communicativeness and good-will which he preserved while it lasted. He certainly regarded me as a negotiator unworthy of him and he had the politeness not to let this be seen, and appeared interested by my sincerity. I was struck with the clearness of his ideas, his vigorous good sense, and his originality of mind. His freedom from all pretensions was no less remarkable."

It is interesting to compare with this the account given by another Frenchman of one of the later interviews between the two men:

"The negotiations began seriously and quietly. The Chancellor said simply and seriously what he wanted with astonishing frankness and admirable logic. He went straight to the mark and at every turn he disconcerted Jules Favre, who was accustomed to legal quibbles and diplomatic jobbery, and did not in the least understand the perfect loyalty of his opponent or his superb fashion of treating questions, so different from the ordinary method. The Chancellor expressed himself in French with a fidelity I have never met with except among the Russians. He made use of expressions at once elegant and vigorous, finding the proper word to describe an idea or define a situation without effort or hesitation."

"I was at the outset struck by the contrast between the two negotiators. Count Bismarck wore the uniform of the White Cuirassiers, white tunic, white cap, and yellow band. He looked like a giant. In his tight uniform, with his broad chest and square shoulders and bursting with health and strength, he overwhelmed the stooping, thin, tall, miserable-looking lawyer with his frock coat, wrinkled all over, and his white hair falling over his collar. A look, alas, at the pair was sufficient to distinguish between the conqueror and the conquered, the strong and the weak."

This, however, was four months later, when Jules Favre was doubtless much broken by the anxieties of his position, and perhaps also by the want of sufficient food, and Comte d'Hérisson is not an impartial witness, for, though a patriotic Frenchman, he was an enemy of the Minister.

Bismarck in granting the interview had said that he would not discuss an armistice, but only terms of peace. For the reasons we have explained, Favre refused to listen even to the proposition of the only terms which Bismarck was empowered to bring forward. The Chancellor explained those ideas with which we are already acquainted: "Strasburg," he said, "is the key of our house and we must have it." Favre protested that he could not discuss conditions which were so dishonourable to France. On this expression we need only quote Bismarck's comment:

"I did not succeed in convincing him that conditions, the fulfilment of which France had required from Italy, and demanded from Germany without having been at war, conditions which France would undoubtedly have imposed upon us had we been defeated and which had been the result of nearly every war, even in the latest time, could not have anything dishonourable in themselves for a country which had been defeated after a brave resistance, and that the honour of France was not of a different kind to that of other countries."

It was impossible to refuse to discuss terms of an armistice; as in 1866 the military authorities objected to any kind of armistice because from a military point of view any cessation of hostilities must be an advantage to France; it would enable them to continue their preparations and get together new armies, while Germany would have the enormous expense of maintaining 500,000 men in a foreign country. Bismarck himself from a political point of view also knew the advantage of bringing the war to a rapid close, while the moral effect of the great victories had not been dissipated. However, France had no Government; a legal Government could not be created without elections, and Favre refused to consider holding elections during the progress of hostilities. After a long discussion Bismarck, other suggestions being rejected, offered an armistice on condition that the war should continue round Metz and Paris, but that Toul and Strasburg should be surrendered and the garrison of Strasburg made prisoners of war. "The towns would anyhow fall into our hands," he said; "it is only a question of engineering." "At these words," says Favre, "I sprang into the air from pain and cried out, 'You forget that you speak to a Frenchman. To sacrifice an heroic garrison which is the object of our admiration and that of the world would be a cowardice. I do not promise even to say that you have offered such a condition.'" Bismarck said that he had no wish to offend him; if the King allowed it the article might be modified; he left the room, and after a quarter of an hour returned, saying that the King would accept no alteration on this point. "My powers were exhausted," writes Favre; "I feared for a moment that I should fall down; I turned away to overcome the tears which choked me, and, while I excused myself for this involuntary weakness, I took leave with a few simple words." He asked Bismarck not to betray his weakness. The Count, who seems really to have been touched by the display of emotion, attempted in some sort of way to console him, but a few days later his sympathy was changed into amusement when he found that the tears which he had been asked to pass over in silence were paraded before the people of Paris to prove the patriotism of the man. "He may have meant it," said Bismarck, "but people ought not to bring sentiment into politics."

