Historical Essays and Studies/The Causes of the Franco-Prussian War

Historical Essays and Studies
by John Acton
The Causes of the Franco-Prussian War
1388443Historical Essays and Studies — The Causes of the Franco-Prussian WarJohn Acton



The Bismarck revelations are studiously calculated to confuse the central problem of his career, the responsibility for the war of 1870. All the voluminous literature regarding Moltke and Roon ignores the question ; and the significant suppression of the memoirs of Bernhardi, Bismarck's agent in Spain, shows that there is a secret still to be concealed.

Let me illustrate by a curious instance the difficulties that beset the path of a historian. Bismarck relates that Count H———, the Bavarian Master of the Horse, was sent from Versailles to negotiate with the King of Bavaria for the proclamation of the German Empire, and that the emissary travelled to Munich and back without loss of time. The story which these bald words are meant to hide is as follows: After the fall of Bismarck his successor found a deficit of a couple of hundred thousand pounds in the sequestrated Guelphic Fund, which the Chancellor administers beyond the control of Parliament, and he found that the money had gone to Munich. He requested the Bavarian Minister at Berlin to go home at once and find out what it meant. It meant that the King of Bavaria had agreed to propose the erection of the German Empire in return for £15,000 a year, to be paid to him secretly out of the Guelphic Fund, and that his Master of the Horse was handsomely rewarded out of the same purse. When this was detected it was kept quiet, but H———, who had done the work, was superseded on the plea of ill-health. This transaction, splendidly illustrating the devious dexterity of the Chancellor, is still shrouded in utter darkness.

In investigating the true cause of the war, we are confronted by the interesting fact that Sybel, writing with the sanction and support of Bismarck, exonerates the Emperor, and also the Empress, while Thiers vehemently denied the guilt of the Prussian Chancellor. The explanation of this generosity on the part of Thiers is that he desired at that moment to conciliate Bismarck. He was negotiating with Germany to prepare for the election of the next Pope, and he wished to propitiate him in favour of his own candidate, who was Cardinal Ginoulhiac, Archbishop of Lyons, a dull man, but reputed the most learned prelate in France. It was in the midst of these communications with Arnim that the wrath of the royalists overtook him.

The evidence I have collected makes it difficult to approve these verdicts of absolution. The question goes back to 1865. In that year the Emperor's illness became known, and men began to doubt whether he would live to consolidate the dynasty and to secure the succession for his son. In that year also the surrender of Lee altered the conditions of European politics. The victorious Americans, combining the forces of North and South, resolved to expel the French from Mexico, where they had set up an offending European monarch under cover of the Civil War. They appointed a general to command the army of Mexico, which was to be recruited largely among the Confederates, and to relieve the Union of a disturbing element, and they sent him to Paris to show his patent to the Emperor. Napoleon saw and understood. Without a struggle, without a protest, he recalled his army and left Maximilian to his fate.

The moment when he underwent this terrible humiliation was the moment when Prussia was preparing to fall upon Austria. It was necessary for his existence on the throne to do something for his prestige. He would be ruined with the army if, after bringing them back from one disastrous failure in America, his policy exposed them to another in Europe. The French Empire was imperilled as much as the Austrian by the war of 1866. Napoleon made his choice, laid his plans, and did what other men have done before and since—he put his money on the wrong horse. All his generals excepting two, Bourbaki and Berckheim, believed that the Austrians would win; and he accordingly came to an agreement with Austria for the dismemberment of Prussia and the division of the spoil. He neglected to hedge. He made no similar arrangement beforehand with the other side. When his schemes were shattered at Königgratz, he sought to make terms with the victor. He urged that their victory was due to his neutrality and forbearance. The balance of power was overthrown, and he claimed compensation.

Austria was not yet subdued. Archduke Albrecht, crowned with the glory of Custoza, was on the march with the army which had defeated the Italians. Cholera was in the camp. Bismarck asked Moltke whether in those circumstances he was willing to fight the French. In a paper, which is wonderful for its matter-of-fact simplicity, Moltke explained that he was quite willing. It would not be possible, he said, to defend the frontier. But he undertook to meet the French army on equal terms after it had crossed the Rhine.

Fortified by this memorable statement, Bismarck determined to make peace at once with Austria, but to stand his ground as regarded France. The determination was quickly followed by the most dramatic incident in his life. The French demands came. When Pfordten, the Bavarian Minister, saw what they were, saw that Napoleon claimed the Palatinate, which is Bavarian territory, he threw himself into the arms of the hated Chancellor, and at once concluded the treaty of peace and the secret treaty of military alliance in time of war. With the French telegram in his hand, with the resolution to fight for the integrity of Germany, he created the force that conquered France and made the Empire.

