Monday, December 3, 2012

"Elihu Washburne" by Michael Hill (2012)

Some of the greatest heroes are often the ones you have never heard of. Their deeds go without laurel; sometimes confined to the trash heaps of history. But for author Michael Hill, such could have been the fate of Elihu Washburne, America’s Minister to France at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in the late summer of 1870. The following fall and winter brought shortages of food and fuel to the city of Paris, and people there were reduced to eating cats and dogs, even their own horses, in order to survive.

In the midst of all of this turmoil and suffering, only one foreign Minister remained at his post; Elihu Washburne, an American of poor origins who was the recipient of much ridicule when he took the post offered him by President Grant. Before the crisis in the winter of 1870, no one could have guessed at the degree of fortitude he possessed. But, given the chance, he proved them all wrong.
The Franco-Prussian War grew out of France having remained neutral during the Prussian invasion of Austria in the late 1860’s. Their aim was to create a German Federation in Northern Europe, something they would try on a much larger scale in the coming 20th century. Napoleon III was not prepared to engage in a war with Prussia , and his policy of appeasement failed. Prussia invaded France in 1870. During this conflict, our Minister to France was the only foreign dignitary to remain at his post. And not only was he able to do that, he was also able to get 20,000 Germans civilians out of Paris; where they were in extreme danger. In addition he was able to keep several hundred more German citizens under the protection of our Embassy, even sharing his scant supply of food with them.

During the nearly 300 days of war; with the Prussians led into battle by their own Monarch, King Wilhem I, along with his military adviser Otto von Bismarck; Paris was under siege from August of 1870 through January of 1871.
The author has taken the diaries and journals of Elihu Washburne and crafted them into a highly charged and readable account of what it was like to be in the City of Light when the darkness of war took over. There were many heroes, and also villains, at work during the siege. Using the diaries of Minister Washburne; as well as drawing from the cables of American Secretary of State Fisk; the author draws a complete picture of a very principled and dedicated diplomat caught up in a storm for which he was unprepared, yet acquitted himself with valor.

With an emphasis on the causes of the conflict, Mr. Hill has given us the background necessary to understand the events leading up to the siege. In doing so he has also supplied the reader with new insights into the causes of the First and Second World Wars. But, more importantly, he has highlighted the actions of a single man caught up in a maelstrom, and through it all, gave his best.

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