The terms which Bismarck had offered were as a matter of fact not at all harsh; a week later the garrison of Strasburg had become prisoners of war; had the French accepted the armistice and begun negotiations for peace they would probably, though they could not have saved Strasburg and Alsace, have received far better terms than those to which they had to assent four months later.

Bismarck in refusing to recognise the Provisional Government always reminded them that the Emperor was still the only legitimate Government in France. He professed that he was willing to negotiate with the Emperor, and often talked of releasing him from his confinement in Germany, coming to terms with Bazaine, and allowing the Emperor at the head of the army at Metz to regain his authority in France. We do not quite know to what extent he was serious in using this language, for he often threatened more than he intended to perform. It is at least possible that he only used it as a means for compelling the Provisional Government quickly to come to terms and thereby to bring the war to an end. It is, however, certain that negotiations went on between him and the Empress and also with Bazaine. They came to nothing because the Empress absolutely refused to negotiate if she was to be required to surrender any French territory. In this she adopted the language of the Provisional Government in Paris, and was supported by the Emperor.

The negotiations with the Provisional Government were more than once renewed; soon after the investiture of Paris had begun, General Burnside and another American passed as unofficial messengers between the French and German Governments, and at the beginning of November, Thiers came as the official agent of the Government in Tours; these attempts were, however, always without result; the French would not accept an armistice on the only conditions which Bismarck was authorised by the King and the military authorities to offer. During the rest of the year there was little direct communication with the French authorities. Bismarck, however, was not idle. In his quarters at Versailles he had with him many of the Foreign Office staff; he had not only to conduct important diplomatic negotiations, but also to maintain control over the nation, to keep in touch with the Press, to communicate to the newspapers both events and comments on them. At this crisis he could not leave public opinion without proper direction; he had to combat the misstatements of the French, who had so long had the ear of Europe, and were still carrying their grievances to the Courts of the neutral Powers, and found often eager advocates in the Press of the neutral countries. He had to check the proposal of the neutral Powers to interfere between the two combatants, to inform the German public of the demands that were to be made on France and the proposals for the unity of the country, and to justify the policy of the Government; all this was done not only by official notes, but by articles written at his dictation or under his instruction, and by information or suggestions conveyed by his secretaries to his newspapers. In old days the Prussian Government had been inarticulate, it had never been able to defend itself against the attacks of foreign critics; it had suffered much by misrepresentation; it had lost popularity at home and prestige abroad. In the former struggles with France the voice of Germany had scarcely been heard; Europe, which was accustomed to listen to every whisper from Paris, ignored the feelings and the just grievances of Germany. Bismarck changed all this; now he saw to it that the policy of the Government should be explained and defended in Germany itself; for though he despised public opinion when it claimed to be the canon by which the Government should be directed, he never neglected this, as he never neglected any means by which the Government might be strengthened. Speaking now from Versailles, he could be confident that Europe would listen to what Germany said, and it was no small benefit to his nation that it had as its spokesman a man whose character and abilities ensured that no word that he uttered would be neglected.