Beust hurried to Paris, but found the Emperor so much weakened by disease and pain that he could not be roused to action. The American surrender had been followed by a European surrender. The Government was profoundly discredited, for, after miscalculating the issue of war, they had mismanaged the issue of diplomacy. Drouyn de l'Huys, the Minister who had insisted on the policy of compensation, resigned office. He was followed by the Minister of War. It was believed, rightly or not, that the want of a military demonstration to back the menacing demands was due to him. He was succeeded by Niel, who reorganised the army on a scheme of 400,000 men in line, 400,000 reserve, and 400,000 National Guards. It would take five years to complete the reserve and nine years for the Garde Nationale mobile.

Looking upon History as an affair of Reason, I do not assign these preparations for a war with Germany to national pride, or ambition, or the like irrational causes. The superiority of the German army was apparent, and it was due not only to an established organisation but to excess of numbers. The population of France had almost ceased to increase. The population of Germany increased rapidly. Four German children were born for one French. Berthelot pointed out that France possessed not only fewer children, but more old men. There were fifty-eight Prussians unfit for service to a hundred French. A leading newspaper computed that Germany already had 58,000 valid recruits annually more than France. A deputy argued that the German army, in a few years, would exceed the French by 800,000. The power that was already formidable would soon be overwhelming, and France would be at its mercy. So far as politics can be reduced to figures the thing was clear.

If it followed from this that France must increase her armaments, it followed still more certainly that France must seek alliances. Marshal Niel understood the situation. He admitted to General Jarras that they could never cope with Germany single-handed. He relied on a system of alliances either to make war impossible or to make it profitable. In April 1869 he said to the Empress, who constantly urged him to make the army ready for a conflict with their neighbour, "I have obeyed your orders, Madame. I am ready, and you are not." On the 5th January 1868, Benedetti wrote that things were growing urgent, that the effective unity of Germany would soon be accomplished, and could only be prevented with Austrian aid. Prince Napoleon was sent to Berlin, and when he had failed to obtain an amicable understanding, secret negotiations with other powers were begun and were carried on by the sovereigns themselves, behind the back of Ministers.

Austria, governed by Beust, who personified the defeat of 1866, was the first and necessary ally. Austria would not move without Italy, would not move, that is, with Italy hostile in its rear. France and Italy were divided by Rome. Napoleon attempted to avoid the difficulty by allowing the Spaniards to occupy Rome instead of the French; but while this arrangement was in progress the friendly government of Queen Isabella was overthrown. Then the negotiations were resumed with Francis Joseph and Victor Emmanuel, and were suspended in June 1869. By that time the Emperor knew that the warlike support of both would be his, if he would pay the price. Italy had no ground of quarrel with Prussia; to run the risk it required compensation. There were two things the Italians desired—one was Rome, the other was the debatable land on the Austrian frontier. It was the policy of Beust that the price should be paid, not in Austrian territory, but at Rome; and he insisted that the Roman thorn should be taken out of the Italian foot. In other words, he required that France, not Austria, should be the loser, as France, not Austria, had the initiative in the warlike combination.

The project which Napoleon left in abeyance in the summer of 1869 was taken up again early in 1870, not by France but by Austria, and not by the Austrian Government but by the Court. The Archduke Albrecht, the most illustrious personage in the Empire, not only the head of the army, but the head of the war party, the man who, in 1866, had not been granted the opportunity of measuring swords with Moltke, made a tour in the south of France, and it was announced that he would go home by way of Paris, as the convenient route to Vienna. He conferred with the Emperor, assured him that a war without Austrian help would be hopeless, which was true, and proposed his strategic conditions. Nothing was settled at the time. A new Ministry had come into office on 2nd January, which was not only constitutional, but liberal and pacific, pledged not to tolerate personal government and not to oppose the union of Germany if it was desired by Germans. The visit of the Archduke was a defiance of both pledges. Some months before, when the correspondence between the monarchs had been interrupted, Napoleon had sent his confidential aide-de-camp, Fleury, to see what could be obtained from Russia. This was the man who carried through the coup d'etat when Louis Napoleon wavered. He was well received at St. Petersburg, and was making way when the new Minister, Daru, required that there should be no negotiation that was not official, and none that was not pacific. This declaration condemned the mission of the Archduke to failure, and it condemned France to isolation. The Emperor got rid of his visitor with good words, promising that he would send a trusted officer to confer with him when he obtained a free hand. This he did by means of the plébiscite.

