A conversation on the Franco-Prussian War and an exciting project to bring it life!
Intro: Today’s special episode is an interview with Jesse Alexander and Catherine Pfauth on an upcoming project they are involved in called Glory and Defeat.
Cathérine is a research assistant at the Ludwigsburg University of Education. Jesse is a historian, educator and higher education professional based in Vienna, Austria. He holds a BA in History from the University of Ottawa and an MA in Modern History from the University of Vienna.
The two are part of a team working on Glory and Defeat, a new documentary series about the prequel to WW1, from the team behind The Great War YouTube Channel. The Franco-Prussian War was a pivotal war in modern European history. It was the last great power war in Europe before World War I. It led to the fall of the French Second Empire and the rise of the first German Empire. Glory and Defeat will retell this crucial period in history in real time.
Quick note, when I conducted the interview I guess Zencastr defaulted to my camera mic, rather than my professional mic, so apologies for the lower than usual quality; thankfully my guests do most of the talking. Please enjoy.
Gary: Thank you very much for being on the program, Jesse and Catherine. The project is Glory and Defeat on the Franco Prussian war, 1870-1871. And it looks to be a very exciting one. As a European historian, I’m well aware just how important this conflict was. But for those who might not be as familiar, why was this such an important war?
Cathrine: On the one level, the war of 1870-71 is kind of the it’s the forerunner of the first and therefore the second world wars that everybody knows today. And we see in this war of 1870-71, the beginning of the horrors of the twentieth century. One could say it’s the first industrialized war in Europe. We see a mass army using industrially manufactured weapons and large numbers to kill or at least seriously wound a large number of people just like that. The weapon type alone is a forerunner. We have the mitrailleuse, which is obviously a forerunner of the machine gun. The field gun is more effective than the cavalry that we used to have. And also the home front is something new. You have for the first time a total mobilization, which is already very similar to that of the First World War. So that’s one level. But then you also have on another level the first German nation state emerging from this war. Before the war we didn’t have one nation that combined all the Germans, you had several kingdoms, you had duchies, you had much smaller states, you had free cities and everything. And now you have this nation state. And of twenty years before this war roughly, the phenomena that the people tried to get a United State of Germans, which obviously failed, talking about the revolution of 1848-49. And now you have this big nation state coming from above. So the royals and the politicians, they decided that they were going to do this big state. Well, actually, pressure kind of dictated that they were going to do the state. But yeah, obviously this would have probably happened even without the war. If one looks at the documents from the time that were already made for the southern German states joining the North German Confederation. But this way it happened so much faster. And then there is the more day to day, a more personal level I suppose, this level shows that the war of 1870-71 is especially in what we call Germany today, is still very pressing in our everyday lives today, and it’s much more pressing than some might think. We have a street named after battlefield’s, public places named after people like Bismarck or the Prussian King. We have memorials all over the place. Almost every small town has something to remember their dead from this war, and there were quite a few dead from this war. And people just don’t notice them. Or if they do, they don’t understand what it means. And obviously, if you look through German history until today, you will always find references to either the the Kaisereich or Prussia. The most prominent example examples I can think of, if you look at the Nazi era, you have the colors of their flag. You have a black symbol on a white circle, on a red flag. And those are the colors that the kind eyes used back then. Or if you look today, we currently have the European Championship going on. Unfortunately, Germany isn’t part of that tournament anymore but
Gary: Or France.
Catherine: Yeah, neither one is there anymore. But if you look down
Gary: You have to let someone else win occasionally. France took the World Cup. Germany took the World Cup before that. You know, they’re taking a break.
Catherine: We’ll keep the World Cups and they can have the European Championships. But what I’m saying is if you look at the at the jerseys of the German national team, they’re wearing the colors, black and white. And everywhere you look during this championship, people were wearing the jerseys as well. And if one knows where those colors come from, they will see, OK, they’re wearing compression colors because the compression national colors wear black and white and people proudly wear them today not knowing where those colors come from. So all of this taken together and there’s much more I could say, but will be all set here for a couple of hours if I if I left everything. It shows how much that the war still affects us today. And I think that’s important. You just have to know to understand and recognize that.