The neutral Powers really gave him little concern. There was no intention of supporting France either in England, Russia, or Austria. He shewed great activity, however, in defending the Germans from the charges so freely made against them by the French Press, of conducting the war in a cruel manner; charges which were untrue, for, according to the unanimous testimony of foreign observers who accompanied the army, the moderation of the German soldiers was as remarkable as their successes. Bismarck was not content with rebutting unjust accusations,—he carried on the war into the enemy's camp. He was especially indignant at the misuse made by the French of irregular troops; he often maintained that the German soldiers ought never to imprison the franc-tireurs, but shoot them at once. He feared that if civilians were encouraged to take part in the war it would necessarily assume a very cruel character. At Meaux he came upon a number of franc-tireurs who had been taken prisoners. "You are assassins, gentlemen," he said to them; "you will all be hung." And, indeed, these men who fired secretly on the German troops from behind hedges and in forests, and had no kind of uniform, could not claim to be treated as prisoners of war. When the bombardment of Paris began he took great pains to defend a measure which was much attacked in other countries; he had used all his influence that the bombardment should not be delayed, and often spoke with great annoyance of the reluctance of the military authorities to begin. He wished every measure to be taken which would bring the war to an end as soon as possible. The long delay before Paris seems to have affected his nerves and spirits; there were many anxious hours, and it was always difficult for him to wait patiently the result of what others were doing. The military authorities were, as always, very jealous of all attempts by him to interfere in their department, and he was not always satisfied with their decisions. Like all the Germans he was surprised and angry at the unexpected resistance of Paris, and the success of Gambetta's appeal to the nation. He was especially indignant at the help which Garibaldi gave: "This," he said, "is the gratitude of the Italians"; he declared that he would have the General taken prisoner and paraded through the streets of Berlin.

During the long weeks at Versailles, Bismarck was much occupied with German affairs. The victory of Sedan was the foundation of German unity; Bismarck's moderation and reserve now earned its reward; he had always refused to press the southern States into the Federation; now the offer to join came from them. Baden asked, as she had already done at the beginning of the year, to be received into the Union; the settlement with Wurtemberg, and above all with Bavaria, was less simple. At the request of the Bavarian Government Delbrück was sent to Munich for an interchange of opinion, and the negotiations which were begun there were afterwards continued at Versailles and Berlin. There were many difficulties to be overcome: the Bavarians were very jealous of their independence and were not prepared to put themselves into the position which, for instance, Saxony occupied. But the difficulties on the Prussian side were equally great: the Liberal party wished that the Constitution should be revised and those points in it which they had always disliked altered; they would have made the government of the Federal authorities more direct, have created a Federal Ministry and a Federal Upper House, and so really changed the Federation into a simple State, thereby taking away all the independence of the dynasties. It was quite certain that Bavaria would not accept this, and there was some considerable danger that their exaggerated demands might lead to a reaction in South Germany. Probably under any circumstances the unification of Germany would have been completed, but it required all Bismarck's tact to prevent the outbreak of a regular party struggle. The most extreme line was taken by the Crown Prince of Prussia; he desired the immediate creation of an emperor who should have sovereign authority over the whole of Germany, and he even went so far as to suggest that, if the Bavarians would not accept this voluntarily, they might be compelled to do so. He had repeated conversations with Bismarck on this, and on one occasion at least it ended in an angry scene. The Crown Prince wished to threaten the South Germans. "There is no danger," he said; "let us take a firm and commanding attitude. You will see I was right in maintaining that you are not nearly sufficiently conscious of your own power." It is almost incredible that he should have used such language, but the evidence is conclusive; he was at this time commanding the Bavarian troops against the French; Bavaria had with great loyalty supported Prussia through the war and performed very valuable services, and now he proposed to reward their friendship by compelling them to accept terms by which the independence of the King and the very existence of the State would be endangered. The last request which the King of Bavaria had sent to the Crown Prince as he left Munich to take command of the Bavarian army was that nothing might be done to interfere with Bavarian independence. Of course Bismarck refused to listen to these suggestions; had he done so, the probable result would have been that the Bavarian army would have been withdrawn from France and then all the result of the victories would have been lost.

