01/28 – The Siege of Paris

French regular troops at a defensive position in Paris. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1871, the Prussian Siege of Paris came to an end after 4 months. Beginning in the summer of 1870, French forces had been at war with the North German Confederation; the conflict, known as the Franco-Prussian War, was a result of rising tensions between European powers amidst the growth of allied German states. As French Emperor Napoleon III declared war on Prussia (the dominant German state), his counterpart Otto von Bismarck responded in kind and mobilized his forces. After a series of disastrous defeats for the French, the German armies advanced to Paris and besieged the city in September of 1870. Despite calls from the provisional government for a French uprising of Francs-tireurs (“free-shooters” or guerilla fighters), Bismarck’s armies held on to their positions and the siege ground on. Parisians resorted to eating pigeons and, apparently, even cannibalism. Eventually, the siege ended in German victory.

Ernst Zimmer’s depiction of the heroic charge of the “Rifle Battalion 9 from Lauenburg”. (Public Domain)

For the French – who had expected a quick victory over Bismarck – the war and ensuing siege was a wake-up call. Many Parisians already disliked Napoleon III and for them, the war as an excuse to revolt. The Paris Commune was formed, a provisional socialist government in the heart of the city. The Commune quickly failed at its task of defending the city, and many non-Parisian French people saw it as an out-of-touch, elitist movement. After the French surrender (which brought an end to the Second Republic), the Third Republic was born; this era of French governance, which lasted until WWII, was characterized by a rise in anti-semitism and nationalist revanchist (or revenge-ism) attitudes towards Germany.

Napoleon III and Bismarck talk after the former’s capture at the Battle of Sedan. (Wikimedia Commons)

The end of the Siege of Paris brought about another massive change for Europe – the unification of Germany. Capitalizing on the Prussian victory, Bismarck led the unification of German states under Kaiser Wilhelm I. For centuries, the “German Question” had troubled European political thinkers: what would a unified Germany be capable of? After 1871, the question was effectively answered as the new German Empire pursued colonial expansion, became an economically dominant power and built up its military. Rising tensions between the new Germany and France carried on well into the next century and exploded with the outset of WWI.

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