Jesse: I think I would jump in and sort of carry on with one of Catherine’s levels that she talked about more or less the national or the state level, because for me, this is, since most of my career I focused on the First World War. I tend to automatically sort of pick up on that aspect of the story of the Franco Prussian war. And I don’t want to force looking at it from a First World War perspective, but somehow it just jumps out so much that you have in 1914 the two, not only the two states that are part of the heart of the origin of that conflict, but the two regimes as well, because France, of course, then in the course of the Franco Prussian war, changes to a republic again, the Third Republic, and that’s the third republic that carries the weight of the defeat and the humiliation and to some extent, the Revanchisme although that, you know, I suppose it’s arguable to what extent it really motivates the French in 1914. There are different opinions, but it’s still carrying that baggage of its birth as well as the German empire as much as the German empire is in 1914. So I always found that part was kind of fascinating. And if I try to look at the longer scale of things, I mean, to me, 1870 is the first time in a very long time. Now, the 17th century is not my period of expertise, but as far as I can tell, that’s you know, that’s when France becomes the primary military power in Europe at the latest and then they’re not as of the late summer of 1870 for the first time. And that’s a huge shift in the balance of power. And now there’s this more powerful state that’s on the scene. And this obviously is going to have a huge impact in what happens in the 20th century. So that’s kind of that France is not the power anymore on the continent is a massive, massive change. And and it’s sort of crystallized in this war. And the fact that they’re not means that they don’t want to face Germany again, so they’re casting around for allies. I mean, they obviously found out in a very bitter fashion what it’s like to face a German confederation in 1870 without allies because they weren’t able to successfully get any of the other powers on their side, even though Napoleon III had some ideas in that direction. So who do they end up in bed with essentially in the decades leading up to the First World War? It’s Russia, which is involved in the Balkans, which makes Germany feel surrounded. So there’s kind of a cascade effect of this changing balance of power. And that’s kind of one of the themes that intrigues me the most, I guess you could say. Plus, of course, the commune is for, let’s say, the father left of the spectrum, an absolute watershed moment and and has affected sort of leftists and anarchist thinking and politics and history since then.
Gary: So obviously, quite a lot to work with. I do want to focus on one particular thing that Catherine mentioned, which is the role of the Franco Prussian War as arguably the first modern war and specifically, Catherine talked about the weapons of War themselves, machine guns. But, there is a lot more than that. And I know, Jesse, that in an introductory video you stress all the ways that the Franco Prussian War brought the industrial world to the battlefield. Can you explain what you mean when you say that this was the first modern war?
Jesse: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s the case on a different level. You know, it’s kind of very obvious. If we think about war, we think about combat. We look at what’s happening in combat. There are things like mitrailleuse and others. There are the breach loading rifles that are not fully issued to every soldier, but kind of standard issue, which is certainly a jump from previous conflicts. There is breach loading artillery, at least on the German side. But there’s also kind of all these other aspects. And Catherine also referenced this when she talked about the sort of mobilization. There are mobilization plans, there are train plans, bringing massive armies to the front and so forth. And this is something that is possible in 1870. That’s not possible in the Napoleonic Wars, for example, just because of technological developments. And that’s the last great power war before in Europe before 1870. So this is why I think there’s a good argument to be made that it’s arguably the first modern war. There’s also things like the state of the media and sort of public opinion amongst the educated and literate readership that you have, these caricatures that are being used in certain ways to demonize the other side and so forth, the speed of the media, the speed of the reporting. You know, the French are defeated in these two major battles on August 6th. Well, Paris has the news on August 7th and you start to see the cracks appearing in the second empire regime that eventually are going to blow up when [The Battle of] Sedan arrives. So I think those are some of the elements that go into making it arguably the first modern war. There are some, of course, who include the American Civil War in that conversation. I don’t know that much about the American Civil War in particular, not being an American. But I did read that Helmuth von Moltke the chief of the Russian general staff described, now, he’s not being very charitable here. And I’m not saying he’s right, but he described the US Civil War allegedly as two armed mobs running around the countryside and beating each other up.
