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August Bebel Criticizes the Franco-Prussian War and the Annexation of Alsace-Lorraine in a Speech before the North German Reichstag (November 26, 1870)

The Social Democrats, who were pacifists on principle and opponents of the annexation of foreign territory, rejected Bismarck's plans to incorporate Alsace-Lorraine during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. In this speech before the North German Reichstag, SPD leader August Bebel (1840-1913) justifies his party's refusal to grant the funds needed to carry on the military campaign against France. He points to the likelihood of French revanchisme if the popular call for annexation is carried out, and he extends his attack to liberals, members of the upper classes and the bourgeoisie, and all those he labels pseudo-patriotic (and stingy) supporters of war. Interventions by the Speaker of the House indicate how close Bebel steered to the limits of parliamentary propriety in making his impassioned plea for a peace without conquest. Subsequent events, including the arrest and imprisonment of Bebel and his party comrade Wilhelm Liebknecht on sedition charges, proved that he was not forgiven for this principled stance.

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Deputy Bebel: Well, Gentlemen, people really have put forth the most diverse reasons for the annexation [of the French territories of Alsace and Lorraine]. They have argued that Alsace-Lorraine must become German for strategic reasons, that it must become German from a national point of view because in the past it belonged to Germany, that it must become German for political reasons and perhaps even for economic reasons. The press, to the extent that it has had an opportunity to express its opinion, has published sufficient arguments opposing this view. Commentators have emphasized – and I believe quite rightly so – that just as France failed during the current war to prevent the invasion of German troops, despite Alsace-Lorraine, despite her possession of Strasbourg and Metz, the reverse also applies: that one day it will be impossible to prevent a French invasion of Germany, provided that there is a particular constellation of circumstances and that conditions are perhaps more favorable than they were for France just now.

Gentlemen, the most recent address from the king to parliament states that one should by no means believe that the current peace treaty can guarantee peace with France for a lengthy period of time. It states that the French nation, filled with and guided by feelings of revenge, will muster everything to recommence the battle; that it will muster all means possible – perhaps not on its own, but in alliance with other powers – to re-conquer what it had to relinquish today. Well, if we are facing such a prospect, prudence naturally demands that we do not unnecessarily offend our enemies and goad them to revenge. (Great agitation, laughter.)

It is necessary to refrain from anything that might help drive France to extremes and, instead, to leave France today with what has been hers for centuries. This is all the more important because, after all, with the exception of a few dozen people, the entire population of Alsace-Lorraine is clearly opposed to this annexation. Undoubtedly, the entire population has not the least desire to join this German state under the Hohenzollern dynasty, and from my perspective the will of the people is decisive in this matter. The right to self-determination is the primary foundation upon which our decision must be based, and if we trample this right to self-determination, if today we take whatever we want without exception, then we are giving up our own right to self-determination in turn. In that case, we will also have to put up with others taking pieces of our own country when the opportunity arises (great merriment). The same reasons you are now advancing in favor of the annexation may one day be used against us.

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