When war broke out between France and Prussia in the summer of 1870, one of the first targets of the invading German armies was Strasbourg. From August 15 to September 27, Prussian forces bombarded this border city, killing hundreds of citizens, wounding thousands more, and destroying many historic buildings and landmarks. For six terror-filled weeks, “the city at the crossroads” became the epicenter of a new kind of warfare whose indiscriminate violence shocked contemporaries and led to debates over the wartime protection of civilians.
The Siege of Strasbourg recovers the forgotten history of this crisis and the experiences of civilians who survived it. Rachel Chrastil shows that many of the defining features of “total war,” usually thought to be a twentieth-century phenomenon, characterized the siege. Deploying a modern tactic that traumatized city-dwellers, the Germans purposefully shelled nonmilitary targets. But an unintended consequence was that outsiders were prompted to act. Intervention by the Swiss on behalf of Strasbourg’s beleaguered citizens was a transformative moment: the first example of wartime international humanitarian aid intended for civilians.
Weaving firsthand accounts of suffering and resilience through her narrative, Chrastil examines the myriad ethical questions surrounding what is “legal” in war and what rights civilians trapped in a war zone possess. The implications of the siege of Strasbourg far exceed their local context, to inform the dilemmas that haunt our own age—in which collateral damage and humanitarian intervention have become a crucial part of our strategic vocabulary.
A fascinating and important history. The dramatic narrative of the siege, bombardment, and the ultimate capitulation of Strasbourg to its enemies makes for gripping reading. Chrastil’s story illuminates the conflicting views about what is ‘legal’ in war, what are the roles and rights of civilians in a conflict, and the wisdom and consequences of international humanitarian intervention into war zones.
Chrastil shows that the siege of Strasbourg, an almost forgotten episode of the Franco–Prussian War, was in fact a highly significant event in the history of modern warfare. Civilians, including women and children, became targets and victims of war, bombardment destroyed lives and urban infrastructure, and humanitarian impulses moved outsiders to intervene on behalf of those most grievously assailed by the instruments of war. The Siege of Strasbourg thus reveals that many of the characteristics of ‘total war,’ usually identified as a phenomenon of the 20th century, were evident in Strasbourg in 1870.
- 320 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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