Gary: Sounds right.. chuckles
Jesse: And he felt that he felt that there was relatively little of value that could be gained, even though, of course, they did have observers from both sides there. I did notice that, I’m not trying to make the case for the Franco Prussian war being, I think it’s OK that the debate is on the table. But the Franco Prussian War last six months and there’s about one hundred and ninety thousand dead. The US Civil War last four years, and it’s about six hundred and fifty thousand dead. So that’s more or less a two times higher death rate in the Franco Prussian war. And if we connect the lethality of the battlefield to modern warfare, then that’s certainly something to take a look at when we’re thinking about this question.
Catherine: Of war reporter called William Howard Russell, and when the battle at Sedan happens, he’s sitting on a hill in safety with a couple of other people, also war reporters and painters and so-called [?? German name] They don’t have serve any purpose. They’re just there to watch the war. And what he says or what he writes later, what he supposedly said was that he believes that this kind of fighting, that the man to man fighting, in close proximity is probably going to be the last war of that kind, and he’s quite right if we look at the history because as we just heard, it’s a very, very modern war, if you want to take an example from the artillery, for example, the artillery work with structured like factory work. So, you had timetable’s people had to show up at certain times for a certain amount of hours behind the guns that they used or the cannons or whatever you want to call them. And it was structured even like the fighting was structured like factory work, work that the clock in and clock out from their positions. And then obviously we have the the deliberate use of railroads to transport people. Now we have the phenomena that battles take place in places that could be reached by rail. Before we had the trains battles happen wherever ever they stumble upon each other. Now we have battles that happen in areas that were reachable by trains. And what we also have is battles being fought, especially for railroads or for the control over the railroad. There are a couple of examples of both wars where that happened. And obviously we have the ideological charge that takes place in the Civil War and also in the frank oppression war, especially in the second phase of the Franco Prussian War. And we have whole areas that are devastated, destroyed, and the strong involvement of civilian structures and deliberate destruction of resources was something quite new. It is modern, even though modern usually has a connotation of being something good. But it’s modern in a, I believe, bad way. Yeah, it’s something new that hadn’t happened before.
Gary: Absolutely. Essentially what we’re seeing during this period is the scientific management of everything, that being labor, transportation, and now this is being translated even into war. And of course, that will have pretty horrifying ramifications, especially later on in the World Wars. Now, Jesse, you previously worked on the Great War Documentary Project, which is on YouTube and which covered WWI in real time. Why did you pick this format of presenting in real time and how do you think it helps people get into the past?
Jesse: Well, I can’t lay claim to being the one who picked the format. The format came with the start of the Great War Channel in 2014, which I then joined in 2019. But I love the format and it’s one of the things that drew me to the channel when one of the reasons that I wanted to join the team, I think the week by week format, it does a few things that draws people in and it draws people in of different interest levels. I think part of it is the chronology. I think that having a somewhat linear structure, although, you know, academic history doesn’t always like linear structures and chronologies. And to explain certain things, you need to break out of those. But for this type of thing, for an engaging and hopefully even immersive kind of historical experience in terms of a popular history product like like the Great War Channel or like Glory and Defeat on YouTube as well. It really helps people follow along. And it also it does immerse them. I mean, we use the present tense in Glory Defeat, even though, of course, we kind of know that it’s all in the past. I think most viewers probably know how the how the war ends. But in a way, this immersion that we’re going for, we hope that, it in a sense, it’s going to allow people to feel some of the emotion, feel some of the dynamism, understand how these events affected contemporaries who are caught up in these forces of war. And the news comes and this has happened. And you’re a regular soldier and you’re doing your thing, but your army’s been defeated. So all of a sudden you’re marching back and so on. So we try to wrap those together and develop the historical narrative along with different characters of different levels of society in different roles and so on and so forth. But that doesn’t mean we’re trying to make it into a superficial TV series. We hope, obviously, that it’s far from that. We have to make some difficult decisions about what to keep in and what to cut out, as Catherine can certainly attest to. But we want to have that immersive, moving, dynamic narrative and make sure that it rests on the foundation of the historiography. Sometimes it means we really need to work hard to shoehorn in little references to abstract topics and things like that. But but we hope, we think that we found the right balance, although it is a bit of a balancing act.
