A Diplomat’s Memoir of 1870 – Frederic Reitlinger

At a time when Englishmen and Frenchmen are brothers-in-arms, a translation of this curious and little known narrative may be of interest. It is a record of a somewhat remarkable episode in a stormy and remarkable year. It describes, possibly not without the inevitable bias of one sent on a forlorn hope, the necessary refusals of Gladstone and Lord Granville to intervene in favour of France. But, as the writer quite prophetically declares, the surrender of Alsace-Lorraine and the aggrandisement of Prussia were fated to be the inevitable stumbling-block to peace in Europe, and so “not without moment” to England. This we now know only too well. 1870 was to be the prelude of 1914. * * * * * Frederic Reitlinger was not by profession a diplomatist, though circumstances gave him this rôle for a brief and not inglorious moment. He achieved some distinction at the Bar in Paris under the Second Empire, and at the request of Napoleon III., made an exhaustive study of the co-operative movements in England, France and Germany. When the Empire fell, after Sedan, he accepted the position of private secretary to the head of the provisional government, M. Jules Favre. It may well have been his striking and remarkable gift of eloquence—attested to by all who heard him plead in the courts—that prompted Favre and the Government in beleaguered Paris to choose him for the desperate task of attempting to win over the rulers of England and Austria. The effort failed, as it was bound to fail, but not discreditably. After the Peace of Frankfort, Frederic Reitlinger devoted himself to his practice at the Cour d’Appel. He died in 1907.


It was the last week in the month of October, 1870. M. Jules Favre, at that time Vice-President and Minister for Foreign Affairs in the National Defence Government, summoned me to his office in the Quai d’Orsay and said: “You will find it very strange, but since yesterday I have changed my mind. I now wish to entrust you with another mission. I want you to go to Vienna and London. The last news which has reached us makes me hope for a change of public opinion in Europe. There is beginning to be anxiety for our fate; public sympathy seems to be turning in our favour and coming back to us. Europe admires the resistance we are making and is perhaps not far from wishing us successful.” In his grave and wonderfully modulated voice he described the situation as it appeared to him. Paris was splendid in its courage and enthusiasm; the whole of France was up and decided for resistance; South Germany was discontented with the iron hand weighing upon her, and anxious to finish a war into which she had been dragged against her will, and which was devouring her strength and ruining her country.

Finally, Europe returned from her apathy, was deeply impressed by France’s efforts, and looked forward to the end of what threatened to degenerate into a war of destruction which would seriously shatter the equilibrium and general interests of Europe. I am well aware that this picture was not true at all points; I know that there was much illusion in the hope which animated the Minister’s patriotic heart, of seeing Europe cast aside her inertia and raise her voice on behalf of conquered France against the conqueror … in favour of a great and generous people which had fought so much for others, and which was now defending its own hearths and the integrity of its national soil against a formidable invasion. To-day we know all the springs of that steel ring which encircled France and checkmated the whole of Europe by robbing her of all initiative and liberty of movement. To-day it is certainly easy to laugh at these generous hopes, but at that moment they were shared by all. And it would have been difficult in the great, brave town of Paris, where so much devotion, energy and patriotism had united for a supreme struggle for existence, to find spirits sober enough to consider the enterprise a vain one, or sufficiently far-sighted or discouraged to regard such generous promptings as illusions. You who have lived through the siege of Paris, try and recollect the tremendous change which the situation had undergone since the 4th of September, and admit I am not exaggerating. After the disaster of Sedan, when the enemy’s columns were marching without obstacle against a Paris shorn of troops, materials and munitions of war,—lacking everything that might allow of further resistance—everyone thought that the war was finished, that the defeat of France was consummated, and that resistance, even for a day, would be absolutely impossible. We were told at that time to “hold out” a little longer, to resist for only a few weeks, in order to allow public opinion in Europe to awaken. If Paris could defend herself, if she could only maintain herself a few weeks, we were told, the impression in Europe would be immense, and sympathy for us would revive. The provinces would have time to form an army and to come to our rescue, and Europe would be able to raise her voice in favour of an honourable peace.

