Review: Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister To France During the Siege and Commune of Paris

By Michael Hill

The link between the First and Second World Wars is well and widely understood; Germany’s humiliating defeat, the subsequent loss of territory to France plus massive war reparations played a crucial role in the rise of Adolf Hitler. But 40 years earlier, it was France who suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Germans, resulting in a similar loss of land and another massive war reparation debt. In many ways, the First World War was merely round two of three.

Today the significance of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) is largely forgotten. To correct this oversight, historian Hill offers a fresh and lively way to reconsider its importance: seeing it through the eyes of Elihu Washburne. As U.S. ambassador to France during the war, Washburne witnessed first-hand all its major events—from the outbreak of hostilities to the gruelling four-month-long Siege of Paris and eventual French surrender to the bloody coda of the Paris Commune, where radical communists seized control of the shattered city only to be dislodged by the returning French army in a vicious street battle. Through excerpts from his personal diary and letters (along with ample historical context from Hill), Washburne provides a lively and admirably concise picture of the war and its impact on Parisians.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Washburne’s writing is what it reveals about the man himself. As the only ambassador of a major nation to remain in Paris, he worked tirelessly to relieve suffering wherever he could—sheltering trapped German nationals, distributing food, arranging safe passage and negotiating for humanitarian causes with Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck as well as the Communard leadership. Under his leadership, the U.S. embassy became a beacon of hope. “One poor woman who was left with five little children gave birth to another today. I sent her a present of 50 francs,” reads one diary entry.

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Review: Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister To France During the Siege and Commune of Paris

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