After the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, Prussia had emerged in a very powerful position. The formation of the North German Confederation, initially a military alliance, soon became an obvious vehicle for a political federation, as a precursor to the unification of all German states into a Germanic Empire (Austria excluded). Aside from the fact that this would represent a fundamental shift in the balance of power in Europe (which France would not tolerate), a unified Germany would clearly include large south German states such as Bavaria, Baden, Württemburg and Hesse-Darmstadt. These states were on the eastern borders of France. With Belgium and Holland in the north, and the relatively weak Italy and Switzerland in the south, France’s entire eastern frontier was secure. The absorption of south German states into a nation like Prussia would open up the centre of this frontier to attack by an emergent military power. This was unacceptable to France, and they were prepared to resort to war to prevent this taking place.
The Prussian chancellor, Bismarck, was aware that a war was likely, and that Prussian/German victory would allow Germany as a nation to come into being. He was also aware that the smaller German states were only likely to fight with him if it could appear that he was fighting a defensive war. The Ems Dispatch was used to achieve this. An angry letter written by the Prussian King to Bismarck detailing demands made by the French ambassador was published by Bismarck himself in order to inflame the tension on both sides. The resultant anger in France was a major factor in their declaration of war.
From the outset it was clear that the Germans had a technical advantage. The French still used muzzle-loaded cannons, whereas the Germans possessed Krupp-built breach-loading artillery. Germany as a whole also had a denser railway network than France (although this was largely concentrated in Prussia), which gave them an advantage in supplying their armies and mobilizing men. The French also used an ineffective strategy, staying on the defensive when their large standing army meant they should have had a short-lived advantage while the Prussians mobilized. This opportunity was missed.
The decisive battle of the war was the Battle of Sedan, which took place on the 1st September 1870, resulted in 104,000 French troops being encircled by the Germans. Among those captured was Napoleon III, who had personally been accompanying the army. With another major French army encircled at the Metz fortress, the war had effectively been decided in Prussia’s favour. Despite this, resistance would continue under the newly proclaimed French Republic, which also proclaimed the removal of Napoleon III as ruler. However, the loss of two armies in such a short time was too much for the French to cope with, and having been under siege since September 19th 1870, Paris (and France as a whole) surrendered in January 1871. On the 18th of January 1871 Wilhelm I was proclaimed the first Kaiser of a united Germany at Versailles.
The end of the war led to a Europe fundamentally unbalanced by a unified militarist Germany, and a France greatly angered by the loss of Alsace-Lorraine and the indemnities it had to pay. Europe also witnessed the power of railways, technology and industry in warfare. The aftermath of the war also resulted in a workers insurrection in Paris, leading to a short lived local government known as the Paris Commune. The Commune was praised by figures such as Marx, despite it not seeking a complete Marxist revolution, instead opting for an admittedly radical campaign of social and political reform. Paris was besieged by republican armies, and the Commune was crushed by the end of May 1871.
Contributed by Matthew Rudd