Such was the language which official visitors to the Quai d’Orsay daily uttered to our Minister for Foreign Affairs; and even if the spirited population of Paris had not peremptorily demanded resistance, communications from the Diplomatic Body, (I am not speaking of their advice, for that they could not give), would have imposed on the National Defence Government the imperious duty of attempting a final effort. And the effort was attempted, and admirably maintained by the heroic town. We were asked to “hold on,” and we did “hold on.” The great city held out, and not only for some weeks. Nearly two months had passed since the catastrophe of Sedan, two months employed in organising resistance. At the moment of which I am speaking, Paris had already undergone more than fifty days of siege without weakening. Do I say without weakening? On the contrary, the greater her privations, the greater became her courage; the greater the wastage of her resources, the greater the strength of her resistance. A whole arsenal had been improvised, a redoubtable fortress had been created out of nothing. The ramparts, which at the approach of the Prussians were bare of everything, had been swiftly furnished with cannon, ammunition, and defenders; the peaceable citizens had changed into soldiers, the workshops had become factories for arms—in a word, this charming and beautiful town, the city of wit and pleasure, was transformed into a vast armed camp forming the centre of radiating sectors which united her closely with the ramparts. The spirit of war had breathed into men’s souls, and manly enthusiasm reigned supreme; unshakable confidence inflamed the most timid minds and filled them with courage.

And with courage hope had entered into all hearts, and faith had revived—the faith of soldiers, the conviction of success. All men sincerely believed in it. How could one admit that all these great endeavours, these generous aspirations, all this sublime devotion should remain sterile, that the intelligence and energy, in a word all the great and wonderful spirit of a nation fighting for its life, should result in deception and vanity! And would Europe, who was watching us and observing our efforts, remain dumb? Would she shut herself up in selfish indifference, cross her arms and assist as a careless spectator in the mutilation of France, in the humiliation of a great people which had fought so much for others and which was now struggling for existence? Would Europe allow the dismemberment of a great-spirited country, so necessary to the equilibrium and the very existence of Europe? Such a thing was not to be thought of. So it came about that, when we heard of considerable changes in the public opinion of Europe, and when it was reported that the Powers, astonished at our prodigious efforts, were not disinclined from joining their activities to ours in order to arrive at the conclusion of an honourable peace, we thought the news very plausible, and it found ready credence. And when M. Jules Favre, changing the purpose of the mission that he wanted to entrust to me before, and which it is unnecessary I should speak of here, asked me to undertake a journey to the Courts of Vienna and London in order to try and interest these Powers more directly in the struggle and to lead them into effective intervention on our behalf, it was well worth the attempt, and I was proud to be its bearer. Let me explain further. When the unfortunate declaration of war was hurled into the midst of a peaceable Europe sleeping in profound security, it provoked universal stupefaction and disgust. Every state had reduced its contingents, every parliament had terminated its labours, after casting a smiling and satisfied glance at the complete tranquillity of the universe. Every sovereign was making holiday, or reposing with gently closed eyes in the most retired part of his princely residence.

Every people was intent on its affairs and preparing, in absolute security, for the peaceful labours of the harvest. The entire universe was tasting the sweets of a general peace and resting in a quietude threatened by no discord. The explosion of the “année terrible” crashed through all these countries, awoke every parliament, stupified every sovereign, and irritated every people. The world was disgusted by the nation which had fired off the sacrilegious cannon and let loose the scourge of war into the midst of a situation which was regarded as the Golden Age of universal peace. It was France that had troubled this beneficent peace. It was France that, without appreciable cause, had provoked the frightful struggle. So much the worse for her if she succumbed to what she had herself unchained without a thought for the general interests of Europe. Such was the opinion, the “state of soul,” as they say nowadays, of Europe at the beginning of the war. France was completely isolated, in the most distressing sense of the word; that is to say, she not only had not a single ally, but not a single sympathiser. All her neighbours, States, sovereigns, and people, even her oldest friends, had turned from her as from a criminal who had destroyed public happiness.