In April Daru resigned. On the 8th May the plébiscite affirmed the Emperor's policy. On the 15th May the Duke de Gramont, his ambassador at Vienna, who had already arrived at Paris, became Minister of Foreign Affairs. Four days later, 19th May, the chiefs of the staff were summoned to discuss the Austrian plan for a joint campaign in Germany. When they had made up their minds, one of them, General Lebrun, started for Vienna, to carry the result of their secret deliberations to the Archduke. On a previous mission he had visited the camp of Beverloo, where he saw a breech-loading steel gun from Prussia, which was so true that the Belgian officers stood exposed, four feet from the target, at 1200 metres. He reported his alarming discovery, and was not one of the generals satisfied with their own country and its resources. In order to dispel suspicion he passed through Berlin, and I have been assured that the object of his journey remained unsuspected. I have some hesitation in believing it. Bismarck was liberal in paying for information, and Schuwaloff said that it was a weakness of his to believe too easily reports he had paid for. Bunsen once heard him quote a French official document to a group of astonished deputies, when he added that they might trust him for he possessed not a mere copy but the original. On the other hand, Émile Ollivier, the French Prime Minister, never heard of the mission until some years later.

Lebrun came to an understanding with the Archduke for an attack on Germany to be made in common, Austria coming into action three weeks later than France. During that interval the French would have to fight single-handed. To redress their inferiority, the fleet, after giving succour and encouragement to Denmark, would threaten the Baltic coast, and occupy a large Prussian force for the defence of Lübeck, Stettin, Danzig, and Königsberg. An Austrian army of 80,000 men collected on the Bohemian frontier, within striking distance of Berlin and of the lines connecting Silesia with the centre, would hold fast a larger number on the other side for the protection of vital parts. Meanwhile, the French were to seize Kehl, make for the heart of Bavaria, and reduce the South to inaction. Deducting the southern contingent and the two armies watching Bohemia and the sea, the Germans would lose the advantage of numbers, and France ought to maintain the struggle until Austria and Italy came to her support.

Lebrun had no political mission. He was not instructed to discuss the means of bringing on the war; and he did not see Beust. But, on 14th June, he had secret audience of the Emperor at Schönbrunn, and received a communication of weightier import than the somewhat loose and visionary reasoning of the Archduke. Francis Joseph said that if France went to war for the declared purpose of delivering the South from the grasp of Prussia, the feeling of his people would compel him to take part in it. This was a statesmanlike idea; for they would have the South on their side, and there were materials in the Southern States for dexterous manipulation. In 1868 the Grand Duke of Hesse offered his possessions on the left bank of the Rhine to the Emperor. His Minister, Dalwigk, promised to find a pretext for French intervention in Germany. He entreated the Emperor to cross the Rhine, and to take the offensive vigorously. At the first success all the South would march with him.

What might have been done to detach the South by the arts of peace became apparent when the Bavarians debated the casus foederis. The Committee of the House of Deputies voted by 7 to 2 against the war credits, and by 6 to 3 in favour of armed neutrality. The Court, the aristocracy, the clergy, the mass of the country people dreaded to be ground in the mills of Prussia. The army and the manufacturers, scenting increase of trade, were on the other side. It was only by a tumult in the streets, by the overbearing vehemence of the resident, by the production of a false telegram, that the Chamber was induced to reject the report of its Committee by 89 to 58, and to carry the war credit by 101 to 47. The archives of the Prussian legation were packed so that they could be despatched in a moment. At the Austrian legation a list of new Ministers was in readiness, who were pledged to resist the Prussian demand for co-operation. The Prime Minister himself, who was in office at the time, proposed neutrality at Paris. He eagerly adopted the English proposal for a general agreement excluding the members of the reigning houses from other thrones. The Prussians did not oppose the idea, for they denied that Leopold of Hohenzollern was a prince of the reigning house ; but the French refused it for they had helped to seat his brother on the throne of Roumania. This minister, Count Bray, has spoken to me with bitter regret of his success on that occasion. He complained that neither France nor Austria gave him the means of proclaiming neutrality—Austria, because it desired to overthrow him and his colleague at the War Office; France, because Gramont was confident of gaining the first victory, and with it the support of the Southern States.