Gary: Some people see the Franco Prussian War as, to a large extent, a battle of personalities, primarily between Napoleon III and Audubon Bismarck. Do you agree with this narrative?
Catherine: I definitely don’t agree with this narrative. Basically, you have to look at the people you just mentioned. You have Louis Napoleon, who was sixty two years old at the time. He was struggling with severe kidney colic and bladder weakness, and he had certainly been past his prime age, if that’s what you want to call it. I mean, he died in 1873. If I’m right. So he was basically at the end and he did not want the war. He clearly did not want the war. When it came to the war he tried to get his ministers and everything to agree to a diplomatic conference to push past the conflict and everything. But he didn’t count in that his wife, the Empress Eugénie wanted the war and she had kind of had a war party around her in the form of the Duke of Montauban and the minister of war LaBoeuf And they supported her in her goal. She primarily wanted the war to stabilize France for her son. At the time, he was 14 years old, called ‘Lou-Lou’ and she really wanted the war. And she pushed her husband, obviously, with help from the ministers and everything until he agreed to a war. On the German side you of course, have to Autobahn Bismarck, who’s known as the war monger, the master manipulator, the political genius who brought about the unification of the empire all around great guy, obviously. Well, this is a very common narrative. And it was constructed by Bismarck himself and especially the legend about the Ems dispatch, the reason for the war. I’m calling it a legend on purpose because this is kind of supporting the myth about Autobahn Bismarck. Then obviously many people, of course, remember the painting of the emperor’s proclamation, which places Bismarck at the center of this event. Obviously, if you know the history around this painting, why it was painted, why it was painted in that way and everything, it becomes clear that the reason why Bismarck is in the center becomes clear. But many people just forget that such a war can obviously and certainly be decided and declared on the level of those kind of people. So Bismarck and the King, Wilhelm I and Napoleon III, and everybody, they can decide and declare the war. But hundreds of thousands of men had to fight, suffer and die for it on the battlefields and in the worst case, even years after the war. So they are, it’s a battle of of of men or a battle of humans. I mean, and this war, like every other war, is a conglomeration of individual fates. They’re all connected by this one common event, the war, but they’re connected on different levels with different perspectives. And this includes not only the politicians are the monarchs or soldiers, but also, as I already mentioned, the civilian population, such as, I don’t know, Pastors whose parish is destroyed by a battle. The wife who has to stay at home, who has a child during her husband’s absence and tries desperately just to survive, an actress who rolls up her sleeve and starts a field hospital out of nowhere and in the middle of Paris or all the so-called flat people, the people that serve no purpose other than to look at the battles themselves or the aftermath of those battles and paint the pictures that we know today. They are the people that that forge the image that we have today of the war. Basically, they’re the reason we have those pictures or stories or everything. I personally believe that this is not a war of personalities this is a war of humanity. and if you send humans into battles up a hill to die for your cause, whether they want it or not.