But when, after disasters without name and precedent in the glorious history of France, the brave population sprang up again under defeat like a steel blade, when after the war of regular armies there commenced a new war of a people which would not surrender, but insisted on remaining erect and fighting with the broken sword picked up on the battlefield of its conquered armies, which insisted on battling for the honour of life and the integrity of its sacred soil, then her most obstinate enemies admired and saluted a resistance unexampled in history, and contemplated with ever-growing interest the struggle of a scarcely-armed people against the best trained, best led, and most formidable armies which had ever invaded an enemy’s country. France, which had yesterday been found guilty of commencing the war, became in defeat the object of admiration and a living image of the civic virtues; Europe recovered from her irritation and began with an anxious eye to follow and to desire the end of an unequal duel. We therefore had reason to hope that we might find in the great Powers, not only the sympathy with which everyone had been inspired by our resistance, but the firm desire to help us in our efforts at arriving at the conclusion of an honourable peace. Certainly I could not, and did not, hope to succeed in drawing either England or Austria into a war against Prussia. I knew both countries too well to abandon myself to such an illusion. But what we hoped for with conviction, and what we had reason to hope for, was that the European Powers, in the general interests of the future, would arrive at an entente, and would associate themselves in an effort to obtain from Prussia terms of peace less harsh than those which the latter had proudly been announcing ever since the first days of her victories. If Austria and England seriously desired this result, then Italy, that beautiful kingdom for whose unity France had poured out the best of her blood, could not withdraw from the union, and Russia, herself a powerful and precious friend of the old King of Prussia, would be happy to serve as mediator between the Powers thus united and Germany. There was, in fact, reason to hope that the Powers would come to an understanding with the object of speaking the language of reason to Prussia and making her understand, with firmness and resolution, that all Europe was interested in seeing this war terminated by a lasting peace, whose conditions could be accepted without humiliation and without the arrière pensée that a contract, accepted by France against her will and under the force of necessity, might be torn up in time to come. Such were my sincere hopes. What really happened disappointed these hopes.

But that does not prove that we were wrong in conceiving and attempting the enterprise, and there will certainly come a day A—perhaps not far distant—when history will judge that European diplomacy then lost one of the most propitious occasions for laying the foundations of a pacifist policy and preparing the era of general disarmament. Already to-day this dream might be realised, to the profit and happiness of all humanity. For if France had not been mutilated, what obstacle would there now be to the general disarmament of Europe? A NOTE:—M. Reitlinger’s volume was published in Paris in 1899. * * * * * We had also received divers reports concerning Prussia’s allies. Certain individuals, who claimed and believed themselves to be well informed, carried rumours which were really very extraordinary to the Hôtel de Ville. Bavaria and Wurtemburg, it was said, were tired of the war, tired in particular of always seeing their soldiers in the front rank, and ardently desirous of peace. One even went so far as to say that South Germany was animated by great discontent against Prussia, and that a breach was not far distant. It really needed absolute ignorance of the true situation in Germany to believe even for an instant such chimeras as these. It was certainly true that in the month of July, 1870, neither Bavaria nor Wurtemburg were enthusiastic for a war which the parliaments of these two countries had only voted with difficulty.

It is equally true that at the beginning of the campaign, a single small advantage won over the Prussians, even a swift march of the French army beyond the Rhine, would have been sufficient to expose Prussia to the risk of being isolated and left alone in her struggle with France. But the situation had been completely changed since the prodigious and terrible successes of the armies of M. de Moltke. At the beginning France was feared, and there was no desire to embark on a war whose issue was in doubt. So great was the anxiety, that the Rhine provinces made hasty preparations for receiving the “pantalons rouges.” It was already believed that France was on the threshold, and it was feared that she would cross it from one day to the other. But when it was seen that the French did not arrive, when the Prussians crossed the Rhine and won victory after victory, then immense enthusiasm, an unparalleled delirium, seized the whole of Germany, and the people would have dethroned their kings and driven out their ministers had there been a single one willing to separate himself from the common cause of the German Fatherland’s sacred war against the hereditary enemy. It was indeed all Germany that was against us. And it required absolute ignorance of her inclinations, of her tendencies, and of her aspirations, to seriously believe that discord could still exist in Germany after the unhoped-for successes of her armies. * * * * * It was arranged that I was to leave at once.

