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Useful Notes / Franco-Prussian War

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Otto von Bismarck and a captive Napoleon III the day after the French defeat of Sedan (September 2, 1870).

Nous sommes dans un pot de chambre, et nous y serons emmerdés. Translation 
—French General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot

The Franco-Prussian War - known in Germany as the German-French War (Deutsch-Französischer Krieg) or War of 1870/71, and in France as the Franco-German War (Guerre franco-allemande) or "Guerre franco-prussienne" - was the last of three wars that led to the unification of a plethora of Germanic states into one single empire (the first since the Holy Roman Empire had any political power).

There were multiple causes of the war, including but not limited to, a potential sale of Luxembourg to France, the vacancy of the Spanish throne, and the Prime Minister of Prussia modifying and publishing an insulting telegram about a meeting of the French Ambassador. For whatever cause, a dangerously underprepared France declared war on Prussia (and thus the North German Confederation) in July of 1870. These circumstances led the South German states (Bavaria, Baden, Württemberg) to join the side of the North German Confederation, thanks to a secret mutual defense treaty arranged by Bismarck.

The result was a 10-month Curb-Stomp Battle as the Prussians decimated the French in all but three battles (where the French won one at Broney-Colombey and fought to a draw in two others), captured the French Emperor, Napoleon III, and unified Germany.

Another result of the war was Germany's annexation of Elsaß-Lothringen (Alsace-Lorraine - which actually amounted to Alsace-Moselle note ), which they held until 1918. This would prove a major problem, as Alsace-Moselle made France implacably hostile to Germany, as well as changing the international perception of Germany from victim to aggressornote . Moreover, the French had to leave Rome, indirectly finishing the Unification of Italy.

The defeat of Napoleon III led to his fall and the proclamation of the Third French Republic, which continued the war longer than the Germans expected by continually raising new armies even as Paris was besieged. In a bloody epilogue after the signing of the definitive peace treaty French fought French as the forces of the conservative central government put down the Paris Commune, a short-lived revolutionary government which was in control by revolutionary members of the French working class. While short-lived and petty by that time, it would inspire a book by Karl Marx (The Civil War in France) and later Vladimir Lenin to start the October Revolution and create the Soviet Union, thus being responsible for communism's first steps as a major power through the 20th century.

Another consequence of the end of the war is that Meiji Japan, which was looking to modernize its armies by taking example on France, felt unimpressed by their defeat and decided to emulate the Germans instead. The shift was not total, and French military advisors were still sought after, and had an especially profound impact on the Imperial Japanese Navy (though still not as profound as the impact of the British Royal Navy, to whom the Japanese were mainly looking to because, you know, they were the 19th-century Royal Navy). Despite the humiliating defeat, the Japanese foreign minister in a visit in France in 1873 said that he had profound respect for their courage in the face of overwhelming odds.

By the end of the war, the balance of power in Europe had been completely upended, as France's centuries-long superiority over the rest of Europe was abruptly terminated. What had once been a chain of small and mid-size German states had, within a year, become the single most powerful nation on the continent. Even worse (from the French perspective), Germany was growing stronger, rapidly increasing its population and industry.

This in turn started a chain of events that led to World War I. France, desperate and humiliated, formed a series of alliances in case they ever went to war with Germany again, and Germany did the same. With one exception, all of these alliances became the Allied Powers (France, Great Britain, and Russia, as well as the other countries they gathered after the war began) and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the countries they gathered). The newly-united Italy was the exception - Italy was in an alliance with Germany, but didn't enter World War I until the Allied Powers offered them parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The conflict is seldom seen in the media nowadays, having been superseded by the two World Wars in Europe's collective memory.



  • Les Dernières Cartouches (literally The Last Cartridges) depicts "Troupes de Marine" making a Last Stand against Bavarians in an inn during the Battle of Bazeilles near Sedan by pooling together their last cartridges. Of the 50 Marsouins note  only 15 survived and were captured.


  • Bombardement d'une maison (Bombing of a house, 1897), most probably the very first film to depict it (and probably the very first war film). It was directed by Georges Méliès. Also released under the title Les Dernières Cartouches (The Last Cartridges).
  • Bismarck, 1940 German biopic.
  • Champ d'honneur, 1987 French film.
  • East Lynne: Part of the unfortunate Trauma Conga Line of protagonist Lady Isabella has her trapped in Paris, starving, during the siege.
  • La Forteresse assiégée (The Besieged Fortress), 2006 French Made-for-TV Movie about the siege of the French citadel of Bitche.


  • Several Guy de Maupassant short stories use the war as setting, such as Boule de Suif and Mademoiselle Fifi.
  • Émile Zola's La Débâcle is set during the war, specifically at the Battle of Sedan and the French civil war in spring 1871.
  • The short story The Street of The First Shell from The King in Yellow is set during the Siege of Paris.
  • Henrik Ibsen was in Munich at the time, and wrote a long "rhyming letter" to a friend (included in his collected poems). The poem tells quite bluntly that he has had it with merry Prussians belching out Wacht am Rhein at every opportunity, and is quite pessimistic about the future of German militarism. Spot on.

Video Games

  • A sizable chunk of Victoria: An Empire Under The Sun playthroughs will be about pouring vast amounts of time and resources into either bringing about the war or stopping/postponing it. The outcome of the war is rather random in vanilla versions of both the first and second game, but gets brutally historical in expansion packs and mods.


  • Norwegian author Nordahl Grieg wrote a full dramatic play: The Defeat, concerning the fate of the Paris commune. Grieg, being a communist, actually used the contemporary writings of Marx as source material. The Big Bad of the story is, of course, Thiers (while some of the communards are depicted as downright assholes as well). Downer Ending of historical accuracy: kill them all (including a number of children shot on stage).

Web Original

  • In the alternate history The Legacy of the Glorious, this war is known as the Hohenzollerns' War, after the reigning dynasty in Prussia (although in TTL's Spain it is called King Leopold's War). Like it happened in Real Life, the most direct cause of the war was the Ems dispatch, but there is a difference: since Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was confirmed as King of Spain before the French caught wind of it, France declares war on Prussia and Spain. War ends even more disastrously for the French, because, apart from Alsace-Lorraine, they also lose the southern department of Rousillon and the Oranesado in north Africa to Spain, as well as paying a greater war indemnization.