by Sean Sullivan
Brief Overview of the Franco-Prussian War
Visions of the Future: Canadian Illustrated News and Media Coverage of the War
The Evolution of Public Perception
The Franco-Prussian War in Pictures
The politics of the world today seem to be guided by motives as mean, as unprincipled, and as sordid as those which ever misdirected human affairs in the darkest days recorded in history. When will wisdom sit in the 'high places'?1
From the Canadian Illustrated News, December 3, 1870
In July 1870, war broke out between Prussia and France. Although the war was relatively short, the Western world watched with a sense of morbid curiosity, fearful that the conflict would trigger a general European war. The Franco-Prussian War redefined how wars were fought and had lasting political repercussions that set the stage for the First World War.
The Canadian Illustrated News (the News) devoted a substantial amount of space to reporting on the events of the War. Remarkably, though separated from the conflict by an ocean, the News was able to keep its readers informed with relatively up-to-date and accurate information. Equally striking is the magazine's ability to provide a perceptive analysis of the changing face of warfare. Through its illustrations and articles, the News neither glorified the War nor vilified the combatants of either side. Though unintentional at the time, the paper's coverage of the War demonstrated to its readers how this brief conflict was giving the world a glimpse of the future.
After its stunning victory over Austria in 1866, Prussia emerged as the pre-eminent power in Central Europe. This alarmed many European nations, most notably France, who feared that this turn of events would upset the delicate balance of power that had existed in Europe since the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815. This animosity was not one-sided either; Prussia had its grievances against France as well. In 1697, the French acquired the border region of Alsace and, in 1766, they assumed control over neighbouring Lorraine. Prussia grew bitter over what it saw as the robbery of two traditionally German provinces. By the mid-1860s, the two countries were eyeing each other across their mutual border with a mixture of fear and resentment. Consequently, the most minor crisis had the potential to propel them into armed conflict.
In 1868, a revolution in Spain had left the throne vacant. To fill the void, the victorious rebel leader General Prim chose Prince Leopold, a blood relative of the King of Prussia. This enraged the French who viewed the choice as proof of Prussia's expansionist tendencies. They demanded that Leopold reject the Spanish offer. The Prussians agreed, but owing to the political manipulations of the German Chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck, refused to guarantee that Leopold would not renew his candidacy. This omission was all the incentive the French Government required to begin clamouring for war.
On July 15, 1870, the word to mobilize for war was telegraphed all over Prussia. Unlike their German counterparts, the mobilization of the French was stalled by bureaucratic delays depriving them of the crucial time they needed to strike before Prussia mobilized fully. Historian J. F. C. Fuller argues that by failing to attack early, the French lost their only hope of winning the war.2 By the time they finally moved into German territory on August 1, the Prussians were ready to meet them at the town of Saarbrüken.
Almost from the beginning of the conflict, the French army was on the defensive. It was pushed back at Saarbrüken and completely overwhelmed at the subsequent battles of Spicheren and Wörth. Fearing a revolt in Paris sparked by French defeats, the government ordered the army to fall back to its fixed fortifications. However, this just made it easier for the Prussians to surround the garrisons and cut them off from the rest of the French army. On September 1, surrounded by the Prussians, French Emperor Napoleon III and 82 000 men had no choice but to surrender. By the end of September, less than three months after the beginning of hostilities, the French capital of Paris was completely encircled by the Prussian army.
Napoleon III was captured. As a result, the French empire ceased to exist and the provisional government declared a republic, which the Prussians would not recognize . The French resisted and both sides prepared for a siege.
Despite the early rapid successes of the Prussian army, the War degenerated into a stalemate as French resistance stiffened. By the end of the year, the fortresses of Metz, Strasburg and Verdun had fallen, but Paris still held out. The German artillery began shelling the capital city on December 17. However, French resolve had its limits. On January 28, 1871, an armistice was finally negotiated. The next day, Paris capitulated.