Jesse: So I think there’s always there’s this age-old tension between individuals versus structures versus groups. And that’s something that underpins, as Catherine just pointed out in some detail, that underpins how we’re trying to think about how we present the conflict. And I think, yeah, the way that she summarizes it is kind of our our shared philosophy that we have. And I think one other element of that is, that’s important is that there’s a lot of disagreement within groups and structures about what to do. And I think sometimes the legacy of these personalities can overshadow the discord that underlies the different institutions, like there’s a heated debate in the French parliament, there’s a heated debate in the Bavarian parliament of whether they’re going to join Prussia and so forth. So, you know, when we mentioned that stuff, obviously we don’t have time to get into every detail about it. But I think that’s an important side of things as well. Though we won’t neglect, obviously, the prominent personalities in this story. They’re important to not only the leaders of the states, but people like Garibaldi ge involved, someone like Louise Michel in the commune, for example, the anarchists in Paris. So it’s another one of those balancing acts. But I definitely think that we shy away from the great men, a style of history as much as we can.
Catherine: Our goal, obviously, is to also bring a bit of education, kind of, in those videos, to be honest. And the main narrative, Jesse just mentioned, the legacies that come with those with this war, for example, you have the first emperor, King William I who later becomes Emperor William I. And he still looked upon fondly from the German side as, oh, he was our first emperor and everything, and almost nobody knows that he didn’t want to be an emperor. He was quite content being the King of Prussia, dealing with this Prussian stuff and everything and the way or how he became the emperor and everything is still important. And he wasn’t happy as emperor. So we still try to kind of reflect the different light on everything that happened and hope that maybe some of it will stick in the minds of people.
Gary: Well, I’m sure that it will. In fact, I was just about to ask about the project itself, because this is very ambitious. You’re presenting a video series. You’re doing it in a format that mirrors real time and using original illustrations. How else areyou bringing this episode of history to life?
Jesse: Well, here I’m completely relying on our team at real time history because, you know, my role is to present to the camera and also to kind of work with Catherine and Professor Arand to make sure that the scripts are as as tight and as smooth as possible. And it’s Tony and Flo and some other creators that we work with who are really responsible for making this thing a visual experience as well. And so every film team has tricks up their sleeve. And I’ve been able to witness some of the ones that we use in the past two years. I was surprised at the amount of pictures there are now. I knew there would be pictures of this war, of course, but there are more than I personally expected. Not all of them are available to us at a reasonable price in terms of copyright. But we do have access to quite a quite a few through through archives like Getty, like commercial archives and so on. With state archives. It can be spotty in terms of how quick we can get them, what their policies are, what they’ve digitized. But we’re pretty happy about that. Now, as you mentioned, we were supplementing the photographic record, which we relied really heavily on for our other 20th century projects with original illustrations. So we have a couple of different artists who are doing custom work for us. And so that allows us to do a lot of stuff that otherwise, you know, it’s tough. You don’t want to see me, my face on screen talking for five minutes in a row. This is not really what we’re going for. It’s not a blog type of situation. So we have these these couple of illustrators. In addition, we use animations. So we’ve got maps, digital maps developed and checked by Professor Arand and Catherine. And we use them to animate the movement of the armies. We’ve got graphics, arrows moving here. Who’s moving there? What do you mean? What do we mean when we talk about this region or this river? And it all will appear on screen and moving and even the still images, Tony, is able to say, well, of course, there’s a well known like Ken Burns effect and so on, but we’re able to kind of give them some depth and like pull out certain aspects so that they look more 3D just to add some diversity to that visual experience while the viewer is learning and is hearing about what happened. As I’m narrating, we want to be able to enhance that in a in a historically responsible way, in an accurate way with these visual elements. Now, what we also do is, the screen has some other elements to it. When we talk about statistics, you know, we’ll put up a graphic that shows what we’re talking about, how many men, how many horses, how many guns in each in each battle, on each side, all those kinds of things. So the whole experience is a package of all of that together that is sitting on the foundation of the script.
Gary: Now, let’s talk about the battles, which are going to be the military geek’s favorite part, I’m sure. What sources and methods do you intend to use to blow away your audience, especially those who are really into the military history?