Lebrun returned to Paris and made his report to the Emperor on the 21st June. Napoleon was disappointed. He said that the letters of Francis Joseph had justified him in expecting more than this. He must have known already the inevitable slowness of the Austrian mobilisation from his conversations with the Archduke. It would appear that the Austrian Emperor had promised more in their earlier correspondence. The limitation of the quarrel to a single issue selected by Austria compelled him to follow a policy which was not his own, and which Ollivier had emphatically repudiated. Besides, if the ally would only fight for one cause, what if the vigilant enemy should raise a conflict on another? It became his evident interest to do it at once, and to excite and inflame any topic of dispute that would provoke resentment in France, before the scheme of a challenge on the ground of the Treaty of Prague could be matured. If Bismarck knew his business, that is, if he suspected what was brewing, he had the strongest inducement to precipitate matters without waiting until the enfeebled Emperor had constructed all his batteries. That was the result of the secret correspondence between crowned heads, of the conference with Archduke Albrecht, of the plébiscite, of the substitution of Gramont for Daru, of the mission of Lebrun. The long intrigue passed suddenly into an acute crisis. It was necessary to be prepared for an immediate outbreak.

The next move of the great conspirator is most mysterious. A few days after the interview with Lebrun, the specialists were called in for a consultation. They met on 1st July, and drew up a report which was signed by only one name. Their conclusions were unfavourable, indicating that an operation would be desirable. But Nélaton, the Sir Henry Thompson of France, did not wish to operate. Marshal Niel had died in his hands, and he was apprehensive of what happened, three years later, at Chislehurst. On the second day after the consultation the report was handed to the Emperor's physician. It contained these remarkable words: "The moment would be favourable for a more thorough examination, as the malady is not just now particularly acute." But then, why were they summoned? Apparently not because the suffering was worse than usual. Therefore for some reason that was not pathological, but political. Did the Emperor consult his experts because he wished to know whether he was fit to take the field in a certain impending event? That event was very near, for on the 3rd of July, the day when Conneau received the medical report, it became known that Leopold had accepted the crown of Spain. The report was not produced, for it was too late. It was shown to the Empress only, and the Empress replied: Le vin est tiré, il faut le boire.

That is the contribution of France to our problem. For two years Napoleon had laboured in secret to raise up enemies to Germany, and to prepare a war for 1871. It was a question of security for France, since so much power had been concentrated in the hands of the most audacious and aggressive of men. That was a powerful and an honourable motive. There was also the just motive of discontent in the states of Southern Germany.

There was the same question of existence on the other side. In 1867 Bismarck averted war by concessions with regard to Luxemburg which somewhat damaged his popular renown. In the following year the Spanish throne was vacant, and among possible candidates the name of Leopold of Hohenzollern was discussed. He was not the choice of any party; but many names were put forward by royalists who did not accept Montpensier. Early in 1869 Bismarck learned from Florence that Napoleon was preparing a triple alliance against him. He sent Bernhardi to Spain to join the Prussian legation. Theodor von Bernhardi had been sent on a similar mission to Italy in 1866, and was certified by Moltke as the best military writer in Europe. He was eminent also as an economist, a historian, and a politician, and it would have been hard to discover his equal in any European Cabinet. What he did in Spain has been committed to oblivion. Seven volumes of his diary have been published: the family assures me that the Spanish portion will never appear. The Moniteur of 7th June 1870 described him as the man who arranged the affair with Prim. The Austrian First Secretary said that he betrayed his secret one day at dinner. Somebody spoke indiscreetly on the subject, and Bernhardi aimed a kick at him under the table, which caught the shin of the Austrian instead. He was considered to have mismanaged things, and it was whispered that he had gone too far. I infer that he offered a heavy bribe to secure a majority in the Cortes. Fifty thousand pounds of Prussian bonds were sent to Spain at midsummer 1870. During the siege of Paris they came over here to be negotiated, and I know the banker through whose hands they passed. The money was thrown away, as the question never came to a vote. I associate this significant fact with the disgrace of the successful emissary.

But if Bernhardi was neglected by Bismarck, he received a distinction from Moltke in the presence of the army of which he might well be proud. One of the war correspondents, Sala, I believe, has related what he saw on the day when the Germans entered Paris. A group of four horsemen came out from the mass at the Bois de Boulogne, rode full speed up the rise, and were the first of their countrymen to pass under the Arc de Triomphe and gaze on the conquered city. The Telegraph goes on: "In front, ten paces before the others, rode a young officer of about twenty, sword in hand. The young fellow in the van looked so plucky, as he galloped with head well up and sabre in air, that I could not help admiring him. If that youngster's mother could have seen him, she would have been proud of her son that day. I asked the young hussar his name and regiment. He answered, 'Lieutenant Bernhardi of the 14th Hussars.'" That was the reward of the man who obtained the offer of the Spanish crown, which brought the Germans to Paris.

