For centuries, a cornerstone of French policy had been to play one German state off another, and the most powerful nation in Europe would not look kindly upon the creation of a massive, powerful neighbor next door. Bismarck knew that before unification could be achieved, France must be humbled.
In the wake of the 1866 war, Prussia created a new North German Confederation, an important step in unification as it brought many German states under direct Prussian authority. Manufacturing a diplomatic crisis over the successor to the Spanish throne, Bismarck was able to engineer a war between the North German Confederation and the Second French Empire under Napoleon III.
Historian Alistair Horne wrote in “The Fall of Paris: the Siege and the Commune, 1870-71”: “On July 28, 1870, Louis-Napoleon rode forth in command of his armies ... with not a single Army corps at full strength. As he passed through Metz ... to an 18-year-old (and future World War I general) called Ferdinad Foch, he gave the impression 'of a man utterly worn out.'”
Indeed, Napoleon III did not have the military gifts of his famous uncle and namesake. The French armies were soon routed or besieged, and Napoleon himself fell into the hands of the Germans. As the German army began the siege of Paris, Bismarck, King Wilhelm I and representatives throughout the German states met just outside of the French capital.
Eyck wrote: “The 18th of January is the birthday of the Prussian kingdom ... Thus the 18th of January became the day when Wilhelm I, king of Prussia was proclaimed German emperor. The proclamation was read by Bismarck in the Salle des Glaces (the Hall of Mirrors) in Louis XIV's palace in Versailles. It was the proudest day of his life. He could say that he had directed every step which had led to this goal.”
The creation of the German empire, or the Second Reich, would have significant consequences throughout Europe for decades. The new nation soon became an economic and military powerhouse, challenging the positions of Britain, France and Russia. The destabilization it brought to the political order of Europe was one of the chief causes of World War I.
At the end of the first World War in 1919, a defeated Germany was forced to sign the hated Treaty of Versailles in the exact room where the Second Reich had been proclaimed 48 years earlier. It was a move calculated by the victors to humiliate.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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