THE accession to power of Prussia caused such alarm in France that Napoleon made proposals to Bismarck for " compensation" in Bavaria or Belgium, according to the balance-of-power principle. The French ambassador committed these suggestions to writing, and in 1870 Bismarck published them, to the fury of Bavaria and of Belgium and her friends, particularly England. The discontent which is endemic in modern states was now in France turning against the Emperor.
In 1869 the Liberal Empire began, with a completely responsible ministry under Olivier; but it was too late to free the Emperor of responsibility. His Liberal subjects had been annoyed in 1863, when he failed to protect the Poles, though his avowed sympathy with them added to the enmity of the Tsar. His " Mexican Adventure " of 1864-67 had brought him disgrace: he had persuaded the Archduke Maximilian, a rather unruly brother of the Austrian Emperor, to become Emperor of Mexico as a tool of French financiers. When the United States ended its Civil War and demanded his immediate withdrawal in accordance with President Monroe's principles, Napoleon ordered the return of the French army and left Maximilian to be overcome by his native Mexican opponents and executed.
Napoleon had ventured to play a part for which he had neither the ability nor the nerve. Like the first Bonaparte he had an enormous faith in his destiny, but the first Napoleon had done everything that human energy could to assist destiny. Against the Emperor of the French was Bismarck, backed by the force that even in weaker hands would have decided the issue, the Prussian army of Moltke.
An excuse for war came unexpectedly in 1870. Spain had got rid of its disreputable Queen, Isabella, and was looking for a royalty to take her place. The Cortes (Spanish Parliament), possibly instigated by Prussian agents, offered the crown to a Hohenzollern, a Catholic, more nearly related to Napoleon than to the King of Prussia, but a Prussian officer. The French government demanded his withdrawal, which was agreed to by Prussia, and then in deference to newspaper excitement demanded an undertaking that Prussia would never allow the prince to renew his candidature. The King of Prussia at Ems politely informed the ambassador that he really could not promise anything of the sort; then Bismarck insulted France by publishing the news in a courteous but somewhat abrupt form. The German and French newspapers did the rest. The French ministry, misled by the Minister of War, declared war. It was the first war to be made by newspapers, but not the last. France was technically and morally the aggressor, but her opponent was overjoyed to be attacked.
Within seven weeks the Prussian and German armies had overwhelmed the French, who were brave and well armed, but badly mobilised, badly led, and somewhat outnumbered. Napoleon surrendered at Sedan. A larger force surrendered later at Metz. Paris set up a provisional government and stood a six months' siege; meanwhile Theirs unsuccessfully tried to get allies, and Gambetta raised large armies, which had small success against the Germans. Paris surrendered in January 1871, and peace was made in the following May, France paying a comparatively small indemnity (200, 000, 000) and ceding Alsace and Lorraine-two provinces which had once been part of the Holy Roman Empire and were still largely German. Sentiment in them was in general opposed to the transfer, and the French vowed to recover them. At Versailles itself the German princes invited the King of Prussia to become German Emperor, and on his reluctant acquiescence he was crowned there in the splendid palace of Louis XIV. The ceremony was almost entirely military.
The Constitution of the new German Empire allowed Prussia to control the military forces, but not the civil administration of the kingdoms and small states which were included in it. The Parliamentary system resembled that of James I.'s day in England, or that of the United States or a British Crown Colony: the Chancellor and ministers were officials, responsible to the Emperor and not to the Reichstag or Chamber of Commons. The Federal Senate represented the separate state governments. Under modern conditions power falls (in the absence of parliamentary control) into the hands of bureaucrats, civil and military, and this was what happened in Germany.