On 2nd January 1869 Bismarck wrote that war was inevitable, but the later the better. In April Napoleon instructed Benedetti to say that the acceptance of the crown would be taken as a hostile act. Benedetti had already spoken to Thill, the Prussian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and in May he spoke to Bismarck. They both said as little as possible, and put him off with measured words. He warned his Government that he found grave cause for suspicion. Both Thill and Bismarck afterwards denied that these conversations had taken place, Thill adding, later on, that he only meant to say that he had forgotten. Stranger still, they were forgotten at Paris, as I was told by M. de Courcel, who was at the Foreign Office at the time; and Benedetti was obliged to call attention to the despatches in which he had warned his Government. But he did not warn Bismarck, as explicitly as he was intended to do, that the consequences would be very serious.

At that time, however, no offer had been made, and no decision required to be taken. The offer came in the autumn of 1869. Count Werthern, Prussian Minister at Munich, had been at the legation at Madrid, and knew Prim. In September the Spanish deputy Salazar came to him with letters from Prim, and on the 17th Werthern took him to Weinburg, on the Lake of Constance, and introduced him, after nightfall and with every precaution, to the Prince of Hohenzollern. His mission was to feel his way, and find out what hope there was of his son if the crown was formally offered to him. Father and sons were against it, but the refusal was not a positive one. Leopold stipulated that Spain should be tranquil, and that he should not be opposed by other claims. Then, he might reconsider his reply. In October Werthern came to Baden and urged the family not to reject such a future. The father had previously stated that he never would consent, and that France could never allow it. Besides, they were not sure of the Cortes. We are assured by Sybel, who had it from Werthern, that he did all this on his own responsibility, and that his Government did not hear of it till much later. On the return of Salazar Prim tried several other candidates. He applied at Florence for the King's younger son and at Harrow for the Duke of Genoa, who is said to have incurred animadversion from the headmaster for the distractions the prospect gave him.

When the Italian princes had refused, and when order had been restored in the disturbed provinces, Salazar returned to Germany, this time with an official proposition addressed to the King of Prussia. The prize had gained in value. The Government making the offer had suppressed the revolts both of Carlists and Republicans, and were masters of the country. No complications were to be feared from rivals belonging to reigning families. In these circumstances Bismarck resolved to push the matter through. On 15th March a special consultation was held, and the royal family, with the public men who had taken part, dined with the Hohenzollern. The Ministers all favoured acceptance. No question arose of French opposition; but at table Moltke's neighbour, Delbrück, asked him how it would be if Napoleon took it ill. Moltke replied that it would be all right. Bismarck insisted that it was a duty to the Fatherland, that a friendly power on the Pyrenees would be a great advantage. The King was undecided. The Crown Prince warned his cousin that there was no intention of keeping him on the throne; that the whole thing was no more than a move in a game. Leopold refused. But it was resolved to send an intelligent observer to ascertain the state of feeling in Spain, and for this service Bismarck selected his own man, Lothar Bucher. He had become extremely eager. The Archduke was prolonging his stay at Paris; on the other hand, it might be well to come to blows while Daru and Ollivier were in office, for they would make alliances difficult.

At the end of May Bucher reported all well, and early in June the resistance of Prince Leopold was overcome. Thereupon Bismarck requested Prim to renew his offer, and obtained the assent of King William. It was the time when Lebrun was at Schönbrunn. The King was annoyed at the obstinate recurrence of the question, having hoped that it was disposed of. The Crown Princess wrote to our Queen: "I fear it is a sad mistake on the part of the Hohenzollerns." This is what we know from authentic documents on the German side. It is clear that Bismarck took up the Hohenzollern candidature when he knew of the grand alliance that was preparing, and when the enmity of France became dangerous. But we cannot tell whether the idea occurred to him earlier. That he employed it to hasten the crisis before the hostile alliance was concluded, is certain.

Both parties laboured to bring about war—the one after the conclusion of alliances, the other before. The Berlin Government played its cards best because it was united. At Paris the warlike members of the Government were intriguing to get rid of the Prime Minister and the constitutional system which weakened the executive. The King was at Ems; the Chancellor at Varzin. Moltke was at his country-house driving his family about in a brake. One day a messenger met him on the road with a despatch, which he read and pocketed without a word. But as he presently knocked the wheel against a kerbstone the people inside began to suspect what the despatch contained. At tea-time they knew. For the Marshal struck the table, exclaiming: "With the South or without the South, we are a match for them!" and then rose and walked away.

