What If? 2 is a collection of counterfactual essays edited by Robert Cowley that tackles some of the crucial turning points in world history. Among the considerations of how the world might be different if just the right series of events had played out — What if Socrates had died at Delium? What if Great Britain had made peace with Germany in 1940? What if the Allies had failed to crack the German Enigma code machine? — is a largely forgotten war. What if, author Alistair Horne writes, France had turned the other cheek in July of 1870 and not gone to war with Prussia, a state on the brink of becoming a world power under Otto von Bismarck, who would become the first Chancellor of a unified German nation?
It may seem an odd question, but the Franco-Prussian War set the stage for the events of the 20th century, including, of course, the First World War. The months leading up to France’s declaration were calm and downright peaceful; in June of that year, British Foreign Secretary Lord Granvilled “gazed out with satisfaction on the world scene and claimed–with reason–that he could not discern ‘a cloud in the sky.'” Yet just a month later, “Paris would be besieged and within a few months starved into surrender, while proud France herself lay prostrate and suing for peace with Bismarck’s Prussians.”
The rising tensions started innocently enough. The Spanish throne had been vacant for two years following the deposing of Queen Isabella, and a faction in Spain had originated the idea of potentially filling the throne with a “German princeling, Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sagmaringen.” The idea of having Germans in control of the countries on her western and eastern borders riled France, and the citizenry became inflamed at the perceived injustice. While the Hohenzollern Candidacy would be withdrawn, tensions in France refused to subside. The issue was further agitated by France’s foreign secretary, the Duc de Gramont, who “held a personal grudge against Bismarck for having once described him (not unreasonably) as ‘the stupidest man in Europe.'” Due to some clever maneuvering on the part of Bismarck, who certainly didn’t fear a war with France — indeed, he knew that such a conflict could solidify the weak alliance of Germanic states that he hoped could coalesce into a sovereign nation, led by Bismarck himself — France declared war on July 15.
It would seem that France declaring war on a small state like Prussia would be an easy win, but the French were in no position to possibly win such an altercation. Bismarck’s shrewd ability to manipulate the perception of events through his interactions with foreign heads of state and the press meant that France was seen as an unnecessary aggressor, leaving her without a single ally. Furthermore, the Prussians were “the greatest military power that Europe had yet seen,”; they managed to mobilize a force of 1,183,000 solders. On September 1st, 1870, Napoléon III surrendered to King William of Prussia. As quickly as the war had started, it was over.
Jeff Withey, in this particular instance, you are France to Xavier Henry’s Prussia. You were in no position to try to draw the charge on Henry, yet you tried to do so anyway. It would be valiant if it weren’t so utterly unsuccessful. (Tip o’ the hat to SI.com)
Oh, if only you’d not tried to draw the charge, Jeff Withey. What might have been? Might Henry not have sized you up from the start, knowing that you would charge headlong into the fray where he could so readily defeat your best efforts? What if, my friend? What if?
Xavier Henry on The Dunk: "I knew it was Jeff (Withey) … He decided to take a charge and that wasn't the right thing for him"
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) November 13, 2013
Xavier Henry: Otto von Bismarck of the Dunk of the Year (So Far). Welcome to your history lesson, Jeff Withey. Here’s hoping — for your sake, at least — that history doesn’t repeat itself.