What Bismarck did was in accordance with his usual practice to make no greater alteration in existing institutions than was absolutely necessary; he did not therefore undertake any reform of the Federal Constitution, but simply proposed treaties by which the southern States, each separately, entered into the existing alliance. Certain special conditions were allowed: the King of Bavaria was to maintain the command over his troops in time of peace; a Voice was given to Bavaria in the management of foreign affairs; she retained her own post and telegraph, and there were certain special privileges with regard to finance to meet the system of taxation on beer; and then the Prussian military code was not to apply to Bavaria, and Bavaria was to retain her own special laws with regard to marriage and citizenship. These concessions were undoubtedly very considerable, but Bismarck granted them, for, as he said to the Bavarian envoys, "we do not want a discontented Bavaria; we want one which will join us freely." The Liberal Publicists in Germany with characteristic intolerance complained that when they had hoped to see the Constitution made simpler and the central government stronger it had really become more federal; they did not see that this federalism was merely the expression of existing facts which could not be ignored. They prophesied all kinds of difficulties which have not been fulfilled, for they forgot that harmonious working, in an alliance voluntarily made, would be a firmer bond of union than the most stringent articles of treaties which were looked on as an unjust burden. Bismarck's own words, spoken the evening after the agreements were signed, give the true account of the matter:

"The newspapers will not be satisfied, the historian may very likely condemn our Conventions; he may say, 'The stupid fellow might easily have asked for more, he would have got it, they would have had to give it him; his might was his right.' I was more anxious that these people should go away heartily satisfied. What is the use of treaties which men are forced to sign? I know that they went away satisfied. I do not wish to press them or to take full advantage of the situation. The Convention has its defects, but it is all the stronger on account of them."

He could afford now to be generous because in 1866 he had been so stern; he had refused to take in Bavaria when it would have weakened the association of the North; now that the nucleus had been formed he could allow the Catholic South greater freedom. He was right; the concessions granted to Bavaria have not been in any way a danger to the Empire.

As soon as he had signed the Convention he looked into the room where his secretaries were and said: "The work is done; the unity of Germany is completed and with it Kaiser and Reich." Up to this time he had taken no open steps towards the proclamation of the Empire; but it was unanimously demanded by almost the whole nation and especially by the South Germans. But here he kept himself in the background; he refused to make it appear as though he were to make the Emperor or found the Empire. He allowed the natural wish of the people to work itself out spontaneously. There was indeed some reluctance to assume the title at the Prussian Court; the King himself was not anxious for a new dignity which would obscure that title which he and his ancestors had made so honourable. This feeling was shared by many of the nobility and the officers; we find it strongest in Roon, who in this represents the genuine feeling of the older Prussian nobility. They disliked a change which must mean that the Prussia to which they were so devotedly attached was to become merged in a greater Germany. There was also some apprehension that with the new title the old traditions of the Prussian Court, traditions of economy, almost of parsimony, might be forgotten, and that a new career might begin in which they would attempt to imitate the extravagance and pomp of less prudent sovereigns. With this perhaps Bismarck himself had some sympathy.

The King would, of course, only assume the new title if it was offered to him by his fellow-princes; there was some danger lest the Reichstag, which had been summoned to ratify the treaties, might ask him to assume it before the princes did; had they done so, he would probably have refused. The Crown Prince, who was very eager for the new title, and the Grand Duke of Baden used all their influence with their fellow-princes. The initiative must come from the King of Bavaria; he was in difficulty as to the form in which the offer should be made. Bismarck, who throughout the whole negotiations worked behind the scenes, smoothing away difficulties, thereupon drafted a letter which he sent by special messenger to the King of Bavaria. The King at once adopted it, copied it out and signed it, and at the same time wrote another letter to the other princes, asking them to join in the request which he had made to the King of Prussia, to assume the title of Emperor which had been in abeyance for over sixty years. So it came about that the letter by which the offer to the King was made had really emanated from his own Chancellor. It shews to what good purpose Bismarck used the confidence which, by his conduct in the previous negotiations, the King of Bavaria had been led to place in him.

William I


On the 18th of January, 1871, in the Palace of Versailles, the King publicly assumed the new title; a few days later Bismarck was raised to the rank of Prince.