The breaking out of hostilities at that moment upset all the Emperor's policy. He had not concluded a single treaty. Nevertheless there was no hesitation in resolving that there must be no Prussian King of Spain, even if it could only be prevented by a deadly struggle without allies. It was true that Prince Leopold was descended from Murat; that he was more nearly connected with the French Emperor than with the King of Prussia; that his ancestor, after Jena, had asked Napoleon to set him in the place of the reigning Hohenzollern, over what remained of the territory of Brandenburg. But there was an unforgotten feud. The Empress had promoted a match between one of them and her cousin, the daughter of the Duke of Hamilton, and he had broken off the engagement at the last moment. The Emperor made an attempt to bring European opinion to bear, and solicited influence in every quarter. He sent for Rothschild and asked him to obtain the friendly offices of the English Government. A long telegram was sent over, which was deciphered by the present Lord Rothschild, who took it, after breakfast, on Wednesday, 6th July, to Carlton House Terrace. Gladstone was on the point of leaving his house to present Lord Granville as Foreign Secretary at Windsor, and his visitor drove him to the station in his brougham. After a long silence he told Rothschild that he did not like to interfere with the choice of the Spaniards, but that he would probably be overruled in the Cabinet. The Ministry were divided. Bright would do nothing for Belgium; Lowe did not care what happened to Germany; Lord Granville asked himself what would be the position of England with the French at Berlin. Cardwell, at the War Office, estimated that they would get there in about six weeks. All agreed that the Germans had no chance, and that it would be doing them a service to get them out of the scrape. They were taken by surprise. Lord Clarendon had known about the Hohenzollern project, and had spoken of it to the Queen, and the Queen informed the Ministers. For Lord Clarendon died at the end of June. He had conferred with Moltke at Wiesbaden the year before, and learned from him that they expected to be at war shortly and to reach Paris in the way they afterwards did.

So far as I know, Dean Church was nearly the first man in England who saw that the quarrel had been brought on by Bismarck; and what the Dean wrote in private was published in the Times, with much acuteness and some errors, by another divine, who took the name of "Scrutator," and carried on a skirmish with Max Müller. Sanderson, then a junior at the Foreign Office, drew the same inference. For they had information that iron girders were ready in Germany, of the proper length to bridge the rivers on the road to Paris; and it is on a bridge of this sort, made with the proper measurements, that they crossed the Moselle above Metz, as was reported by Hozier. The Government had no such suspicion; and the Edinburgh Review had an article in October, the authorship of which could not be doubtful for a moment, containing these words: "The whole proceedings of the French Government in the conduct of its controversy constituted one series of unrelieved and lamentable errors." By that time, however, a well-informed diplomatist, in the confidence of German headquarters, had written as follows, 30th September: "From statements made to me confidentially, I have obtained the certainty that the Hohenzollern candidature was deliberately arranged by Bismarck with a view of bringing on the collision with France in such a way as to make Germany appear to be acting on the defensive." Treitschke and Bernhardi at the time, and Bismarck in 1874, regarded the French aggression as the effect of an Ultramontane plot, part of the same design as the Vatican Council; and in the same connection it was often represented as the act of the Spanish Empress, prompted by the prelates and chaplains of the Tuileries. Bismarck affirmed it in the midst of the Culturkampf, to rouse a feeling against Rome. The same view made an impression on Ministers in London. Our agents in Alsace found the Protestants in a state of alarm, expecting a new St. Bartholomew, prodigal of stories of Catholic exultation and menace.

