What if France won the Franco-Prussian War? (1870-1925)

This is an expanded version of my earlier post, please feel free to comment!

In this alternate scenario, Bismarck must retire during 1870 due to ill health. This isn’t that far fetched- his quasi-depression at seeing what he thought was a Prussian humiliation caused significant ill health. Thus, the Austro-Prussian war still happens as normal in 1866, resulting in the formation of the North German Confederation.

Thus, when the Prussians attempt to put a Prussian on the throne of Spain, the Prussians withdraw, as in our timeline.

However, the French were pushing for a full royal sanction from the withdrawal. Although without the advice of Bismarck the Prussian position is likely to weaken, it is unlikely that the Prussian would have accepted the demand. King Wilhelm would have likely given the same or similar response at Ems. What changes, though, is how it is presented. Bismarck isn’t there to edit the Ems telegram to redress what he saw as a Prussian humiliation. Thus, what the French saw as Wilhelm brushing off their ambassador never leaks and the French government does not see it in such serious terms. Whilst significant tensions still exist over the Prussian refusal to give a royal guarantee that they will never attempted to put a Hohenzollern of the throne of Spain, the main casus belli on 1870, the Prussian insult to French honour, never occurs. It is unlikely to precipitate into war.

The incident, as Bismarck fears, undermines Prussia in the international scene. Prussia’s growing reputation is smashed and they are no longer seen as invulnerable as their lightning defeats of Denmark and Austria would suggest. However, the bellicose move to put a Prussian on the throne of Spain, undermining the French sphere of influence, gets other powers increasingly worried about the Prussian disruption of the balance of power.

In our timeline, France was scrabbling to get allies, which it failed to, in the war. However, because of their victory in the Spanish affair, they have more time.

Negotiations are drawn up with Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy. He joined Prussia in the Prussian-Austrian war in 1866, but felt insulted because Prussia had got the Austrians to sue for peace earlier without consulting them. A full French withdrawal from Rome is agreed in exchange for alliance with France, although this is kept clandestine for know (to avoid insulting the catholic sensibilities of the French)

Austria, sensing Prussian isolation, now seizes its moment. Factions within Austria are still bitter about the ratification of the Treaty of Prague, and the humiliation of Austria (and the subsequent victories of Hungarian nationalists in the 1867 compromise as well as the increasing deadlock in the Reichsrat due to liberal agitation in Austria mean, for now, Franz Joseph is willing to put aside his personal revulsion for Napoleon and sign a secret concordat, to re-claim lost spheres of influence and their role of the symbolic figurehead of Germany. He sees such an action as giving himself leverage to begin to dismantle the liberal and nationalistic headway made after the loss to Prussia.

Now here, there are two paths that could be taken.

1) The Russian Empire and the United Kingdom could be alarmed by what they perceive as French expansionism and make more formal ties with Prussia.

2) Both countries could remain supportive of Prussia, but due to fear of hegemony over Germany and in Britain's case a colonial Germany they do not make formal alliance.

In order for French victory, I will assume Path 2 occurs. I know this is slightly inadequate, but in order for the scenario to be fulfilled, we have to go down path 2. In Russia’s case, they probably would stay neutral (as in real life) because of the pan-Slavic opposition to a united German state.

Without Bismarck, Prussia is staggeringly isolated from the international scene. They have to resort to German nationalism to keep their ties to Catholic Bavaria amongst others, only forged after the Austro-Prussian war, alive. In around 1875-1880, Prussia makes a misguided attempted to form a united Germany, trying to integrate the South German kingdoms into the North German Confederation, re-naming it “The German Empire”. However without a war with France, this doesn’t gain much tract in Catholic Bavaria or other South German Kingdoms who still feel a more natural affinity with Austria. In our timeline, German nationalism was forged out of common cause against France; with no war with France, this transition is not seamless. France declares war to prevent a unified Germany tearing up the balance of powers, Austria declares war to “protect Southern Germany” and Italy also declares war, ostensibly to rectify its humiliation but in actuality to gain Rome.

In our timeline, France thought that it could easily win against Prussia. However, superior German tactics won the day and the war ended in the occupation of Paris by Prussian forces, formation of the German union at Versailles, the fall of the Second French Empire in favour of the Third Republic and the beginning of the Franco-German enmity due to the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany.

However in this timeline, Germany is surrounded on all sides. It is unable to keep its defences in the face of the French and Austrian attack. It stands little chance.

The war lasts a year, due to superior Prussian tactics, but still results in a Prussian loss.

In the Second Treaty of Prague, Prussia is forced to dissolve the North German Confederation (set up as annexations in the aftermath of the Austro-Prussian war) and around 25 feudal German states are re-released. The German Confederation is set up again, with Austria once again invited. Austria is allowed again to join German politics and Prussia must accept Austrian dominance over German politics. Prussia also loses Silesia to Austria and parts of the Rhineland to France. Although Prussia’s sphere of influence over North Germany is smashed, its economic advantage reduced by crippling reparations. Both France and Austria have a vested interest in destroying Prussia as a threat; such a treaty is likely to be harsh and eliminate Prussia a player in German politics, although unlikely to result in its complete destruction.

