Recriminations over lost wars are usually bitter. Assigning blame for "la Debicle," as Emile Zola called it, was an even more highly charged political act than most post-mortems after national failures. The defeat of 1870 was total. France was occupied, stripped of Alsace and Lorraine, and compelled to pay a huge indemnity. The historical relationship between Germany and France had been forever altered, with a newly unified, economically vital, and immensely powerful Germany sitting across the Rhine in place of the congeries of small particularist states that had buffered French borders and whetted French ambitions for centuries.
What made the defeat all the more galling was that a struggle with Prussia had been envisioned for almost five years. The French Army had expended considerable effort and energy preparing for this confrontation. The French response was nevertheless inept -- starting with a burlesque of a mobilization that the war minister had declared in the heady days before war's outbreak "ready to the last gaiter button." The high command seemed unable to make the simplest decision, run the smallest risk, or understand such "complex" doctrines as mutual support. Finally, there was the "wretched" Bazaine's apparent inability to do anything more than hole up in Metz and eventually throw his army gratis into Moltke's clutches. No wonder there was talk of treason.
Predictably, republican politicians pointed the first fingers -- in this case, even before the war was over. Leon Gambetta fired the first round, in what was to be the Left's litany, in an open letter designed to rally the army to the provisional government:
You have been betrayed but not dishonored. . . . For the last three months fortune
has mocked your heroism. You know today to what disasters ineptness and trea
son can lead even the most valiant armies. Rid of leaders unworthy of you and of
France, are you ready, under the command of leaders who are worthy of your confidence, to wash out in the invader's blood the outrage inflicted on the anj cient name, Frenchman? En avant! 1
Gambetta's critique contained the essential arguments the Left would assert for the next forty years. The defeat was "the consequence of professional decadence." 2 The half-century after 1815 had nurtured a practorian system that divorced the army from the people and made it an instrument of tyranny.