Almost all of us know that World War II originated mainly from Hitler’s folly to expand his territory and to avenge the humiliation that Germans felt as a result of their defeat in World War I (Treaty of Versailles). Few know that in the First World War, before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the conditions were already set for the start of the war and this assassination was only the spark that lit the fuse.
Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne
France was very hurt by the catastrophic defeat they suffered in the war against Prussia in 1870 (Prussia was the largest of the states that would later make up present-day Germany), for which they lost the regions of Alsace and Lorraine (rich in coal, a more important resource at that time than it is today).
Alsace and Lorraine, in Europe
So one of the causes of World War II could be said to be World War I, and one of the causes of World War I was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. But what were the causes of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870? This time, the causes were not a previous war but, on the one hand, the desire of France not to be disadvantaged in the event of a war with Prussia, and on the other hand, the almost obsessive desire of the Prussian “Iron Chancellor”, Otto von Bismarck, to start a war in order to unify the various states that were in the areas adjacent to Prussia.
Actually, it all started with the disastrous reign of Queen Isabella II of Spain. This queen, called by Benito Pérez Galdós “the one with sad fates”, lived in the midst of conflicts that began even before her birth because her father, King Ferdinand VII, despite having been married three times, had no sons (a tremendous problem for kings). Because of her status as a woman and having no brothers, her uncle Carlos María Isidro (the king’s brother) claimed the throne, but the king, sick and about to die, prevailed and named Isabel heir (he prohibited the Salonica Law, which prevented women from accessing the throne). Not satisfied with this Carlos started the first “Carlist war”, but was defeated. Isabel II ascended to the throne in 1843, with only 13 years of age. At first she was affectionate with her people and she enjoyed great popularity, but after 25 years of reign she was seen as cruel, lustful and frivolous.
Elizabeth II, reigns at 13 years of age.
In 1868, after a revolution led by General Juan Prim, the queen was forced to abdicate, leaving the throne of Spain vacant. For this reason, Prim visited Prince Carlos Antonio de Hohenzollern-Sigmaringem (of the principality of Hohenzolern, which in 1849 was integrated as a province of the Prussian state) to ask him that his son Leopold accept the throne of Spain.
France felt that this was contrary to her interests because, in the event of war with Prussia, she would have to fight on two fronts, in the northeast against Prussia and in the south against Spain. For this reason Napoleon III, Emperor of France, pressured the King of Prussia, William I (head of the Hohenzollern house), to prevent Leopold from accepting the Spanish crown, achieving his goal as William I did not want to go to war with France. Leopold renounced the Spanish throne, but the French Foreign Minister, not happy with this, ordered the French ambassador to meet again with William I, despite the fact that they had already had two interviews, to obtain a formal commitment that a member of the Hohenzollern family would never occupy the throne of Spain. The King of Prussia refused to receive the French ambassador for the third time, understanding that his demands had already been satisfied, and sent a telegram to Bismarck, who was in Ems, telling him what had happened.
The Ems Telegram
Bismarck saw here the opportunity he had been waiting for: he modified the telegram to make it appear as if France had been insulted and released it to the press. The reaction was swift and France, wounded in her pride, declared war on Prussia.
The war was a disaster for France: It lost territories and had to pay a large indemnity to Prussia. Bismarck made his dream come true: In January 1871 William I was proclaimed Emperor of Germany, achieving the long-awaited unification.
And what happened in Spain?: The crown was handed over to Amadeo of Savoy, son of the King of Italy (how curious about this monarchy; they don’t care that their king is a foreigner as long as he has “blue blood”). But with this designation the only thing that was achieved was to unite all the opposition. Just two years later, in 1873, and in the midst of great instability, he renounced the throne and returned to Italy. And guess who they named king in 1874: nothing more and nothing less than Alfonso XII, son of Isabel II (so much walking, war included, to end up in the same place). However, the Spaniards were lucky this time as her son did better than his mother. He was called “The Peacemaker” and his reign lasted 11 years. His son, Alfonso XIII, reigned for 29 years.
King Alfonso XIII and his mother Maria Christina of Habsburg
It is worth mentioning that one of the causes of the defeat of France was that Prussia had the famous Krupp cannons, which were loaded from the butt. French guns were muzzle-loading, making them slower and more inaccurate.
Soldiers of the Prussian Army loading a Krupp cannon
This reminds me of the naval battle of the second world war, between the German battleship, coincidentally named “Bismarck”, against the pride of the British royal navy: the “Hood”. The Bismarck beat the Hood because she could aim, shoot, and correct her shot faster than her opponent. Technology at the service of war. Rather, technology at the service of death.
The battleship Bismarck