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25 July 2023updated 23 Nov 2023 11:00am

Bismarck is still the GOAT

The Iron Chancellor reshaped a continent in his image.

By Katherine Bayford

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Emperor Napoleon held Europe in his grasp. Seven decades later his nephew – sweating, agonised by gallstones – and successor mounted a horse to aid in a doomed invasion over the German border. Less than two months later Napoleon III had been captured, the French Army defeated and the Second Empire vanquished.

How were the French forces defeated so decisively? The Germans, led by Prussia, were not destined to defeat them. For one thing, their armies’ manoeuvring and tactical decisions left much to be desired, even if their strategic directions were graceful and crisply executed. German cannon may have been superior, but the French had better rifles. It was the organisation of the German army – with its superior military and non-military education – and manpower that proved the true advantage.

It was they who had a plan of how to invade France while France was still dithering about engaging them, they who had a dynamic, well-educated military elite while French commanders made tactical and strategic mistake after mistake, reporting to a sickly and nervous Napoleon III and his distant, neurotic Empress. German soldiers were better trained, more experienced and had a clearer command structure. “Militaries across the Continent,” Rachel Chrastil writes in Bismarck’s War: The Franco-Prussian War and the Making of Modern Europe, “learned the lesson that they should raise a well-trained nation-at-arms, capable of being swiftly mobilised and concentrated on enemy borders.”

European armies learned from Prussian mastery. In becoming more professional, warfare began to seep into every area of society. Conscription expanded, general staffs were sharpened, military education became professionalised, and commanders experimented with their tactics through war games. The role of logistics became a subject of intense focus, and plans for the mobilisation of troops became bigger, swifter and more honed. Fortresses cropped up across Europe, at huge cost. Army after army sought to supersede the capabilities of their neighbours. The potential for deadlocked war increased.

These events affected the social fabric of nations as much as they did their militaries. The French Second Republic sought to instil duty and self-sacrifice in its citizenry. By 1873 they were no longer able to buy their way out of service. By 1889 the state introduced universal conscription. National pride – in an already proud country – was stoked by its politicians. 

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If, however, France had to reintroduce pride into its army following defeat, the German Empire eventually succumbed to it. After the Franco-Prussian war the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, declined to expand territorially in Europe, instead seeking to contain conflict. The German Empire, formed in 1871, was now the strongest power on the continent, and nationalism within it was strengthened by its phenomenal military victory. Such triumphant feeling was heady enough for some important factors in the new Germanic dominance to be forgotten.

While military manoeuvrings had won the war, it was diplomatic cables that had made it a success. Even British newspapers had spent much of the war freely trotting out Bismarck’s lines. “Unlike Napoleon I at the start of the century,” Chrastil argues, “Bismarck had worked to ensure that German hegemony was achieved through general consent across Europe.” It led to some time of peace. Bismarck’s careful diplomatic efforts before and during the war had ensured that it was limited to the two states concerned. While public opinion turned against German troops during bloody sieges, Bismarck had successfully lobbied against the suggestion of Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian army’s chief of staff, that the war be prolonged in an attempt to totally destroy France, lest Russia enter the conflict. Every strategic decision was undertaken with the aim of defeating (but not annihilating) the enemy with the greatest concentration of force possible.

Nevertheless, while Bismarck ensured that France had become the weakest power on the continent, in doing so he had engendered an uncomfortable situation wherein the new German Empire had a hostile neighbour directly on its border. In the eyes of Talleyrand a generation earlier, Napoleon I had made a grievous error in embarrassing and alienating Austria, leaving nothing but a shaky ally between France and the Russian Empire. The creation of the German Empire during this war had eradicated the independent nations that once stood as a buffer between Prussia and France: without states such as Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and the Grand Duchy of Hesse, one would have to keep a close eye on France’s military machinations.

Even so, for decades after the war, Bismarck’s delicate game of diplomacy worked. It was only after the death of the chancellor that the German Empire’s decision-making succumbed to the aggressive and hubristic. The war had allowed Bismarck to unify Germany in both a literal and brotherly sense – once the French threat had been neutralised, the purpose of German nationalism needed, once again, to be answered. Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm derided Germans who had succumbed to jingoistic thinking: those who had boasted of France’s total defeat at Germany’s hand “seem to me to be as petty and narrow-minded as can possibly be… It would really and truly be better for our countrymen if they rejoiced at our great successes in a quiet, dignified way, at the same time recognising the fine persistency of the French in their devotion to their cause of their country.”

Bismarck’s brilliance rested on his ability to manipulate individuals and populations alike. Needing a war to unite Germany (and unwilling to be the aggressor) Bismarck easily goaded France into invading through a carefully worded diplomatic dispatch that seemed to suggest – to French eyes – that the king of Prussia had insulted their ambassador, while Germans reading the same text came to the conclusion that the French ambassador had instead grievously insulted their king. It was of no concern that their meeting had been perfectly cordial, Bismarck reassured friends. His write-up “would have the effect of a red rag on the Gallic bull”.

Later, as the provisional government that shakily attempted to govern France from besieged Paris pleaded with Prussia that total capitulation could destabilise the country, Bismarck’s advice was simple: “Provoke an uprising, then, while you still have an army with which to suppress it.”

France was left to negotiate an earlier end to the country’s occupation by raising billions in francs through loan offerings. Indeed, so swift were French indemnity repayments that they created a financial bubble in Germany that, when it burst, undermined faith in liberalism and fuelled anti-Semitism. As resentments built in the German Empire, its army and military system became the symbols of strength and success.

As military and civil virtues became more entwined, as memories of the war faded, temperance withered, financial resentments built, caution waned and diplomatic skill deteriorated, Germany believed its unification and strength to be almost wholly rooted in military triumph. “In the end,” Chrastil writes in her elegant history, “Germany’s victory in 1870-71 was disastrous both for Germany and for the rest of the world.”

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