The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War

I took it as assured that war with France would necessarily have to be waged on the road to our further national development, for our development at home as well as the extension beyond the Main, and that we must keep this eventuality in sight in all our domestic as well as in our foreign relations. In some aggrandisement of Prussia in North Germany Louis Napoleon saw not only no danger to France, but a means against the unification and national development of Germany; he believed that the non-Prussian portions of Germany would then feel a greater need of French support. He cherished reminiscenses of the confederation of the Rhine, and wished to hinder development in the direction of a United Germany. He believed that he could do this because he did not realize the national drift of the time, and judged the situation in accordance with his schoolboy reminiscences of South Germany, and from diplomatic reports which were only based on ministerial moods and sporadic dynastic feeling. I was convinced that a United Germany was only a question of time, that the North German Confederation was only the first step in its solution; but that the enmity of France and perhaps of Russia, Austria’s need of revenge for 1866, and the King’s Prussian and dynastic particularism must not be called too soon into the lists. I did not doubt that a Franco-German war must take place before the construction of a United Germany could be realised. I was at that time preoccupied with the idea of delaying the outbreak of this war until our fighting strength should be increased….

I at no time regarded a war with France as a simple matter, considered quite apart from the possible allies that France might find in Austria’s thirst for revenge, or in Russia’s desire for a balance of power. My strenuous efforts to postpone the outbreak of war until the effect of our military legislation and our military training could be thoroughly developed in all portions of the country which had been newly joined to Prussia, were therefore quite reasonable; and this aim of mine was not even approximately reached in the Luxembourg question in 1867. Each year’s postponement of the war would add 100,000 trained soldiers to our army. In the attitude I took up toward the King on the question of the bill of indemnity, and in dealing with the question of the constitution in the Prussian Diet, I felt the urgent necessity of letting other countries see no trace of actual or prospective obstacles consequent on our internal condition; I wished to offer them the spectacle of a united national sentiment; and the more so inasmuch as it was impossible to judge what allies France would have on her side in a war against us…. Not only my apprehensions, but the public opinion of Europe considered that a league of Italy with France and Austria was not outside the bounds of probability….

[Bismarck discusses the invitation to Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern to become King of Spain, and his intense disappointment when King William decided in response to French threats early in July 1870 to discourage his cousin from accepting this offer.]

I conversed with the Minister of War, von Roon: we had got our slap in the face from France, and had been reduced, by our complaisance, to look like seekers of a quarrel if we entered upon war, the only way in which we could wipe away the stain. My position was now untenable, solely because, during his course at the baths [at Bad Ems], the King under pressure of threats, had given audience to the French ambassador for four consecutive days, and had exposed his royal person to insolent treatment from this foreign agent without ministerial assistance….

Having decided to resign, in spite of the remonstrances which Roon made against it, I invited him and Moltke to dine with me alone on the 13th, and communicated to them at table my views…. Both were greatly depressed, and reproached me indirectly with selfishly availing myself of my greater facility for withdrawing from service. I maintained the position that I could not offer up my sense of honour to politics, that both of them, being professional soldiers and consequently without freedom of choice, need not take the same point of view as a responsible Foreign Minister. During our conversation I was informed that a telegram from Ems… was being deciphered. When the copy was handed to me it showed that Abeken [a councillor in the Foreign Office] had drawn up and signed the telegram at his Majesty’s command, and I read it out to my guests, whose dejection was so great that they turned away from food and drink. On a repeated examination of the document I lingered upon the authorisation of his Majesty, which included a command, immediately to communicate Benedetti’s fresh demand and its rejection both to our ambassadors and to the press. I put a few questions to Moltke as to the extent of his confidence in the state of our preparations, especially as to the time they would still require in order to meet this sudden risk of war. He answered that if there was to be war he expected no advantage to us by deferring its outbreak; …he regarded a rapid outbreak as, on the whole, more favourable to us than delay.

[Bismarck insists that France’s attitude was utterly unreasonable, and that nationalist sentiment was surging upward in all the German states.] All these considerations, conscious and unconscious, strengthened my opinion that war could be avoided only at the cost of the honour of Prussia and the national confidence in it. Under this conviction I made use of the royal authorisation, communicated to me through Abeken, to publish the contents of the telegram; and in the presence of my two guests I reduced the telegram by striking out words, but without adding or altering, to the following form:

After the news of the renunciation of the hereditary Prince of Hohenzollern had been officially communicated to the imperial government of France by the royal government of Spain, the French ambassador at Ems further demanded of his Majesty the King that he would authorise him to telegraph to Paris that his Majesty the King bound himself for all future time never again to give his consent if the Hohenzollerns should renew their candidature. His Majesty the King thereupon decided not to receive the French ambassador again, and sent to tell him through the aide-de-camp on duty that his Majesty had nothing further to communicate to the ambassador.

The difference in the effect of the abbreviated text to the Ems telegram as compared with that produced by the original was not the result of stronger words but of the form, which made this announcement appear decisive, while Abeken’s version would only have been regarded as a fragment of a negotiation still pending, and to be continued at Berlin. [1] «His Majesty writes to me: ‘Count Benedetti spoke to me on the promenade, in order to demand from me, finally in a very importunate manner, that I should authorise him to telegraph at once that I bound myself for all future time never again to give my consent if the Hohenzollerns should renew their candidature. I refused at last somewhat sternly, as it is neither right nor possible to undertake engagements of this kind à tout jamais. Naturally, I told him that I had as yet received no news, and as he was earlier informed about Paris and Madrid than myself, he could clearly see that my government once more had no hand in the matter.’ His Majesty has since received a letter from the Prince. His Majesty having told Count Benedetti that he was awaiting news from the Prince, has decided, with reference to the above demand, upon the representation of Count Eulenburg and myself, not to receive Count Benedetti again, but only to let him be informed through an aide-de-camp: That his Majesty had now received from the Prince confirmation of the news which Benedetti had already received from Paris, and had nothing further to say to the ambassador. His Majesty leaves it to your Excellency whether Benedetti’s fresh demand and its rejection should not be at once communicated both to our ambassadors and to the press.»

After I had read out the concentrated edition to my two guests, Moltke remarked: «Now it has a different ring; it sounded before like a parley; now it is like a flourish in answer to a challenge.» I went on to explain: «If in execution of his Majesty’s order I at once communicate this text, which contains no alteration in or addition to the telegram, not only to the newspapers, but also by telegraph to all our embassies, it will be known in Paris before midnight, and not only on account of its contents, but also on account of the manner of its distribution, will have the effect of a red rag upon the Gallic bull. Fight we must if we do not want to act the part of the vanquished without a battle. Success, however, essentially depends upon the impression which the origination of the war makes upon us and others; it is important that we should be the party attacked…

Enviado por Enrique Ibañes