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

David Wetzel. A Duel of Nations: Germany, France, and the Diplomacy of the War of 1870-1871. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-299-29134-1. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliographical Essay. Index. Pp. xvi, 310. $26.95.

The German Wars of Unification (1864-1871) have received attention by military historians in the last decade or so.  Moreover, the origins of the conflicts are well served by diplomatic historians.  However, the actual diplomacy that took place during the last of the three conflicts, the Franco-Prussian War (or War of 1870-1871), has been ignored, until now.  In A Duel of Nations, Dr David Wetzel, Visiting Lecturer in History at the University of California at Berkeley, explores the personalities and diplomacy involved in the making of the armistice, preliminary peace treaty, and finally the Treaty of Frankfurt (May 1871). Wetzel is known for his previous diplomatic studies The Crimean War: A Diplomatic History (1985) and A Duel of Giants: Bismarck, Napoleon III and the Origins of the Franco-Prussian War (2001).

The study is a continuation of his previous work A Duel of Giants that examined the origins of the Franco-Prussian War.  As such, Wetzel’s work picks up at the French declaration of war against Prussia on 19 July 1870.  The author’s study explores the personalities and politics of the key Prussian and French political, diplomatic, and military figures involved in the conflict.

From the outset of the war, Napoleon III of France sought an alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy against Prussia.  However, Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor and Foreign Minister of the North German Confederation (Prussia), kept friendly relations with Tsar Alexander III of Russia.  Victor Emanuel of Italy sought to avoid war, and the British government wanted to avoid commitments on the continent.  Even so, Bismarck feared that the longer the conflict continued, the more likely that it would expand into a general war.  Wetzel notes the effort by Marquis Émilio Visconti-Venosta, the Italian Foreign Minister, to form a league of neutral powers with the objective to limit the war to the two belligerents.  Austria-Hungary would declare neutrality on 20 July.  Events quickly favored Prussia.  A German army defeated the French at the battle of Wissembourg (Weissenburg) on 4 August, followed by victories at the battles of Spicheren (Forbach) and Wörth (Reichshoffen/Fröschweiller), near Saarbrücken, in eastern France, on 6 August.  Prussian forces followed up these victories by defeating the French at Mars-la-Tour on 16 August and Gravelotte on 18 August.  Prussian troops promptly besieged the French army that took refuge in the fortress city of Metz.  Before long, Italy and Russia declared neutrality in the conflict, and shortly thereafter, on 31 August and 1 September, Britain, Russia, Italy, Denmark, Spain, and the Ottoman Empire formed a League of Neutral Powers.  There was now the possibility of armed mediation by the neutral powers.  But, German forces, led by King Wilhelm I and Helmuth von Moltke, decisively defeated Napoleon III at the battle of Sedan on 1 September.

Moltke sought for the German army to push forward, capture Metz, and take the war to Paris and beyond.  Bismarck knew that the more time it took to reach an end to the war, the more likely that other countries would intervene.  The author stresses Bismarck’s improvisation in finding an agreeable resolution to the Franco-German conflict.  Three days after Sedan, on 4 September,  the Second French Empire collapsed.  As such, Bismarck had to deal with the remnants of imperial authority and the new provisional Government of National Defense headed by Louis Jules Trochu, Léon Gambetta, and Jules Favre.  Bismarck met and negotiated with Favre at Castle Ferrières, but failed to gain an agreement in September.  He then negotiated with Marshal François Achille Bazaine, the French commander defending Metz, who remained the only symbol of imperial authority in France.  But, the German army captured Metz, including Bazaine, in late October.  Next, Bismarck worked with the skilled French negotiator Louis Adolphe Thiers.  Talks broke down as Thiers was active in trying to get international recognition of the Paris regime, as well as getting foreign intervention in the Franco-Prussian conflict.

In the meantime, as Wetzel stresses, Bismarck and Moltke continued their bitter struggle for control of German policy at the Prussian military headquarters at Versailles (pp.149-50).  Moltke sought to crush the French (p.160), while Bismarck continued to seek an end to the conflict before the possibility of foreign intervention.  Prussian King Wilhelm I soon sided with Bismarck.  Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor at the Hall of Mirrors on 18 January 1871, and a Franco-German armistice came into effect on 28 January.  In February, with the resignation of Gambetta, who sought to continue the war with his policy of guerre à outrance, the last major obstacle to a peace settlement was removed (p.199).  French elections resulted in a movement for peace.  Thiers and Favre negotiated with Bismarck a preliminary peace treaty at Versailles in late February.  The preliminary settlement included the loss of French territory (Alsace and the northern part of Lorraine), the French payment of war reparations, German military occupation of Paris, and restrictions for the French army.  The final treaty, the Peace of Frankfurt, was signed on 10 May 1871.  Overall, the peace settlement was severe.  But, as Wetzel states, “The France of 1871 . . . remained a Great Power” (p.209).

Wetzel’s A Duel of Nations is a valuable addition to the literature on the Franco-Prussian War and German Wars of Unification.  It explores the diplomatic side of the conflict.  One can gain insight into the origins and military operations of the three conflicts in William Carr’s The Origins of the German Wars of Unification (1991), Dennis Showalter’s The Wars of German Unification (2004), and Arden Bucholz’s Moltke and the German Wars, 1864-1871 (2001).  Recent studies on the third conflict include Geoffrey Wawro’s The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871 (2003), Stephen Badsey’s The Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871 (2003), Quintin Barry’s two-volume The Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71 (2007), and Douglas Fermer’s Sedan 1870: The Eclipse of France (2008) and France at Bay: The Struggle for Paris (2011) .  For a classic academic work, see Michael Howard’s The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-1871 (1961).

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Europe in the 19th Century (1815-1914), Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), French Foreign Policy, French Military History, German Foreign Policy, German Military History, Prussian Foreign Policy, Prussian Military History and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Book Review of A Duel of Nations: Germany, France, and the Diplomacy of the War of 1870-1871

  1. William Young says:

    Reblogged this on Military History.

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