‘‘Two Friends’’ takes place during a spell of fine weather in January 1871, in the course of the German siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. The effects of the war and the siege dominate the action of the story. The war grew out of rivalry between France and Prussia, the two predominant military powers in western Europe in the nineteenth century, that originated in tension regarding the European balance of power following the Napoleonic Wars in the early nineteenth century. Open war broke out in July 1870 when Emperor Napoleon III of France decided that the possibility of a Hohenzollern prince, related to the king of Prussia, on the throne of Spain was unacceptable. The two powers quickly mobilized armies on their border. When France declared war on Prussia, the other German states joined the conflict on Prussia’s side. Although the Prussian forces were led by Helmuth von Moltke, the chief of the Prussian general staff and one of the great pioneers of modern warfare. In addition to their superior leadership and organization, the Prussians had the advantage of new technology, especially the rail network and the new rapid-fire artillery produced by the famous Krupp works. Prussia also had recent experience of warfare in its 1866 victory over Austria. The French army, in contrast, was never able to fully deploy or establish regular lines of supply because of organizational difficulties.
After indecisive fighting on the frontier in the Rhineland in early August, the French army retired because its supply situation was untenable. This movement allowed the Prussians to split the French in two. About 180,000 French soldiers retreated to the fortress of Metz. Entering a fortress was traditionally a tactic to increase the relative strength of a force, but in modern, mobile warfare it effectively rendered them useless. The remaining French field army of 120,000 men was completely destroyed or captured in the battle of Sedan, surrendering on September 1. Emperor Napoleon III was one of those captured. The French inside Sedan surrendered on October 27.
The French government in Paris deposed Napoleon III and declared the birth of the Third Republic. Completely victorious, the Prussians imagined the war was virtually over, but the new French government balked at ceding the culturally German French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine as the Prussians demanded and decided to continue fighting. Faced with this unreasonable reaction, the Prussians were at a loss since they certainly had no intention of permanently occupying or dismembering France. Given the possible hostility of eastern powers like Austria or Russia, it did not seem desirable to leave the entire Prussian army engaged in France indefinitely. The German government wanted Paris occupied at once, but the army refused, not only to minimize its own casualties, but to prevent unnecessary destruction and loss of civilian life. So by mid-September the city was put under siege. The main Prussian army remained in northern France and attacked and defeated newly organized French armies as they took the field. In this way the Prussians defeated another half million French soldiers, many of them youths, old men, and women. The last such action occurred on January 19, 1871, when a French column attempted to relieve Paris and the forces inside the city (alerted by carrier pigeon) attempted to break out. This attempt, too, was easily defeated by the Prussians. Among other factors, the French in Paris were hampered by mud due to several unseasonably warm days. Perhaps this is the mild weather mentioned by Maupassant in ‘‘Two Friends’’ (although Maupassant seems not to have researched the historical chronology of the war too closely, since the Mont-Vale´rien fortress, in French hands in his story, had been captured by the Prussians before January). Tiring of French reluctance to negotiate, the Prussians began to shell Paris on January 24 and the city surrendered on January 28, leading to a general armistice. The Germans staged a victory parade through Paris on February 17, and departed the country, with Alsace and Lorraine finally ceded to their possession.
Prussia was actually the leader of a coalition in the war, consisting of the North German Confederation which was ruled by Prussia in all but name, and the southern German kingdoms of Baden, Wu¨rtemberg, and Bavaria, whose militaries had been part of the Prussian system since 1866. The Prussians took advantage of nationalist fervor generated by their victory to declare the foundation of the German Empire, which at last unified all of the German states into a single nation under the leadership of the Prussian head of state, now German Emperor Wilhelm I. The proclamation was made in the French palace of Versailles (for propaganda purposes) on January 18, 1871. After the end of the siege, the people of Paris, under the Commune (a sort of counter-government), revolted, demanding liberal reforms such as women’s rights, a widened franchise, and the forgiveness of at least the interest on debt accumulated by ordinary Parisians during the siege (when, of course, like Maupassant’s two friends, most of them could not work at their occupations). These demands were branded ‘‘socialist’’ by the French government, and the Commune was brutally suppressed by the army, resulting in 30,000 civilian casualties, far more that the Germans had inflicted throughout the entire war. French conservatives like Maupassant looked on the reforms demanded by the Commune as a symbol of the changes for the worse that modernity was bringing to France.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Guy de Maupassant – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.