The new German Confederation, however, is far from identical to the old. France now has territory inside the Confederation (as well as spheres of influence) meaning that France undermines Austrian hegemony over German politics. Relations begin to sour.

Prussia was forced to stoke pan-Germanic nationalism in order to maintain its ties with German states, who were historically allied with Austria. This means that there is widespread unrest in Germany demanding an acceptance of the Frankfurt declaration of Union in 1875-1880. This is especially chronic in the North, who were integrated into the North German Confederation for around a decade.

This means Austria has to take seriously German unification, but for now that is coupled with a reluctance to split their empire. Moreover, the Austrian collaboration with the French has seriously weakened their credibility outside the Empire, so the path to unification is not straightforward.

Before that, let's talk international consequences. Britain now sees in plain terms that Napoleon III is an aggressor, and Napoleonic era fears begin to rise. The Russo-British entente is signed in around 1880, both united in fear of French expansionism, and, in Russia’s case, gaining territory from Austria. This alliance does weaken the possibility that Austria turns on France and signs an alliance with Great Britain, due to the Russo-Austrian enmity (caused primarily by the Crimean War but also the recent events with France). Austria is stuck with an alliance with France to prop up the increasing house of cards which is the German Confederation.

Remember at around this time the Scramble for Africa is kicking off. Britain is even more aggressive and opposes French expansions, determined not to give ground to France under any circumstances. . In our timeline, there were multiple close calls with France over colonial disputes that could have led to war.

In this timeline, tensions crystallise into war. Britain is far more antagonistic to France, and a colonial dispute rises again to war. It is also possible that a dispute over Belgium (an emboldened France might violently re-assert their claim) rises to war with Britain. This may be around the late 1880s-1890s.

Italy stays neutral, as it felt it didn't gain enough from the wars. However, Britain stokes revolt in Germany against Austria, which remains allied with France and is also involved in the scramble for Africa. It is possible that a weakened Prussia still decides to join the war.

The growing power of the French land armies mean that is unlikely that Prussia or any other continental power would now be able to challenge the French. However the colonies might be another story- the British navy meant a British victory there would be probably. The war ends in a stalemate, with French continental gains in Belgium and perhaps at the expense of a weakened Prussia but loses in the colonies. It is seen as a humiliation; it might result in the downfall of Napoleon III or IV (depending on whether he still dies in the 1870s). Austria can, if it hasn’t already, claim complete control of Prussia and neutralise it as a threat.

Russia does well against Austria, though, with the growing power of its land army and its growing industrialization, spurred on by growing British investment. It might result in territorial gains in Galicia. The exposing of Austrian weakness again means that the Austrians realise what a perilous course of action they are taking by not embracing a German state and re-think their policy on the indissoluble framework of the empire. Liberals are empowered to begin work on turning the German Confederation into a united Germanic state, infuriating France.

Probably in around 1900-1910, enough groundwork has been laid for Austria to proceed with unification. In order to do so and maintain the balance of power, Franz Joseph abdicates the throne of Hungary to a relation. This is done with the aim of avoiding a major disruption to the balance of power which could prompt great power intervention. There we must start to divert into speculation, so this is more open to challenged. The French would oppose a wholesale United Germany as it would threaten their position, so perhaps would Russia. There are 2 reasons why they wouldn’t intervene.

a) A deal could be struck where France annexes its spheres of influence in Germany

b) Britain restrains Russia from intervention, so an Austrian Germany can serve as a bulwark to French expansion.

Although it is very conceivable that any declaration of union spills into war, this is my best guess about what would happen if Germany was proclaimed, with its capital in Vienna, as a result of this scenario, that both Russia and France would be appeased enough in order to result in no war. But it is impossible to accurately predict.


So an unwieldy compromise agreement is reached at some time around 1900-1905 where France annexes the Rhineland, in exchange for an Austrian unification of Germany. France’s economic interests are also protected by the state and Posen, still part of Prussia, is gifted to Russia as a bribe for not objecting to the unification. This is grossly unpopular within the new unified Germany. Austria, and the Austrian monarchy, are dubbed sell outs, continue to collaborate with the French and handing over ‘German’ territory. An equivalent of the Austrian Reichsrat is convened with large majorities for those opposed to French influence in Germany. Moreover, the unification of Germany begins to undermine the stability of former Cislethia. Czechs, Italians, Slovenes, Poles and Ukrainians have now all found themselves within ‘German’ borders, which are significantly less tolerable than the multinational former empire. Compounding this problem are German nationalists, who seek to repress the rights of majorities in these nominally German areas. The empire is thus full of discontent and difficult to govern, with Republican movements across Germany calling for the overthrow of the Hapsburg regime.

