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above: Napoleon III and Otto von Bismarck after the Battle of Sedan, painted in 1878 by Wilhelm Camphausen (Wikimedia/public domain)

Society & Culture

Greater Than the French Revolution

On July 15, 1870, the French Empire mobilized its armed forces, and the following day, the North German Confederation—led by Prussia—followed suit. Once the Franco-Prussian War was declared, actual combat began with startling rapidity. The Prussians won a decisive victory at Sedan at the start of September, capturing French Emperor Napoleon III. Even so, the French managed a heroic second effort that kept the war going into 1871, but the Prussians still emerged victorious.

This short struggle killed some 200,000 people and involved more combatants on both sides than the recently concluded American Civil War, which had spanned four years. A somewhat larger number of people perished in the outbreaks of epidemic disease and internal political violence that surrounded the war.

At the time, the Franco-Prussian War was a shocking and apocalyptic global event. Today, it is largely forgotten in the English-speaking world, overshadowed by the far vaster struggles of the following century. We should not expect any explosion of commemoration on this 150th anniversary, but such neglect is badly mistaken. Without the war of 1870-71—without the political, military, and diplomatic revolutions that it launched—neither of the World Wars nor any later conflict can be properly understood. That Franco-Prussian War created a whole new European reality, with ramifications that spanned much of the globe. It echoed through the 20th century, and it still...

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