These modern days of a loving relationship between Germany and France force a wry smile. First we watched with a certain quantity of concealed amusement as Frau Merkel exchanged kisses with the slightly smaller M. Sarkozy; now that the French have replaced the Monsieur with the socialist cipher M. Hollande, the Merkel smile is falsified a little more, as she shoves François in the right direction at one of those ‘G’ Meetings our leaders like so much.
It was not always so. France and Germany have been at each other throats in one form or other for centuries. France had a great deal of stick from the English too; Germany was formerly a collection of princely states with lovely long names that the genius Peter Ustinov used to pronounce with such glee. *
Then Germany pulled itself together, and by 1879 had noticed there was a rival pretension for European leadership in the form of France’s Second Empire. This clashed with the Prussian-dominated North German Confederation.
Relations between them worsened when reports came in that the Prussians were behind the candidature of a Hohenzollern Prince for the Spanish throne. But the immediate cause of warlike friction was French resentment over hardly-veiled insults in the ‘Ems Telegram’. In July 1870 the French ambassador to Prussia, one Count Benedetti, had had an interview with Wilhelm I at the German spa town Ems, in which the Count had asked for assurance that Prussia would never support a Hohenzollern candidate to take up a vacant Spanish throne. A telegram correctly reporting the exchange was sent to von Bismarck in Berlin. Bismarck smartly re-arranged the text so that it seemed the Kaiser had insulted the ambassador, and vice-versa. In its new form, the telegram was leaked to the press, where it had an immediate effect on the peoples of France and Germany: ‘War!’ They shouted . . . in unison.
France, not for the first time underestimating its own resources, declared war on Germany on 19 July. Most of the French army under Macmahon was trounced along the eastern frontier during August, and had to capitulate at Sedan on 1 September (and Macmahon had an avenue named after him in Paris). The Emperor Napoleon himself was captured, a humiliation of the first magnitude. Meanwhile, Marshal Bazaine, accompanied by a colossal army of nearly 200,000 men, was besieged at Metz and surrendered double quick.
Paris itself withstood a terrible siege in which we are told the Parisians changed their diet from lamb cutlets to dog, rat and cat cutlets. The siege lasted from 19 September to 28 January, 1871.
Meanwhile, in the French provinces, resistance was organised using quickly improvised forces. Paris fell at last to the Prussians and peace terms were formally accepted on the First of March. It was decided that France should pay for the War because she had started it (actually Bismarck had started it), and had to come up with 5 billion francs. She also had to give up Alsace and most of Lorraine. Germany’s forces would remain firmly in occupation until the 5 billion francs were paid. In case there should be any doubt, these wholly unfair terms were incorporated in to the definitive Treaty of Frankfurt (Germany) on 10 May, 1871.
The Kaiser and his Chancellor were delighted. The French were again humiliated, as they had overestimated their own state of preparedness, and Britain, Belgium and the USA looked on with growing distrust of German politics, which would inevitably lead only 33 years later to the Great War.
* Here are some of them; if you actually are a member of one of these princely families, say loudly SCHNAP! Baden, Castell-Rudenhausen, Brandenburg-Anspach, Brunswick & Zelle, Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Hesse-Cassel, Hohenlohe-Langenburg, Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Saxe-Coburg & Gotha, Saxe-Heiningen, Schleswig-Holstein-Augustenburg, Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, Solms-Bareuth, Solms-Hohensolms-Lich and Waldeck & Pyrmont.