In order to receive M. Jules Favre’s last instructions, the day before my departure I went back to see him at the Hôtel de Ville, where the National Defence Government sat every evening until a very late hour of the night. That evening the Council sat till one in the morning. At nine o’clock on the 28th of October my balloon was to leave the Gare d’Orléans. * * * * * In the next chapter the reader will find a description of my journey; it was adventurous enough in all conscience, but I have not allowed the story of it to come before the necessary resumé of the political situation and of the sentiments of Europe towards ourselves. I cannot, however, resist a desire to describe a scene which I witnessed en route, and which moved me to tears. The reader will excuse me if I tell it here. He will not read it without emotion. Early one morning, in the beautiful Norman countryside between Eu and Dieppe, if I am not mistaken, we met a hundred or so young recruits on the road, freshly enrolled for the terrible war. They were very lightly clad, as if for a summer excursion to the country.

The biting morning wind whistled cruelly through their cotton trousers, and I felt my teeth chatter with cold, but these brave Norman boys did not feel the cold. They marched on gaily, singing the Marseillaise, and when they passed our carriage they waved their felt hats in token of gaiety, as if they were going to a fête, and, carried away by enthusiasm, they cried, “Vive la République! Vive la France!” A tear fell from my eye—one of those bitter tears that run silently along one’s cheek, like the overflow of a great grief. I wiped my eyes and whispered, “E pur si muove.” Such gaiety in the face of danger, such conviction, such sublime faith in the midst of so many ruins! Is not this the fundamental strength of the French character and its great superiority, in spite of the proverbial fickleness with which it has been reproached since the time of Cæsar? Is not this the secret of the immense resilience and strength of our country? “E pur si muove!” Yes, the cause of such a people could not be lost. It must force fortune to smile and victory to return to its banners. Everywhere I met the same enthusiasm and the same confidence in our final success, and certainly, had it been within the bounds of human possibility to repair the disasters of the terrible campaign, France would have accomplished the miracle and would not have succumbed. “Si Pergama dextra Defendi possent: etiam hac defense fuissent.” But against physical impossibilities no struggle can succeed; all strength exhausts itself, the strong will weakens, and patriotism, courage and resistance to the last, every prodigy of flaming love for one’s country, is impotent to effect the impossible—impotent to do what is beyond human strength. Many have criticised the desperate efforts of a people who refuse to recognise that they are beaten, and do not acknowledge the evidence of defeat; but these are precisely the efforts which, in spite of final defeat, will be written in its history in letters of gold. All the victories and glories, all the past grandeurs of the nation, pale in the presence of the greatness, unique in history, of a vanquished people which would not despair and would not surrender, a people which, when its Government, its army, its generals, all had foundered around it, alone remained upright to save its honour, grasping in one hand its flag and in the other the hilt of its broken sword.

* * * * * I was convinced, in the course of my journey across Europe, and particularly by my welcome in Austria and England, that France, who was detested at the beginning of the war for having suddenly lit such a formidable fire, had reconquered general esteem by the energy she showed in the midst of her disasters. M. de Chaudordy, whom I saw at Tours, gave me much encouragement in the interviews I had with him before leaving for Vienna. This gentleman was in daily communication with the representatives of the Powers at Tours and so was better able than we, who had been shut up in Paris, to give an exact estimate of the opinion of Europe and the changes it had undergone. He assured me that M. Jules Favre was right in telling me that there was a considerable move in our favour in the sympathies of Europe. He also, without abandoning himself to over-sanguine ideas, hoped much from this change of opinion. He thought that the efforts which I was about to make in the Cabinets of Vienna and London ought to be attempted, and that they might very well produce satisfactory results. Under these circumstances I was all impatience to leave and arrive at Vienna, since, according to my instructions, the Austrian Government was the first that I was to address. But before going to Vienna I wanted to inform myself as to the situation in Germany, in order to be able to speak with full connaissance de cause.

I left Tours in the first days of November, and directed my course towards Germany.

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