Following the Revolution of 1848 in Paris, Louis Napoleon, after living in England, the United States, and Switzerland, joined the growing list of men interested in following the abdicated King Louis Phillipe into power. Elected President in 1848, the romantic nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte promised universal male suffrage, and proclaimed his support for “religion, family, property, and peace.” He decided after his three-year term in office, the people would support a suspension of the constitution in order to keep him in power. He overthrew himself, then ordered a plebiscite so the people could confirm his actions. He settled scores with old enemies and declared the Second French Empire.
The official declaration of the Second Empire, at the Hôtel de ville, on December 2, 1852
As Emperor Napoleon III, he participated in several small wars prior to 1870, not seeking to regain the militant grandeur of his uncle, but definitely committed to defending French honor and restoring the elan of French arms. As had happened in the 18th Century, a succession crisis in Spain became the occasion for conflict between France and the burgeoning German nation whose leader promised the world that only a policy of blood and iron would bring success and respect. Von Bismarck learned the deft political strategy of manipulating his opponents into declaring war on Prussia, and a weak and sickly Napoleon III obliged him the occasion on July 19, 1870 when the French Parliament declared war. In the course of the six months of war, France mobilized more than two million men, and Prussia more than one and a half million. The Prussians maneuvered the French armies into strategic traps and their superior weaponry produced overwhelming casualties. Prussia suffered about 145,000 casualties and the French more than a million in the course of the war, including the capture of Louis Napoleon.
Surrender of Napoleon III to Otto von Bismarck after the Battle of Sedan, September 1, 1870
The French nation was stunned by the swiftness and the severity of the defeat and a desire for retribution passed on through the next several generations. Within just a few years, fear and distrust of opposing alliances, a continuing arms race, and old nationalist memories, established the international political environment that would erupt into the First World War in 1914. Many dots connect from the French Revolutionary years of Napoleon Bonaparte to the 20th Century.
The proclamation of Prussian King Wilhelm I as German Emperor at Versailles, January 18, 1871