The Franco-Prussian war is one of those little-known, little-understood wars of the 19th century that few people outside of serious historians have any interest in. And yet, the Franco Prussian war of 1870-1871 led to the creation of the German Empire and the geo-political situation in Europe which in turn led to World War I some 43 years later. Since World War I then led directly to World War II, which in turn led to the creation of much of the modern world situation that we live in, it’s arguable that the Franco Prussian war was actually of critical importance in tracing world history. More directly, it kicked off 70 years of intense German/French rivalry that was carried through three major wars and has been called by some the “modern Hundred Years War”.
My interest in unusual military history and some browsing on Amazon.com led me to discover Alistair Horne’s “The Fall of Paris” which was highly recommended as a narrative of both the siege of Paris during the war itself and the brief, bloody revolution that followed. The book is neatly divided into two parts; the first part discusses briefly the opening campaigns of the Franco-Prussian war and then settles in to a detailed description of the Prussian siege of the city. The second part of the book then looks closely at the revolution that established the Paris commune shortly after the war and the brutal repression of the revolution by the new French government. Together the two parts paint a vivid picture of the end of an era and of a proud and cultured city to devastation and complete ruin.
The colorful first chapter deserves it’s own mention as it describes in vivid detail the great 1867 International Exposition in Paris, which the author uses to introduce the readers to a long-lost era of European society; he briefly discusses the state of art, science, French culture, and the poor state of the Imperial French government. The book then delves into the causes for the war itself and the early mobile campaign which ended disastrously for the French with both their major field armies forced to surrender, including the capture of the French Emperor Napoleon III. A new French government decided to continue the war after rejecting Prussian territorial demands and Prussia then put Paris itself under siege. The siege is described in detail during the remainder of the first part with various interesting elements touched upon such as the extensive use of balloon communications, the plight and creativity of the French civilians in surviving the siege, and the bungling attempts by the few cobbled together French armies to relieve the city. In the end the French war effort was broken and France was forced to sign a humiliating treaty, while Prussia united with various other German states to create the French nightmare of a united German Empire, thus sowing the seeds of animosity that would eventually lead to World War I.
The second part of the book relates story of the Paris Commune (technically the second Paris Commune, the first having been formed briefly during the French Revolution). Understanding the complicated nature of French politics of the era with it’s tangled web of philosophies, movements, and personalities is no easy task, but is critical to in turn understanding the various causes that led to the revolution in Paris in 1871. Overall Horne does a skillful job of relating the tale without going into crushing detail, though keeping track of the cast of characters can be daunting. However the narrative is fairly easy to follow regardless, and is a fascinating and sordid tale that I knew nothing about prior to reading the book. The commune was a brief attempt by radical left-wing political groups in Paris to take advantage of the bizarre circumstances immediately following the war (weakness of the French army, departure from the city of much of the right-wing population, and distance of the new government) to establish a local Paris government.
The commune only existed chaotically for roughly 2 months before a brutal government assault broke the unorganized defenses and re-took the city in bloody street-fighting (highly unusual for the era). The formation and brief existence of the commune is nonetheless a fascinating look into left-wing politics of the 19th century , who contributed directly to the Communist and Socialist movements which grew to tremendous power during the 20th century. Karl Marx, among many other later communist leaders, studied and wrote about the successes and failures of the commune in great detail and there is no doubt that lessons learned were applied successfully later such as in Russia during the Communist revolution there.
The book’s style is quite readable, the only downside being the immense number of names to keep track of in French politics. The general narrative is easy to follow and full of strange and interesting stories; the book deserves it’s high rating on Amazon and is a great read for someone interested in the subject matter, though the reader must be willing to make a descent mental investment.