On May 5, the Treaty of Frankfort was signed. The French were to pay 200 000 000 pounds as an indemnity. Even more important, Alsace and Lorraine were to be reacquired by Prussia. The harsh penalties prompted sympathy for France among the international community. Far from resolving anything, the Treaty of Frankfort deepened the rivalry between the two nations. As Fuller put it: "From now on, every foreign enemy of the new born (Prussian) Empire could count on French support."3
As a result of its great victories over Austria and France, Prussia became the dominant force behind the consolidation of the former provinces of the Hapsburg Empire, combining to form the German Empire. Due to the pro-French sentiment created by the provisions of the treaty, Germany increasingly perceived itself as being surrounded by enemies. German leaders reasoned that the only way to protect themselves was to be prepared for war. This led to an unprecedented arms race among the major powers thereby setting the stage for the conflicts of the next century.
A reporter for the British Daily News said that when war was declared, the media readied themselves for unprecedented in-depth coverage.4 Along with other newspapers, the Canadian Illustrated News (the News) recognized the historical importance of the conflict between France and Prussia from the outset. The similarity between present-day and 19th-century coverage of war news is striking. As the war progressed, the News carried stories and editorials debating the futility of war and its impact on civilians. It spoke of the need for collective security, championed human rights and advocated penalties for war crimes. Articles also discussed popular figures emerging from the War and showcased editorials illustrating a latent distrust of the media that parallels popular opinion today.
As German and French troops mobilized for war in July 1870, the News predicted that there would be heavy casualties on both sides because the combatants were so evenly matched. The News recognized that the conflict over the Spanish throne was not the true reason for the War. Prussia's "object", the News claimed, was to recover the territories of Alsace and Lorraine. Most troubling of all was the fear that the crisis would draw in other nations:
It would be a misfortune were either of them [France, Prussia] to gain a very great preponderance over the other. In that case, other nations would undoubtedly be dragged in, and the strife begun between France and Prussia would widen out to the dimensions of a European War and perhaps even involve this continent.
Remarkably, the News was predicting a 1914-style situation, should the War drag on. This was punctuated by one further dire prophesy: "Europe will continue to suffer periodically from a series of great national duels, such as these which have been so frequent within the past twenty years."6
These remarks reflect the position the Canadian Illustrated News chose to take toward the conflict. Far from being content to simply update its readers on the progress of the battles, the paper sought to provide insightful editorials on the consequences of war.
The Canadian Illustrated News was forward thinking on a variety of issues. Critiquing the military strategy of the combatants, the News recognized the over-reliance on fixed fortifications and standing armies as a defence against aggression.7 The French army did not recognize this until the Second World War. As late as 1940, France had one of the largest standing armies in the world and was defended by a series of seemingly impenetrable fortifications collectively called the Maginot Line. However, the over-confidence fostered by this false sense of security was one of the primary reasons for the German army's quick victory over France. Seventy years earlier, this evolution in modern warfare had already been discussed in the pages of the Canadian Illustrated News.
During the War, the News also established itself as a strong proponent of collective security and human rights, two issues that have a strong influence on Canadian foreign policy today. In the November 19, 1870 issue, the News commented: "it is lamentable that nations should not yet be able to decide ordinary disputes without a resort to arms."8 In the same article, the paper chastised the other European powers for failing to prevent the breakdown in diplomatic relations. It argued that had these powers firmly stated that they would fight the first country which disrupted the peace, war could have been avoided. This line of reasoning parallels recent arguments in support of NATO intervention in Kosovo. The News advocated greater cooperation among nations to prevent conflicts before they began. This philosophy would not be effectively adopted by the international community until the end of the Second World War with the founding of the United Nations.