The part played by the Empress is difficult to determine. Lord Granville wrote, 16th September, to Ponsonby: "I am glad the Queen thinks of writing to the Empress. Her misfortune is great, although it is much owing to herself—Mexico, Rome, war with Prussia." General Du Barail, one of the first men in France, says in his Memoirs: "I am forced to acknowledge that she was the principal author of the war of 1870, if not the only one." She is reported to have said to Moceni, at Florence: "As to the war they accuse me of having provoked, I can only say that it might have saved, that it ought to have saved, the Empire and the Papacy." When Thureau Dangin, the historian and academician, was here, he told me this: " Lebœuf, the Minister of War, inquired whether the Emperor was in a condition to go through a campaign. Ollivier thereupon demanded to see the report of the physicians. The Empress replied that the Emperor suffered from rheumatism, and might be unable to take the field in winter; but that was all. She did not produce the document." Lord Malmesbury writes: "Gramont told me that the Empress, a high-spirited and impressionable woman, made a strong and most excited address, declaring that war was inevitable if the honour of France was to be sustained. She confessed to the Queen, with tears, that she was responsible for the declaration of war." Grant Duff questioned Émile Ollivier on the subject in 1874, but there is nothing about it in his published Diaries. He sent me the suppressed passage, which says that when he asked whether she had been for war, Ollivier answered, Passionnément. Lord Frederick Cavendish saw her at Chislehurst, and the same day he related to a friend of my own at Brooks's that she had admitted it was her war. As my informant did not know that Lord Richard Cavendish lived at Chislehurst, which explains the visit, I attach weight to his testimony, although Lady Frederick declares that her husband never spoke to the Empress. Lastly, Parieu, the President of the Council of State, who was present at the Council referred to by Lord Malmesbury, says that when they were leaving she asked him what he thought of it. He replied that he wished England would do them the service of finding some way out of it. "M. Parieu," said the Empress, "I am much of the same opinion." This is in a published book. But in a private letter he wrote to a person whom I know that her words were, C'est ma guerre à moi.

The action of our Government was this: They discouraged the candidature, and remonstrated against it, advising that it should be withdrawn. When that was done, they thought the German position a good one. Lord Granville wrote, 10th July: "Under the menaces of the French it is difficult for North Germany to make a concession, or to discourage the Prince in his candidature." Nevertheless the Cabinet came to a decision which they communicated to the Queen which was taken very ill by the Germans. It proposed that they should do for a consideration what they had already done unconditionally. For the Germans had withdrawn their candidature, and the King had expressed to Benedetti his approval of the measure. But the French refused to withdraw their new demands. And when Gramont persisted, regardless of our advice, Lord Lyons assured him that it made no difference in our sentiments. His other despatches, during the crisis, were received with approbation, and an approving despatch always followed from the Foreign Office. No such reply was given to this outrageous blunder. For by that time the French Government was bent on war. At first the moderation shown by the King of Prussia in receding from his position, and accepting in patience so grave a repulse, made a bad impression at Paris, and was attributed to fear. The Imperialists were elate. If Prussia was willing to accept one humiliation, why not another? If one leek went down, why not two? They had gained, with the moral support of Europe, a great diplomatic victory. They began to think it possible to extract something more from the situation. The Emperor said to Ingra: "Public opinion in France would have preferred another solution—that is, war. But I recognise that this is a sufficient, a satisfactory solution, and removes every pretext for war—for the present." Rothschild received this telegram: "The Prince has given up his candidature. The French are satisfied." The Prime Minister announced peace, with effusion, and was positively triumphant. This was not the purpose of the majority. They wished to upset him ; they found that he was consolidated. They declared that the withdrawal was no satisfaction, and announced an interpellation. Gramont proposed to retain office, sacrificing Ollivier and other colleagues. He put himself on the side of those who wished for further concessions, even at the risk of war. It had been a deliberately hostile act, a meditated offence, long and carefully prepared, insolently denied. It demanded reparation. The malefactor could not be allowed quietly to withdraw, and to say that it was all right.

The King was not really committed. He had sanctioned the withdrawal, but he had also sanctioned the candidature, leaving the initiative of deciding in both cases to Prince Leopold. He was quite free to do the same thing, and to sanction a second acceptance as he had done the first. He held in his hands a convenient casus belli, to be used or dropped at pleasure. The argument was rather subtle; but it would be used with effect in the Chamber against the Ministry. It was better that it should be used by the Ministry against Prussia; used to strengthen Gramont, not to destroy him. Therefore he demanded a guarantee for the future, and as the ambassador assured him that there had been no idea of offending France, he told him that the same assurance coming from the King himself would be very favourably received. Ollivier was present, and agreed. But when he heard late at night, and accidentally, of the demand for a guarantee, he was indignant, and obliged Gramont to alternate his despatch by another, stating that this was not a sine qua non. He spent a sleepless night, reflecting whether he ought not to resign. He did not perceive, he hardly acknowledges now, that his colleague was intriguing against him with the undiluted Imperialists, and with the Empress. Therefore, on the following morning, 13th July, while all men were applauding the diplomatic skill of the French, or the superb temper of King William, the unhappy Benedetti had an audience on the promenade of Ems. It was less friendly than the ambassador ever afterwards maintained, excepting once in private, but it was not actually hostile. The King rejected the new demand, and when the Frenchman asked for another audience, he was told that the King's answer was final, and that he desired to hold no further parley on that subject. This is the famous insult of which so much was made in France, and which was the delight of Treitschke and of every Teutonic schoolboy. There was a very popular picture of the French ambassador, in gold lace and bareheaded, with the Prussian lackey shutting the door in his face. In reality the refusal was conveyed in courteous terms by Prince Radzivill, as who should say, the Duke of Northumberland. The schoolboy of to-day knows pretty well who invented the imaginary insult, and knows the extraordinary scene.

