The middle of the 19th century witnessed several political changes on the European scene. Many of these dramatic shifts centered on the states of France, Germany, and England. In this lesson, learn about the shifting political powers and changing governments of Europe during this time.
The definition of politics is anything but simple. According to Webster's dictionary, politics 'involves influencing the policies of a government.' Another piece of the puzzle is the process of gaining power and then somehow keeping it. As we will see in this lesson, these problems are far from new to history.
The governments of France, England, and the German Republic all faced political problems that divided their states. Many of you may have heard the advice, 'Don't talk about religion or politics'. Why? Well, because people are usually very passionate and opinionated about those subjects and avoiding them is a good way to avoid an argument. In the next few sections, we will talk about why politics was such a touchy subject in 19th century Europe.
The Third French Republic
The Third French Republic began in 1875 and lasted 65 years. When Otto von Bismarck and the Prussian army defeated France in 1870, the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon was over. Bismarck forced the French to elect government representatives by voting.
During this time, two parties dominated the government: the monarchists, who advocated the return of a monarchy, and the republicans, who wanted a government based on a constitution and elections. The men of France voted the monarchist party into a majority of the seats in the National Assembly. Having lost most of their political power, the radical republicans formed the Commune, a separate government that operated out of Paris.
Seeing this, the National Assembly confronted the Commune with out-right violence. Naturally, the French public chose sides in this conflict. For the most part, workers of both genders sided with the Commune, while National Assembly support mostly came from the upper classes. Interestingly, women played a large part in this conflict. For instance, they took on roles such as feeding and providing medical care to soldiers, performing scouting duties, and even organizing their own combat brigades.
In the end, the National Assembly soldiers succeeded in suppressing the Commune. Historians estimate that about 20,000 Commune defenders were killed. This conflict caused lasting political effects in France by creating an emotional division between classes.
Despite the desire of many monarchists to return to a monarchy, they could not agree on who should be king. Because of this, in 1875, they established a constitution that set up a republican government and began what we call the Third Republic. The republicans gained more political power in the elections of 1876 and 1877.
In 1879, the powers of the Chamber of Deputies were defined more clearly. During the Third French Republic, the Chamber of Deputies was a legislative branch of the National Assembly. Although the Third Republic continued to gain public support, several groups, such as the Catholic clergy, the monarchists, and the aristocracy, remained opposed to them.
The Dreyfus Affair
In 1895, the Dreyfus affair threatened the Third Republic. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French general staff, was found guilty of selling military secrets. After he began serving a sentence of life imprisonment, evidence of his innocence was found. Now, this new evidence pointed to a wealthy Catholic officer as the true traitor.
Since the army was predominantly Catholic and aristocratic, the new suspect was not brought to trial. After a wave of public outrage, the Third Republic ordered a new trial. While this trial did not overturn Dreyfus' guilty verdict, the government offered him a pardon in 1899, and a full exoneration in 1906.
This incident was an indication of the anti-Semitism, or discrimination or hatred of Jews, rampant in Europe at the time. It also fundamentally changed the National Assembly by placing control in the hands of the radical republicans who wanted to usher in a more democratic society. According to them, this could only be accomplished by destroying the influence of the aristocracy and the Catholic Church. The high-ranking officials who held anti-government views were ousted from the army and Catholic religious orders were expelled from France. In 1905, the French government recognized the separation of church and state.
Queen Victoria ruled England from 1837 to 1901. She was actually only 18 years old when she was crowned queen and her reign was the longest in the history of England. But this was not the only unique fact about her. For starters, her reign was so long and prosperous, it is also called the 'Victorian Age.' For such a prominent and imposing leader, she was physically very small, standing at a mere five feet tall!
You might also be surprised to learn that she survived seven attempts on her life. Most of those failed assassinations involved attempts at shooting the queen as she rode in her carriage. Amazingly, each time the queen survived, her public popularity rose greatly. Victoria was the first recorded carrier of hemophilia, a disorder where blood does not clot properly. Because so many of her royal descendants were afflicted, the disorder was also called 'the royal disease.'
While the period might be named after the queen, the power of the monarch actually declined in favor of a constitutional monarchy, which means that the powers of the monarch are restricted by a constitution. A series of legislation moved most political power into the hands of the voters and those they elected.
The Reform Act of 1867 lowered the economic requirements for voting and greatly expanded the number of men who were qualified to vote. This was an important step for working men, who were gradually gaining more political power. Women were still not considered eligible for the right to vote. In 1872, the secret ballot made it unlikely that anyone could bribe or force voters to support a candidate.
During Victoria's rule, the British expanded their colonial empire to places such as Africa, the Middle-East, Asia, and India. This caused some lasting effects that we still see today. For instance, since the English set up colonies in these areas, the English language was used by local people. Trade also increased between Europe and these countries. Poor treatment of the colonized also led to long-lasting feelings of resentment.
The Second German Reich
From 1870 to 1871, the Franco-Prussian War was fought. The French were defeated by the Prussians and forced to pay a large indemnity and give up several provinces. The Second German Reich, or empire, was ushered in on January 18, 1871 with the crowning of Wilhelm I as Kaiser, or emperor.
This event truly shifted the balance of power in Europe by creating a strong, organized German state. Despite a new authoritarian, or dictatorial, government, the empire had some democratic features as well. One such feature was the Reichstag, or German Parliament, with elected representatives. The Reichstag had the power to amend, accept, or reject legislation. The Bundesrat, or federal council of state deputies, also had a hand in legislation.
Otto von Bismarck became chancellor and basically only answered to the emperor. His powers included initiating legislation and virtually all matters of the state. Bismarck spent a great deal of time and effort promoting national unity and a sense of pride. Wilhelm I passed away in 1888 and his son, Frederick III, assumed the title of emperor. He lived only 99 days into his rule and the title was then passed on to Wilhelm II, son of Frederick III.
Because of this quick transition, this time is sometimes nicknamed the year of the three emperors. The new emperor forced Bismarck out of his position in March 1890. In 1912, the Social Democratic Party gained a majority in the Reichstag. The Second German Reich ended with Germany's defeat in World War I, which officially ended with the Versailles Treaty of 1919.
Let's review the main points. For the Third French Republic, conflict between the monarchists, who wanted the return of government to a monarchy, and the republicans, who wanted constitutional rule, dominated politics. Although the National Assembly did set up a constitution in 1875, this did not end the fighting between parties vying for control. Also in France, the trial of Alfred Dreyfus led to many questions about the way the aristocrats and the clergy influenced the army.
In England, Queen Victoria was responsible for the longest reign in English history. During this time, the power of the monarch began to decline in favor of a constitutional monarchy. In the newly united Second German Reich, a new authoritarian government with several democratic features was taking form.
After reviewing this video lesson, you may be able to:
- Write about the advancement of France from a monarchy to constitutional republic
- Identify the longest reign in Europe and analyze Queen Victoria's rule in England
- Have a discussion about the rise of the Second Reich in Germany with authoritarian rule and democratic features