Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, November 12, 2021

Were the Seeds of World War I Planted with Bismarck’s Decision to Take Alsace-Lorraine?


Patrie by Georges Bertrand

NO, says historian Geoffrey Wawro.

Was collision inevitable between this reformed, newly confident French nation and the nervous German Empire? Were the seeds of World War I planted with Bismarck’s decision to take Alsace-Lorraine? Had the Germans, as Tsar Alexander II declared in 1870, “created an inexpugnable hatred between the peoples?”  It certainly looked that way in 1871, when the Bordeaux Convention that ratified Thiers’s controversial armistice rang with pugnacious, wounded rhetoric. One deputy called the treaty “a sentence of death,” another expressed his shock that “universal manhood suffrage should give approval to the dismemberment of France.” Victor Hugo concluded an impassioned speech with the vow that France would “exact a terrible revenge . . . and rise up to retake Lorraine, then Alsace, then . . . Trier, Mainz, Cologne and Koblenz.” But tempers had cooled considerably by 1914 when most French had reconciled themselves to the loss of Alsace and Lorraine. “As for me,” the celebrated French thinker Remy de Gourmont wrote on the eve of World War I, “I wouldn’t give the little finger of my right hand for those forgotten provinces. My hand needs it to rest on as I write. Nor would I give the little finger of my left hand. I need it to flick the ash from my cigarette.”  French statesmen were hardly more aggressive: Rene Viviani, the notoriously provincial French premier in July 1914, was just sophisticated enough to know that he must not repeat Gramont’s error of July 1870, namely “falling into the trap laid by Bismarck in the form of the ‘Ems telegram’ . . . declaring war on Prussia [and] thereby forfeiting international support.”  In fact, it would take another round of German aggression – the Kaiser’s “blank check” to Austria and the Younger Moltke’s invasion of Belgium and France – to trigger the Great War with its 38 million dead, wounded and missing. We must look then at Germany to see the real scar left by 1870–71.

Riven internally, the new German Empire was not well-equipped to manage what would become sharp rivalries with a defeated France, a leery England, and an ever more confident and assertive Russia. Besides the suffocating power of Bismarck, who stifled new men and opinions, the war of 1870–71 had given a “fresh baptism of moral legitimacy” to a Prussian court and establishment that had seemed backward before the war  By forging a German nation and realizing the idealistic hopes of 1848 – when German liberals had tried and failed to create a German nation-state – the Prussian king and Junkers had grafted themselves tightly on to the German state. The war thus empowered a whole class of militarists who linked Germany’s health to war and expansion. Clear-headed Germans recognized this even in 1870 when one commentator deplored Wilhelm I’s creation of a “warrior state . . . based on the permanent use of war” to achieve political objectives. To his credit, Bismarck restrained the soldiers after the war, famously declaring the Reich a “satiated power” and constructing a complex alliance system that kept the peace for a time. Nevertheless, the constitution that he had devised for the North German Confederation in 1867 and for the German Empire in 1871 facilitated the triumph of militarists once Bismarck passed from the scene in 1890. Determined to buttress his own power and preserve ancient prerogatives of the Prussian king, Bismarck created a system that was likely to fail in the twentieth century, and bound to fail once the German crown passed to twenty-nine-year-old Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1888.

Source: The Franco-Prussian War, Cambridge, 2003

1 comment:

  1. The idea that the French weren't overly concerned about the loss of the provinces is contrary to the theme of a large exhibit at the Musée d'Armee that I saw. The exhibit may or may not still be there but explained in detail about the leadup to WWI and how the schools, local institutions and public policy focused on being prepared for the time when Alsace and Lorraine could be recovered. It was not very complimentary to the French which made it memorable given where it was.