A few days later Paris fell; the prolonged siege was over and the power of resistance exhausted; then again, as three months before, Favre asked for an audience, this time to negotiate the capitulation of the city; we need not here dwell on the terms of the capitulation—we need only quote what Favre himself says of Bismarck's attitude:

"I should be unfaithful to truth if I did not recognise that in these mournful discussions I always found the Chancellor eager to soften in form the cruelty of his requirements. He applied himself as much as was possible to temper the military harshness of the general staff, and on many points he consented to make himself the advocate of our demands."

A few weeks were allowed for elections to be held and an assembly to meet at Bordeaux, and then once more M. Thiers appeared, to negotiate the terms of peace. He knew that the demands would be very heavy; he anticipated that they would be asked to surrender Alsace, including Belfort, and of Lorraine at least the department of the Moselle, with Metz; he expected a large war indemnity—five thousand million francs. The terms Bismarck had to offer were almost identical with these, except that the indemnity was placed at six thousand million francs. The part Thiers had to play was a very difficult one; he knew that if Germany insisted on her full demands he must accept; he was too experienced a politician to be misled by any of the illusions under which Favre had laboured. He, as all other Frenchmen, had during the last three months learned a bitter lesson. "Had we made peace," he said, "before the fall of Metz, we might at least have saved Lorraine." He hoped against hope that he might still be able to do so. With all the resources of his intellect and his eloquence he tried to break down the opposition of the Count. When Metz was refused to him then he pleaded for Belfort. Let us hear what Favre, who was present at the decisive interview, tells us; we may use his authority with more confidence that he was a silent and passive auditor.

"One must have been present at this pathetic scene to have an idea of the superhuman resources which the illustrious statesman displayed. I still see him, pale, agitated, now sitting, now springing to his feet; I hear his voice broken by grief, his words cut short, his tones in turn suppliant and proud; I know nothing grander than the sublime passion of this noble heart bursting out in petitions, menaces, prayers, now caressing, now terrible, growing by degrees more angry in face of this cruel refusal, ready for the last extremities, impervious to the counsels of reason, so violent and sacred were the sentiments by which he was governed."

Bismarck remained obdurate; he would surrender neither Metz nor Belfort. Then Thiers cried out:

"Well, let it be as you will; these negotiations are a pretence. We appear to deliberate, we have only to pass under your yoke. We ask for a city absolutely French, you refuse it to us; it is to avow that you have resolved to wage against us a war of extremity. Do it! Ravish our provinces, burn our houses, cut the throats of their unoffending inhabitants, in a word, complete your work. We will fight to the last breath; we shall succumb at last, but we will not be dishonoured."

Louis Adolphe Thiers.


It was a burst of passion, all the more admirable that Thiers knew his threats were vain; but it was not ineffective. Bismarck was troubled; he said he understood what they suffered; he would be glad to make a concession, "but," he added, "I can promise nothing; the King has commanded me to maintain the conditions, he alone has the right to modify them; I will take his orders; I must consult with Mons. de Moltke." He left the room; it was nearly an hour before he could find Moltke; then he returned to give the answer to the Frenchmen. "You had refused that we should enter Paris; if you will agree that the German troops occupy Paris, then Belfort shall be restored to you." There could be no doubt as to the answer, and some hours later the assent of the King was given to this alteration in the conditions. Before this the indemnity had been reduced to five thousand million francs; below that all the efforts of the French were not able to bring it. There were many other exciting scenes during the progress of the negotiations; on one occasion Thiers threatened Bismarck with interposition of the neutral Powers; "If you speak to me of Europe, I will speak of the Emperor," was Bismarck's answer. He threatened to open negotiations with him and to send him back to France at the head of Bazaine's army. On another occasion—it was during the discussion of finance—another scene took place which Favre describes:

"As the discussion continued, he grew animated, he interrupted Thiers at every word, accused him of wishing to spoil everything; he said that he was ill, at the end of his powers, he was incapable of going further, in a work that we were pleased to make of no use. Then, allowing his feelings to break out, walking up and down the little room in which we were deliberating with great strides, he cried, 'It is very kind of me to take the trouble to which you condemn me; our conditions are ultimatums—you must accept or reject them. I will not take part in it any longer; bring an interpreter to-morrow, henceforward I will not speak French any longer.'"