The withdrawal of Leopold, which had been suggested by the King himself, struck at the policy and prestige of Bismarck. He had carried the candidature through with all his energy, in spite of indifference in Spain, of reluctance in the house of Hohenzollern, of the universal disapproval of Europe. What he had prepared with such an expenditure of force and skill was now abandoned without a word, and without his assent. He had already forwarded Eulenburg to Ems to stiffen the back of the King; he now followed, intending to resign, or to try resignation. When he got to Berlin he had some friends to dinner; and although they were the two strongest men on earth, when they heard of the surrender of Ems they hung their heads, like Heine's grenadiers. Then came the second despatch, with the audience refused, and the situation was saved. The journey to Ems became unnecessary. He drew his long pencil and altered the text, showing only that Benedetti had presented an offensive demand, and the King had refused to see him. That there might be no mistake, he made this official by sending it to all the embassies and legations. Moltke exclaimed: "You have converted surrender into defiance." All three knew that war must follow. Bismarck asked how it would be. The Marshal answered, "Only let me command in France, and the devil may fetch this old carcase as soon as he likes." Roon was equally confident. Two days later, when the King arrived at the Potsdam terminus, he held the deciding council on the platform, surrounded by a throng of expectant officers. They saw the Chancellor put the telegram into his hands, saw him turn to his War Minister, and heard a grave voice say, "There is no difficulty. Everything is ready." So much so that he had only to sign an order lying on his desk before he went to bed, and he says in his Memoirs, that the ensuing fortnight, when the incessant battalions were springing into line, was the idlest of his life.

When the King at Ems read the despatch in the morning, he gave it to Eulenburg, saying, with emotion, "This is war," and he hurried to Berlin. At Paris it produced the same impression. Nevertheless, the peace party continued to prevail in the Government. They met at ten o'clock at night on the 14th, and still resolved not to call out the reserves. But at eleven a message was brought in which at once determined the declaration of war. They had borne the recall of Werther, the scene at Ems, the despatch recounting it, the communication to the Powers. Lebœuf could not remember what the decisive paper contained. Gramont declined to compromise the persons who sent it from Berlin to Vienna, or from Vienna to Paris. But he says that it proved Bismarck's resolution to fight, and so made a peace policy untenable.

On the 13th Loftus congratulated the Chancellor on the preservation of peace by the retirement of Prince Leopold. Bismarck replied that he was mistaken, that he meant to demand satisfaction for the language of Gramont—implying that it must be made clear that they yielded to the unanimous feeling of Europe, not to the threats of France. He said: "We must require some guarantee that we may not be subjected to a sudden attack, like a flash of lightning in perfect darkness, which suddenly reveals to sight a band of robbers." The despatch was printed in the Blue Book without these words. Gramont tells us that his text was fuller than that which Lord Granville published. Consequently he knew that Bismarck intended to provoke a conflict, and called the Emperor and his Ministers a band of robbers. Discussion after that was silenced. Beust, who declared that he regarded French interests as his own, and would help as far as possible, transmitted this report from Vienna, and he sent his confidant, Count Vitzthum, from Brussels to Paris, to establish an understanding for purposes of war. Gramont stated afterwards that the visit of Vitzthum, which coincided with the calling out of the reserves, restored the friendly feeling towards Austria which her protest against the casus belli in the Hohenzollern affair had disturbed. Hohenzollern was out of the way, and Bismarck's action on the 13th constituted a challenge. It was a war against the union of Germany, and on that basis Austria stood by France. So that the responsibility rests not only with Bismarck, with Napoleon, the Empress, and Gramont, but with Count Beust and Francis Joseph. But whereas Napoleon depended on alliances, and satisfied questioning Ministers by opening a drawer and producing the letters from the Emperor of Austria and the King of Italy, the Duke de Gramont felt quite secure without them.


  1. A paper read at the "Eranus," the Trinity College Historical Society, and the S. Catharine's College Historical Society.