This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine


Exhausted and disoriented, Jean Macquart climbed over a ridge with his new friend, Maurice, and the other men in his company. In front of them they saw “through the evening mists a ribbon of pale silver in the immense panorama of meadows and cultivated land. It was the Meuse, the longed-for Meuse…”

Maurice, the student who had so recently been leading a dissolute life in Paris, was finding his new career as a soldier a shattering experience. The familiarity of the landscape gave him renewed strength.

“Pointing to little distant lights twinkling merrily through the trees in this rich valley, making a charming picture in the tints of twilight, [he] said to Jean, with the joyful relief of a man finding himself back in his beloved homeland: ‘Oh, look down there… that’s Sedan!’”

The date was 31 August 1870, the very eve of the battle of Sedan, a catastrophic reversal for the French army that all-but condemned it to defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. This was a seismic moment in modern history, for not only did it bring Emperor Napoleon III’s reign crashing down in ignominy and lead to the establishment of the Paris Commune (a radical socialist government that ruled the city for two months), it would also fashion a historical dynamic of enmity between France and Germany that would wreck Europe and the wider world in the 20th century.

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Macquart’s arrival at the Meuse is arguably the most poignant scene in Emile Zola’s novel La Débâcle, a true masterpiece which has been largely forgotten outside the author’s native France. And even there it has receded since its rapturous reception when it was first published 21 years after the traumatic events.

Although the penultimate novel in a 20-book family saga, known collectively after the main protagonists Rougon-Macquart, La Débâcle is as much a piece of reportage as it is a novel. As such it sits as a slight oddity in the highly literary sequence. But far from diminishing its impact, this style heightens the importance and authenticity of the work. Above all, Zola’s novel offers illuminating insights into the psychological mood of the French as they attempted to process the disintegration of their nation at the end of the Franco-Prussian War.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis Napoleon, or Emperor Napoleon III, has shouldered much of the blame for the French defeat. The diplomatic events leading up to the conflict demonstrated that, whatever qualities the emperor may have possessed, these were no match for Otto von Bismarck. The Prussian chancellor knew exactly how to play Napoleon’s ego, provoking the emperor through his presentation of the famous Ems telegram, which misleadingly implied that the Prussian king, William I, and the French ambassador, Count Vincent Benedetti, had insulted each other at a recent conversation over the future of the Spanish throne. Within days, Napoleon – alarmed at the rise of Prussian power throughout the 1860s – had taken the bait and declared war.

Bismarck’s genius

Despite his neurotic personality, Bismarck was a political genius whose ability to persuade friends, opponents and neutrals alike to act as he wished, raises him, to my mind, high above his 19th-century peers. Equally, his use of warfare to achieve carefully designed political goals, most of them domestic, was remarkable.

This is demonstrated by a series of triumphs on the battlefield, beginning with victory over the Danes at Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 and then moving on to the audacious defeat of Austria at Hradec Kralové (Königgrätz) in 1866. By making it a hat-trick with victory in Sedan, Bismarck achieved his primary aim – the absorption of the central and southern German states, minus Austria, into a new country, with the centre of power in Berlin.

Zola believed that blame lay squarely on Napoleon III’s shoulders. And he wasn’t alone in this. Victor Hugo passed the most withering judgment on the emperor using just three words: Napoleon, le Petit.

Sedan was the horrifying symptom of a disease that had coursed through the entire economic and political body – a metaphor that Zola deployed repeatedly in his descriptions of the aftermath of the battle. He believed that restoring France would involve chopping off many of its putrid limbs.

More recently, French historians have sought to rehabilitate Napoleon III in recognition of his role as a moderniser. Under his rule, the French started to industrialise, rationalise the banking system and, of course, Baron Haussmann redesigned Paris. It is worth remembering that it is Haussmann’s Paris that today makes the French capital the world’s top tourist destination.

But from his vantage point just two decades later, Zola was oblivious to these achievements, because the consequences of 1870–71 shook France to its core.

And yet, great writer that he is, Zola also sympathises with Napoleon’s personal tragedy. He and his ludicrous entourage, which was like a petit Versailles in permanent transit, trailed around behind the army as it suffered defeat after defeat. By this time, Napoleon himself was ridden with disease and suffering chronic pain while his wife, influential politicians and generals were conspiring against him.

There is something profoundly moving about Zola’s descriptions of Napoleon’s pathetic attempts to revive his uncle’s charisma on the battlefield, as observed by Maurice’s cousin: “[His] moustache was so waxed and his cheeks were so rouged that he at once thought he looked much younger, and made up like an actor. Surely he must have had himself made up so as not to go round displaying to the army the horror of his colourless face all twisted with pain, his fleshless nose and muddy eyes. Having been warned at five in the morning that there was fighting at Bazeilles, he had come like a silent, gloomy ghost with its flesh all brightened up with vermilion.”

Zola believed the rottenness had spread through most of the country’s institutions. He was unsurprisingly contemptuous of the general staff, which had assumed that the French army would reach Berlin within a matter of two weeks after the declaration of war. While equipped with detailed maps of the German states, the French military astonishingly possessed no maps of eastern France.

It never occurred to them that Prussian and Bavarian troops would cross swiftly and efficiently into Alsace before the French had even completed their mobilisation.

Equally, the military was slipping behind the Prussians in technology. The decisive weapon at Sedan was not the mitrailleuse – the machine-gun had been slowly developing for two years – but the Prussian breech-loading cannons manufactured by Krupp, which almost completely outgunned the French muzzle loaders.

After the Franco-Prussian War, France was compelled to cede Alsace-Lorraine to the new German empire. It was also liable to pay reparations of 5bn gold francs within five years, a circumstance that directly influenced France’s uncompromising stance on reparations at the end of the First World War, with all the economic consequences of that peace.

Out of the Franco-Prussian War emerged the original revanchisme, a powerful movement of French nationalism dedicated to the restoration of sovereignty over Alsace-Lorraine and to avenge the defeat in 1870. The seeds of the First World War were sown and they started germinating almost immediately.

Sedan and the later French capitulation at the Prussian siege of Metz were much more significant in their implications than the victory of the British and Prussians at Waterloo. Yet in this country, their significance is barely recognised. A pity. Zola certainly understood their gravity.

The fall of France, 1864–71

1864–66 French alarm at Berlin’s growing power soars following Prussian victories over Austria and Denmark

June 1870 Tensions intensify when a Prussian-endorsed candidate accepts the Spanish throne

14 July Bismarck publishes the Ems telegram, with the aim of provoking the French

19 July Napoleon III declares war on Prussia

2 August After rapid Prussian mobilisation, 380,000 troops are massed on the French border

16–18 August The French fail to break through the advancing Germans at Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte. They are forced into retreat

1 September Napoleon III surrenders following defeat at the battle of Sedan, but French forces fight on

4 September A new government of National Defence takes power in Paris, proclaiming the birth of the Third Republic

27 October Following a two-month siege, 140,000 French troops surrender at Metz

28 January 1871 Paris surrenders to Prussian forces and France signs an armistice

18 March Radicals establish a revolutionary government in Paris – known as the Paris Commune. It is defeated by French government forces on 28 May

10 May France signs the Treaty of Frankfurt. It will pay Prussia 5bn francs. Germany annexes Alsace and half of Lorraine


Misha Glenny is a journalist and former central European correspondent for The Guardian and the BBC. His books include The Balkans: 1804–2012 (Granta Books, 2012)