Jesse: I mean, I think there’s a bit of a recipe that we’ve developed that we hope is a good way of bringing over the important information with some detail, because, you know, our audience, especially those who have been generous and kind enough to support us directly via crowdfunding, for example, I mean, there’s quite a few who are not complete neophytes. Right. So we want to mix in the general battle narrative with these personal details, with some tactical and weaponry details. And that’s kind of the mix that we hope is a successful and historically substantial battle narrative. But we’re also going to partner with a couple of other creators who are specialized in firearms history. And we’ll insert some little segments with them to kind of take a very quick, deep dive into, for example, the chassepot rifle and how it works and what it looks like and how it fires and all this. Not everyone has a chassepot available to them or a Tabatière rifle, for example, but we know some people who do. And so we’re going to splice in some some specialized segments like that. And now this is something that we’re still thinking about where best to use. But we’ve also talked to some folks who do computer generated imagery. And we can see where we might experiment a little bit with that in a limited way. We still want to rely on in some ways, traditional visuals done in a modern way. And I think that whole combination of factors hopefully will will, as you said, blow away the military history geeks.
Gary: The series is crowdfunded rather than produced by a major studio, which I imagine brings with it some difficulties, such as less funding, but also opportunities since it allows for more creative freedom. How does being independent content creators allowed you to make something special and unique?
Jesse: Yeah, I mean, like you say, it’s a it’s a double edged sword. Obviously, we’d love to have the budget of a television network program of BBC history documentary or things like that. At the same time, though, you’re right. We do think that being independent allows us to do some things differently and some things that wouldn’t be possible on a television broadcast. We can choose topics that wouldn’t get very far in a broadcasting executive office. Right. If you go to a TV History Channel executive and say, we want to do a six month series on the Franco Prussian war and we’re going to have lots of little quotes that will still be spoken in French and in German with some subtitles, I don’t think they’re going to see this as a moneymaker for their type of mainstream audience. But for us, we can go and speak to that audience and we can make this kind of documentary that’s just not going to in this format, you know, Arte in Europe, this kind of a cultural station, European TV station, they could do a one hour documentary on the Franco Prussian War, but they’re not going to do know five hours of material spread out over over six months. So, you know, we’ve had the experience where we wanted to pitch a TV network on one of our previous projects about the Battle of Berlin in 1945. And again, we had this thing, we didn’t concentrate on Hitler and the bunker, we concentrated on; What is the battle like? What’s the experience like for the civilians and the soldiers? And they said, can you give us something new about Hitler? That’s what this project needs for us to partner. So that to us is like kind of a non-starter. And for that project, we had a Russian historian come and talk for 18 minutes uninterrupted in Russian with subtitles about sexual war crimes on the eastern front in WWII. Now, we chose to do it that way because we know that our audience is serious about the history and we wanted to be very serious about the historiography of that particular topic. That’s not going to work on the TV Broadcasting Network. But one of the things personally that I think is the most rewarding for working is in this type of environment as an independent creator. Well, it’s certainly not the schedule, I’ll tell you that much. There are some there are some tight moments based on financial necessity, but it’s about our community of supporters. They’re really important to us and we have a direct connection to them. We have like different Facebook groups for different projects. We have a Dischord server as well for all of our supporters. We have our Patreon page as well. We get feedback from them. They help us with projects. I just had two lovely members of our community record, Spanish and Moroccan, and I should say Moroccan, Arabic and Berber names and place names to help me pronounce them in an upcoming video for the Great War. We know a lot of them by name. So it’s a really rewarding thing. Some of them provided, you know, family letters that we quoted from in previous projects. And that, to me is one of the most rewarding aspects. And essentially it overshadows some of the difficulties that we have, you know, being independent creators.
Gary: Well, that definitely sounds fascinating and it’s a unique thing that everyone should check out. The upcoming series is Glory and Defeat, which you can find on YouTube and support on Indiegogo. Thank you very much for being on the podcast.
Jesse: My pleasure.
Catherine: Thank you for having us.