HL Deb 29 July 1870 vol 203 cc1149-56

My Lords, my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs having given me permission to ask him a Question, I now rise to do so. It relates to the projected Treaty between France and Prussia. I remarked last night that your Lordships and the country would be very anxious for further information respecting the Projet de Traité which appeared in The Times of Monday. A few days after its publication in that journal my noble Friend (Earl Granville) stated to your Lordships that Lord Augustus Loftus, the British Ambassador at Berlin, had verified the document as authentic, and that it would be published in the Prussian official journals. My noble Friend also stated that he had had a conversation with the French Ambassador, who treated it as a project which had never been seriously entertained, and to which the two parties had never agreed. Since my noble Friend made that statement to your Lordships, the Prussian Government has apparently published in the official journal a letter which Count Bismarck, the Chancellor of the North German Confederation, has addressed to Count Bernstorff, the Prussian Ambassador at this Court. That letter also appears in the newspapers this morning, and after its perusal it appears to me a document of such an extraordinary nature that I can only make use of the word "appalling" to describe its tenour. It is almost impossible for us, I think, to believe implicitly what it states; but I wish to ask my noble Friend if he will state to the House what he knows of the matter? The letter is as follows:— To Count Bernstorff, Your Excellency will be good enough to communicate the following to Lord Granville:— The document published by The Times contains one of the proposals which have been made to us since the Danish War by official and unofficial French agents, with the object of establishing an alliance between Prussia and France for their mutual aggrandizement. I will send the text of an offer made in 1866, according to which France proposed to aid Prussia with 300,000 men against Austria, and to permit Prussia's aggrandizement by 6,000,000 or 8,000,000 of subjects in return for the cession to France of the district between the Rhine and the Moselle. The impossibility of agreeing to this course was clear to all except French diplomatists. On this proposition being rejected the French Government began to calculate upon our defeat. France has not ceased to tempt us with offers to be carried out at the cost of Germany and Belgium. In the interests of peace I kept them secret. After the Luxemburg affair the proposals dealing with Belgium and South Germany were renewed. M. Benedetti's manuscript belongs to this period. It is not likely that M. Benedetti acted without the Empror's sanction. Finally, the conviction that no extension of territory was attainable in conjunction with us must have matured the resolve to obtain it by fighting us. I have even grounds for believing that had not this project been made public, after our armaments on both sides were complete, France would have proposed to us jointly to carry out M. Benedetti's programme against unarmed Europe, and to conclude peace at Belgium's cost. If the French Cabinet now repudiates aims, for our participation in which it has uninterruptedly laboured since 1864, either by demands or promises, this is easily to be explained by the present political situation. This paper actually accuses the French Government, in a time of profound peace, and of perfect amity with the rest of Europe, of joining Prussia in a violent attack on an independent State, which may be described perhaps as the most innocent and quiet kingdom in Europe. Now, it is not fair under any circumstances, but certainly not for us as neutrals in this war, and as old and faithful allies of the Emperor of the French, to accept this statement as true without hearing what may be said on the other side; but it so happens that on the very day that the projected Treaty appeared in The Times a document appeared in The Daily Telegraph, which I believe to be thoroughly authentic, though it was not official, and was in the form of a letter, signed anonymously by "An Englishman." It was not taken notice of in this House on Monday evening, for the reason I believe that the noble Viscount (Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe) was not then aware of its publication; but I regard it as a French comment and key to the Projet de Traité published by The Times. It states that the writer, whose name I believe is very well known, and who has been for some time resident at Paris, had an audience of the Emperor, that they touched upon the question of the war, and that the writer afterwards inquired whether he was at liberty to repeat the Emperor's words; whereupon His Majesty answered that he wished nothing better than that he should be represented to the people of England as holding these views. The letter, although not official, may therefore be deemed trustworthy. "The Emperor," says the writer, "proceeded to say— I had no notion that war was at hand, nor am I, even at this moment, by any means prepared for it. I trusted that, when the Due de Gramont had set me straight with France by speaking manfully in public as to the Hohenzollern candidature, I should be able so to manipulate and handle the controversy as to make peace certain. But France has slipped out of my hand. I cannot rule unless I lead. This is the most national war that in my time France has undertaken, and I have no choice but to advance at the head of a public opinion which I can neither stem nor check. In addition, M. de Bismarck, although a very clever man, wants too much, and wants it too quick. Alter the victory of Prussia in 1866, I reminded him that but for the friendly and self-denying neutrality of France he could never have achieved such marvels. I pointed out to him that I had never moved a French soldier near to the Rhine frontier during the continuance of the German war. I quoted to him from his own letter in which he thanked me for my abstinence, and said that he had left neither a Prussian gun nor a Prussian soldier upon the Rhine, but had thrown Prussia's whole send undivided strength against Austria and her allies. I told him that, as some slight return for my friendly inactivity, I thought that he might surrender Luxemburg, and one or two other little towns which gravely menace our frontier, to France. I added that in this way he would, by a trifling sacrifice, easily forgotten by Prussia in view of her enormous successes and acquisitions, pacify the French nation, whose jealousies it was so easy to arouse, so difficult to disarm. M. de Bismarck replied to me, after some delay—'Not one foot of territory, whether Prussian or neutral, can I resign. But, perhaps, if I were to make some further acquisitions I could make some concessions. How, for instance, if I were to take Holland? What would France want as a sop for Holland?' 'I replied,' said the Emperor, 'that if he attempted to take Holland it meant war with France and there the conversation, in which M. de Bismarck and M. de Benedetti were the interlocutors, came to an end.' Now, it appears from this that there must have been some pourparlers upon these questions. Your Lordships will observe that there is a remarkable point in these two papers and also in the Projet de Traité. The Emperor speaks of Holland, and says that Count Bismarck would have agreed to his terms if he had consented to give up Holland to Prussia; whereas in Count Bismarck's statement and in the draft Treaty nothing is said of Holland, Belgium alone being mentioned. Now, this country must naturally be very anxious for some elucidation of those contradictory and confusing statements. My Lords, it would be very unfair to the Emperor of the French not to give him credit for the loyal manner in which he has always behaved to this country. I know it, perhaps, better than any man, for I recollect that when I was appointed to the Foreign Office for the second time, in 1858, it was, unfortunately, at the very moment when France was in a state of the highest excitement on account of the attempt of Orsini on the Emperor's life and of the letter written by the French colonels, entreating the Emperor to go to war with England. That letter had just been published, and had created an immense effect. I must say, in justice to the Emperor, that it was to him, and him only, that we owe it that peace was not broken at that moment. France did not then "slip out of his hand." He held her fast, and gave time for the passions of the people to subside. To him, therefore, we owe it that peace was maintained between England and France then, and that it has been maintained till now. I need hardly remind your Lordships of the Emperor's conduct during the Indian Mutiny, when he offered a passage for our troops through France, as the shortest route to India; nor need I remind you of his conduct when we received an insult at the hands of the United States in the matter of the Trent. With these recollections before me, it is with the greatest pain—with the greatest difficulty, that I can conceive that those accusations made against him by Prussia are true. In some measure, we may say the same of Prussia. Although she has not had the opportunity of showing so positively her good faith towards England, she has, as far as I know, always maintained towards us an attitude of friendly alliance. It, therefore, makes it almost impossible for us to believe that these two Powers should have at any time seriously contemplated the violent revolution in Europe which these documents represent.