In response to the growing accounts of atrocities, the News argued that government leaders and their subordinates should be held equally responsible for their actions before the world.9 Ironically, this article was developed from a report by a North German correspondent. The News based its views on the ideal that differences between individuals and groups should be respected:
Neither harmonious national existence nor the enjoyment of true freedom by the citizens can be assured by the obliteration of the differences between classes or races, but by the equal recognition of the rights appertaining to each, so that all may enjoy equal privileges.10
Theories of the inalienability of human rights have been advocated by philosophers and political theorists for centuries but only in the latter half of the 20th century have they found a popular voice. In the mid- to late-19th century, the vast majority of the Canadian populace considered these concepts, as the News puts it, "novel."11
The war also had an impact on Canadian popular culture. The News reported that photographs of a number of the famous personages of the war had become popular commodities. As the Prussians began to win, the value of a portrait of Bismarck increased: "a genuine Bismarck...costs from a shilling to eighteen pence."12 Other figures such as the King of Prussia, German General Von Moltke and Napoleon III were also eagerly sought. It is amusing to compare this to the exploitation of major events and political figures in recent years. One need only recall the phenomenon of Trudeaumania in the late 1960s, for example.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing parallels between the views of the News and today's popular opinion appeared in the December 3, 1870 issue. It was reported that another paper, The Period, claimed that the War was fabricated by newspapers attempting to increase readership. As proof, The Period argued that the Queen of England would not have left London for the summer in the midst of a war that had the potential to engulf the entire European continent. She would have stayed near the capital so that she could react immediately in the event of a crisis. The article also commented on the apathy of British elected officials toward the War.13 This suspicion of the media is reminiscent of the modern-day Wag the Dog scenario which theorizes that conflicts are created for political and profit-oriented reasons. It is possible that this article was intended to scrutinize international ambivalence towards the War. However, this is not confirmed by either The Period or the News. If taken as genuine, this article represents a fascinating social commentary on the enduring public distrust of the media that reaches from the 19th to the 20th century.
The fortunes of war shaped the Canadian public's perception of the major figures in the conflict. The Canadian Illustrated News (the News) was shocked when the French army, which was reportedly the most prepared and determined, was defeated at Saarbrücken. Immediately, Napoleon III was labelled incompetent as a military tactician while Bismarck was seen as a man with "moral courage and consummate tact."14 However, during the siege of Paris, this began to change. Reports of Prussians rampaging through the French countryside surfaced. Bismarck was accused of unnecessarily prolonging the War by refusing to accept the French surrender unless he was allowed to occupy Paris and assemble his own government to supervise the armistice. In its editorials, the News encouraged the Prussians to end the War, pointing out that continuing it simply created sympathy for the French.15
The assessment proved accurate. By mid-November, the News commented that "Prussia, at first hailed as a conqueror, is already earning the character of a tyrant."16 Increasingly, articles in the News focused on the plight of the citizens of Paris under attack. Images of the Prussians in pictures also degenerated from the heroic visions of the battlefield to comical illustrations of drunken Prussian soldiers terrorizing a theatre in Metz17 (see below). Even after the War, stories coming out of Paris painted an unflattering picture of Prussian rule:
The soldiers in many cases turned people out of their beds...a gentleman incensed by the insolence of the soldiers called them "canaille". He was seized, brought to the commandant, who ordered him the "schlag..." He was flogged.18
Other Canadian papers followed a similar pattern. The Globe initially blamed the French for the war: "the voice of the nations has without a dissent declared France the aggressor."19 However, as the war dragged on, it too printed sympathetic stories about the plight of Parisians under siege and the pillage of the French countryside by the Prussians. The Montreal Gazette was even more critical of the Prussians. In response to the Prussian demand for Alsace and Lorraine, The Gazette printed a scathing rebuke:
That Prussia should prove faithless is, perhaps, what might be expected. Her traditions forbid the observance of political good faith.20
The Gazette was so steadfast in its support for France that even on the eve of the surrender of Paris, it printed a story about the enduring fighting spirit of the French: "It is impossible to make the Parisians consider the question of surrender. They are anxious to fight under competent leadership."21 The increasingly hostile views of the Prussians by The Globe and The Gazette demonstrate that the Canadian Illustrated News had been correct in its prediction. The Prussians could win the battles; however, thanks to media coverage, they were destined to lose the war of public perception almost as a consequence of their victory.
In an article printed at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, The Montreal Gazette commented on the staggering cost of modern warfare. It reported that between 1853 and 1866, 1 750 000 people had been killed in wars in Europe, the United States, Mexico and China.22 The Canadian Illustrated News also discussed the escalating brutality of war. The News further appreciated the lessons to be drawn from the last major European conflict of the 19th century. It recognized that new strategies were required to react to the rapidly changing face of war. Even more important, it foresaw the increasing cost of war on civilians and the need to create mechanisms to respond to wartime atrocities. Finally, it appreciated the need for nations to find alternative methods to resolve disputes, preferably by the development of institutions to govern international law. All of this made The Canadian Illustrated News innovative for its time.
