So, you think we have it bad today with mushrooming government debt, a global pandemic, economies verging on collapse, and world leaders who seem to have no idea what to do about anything except point the finger at whoever seems a likely suspect?
Okay, so we do have it bad. People have always had it bad, one way or another. The fact is that we’ve always managed to muddle through, if not to victory, at least to something approximating survival.
Today, however, even that seems to be in question, especially as those who pass for leaders implement solutions, each one more disastrous than the last. So, what is to be done? Why not, instead of repeating history, we learn from it for a change? Take, for example, what France went through in the 1870s.
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|Otto von Bixmarck|
Admirers of and apologists for Prince Otto Leopold von Bismarck-Schönhausen have a hard time dealing with the Franco-Prussian War. Either the subject is completely ignored, or it is passed over so briefly as to make the reader think that nothing much of any importance happened. Formerly secret documents declassified in 1957, however, make it painfully clear that the soon-to-be Chancellor of the (Second) Reich shamelessly manipulated people and events, even his own future emperor, to provoke a war with France. Similarly, the Paris Commune and its rule of the city in the wake of the Siege of Paris has been sanitized and reinterpreted to fit whatever political theory suits whoever happens to be in power at the moment.
Our concern, however, is not with the war itself, nor with the Paris Commune, but with the indemnity Prussia imposed on France after the war. The Franco-Prussian War officially ended on May 10, 1871 with the signing of the Treaty of Frankfurt. War had raged for five months. It had cost an estimated quarter of a million lives, Prussian and French. The question was now the indemnity France was to pay for having lost the war so artfully arranged by Bismarck.
Bismarck’s first demand was for 6 billion Francs. When the French threatened to walk away from the table, he immediately lowered it to 5 billion, or just short of $1 billion in terms of United States dollars at the then-current rate of exchange. Biographers and historians ever since have stated that this clearly indicated that Bismarck was fully aware that he was making an outrageous demand, and did not expect to get immediate agreement. Perhaps, but it is highly unlikely that the German Chancellor would have turned down the additional billion had the French agreed to pay.
In any event, from Bismarck’s perspective there was little chance that France would be able to pay an indemnity of any amount. This appears to be, in fact, what he was counting on to ensure that the new German Empire-in-formation would be the most powerful nation in Europe.
Bismarck, however, failed to take two things into account. One, people have a natural tendency to side with the underdog. When Bismarck tricked France into the war, the Second Empire was decidedly unpopular in Europe and elsewhere. Those friends France did have were all-but powerless. Austria-Hungary had been humiliated in the Six Weeks War barely five years before and was seen as completely ineffectual. The Poles in the Prussian portion of occupied Poland, while vocal in support of the French, were confined to verbal barrages — for which they later paid a heavy price.
Allies in the southern German states on whom France had counted turned out to have entered into secret treaties to support Prussia. This was the case with Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg. In addition to the treaties, these states also bowed to public opinion, stirred by Bismarck and resurgent German nationalism into a white heat against their Catholic ally. Groups such as the Young Germany Movement, which was also responsible for the artistic atrocity of the Teutoburgerwald Monument — the bombastic and mis-proportioned Hermansdenkmal — had nurtured support for Prussia. This would ultimately work to their disadvantage once the new Empire was secure and Bismarck initiated the anti-Catholic Kulturkampf. Bismarck also implemented a program of imposing Hochdeutsch, the Prussian dialect of German, and other aspects of Prussian culture on the southern states in an effort to inflict his personal vision of what it means to be German on everyone.
Still, when the tide of war obviously turned against France, public feeling started to go against Prussia, now seen as an international bully. When war was declared, a large number of Italians had volunteered for the Prussian Army, and a Prussian diplomat paid a visit to Garibaldi in Caprera. After the Battle of Sedan, Bismarck’s obvious opportunism and escalating demands, such as for the return of the province of Alsace, disgusted former sympathizers. Even though Garibaldi viewed France, with its thwarting of his earlier attempted takeover of the Papal States, as an enemy, he immediately issued a statement to his Red Shirts. As he said, “Yesterday I said, ‘War to the death to Bonaparte.’ Today I say, ‘Rescue the French Republic by every means’.”
Consequently, when the war was over, sympathy for France was at an all-time high. French goods, especially wine and wool, began to be in very great demand everywhere. This was especially the case in the United States. The rising “Robber Barons” of the industrial and merchant classes, newly enriched by the American Civil War, badly needed to show off their sophistication, particularly with imported French wine, silk, cheese, and other luxury goods. If France could produce it, France could sell it to a very willing world market.
This brings in the other thing Bismarck had evidently not counted on: Louis Pasteur, a French chemist, at this time renowned as one of the leading scientific minds in the world. Thomas Huxley was later to declare that the monetary value of Pasteur’s discoveries was sufficient to cover the entire cost of the indemnity paid to Prussia.
And that is what we will look at in the next posting on this subject