My Lords, the other day, after the publication of the alleged draft Treaty in The Times, I ventured to state to your Lordships that Her Majesty's Government felt sure that both parties would be desirous of giving full explanations of the whole matter; and, having expressed that desire, I was anxious not to delay in any way giving publicity to any explanations which they might officially offer. I think, however, that for the future it would be more convenient to your Lordships, and more advisable in other respects, that these communications should not be carried on by daily Questions and Answers, but that I should be permitted to make them to your Lordships at the fitting time. With regard to the present Question, I will now give an Answer, though it must necessarily be a condensed one. I will not say anything that is not perfectly significant; but while I communicate to your Lordships what has passed, your Lordships will bear in mind that I simply repeat what has been said to me, and that I reserve any opinion I may form on any part of the question. I prefer to read the English translation of the telegram which Count Bernstorff has been good enough to put into my hands. It is very similar to the telegram which my noble Friend has quoted from this morning's papers, though it is not precisely in the same words. It is as follows:—

"Berlin, July 28, 1870.

"Your Excellency will communicate to Lord Granville the following, reserving a further written explanation:—

"The Draft of Treaty published in The Times contains one of the numerous propositions which have been made to us since the Danish conflict up to recent times through official and non-official French agents, in order to bring about a Treaty between Prussia and France for the object of mutual aggrandizement. I shall send to your Excellency the tenour of another proposal made to us in June, 1866, also planning an offensive and defensive alliance, according to which France promised to us the aid of 300,000 men against Austria, and an aggrandizement of six to eight millions for the cession of a tract of land between the Rhine and Mosclle.

"The impossibility for me to agree to such propositions were certainly clear to everybody, with the sole exception of the French diplomacy. After we had refused to agree to this or other propositions in June, 1866, the French Government began to speculate upon our defeat, and the profit it might derive from it, and to prepare it diplomatically. Since the patriotic "pang" of M. Rouher, France never ceased to lead us into temptation by propositions at the expense of Germany and Belgium. For the sake of peace I kept the secret, and treated the propositions in a dilatory manner. When the more modest French designs with reference to Luxemburg had been counteracted by events which are publicly known the more extensive propositions embracing Belgium and Southern Germany were renewed.