And he began forthwith to talk German at a great rate, a language which of course neither of the Frenchmen understood.

It is interesting to compare with this Bismarck's own account of the same scene:

"When I addressed a definite demand to Thiers, although he generally could command himself, he sprang up and cried, 'Mais c'est un indignité.' I took no notice but began to talk German. For a time he listened, but obviously did not know what to think of it. Then in a plaintive voice he said, 'But, Count, you know that I do not understand German.' I answered him now in French. 'When just now you spoke of indignité, I found that I did not understand French enough and preferred to speak German, here I know what I say and hear.' He understood what I meant and at once agreed to that which he had just refused as an indignité."

Bismarck's part in these negotiations was not altogether an easy one, for it is probable that, in part at least, he secretly sympathised with the arguments and protests of the French. He was far too loyal to his master and his country not to defend and adopt the policy which had been accepted; but there is much reason to believe that, had he been completely master, Germany would not have insisted on having Metz, but would have made the demand only to withdraw it. The arguments for the annexation of Alsace were indeed unanswerable, and again and again Bismarck had pointed out that Germany could never be safe so long as France held Strasburg, and a French army supported on the strong basis of the Vosges could use Strasburg as a gate whence to sally forth into Germany. No one indeed who has ever stood on the slopes of the Black Forest and looked across the magnificent valley, sheltered by the hills on either side, through which the Rhine flows, can doubt that this is all one country, and that the frontier must be sought, not in the river, which is not a separation, but the chief means of communication, but on the top of the hills on the further side. Every argument, however, which is used to support German claims to Strasburg may be used with equal force to support French claims to Metz. If Strasburg in French hands is the gate of Germany, Metz in German hands is, and always will remain, a military post on the soil of France. No one who reads Bismarck's arguments on this point can fail to notice how they are all nearly conclusive as to Strasburg, but that he scarcely takes the trouble to make it even appear as though they applied to Metz. Even in the speech before the Reichstag in which he explains and justifies the terms of peace, he speaks again and again of Strasburg but hardly a word of Metz. He told how fourteen years before, the old King of Würtemberg had said to him, at the time of the Crimean troubles, that Prussia might count on his voice in the Diet as against the Western Powers, but only till war broke out.

"Then the matter takes another form. I am determined as well as any other to maintain the engagements I have entered into. But do not judge me unjustly; give us Strasburg and we shall be ready for all eventualities, but so long as Strasburg is a sally-port for a Power which is always armed, I must fear that my country will be overrun by foreign troops before my confederates can come to my help."

The King was right; Germany would never be secure so long as Strasburg was French; but can France ever be secure so long as Metz is German?

The demand for Metz was based purely on military considerations; it was supported on the theory, which we have already learnt, that Germany could never take the offensive in a war with France, and that the possession of Metz would make it impossible, as indeed is the case, for France to attack Germany. It was not, however, Bismarck's practice to subordinate political considerations to military. It may be said that France would never acquiesce in the loss of either province, but while we can imagine a generation of Frenchmen arising who would learn to recognise the watershed of the Vosges as a permanent boundary between the two nations, it is difficult to believe that the time will ever come when a single Frenchman will regard with contentment the presence of the Germans on the Upper Moselle.

Even after the preliminaries of peace were settled fresh difficulties arose; the outbreak of the Commune in Paris made it impossible for the French to fulfil all the arrangements; Bismarck, who did not trust the French, treated them with much severity, and more than once he threatened again to begin hostilities. At last Favre asked for a fresh interview; the two statesmen met at Frankfort, and then the final treaty of peace was signed.