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Franco-Prussian War & north France

The Prussians surrounded Paris, set up their HQ at the Palace of Versailles, to the SW, and were able to bombard much of the city with Krupps' big new cannons.

Overthrow of Napoleon III
Defeated Emperor Napoleon III was overthrown as a result of an unwise and unnecessary war with Prussia (Germany). His army was defeated on the France's NE border with Germany in 1870. He was captured and taken to Berlin; meanwhile, people took to the streets in Paris and the National Assembly proclaimed the Third Republic.

Prussian occupation
Initial euphoria evaporated when Prussian troops continued the war. They swept in to surround Paris, and occupied much of the north in 1870. Britain stayed neutral, but insisted that the Prussians did not interfere with the Channel ports.

Siege of Paris
The Prussians made their HQ in Versailles - a symbolic gesture, since it was the home of
Louis XIV who had humiliated them in the 17th century. While the Prussians besieged and starved the city, the leaders of the new Republic were cut off from the rest of the country. A few Republic politicians in the provinces, like Gambetta and Faidherb, tried to organise armed resistance to the Prussians, but poor communications meant there was no coordination.

Meanwhile at Versailles, the triumphant Prussians declared Wilhelm the new Kaiser of a united German Empire.

Because Paris was the centre of culture, many artists and creative people were caught up in the events.
Victor Hugo wrote an epic poem about the brave but forlorn defence of Paris which was followed by the bloody episode of the Paris Commune. The "Terrible Year" made him a national hero and the living symbol of republicanism in France.

General Faidherb led the resistance of the Army of the North - which prevented Prussian occupation. There was no national coordination to join up France's provincial armies to help save Paris.

.Starved of news and communications with the rest of France, the city used the unused main-line railway stations and its precious reserves of coal-gas to make paper balloons, which volunteers used to take post out past the Prussians - a hazardous one-way trip.

The Paris Commune
When the Republic's moderate leaders announced that Paris was running short of food and had to surrender, the Paris mob felt betrayed and took to the streets. The Prussians left the French republic to deal with its own radical revolutionaries, which they did in a bloodthirsty way. The Commune was crushed in 3 months, by which time more people had been killed than in the Terror of the
French Revolution. The Paris mob's brief revolt was a harsh comment on how bleak life could be for ordinary people in 19th century France - a very unequal and corrupt society that brutalised many of its poor.
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1. Chopping down trees for fuel during the siege
2. Tuileries palace- reduced to a burnt-out sheel by the rioting mob during the Commune
3. Street fighting near the Champs Élysées.

Effects on the North
After crushing the Paris Commune, the leaders of the new Third Republic had to negotiate humiliating peace terms with the victorious Prussians. Kaiser Wilhelm and his Chanellor Bismarck insisted on annexing the rich Rhineland border areas of Alsace and Lorraine - Louis XIV had siezed from Germany back in the 17th century.

In the 19th century, Alsace-Lorraine had become an important industrial area, with big iron and steel works. After 1871, these industries grew up in the North instead, protected by French tariffs from foreign competition. Lille, Valenciennes and Maubeuge prospered.


Louis Pasteur researched on microbes in Lille after the war . The city is an important centre for scientific and medical research with 3 universities.

National Pride
The defeat was seen as a challenge to French pride. New sporting clubs were established (football, rugby, cycling, athletics), copying the idea from Victorian England that young men would get fit and learn to fight better through team games. In culture and science, people set out to prove that the French could excel - like Louis Pasteur, discovering microbes and how to clean wounds while researching in a Lille brewery.

Above all, the French were determined to win back the lost lands - the Prussian victory of 1870-71 made the First World War inevitable (and thus the Second World War too)


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Interesting web sources:
History of the 19th Century in political cartoons
Outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War
The Debacle

Places to visit:
Montreuil-sur-Mer - setting for much of "Les Misérables"

Related background information
Emil Zola - famous French writer, author of "Germinal", a novel set in the 1860's in the coalmines of the north.
"Les Misérables" - the outdoor spectacle & the story




A-Z © Copyright 2002 Invicta Media Last updated 30th May 2002 / 9th April 2002