Isolation of France

Map of the German States in 1867 Map of the German states in 1867

With Austria weakened, Bismarck now turned his attention to the other great stumbling block to unification - the French. France had watched Prussia's growing power with alarm. Bismarck tried to weaken France as much as possible before war started:

  • Officially, Russia was an ally of France but Bismarck used diplomacy to make sure Russia stayed out of the up-coming war.
  • Bismarck also made sure Italy stayed neutral and wouldn't fight for France.
  • Bismarck gambled that the British would stay out of the war since it didn't want France to become any more powerful than it already was.

Bismarck found his excuse for war when Spain offered its vacant crown to Prince Leopold (a relative of Prussia’s Wilhelm I):

  • France felt threatened by possible allegiance of Prussia and Spain against it
  • Leopold withdrew acceptance of the Spanish throne
  • France demanded that Wilhelm withdraw any future support from Prince Leopold
  • Wilhelm refused - he sent a telegraph of the details to Bismarck
  • Bismarck edited and published “The Ems Telegram” to offend the French
  • France declared war on 19th July

An illustration of the Battle of Sedan 1870
The Battle of Sedan 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War

Napoleon III was advised that the French army could defeat Prussia. In France, his popularity was in decline. Military victory could restore opinion. French generals felt their army was better organised and better equipped than Prussia.

Prussia and her allies outnumbered the French. In reality the Prussian were better organised too. They were mobilised quickly and well supplied.

In contrast, the French were disorganised, with many late to reach the front. Their supplies were inadequate.

France was heavily defeated in the Franco-Prussian War. Napoleon III was overthrown by a French rebellion.

The circumstances leading to the war caused the southern German states to support Prussia. This alliance led to the unification of Germany.