Because their state now compromises a majority of German nationality, and the rising tide of anti-Habsburg German dissent. the Austrians nominally begin to err on the side of indulging German nationalist request for the expulsion of French influence. Britain proves willing to help (still alarmed at French expansionism) and the German-British alliance is signed in around 1915. Russia is more of a mixed picture. Russia’s relations have soured with Britain over the Middle East and the recent anti-French rhetoric from Germany has created fears over a strong German challenge to Russian European influence. They refuse to sign a Treaty with Britain and Germany and look into an alliance with France.

The triggers for the Great War occur when Franz Joseph dies in 1916 and is replaced with his nephew, Franz Ferdinand. The coronation is the first coronation of a new King of the Germans The patriotic sentiment enthused by this is coupled with growing calls to beat back the French tide as part of a liberal nationalist reconstruction of the empire. Seeing the rise in republicanism, Franz Ferdinand begins to reform his empire that way, giving more power to the Reichsrat. The case for war against the French is becoming more compelling; the Austrians can fight against the notion that they are French puppets and create a narrative of German nationalism around opposition to the French. The Reichsrat fight against German economic concessions, with an emboldened imperial authority behind them. The full revocation of French economic privileges in 1920 is the breaking point. France raises noisy objections; in response the Reichsrat declare that the Rhineland is ‘rightfully German’. France declares war.

This starts ‘the Great War’ - although the previous war also had the characteristics of a World War. Russia joins the French side. It’s emboldened by its growing standing army and wants to take the remnant of Galicia left after the French-British war that involved Austria and Russia, and sees opportunities to assert its continental hegemony. Britain declares war on France to prevent their further expansion. A series of revolts kick of in Germany against German authorities in Prague, Trieste and West Galicia. The Italian backed revolts convince Italy to join the war against Germany. The Ottomans probably go to war with Russia, who, as in our timeline, have sponsored Balkan independence movements in their territory and threaten them directly, probably even more directly considering the increase in their power. Hungary also joins the war against Russia, fearful of the Balkan independence movements (‘Greater Hungary was only about 45-50% Hungarian). The World is at war.

I cannot predict the specifics of these wars beyond these few things. Russia will probably do well- their breakneck industrialisation has left the army is a significantly stronger condition that in our timeline’s 1914 (remember this war kicks off at around c. 1920). Germany cannot face this 2 front war and fights defensively. With British, Ottoman and Hungarian help, it’s unlikely to be a rout but Konigsberg is taken in 1921, and by 1922 the French are threatening Munich and the Russians are threatening Berlin. The Ottoman Empire is likely to do even worse than in our timeline, and cannot provide very effective resistance to the Russians. However, in my view (although this is speculation, please share your thoughts) this is unlikely to result in a total victory for Russia, France and Italy. The British navy blockades France and Russia (helped by the fact the British allied Ottoman Empire controls the Bosporus), meaning war materials begin to become scare. The war effort stalls. German nationalism reaches fever pitch inside the Rhineland- France has to deal with constant revolt. Russian industry, still not as strong as its contempories, begins to decline. Food shortages in Russia scare the regime. Trench warfare sets in on both fronts as the Germans dig in- the advances in technology had not been made to break trenches without WW1.

The war drags on until 1924. Russia is scared of its internal unrest and wants peace on favourable terms, and the Russians are still clearly on the front foot- at least for now. The British face war exhaustion, and with not as a clear a casus belli as the invasion of Belgians, begin to push the Germans to negotiate. In the Peace of Pressberg, Germany loses Galicia to Russia. In addition, the Czech Republic is liberated under Russian protection. Supplementary peace agreements leave the Russians declared as the protector of Christians within the Ottoman Empire, special access in the Bosporus and Armenia as a territorial concession. Romania gains Transylvania as it entered the war on the Russian side. Italy gains South Tyrol (although not the part that speaks German) but Trieste proves more of a sticking point (symbolic importance)- it is in the end declared a ‘free city’ with access to Italian ships. It is a triumph for Tsar Nicholas II- the agreement represents the pinnacle of Russian power.

The negotiations with the French drag on further. The Russians had sued for peace separately due to the unreasonable conditions demanded by the French (including crowing the Napoleonic dynasty as ‘emperors of the Germans), and also because they feared a too strong France could challenge their position of dominance. The Germans are unwilling to restore French privileges and so negotiations collapse. The Russians aren’t particularly interest in saving the French (that was not their objection to German policy) and thus the Germans begin to advance, breaking the trenches in 1925. Russia finally begins to react, realising a German irredentist state may want to undo the Pressberg settlement, if it was strengthened, and threaten intervention. A second round of peace talks is convened. France is facing huge internal pressure from socialists groups to end the war, and a similar situation is arising in Germany. France’s economy is collapsing as a result of the blockade, giving Germany the upper hand. France and Germany agree to a return to the 1875-1905 borders, but France has to agree to renounce any role in the politics of the German Empire. If it hasn’t already, the Napoleonic regime collapses on this humiliation.

The reaction in Germany isn’t too cordial. Huge divisions erupt other whether to accept and renounce the settlement. Although they eventually accepted, the failure to unify Germans in French territory is a huge blow to German national pride, and the emperor is forced to abdicate. The Republic of Germany is born, but it is under socialist and fascist threat.