A Duel of Nations: Germany, France, and the Diplomacy of the War of 1870-1871

October 4, 2012

This exemplary work not only demonstrates the value of diplomatic history but also provides rich guidance on how it should be tackled. Continuing on from his 2001 work A Duel of Giants: Bismarck, Napoleon III, and the Origins of the Franco-Prussian War, David Wetzel employs the mastery of the sources demonstrated in the bibliographical essay of his new book, not in order to seek to describe the totality of the relevant events (an impossible task) but rather to examine and assess the texture of the diplomatic process. Focusing on the motives and means of the key figures as they conducted the diplomacy of the war, he ably argues the case for the role of individual personality and perception in history, and takes issue with the argument that structures are more important than people. Conceptual, methodological and historiographical dimensions are all successfully linked.

Allowing for some unnecessary pictures, Wetzel's study fulfils his goal. On the Prussian side, the serious difficulties created by Field Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke's unwillingness to respond to Bismarck's more cautious approach are ably handled, as is the consequent significance of the king's attitude. As Wetzel points out, Bismarck was determined to end the war on conditions that reflected the reality of the military situation but that goal was complicated by the fact that this reality was capable of different interpretations, while additional campaigning left it an unstable basis for negotiations. Moreover, the extent of Prussian success posed the danger of a permanent French drive for revanche. Bismarck's wish to avoid a prolonged war, for which there were not the necessary resources, clashed totally with the determination by Moltke and General Leonhard Count von Blumenthal, the Crown Prince's chief of staff who was conducting the siege of Paris, to insist on a war of destruction. Blumenthal wrote bluntly about the bombardment of Paris, "Politics should have nothing to do with this question...it is a military one and the honor of the army is at stake"; an approach that says it all about the eventual failure of Prussian militarism. The devastating consequences to one of Europe's leading cities suggested to influential contemporaries that conflict had become barbarous and needed to be contained by new laws of war.

The problems facing Bismarck extended across Europe, for he wanted a quick peace to prevent unwanted developments in international affairs. Russia's stance emerges as particularly important, and notably its attitude towards the Black Sea clauses of the 1856 Peace of Paris and thus the verdict of the Crimean War. Furthermore, the volatile nature of French politics played a major role in diplomatic developments, while Bismarck also felt boxed in by domestic German pressures, as in resisting French pressure to retain Metz. The peace terms ensured there would be no post-war reconciliation of France and Germany to match that between Germany and Austria.

Wetzel, moreover, provides apt guidance to the consequences of the war. He argues the need to appreciate the importance of the end of the independent international existence of Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Baden and Hesse-Darmstadt, and sees this development as a crucial removal of the buffers that had made the rivalry between France and Prussia politically manageable. In addition, the change in Prussian politics and purpose is presented as destabilising. This is an impressive account that offers much to those interested in 19th-century international relations and in diplomatic history as a whole.

A Duel of Nations: Germany, France, and the Diplomacy of the War of 1870-1871

By David Wetzel

University of Wisconsin Press

326pp, £23.95

ISBN 9780299291341

Published 15 September 2012

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