"It was at this time, in 1867, that Count Benedetti's manuscript was communicated to me. That the French Ambassador should have drawn up this Draft with his own hand, and repeatedly have conferred with me on the subject without the consent of his Sovereign, is improbable.

"The difficult phases of French discontentment and warlike inclination which we experienced from 1866 up to the Belgian railway question coincided with the inclination or reluctance the French agents expected to meet with on my part regarding these negotiations.

"The final conviction that no territorial aggrandizement for France could be obtained with our co-operation has undoubtedly ripened the resolution to gain it by war against us. I have every reason to believe that if this publication had not taken place France would have proposed to us, after the completion of her own and of our own preparations for war, to enforce Count Benedetti's programme at the head of the two armies against unarmed Europe—that is to say, to conclude peace at the expense of Belgium.

"The Draft of Treaty which is in our hands, and which Lord Augustus Loftus has seen, is from beginning to end, including the corrections, in Count Benedetti's own handwriting, well known to the English Ambassador.

"If the French Cabinet now denies tendencies for which it has constantly tried to obtain our consent since 1864 by varying promises and demands, this seems very natural under the present political circumstances."


My noble Friend (the Earl of Malmesbury) has alluded to a letter which was published in The Daily Telegraph a few days ago. Now, of course, I can deal with nothing but official communications, and I can give no opinion whatever as to the authenticity of that letter or of its contents. The letter from Count Bismarck to Count Bernstorff was put into my hands yesterday morning; and in the afternoon just before the House met and when I had not time to digest what he stated to me in time to answer a Question upon it, the Marquis de Lavalette made a statement to me. The tenour of it I think I shall best state by reading a despatch in which it is embodied, and which will be sent off this evening to Lord Lyons. It is as follows:—

"Foreign Office, July 29, 1870.

"My Lord,—The French Ambassador called upon me on the 28th inst., for the purpose of communicating to me the purport of a despatch which had been addressed to his Excellency by the French Minister for Foreign Affairs on the subject of the pretended Draft Treaty published in The Times.

"In that despatch, which M. de Lavalette was good enough to read to me, the Duke de Gramont observed that the very form in which this Treaty was drawn up, and the terms in which it is couched, showed clearly whence it came, and can deceive no one.

"Those who have watched the course of European affairs since the accession to office of M. de Bismarck are aware from which side have come those suggestions which are now attributed to France.

"Ever since the year 1865 M. de Bismarck has constantly endeavoured to carry out his own plans by endeavouring to turn the attention of the French Government to territorial aggrandizement. He told M. de Lefebre do Béhaine, then Chargé d'Affaires at Berlin, that Prussia would willingly recognize the rights of France to extend her borders wherever the French language is spoken, thereby indicating certain Swiss cantons besides Belgium.

"These overtures the Government of the Emperor declined to entertain.

"The following year, immediately after the battle of Sadowa, similar proposals were made at Brunn to M. de Béhaine, and on this occasion Count Bismarck told him that the course of France was clear. The French Government should go to the King of Belgium and explain that the inevitable increase of Prussian territory and influence was most disquieting to their security, and that the sole means of avoiding these dangerous issues would be to unite the destinies of Belgium and France by bonds so close that the Belgian Monarchy, whose autonomy would, however, be respected, would become in the North a real bulwark of safety for France.

"Further reporting a conversation with Count Bismarck in July, 1866, the French Ambassador informed his Government that he reported nothing new in stating that M. de Bismarck is of opinion that compensation should be sought by the French in Belgium, and offered to come to an understanding on the subject.

"The Government of the Emperor, the Duke de Gramont went on to say, declined to listen to these proposals, and when, at a later period, they sought the rectification of their frontiers, they expressly declined in the discussion to mention even the name of Belgium.

"The Duke de Gramont then points out that if such designs against Belgium had really been entertained by his Government, it would have been easy to carry them out with the proffered assistance of Prussia, who was only anxious to secure the fruits of her victories.

"These suggestions were again made at the time of the Luxemburg affair. They were unwillingly received and categorically rejected by the Emperor.

"Finally, the Marquis de Lavalette was instructed formally to assure Her Majesty's Government that in these proposals the initiative was entirely taken by the Prussian Cabinet. M. de Lavalette then informed me that he had received instructions by telegraph to acquaint me that the document in the handwriting of M. Benedetti was written by him under the dictation of Count Bismarck, who wished to entangle the French Government in a conspiracy against the liberties of Belgium, and that then, as at other times, the scheme was positively rejected.

"I am, &c., GRANVILLE."

I have had a communication from M. de Lavalette since, to say that this is not a complete answer to the telegram which the French Government only received this morning, but that further information will be sent.