European studies blog

23 June 2014

Napoleon III meets his nemesis: caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War

The ten months from early July 1870 to the end of May 1871 were among the most significant in French and German history. In a little less than a year France lost its hegemonic position in Europe to its rival Prussia and became a Republic, while a united Germany was created. The British Library holds a world-class collection of (mostly) French and (some) German caricatures in three separate collections bound in 55 volumes. The two larger collections (14001.g.41 and Cup.648.b.2) have recently been conserved, and are now accessible to researchers.  We now need to conserve the last much smaller collection bound in four volumes (Cup. 648.b.8) to ensure that it too is fit for use. In many ways, these volumes act as a taster for the collection as a whole, and in this first of two blogs, we will look at the Franco-Prussian war as seen through the eyes of French and German caricaturists.

France declared war on Prussia on 19 July 1870. The French Army of the Rhine, under the personal leadership of Emperor Napoleon III, invaded Germany on 2 August. After an initial ‘victory’ in an insignificant skirmish, the French army suffered repeated defeats at the hands of the superior Prussian forces and their South German allies. On 2 September Napoleon was captured with his army at Sedan  and imprisoned. 100,000 French troops became prisoners of war.

This factual German lithograph shows the arrival of French prisoners at Ingolstadt in Bavaria prior to being interned. Note the ethnographic interest in the colonial troops from Africa.

Captive French soldiers being marched into the city of IngolstadtArrival of French prisoners at Ingolstadt, 10 August 1870

This crushing and humiliating defeat led to the immediate collapse of the Empire. Republican deputies proclaimed a Provisional Government of National Defence on 4 September.

The French and German caricaturists exhibit a common contempt for the defeated Napoleon and a desire to humiliate him.

This dramatic German caricature depicts Napoleon III speared by the German eagle and consigned to Hell, while his family flees to England crying ‘We are lost’!

A German eagle stabs Napoleon III and he falls into hell surrounded by a chorus of vengeance while his family fleeBilder -Cyklus. Schrapnels No. 1. (Düsseldorf, Selbstverlag. Fr. F. Reis)

This image and text is a witty riff on Goethe’s poem Der Erlkönig. Here the horseman is Napoleon and his young son the Prince Imperial. The Emperor rides on, soon to be engulfed by the flames, reassuring his son that the looming devil is but the ‘gatekeeper of his kingdom’.
Caricature of Napoleon III and his son riding through a wood on a skeletal horse, with verses beneathEines alten Komödianten letzte Gastrolle – Erlkönig!

This striking French colour lithograph printed in Belgium shows a statue of King Wilhelm I of Prussia as the winner of the war in the macabre guise of a skeleton in uniform standing atop a mound of skulls.

Wilhelm I of Germany depicted as a skeleton standing on a heap of skullsStatue à élever à la mémoire du vainqueur et à l’ambitieux destructeur du genre humain. (1870. J. Dosseray, Editeur, rue de Prusse, 10, Cureghem)

On 18 January 1871, the German chancellor Bismarck proclaimed Wilhelm as the Emperor of a united Germany in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.  Adolphe Thiers and Jules Favre, the head and foreign minister of the new government elected in February, negotiated with Bismarck, but had to agree harsh terms finally ratified in the Treaty of Frankfurt (10 May 1871). France lost Alsace and a considerable part of Lorraine to Germany, and an army of occupation was to remain in North-Eastern France until the payment of a large indemnity of 5 billion francs.

In this image, standing astride sacks of money labelled ‘5 milliards’ (5 billion), Bismarck crowns Wilhelm who in turn grabs two women personifying Alsace and Lorraine, while a weeping France and a tearful Thiers and Favre look on impotently.

Actualité, La livraisonL’Actualité. Par G. Gaillard fils. Ce qui les attend!... No. 2 Mars 1871. Signed G. Gaillard fils. (Grognet lithographe. Madre, éditeur)

Teresa Vernon, Lead Curator French Studies

References/Further Reading

Jean Berleux, La caricature politique en France pendant la Guerre, le siège de Paris et la Commune (1870-1871). (Paris, 1890). 7858.g.31

Morna Daniels, ‘Caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune’ Electronic British Library Journal, art 5 , pp. 1-19

W. Jack Rhoden, ‘French caricatures of the Franco-Prussian War and Commune at the British Library’, FSLG Annual Review issue 6 (2009-2010), pp.22-24

Bettina Müller, ‘The Collections of French caricatures in Heidelberg: The English connection’, FSLG Annual Review issue 8 (2011-2012), pp.39-42

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