During the seven months of the war, the picturesque illustrations of the Canadian landscape which were characteristic of the Canadian Illustrated News gave way to sweeping dramatic sketches of the battlefields of Europe and horrifying images of civilian life under fire. As with written perceptions of the conflict, depictions of both the French and Prussians in pictures evolved rapidly.
Mounting Prussian victories meant that there were large numbers of French prisoners to be supervised, and the Canadian Illustrated News was quick to commend the Germans on their treatment of these captives. This picture is especially striking because the French prisoners are African conscripts. Despite this, Prussian women serve them as if they are honoured guests and the guards appear to be acting in a compassionate and almost fraternal manner toward the prisoners. Given racial prejudices of the time among Western nations, this is a remarkable illustration. Viewing this picture, a 19th-century reader would likely conclude that the Prussians were courteous and benevolent toward their enemies even as they were locked in a deadly struggle on the battlefield.
With every crushing victory, the international community marvelled at the display of German power, as demonstrated in this picture showing Prussian cavalry charging a French garrison near Metz. The Prussian soldiers appear heroic and unstoppable as they advance into the murderous cannon fire. The French troops, on the other hand, are either running in stark terror or desperately trying to hold their ground against the inevitable. The News commented that this engagement was one of the bloodiest of the War.
As the conflict degenerated into a stalemate, illustrations shifted increasingly to portraying life under Prussian rule. In sharp contrast to the quaint picture of the French prisoners published only two months earlier, these two drawings depict the Prussians as the oppressors. Note the differences in the way that the German soldiers are portrayed here. Far from the happy faces of the well-fed prisoners, the citizens of Sedan appear to be living in abject poverty. These pictures attempt to capture the feelings of hopelessness apparently consuming the conquered population and invite feelings of anger and disgust toward the Prussians.
The negative portrayal of the Prussians continues in this picture. In stark contrast to the formidable figures of "Battle of Mars-la-Tour," the Prussian soldiers are shown as an unruly mob rather than as the cream of the Prussian military. With this illustration, the Prussian soldier is transformed from a compassionate and noble warrior to a vulgar brute in the minds of Canadians. These images would be seen as characteristic of the Germans until well into the next century.
1. Canadian Illustrated News, December 3, 1870, Vol. II, p. 358.
2. J.F.C. Fuller, War and Western Civilization 1832-1932 (New York: Books for Library Press, 1st printing 1932, 2nd printing 1969) p. 116.
3. Ibid., p.128.
4. The Daily News, Correspondence of the War between Germany and France 1870-71 (London: Macmillan and Co., 6th edition) p. 5.
5. Canadian Illustrated News, July 23, 1870, Vol. II, p. 54.
6. Ibid., p. 54.
7. Canadian Illustrated News, October 29, 1870, Vol. III, p. 277.
8. Canadian Illustrated News, November 19, 1870, Vol. III, p. 326.
9. Canadian Illustrated News, November 26, 1870, Vol. III, p. 351.
10. Ibid., p. 346.
11. Ibid., p. 351.
12. Canadian Illustrated News, September 24, 1870, Vol. III, p. 207.
13. Canadian Illustrated News, December 3, 1870, Vol. III, p.359.
14. Canadian Illustrated News, August 13, 1870, Vol. III, p. 106.
15. Canadian Illustrated News, October 15, 1870, Vol. III, p. 250.
16. Canadian Illustrated News, November 19, 1870, Vol. III, p.325.
17. Canadian Illustrated News, February 4, 1871, Vol. IV, p. 66.
18. Canadian Illustrated News, April 8, 1871, Vol. IV, p. 162.
19. The Globe, July 23, 1870, Vol. XXVII, p. 2.
20. The Montreal Gazette, January 25, 1871, Vol. C, p. 3.
21. Ibid., p. 3.
22. The Montreal Gazette, July 13, 1870 Vol. XCIX, p. 3.
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Northwest Passage: The Quest for an Arctic Route to the East
The Northwest Resistance: Louis Riel
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