In many ways the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871 was one of the most influential political events in the lives of an entire generation of young artists and writers in late 19th century Europe. The shockingly swift defeat of Napoleon III’s fractious French Empire at the hands of the industrious, Prussian-led North German Confederation, and the humiliating capture of the Bonaparte emperor and 100,000 of his soldiers at the Battle of Sedan, stunned the Continent. Subsequent events in the city of Paris, revolution, civil war and siege, captivated the interest of Europeans of all classes for months, some of whom believed that a major rupture in the politics of Europe was imminent as the extremes of the metropolitan right and left vied for attention and influence. Reports detailing the emergence of a democratically chaotic Third Republic in France vied for newspaper space with correspondence from Germany where a patchwork quilt of Medieval kingdoms and duchies were improbably coalescing as the German Empire under Prussia’s William I. For many late 19th century commentators and intellectuals any change seemed possible amidst the constitutional and territorial turbulence sweeping the continent.
One of the states with the most to lose from this radical realignment of European politics was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which feared the emergence of a regional challenger to its piratical global empire. This concern was reflected in the popular culture of the time, with the assumption that a war for primacy between the main Teutonic races, German and English, was an inevitability. From such anxieties grew the genre of pulp-like fiction known as “invasion literature”, which sprouted localised versions across Europe. In some cases the imagined dangers were domestic: bomb-wielding anarchists and communists in Germany and France or gun-waving Fenian revolutionaries in the UK (the latter movement in particular inspiring an entire sub-genre for British and hibernophobic American readers). In other examples the threats were entirely foreign in nature: alien armies marching and riding across the borders or disembarking at the beaches and ports.
One of the earliest instances of this latter phenomenon was George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer, issued in 1871, which detailed an attempted conquest of Britain by an unnamed but suspiciously Germanic-sounding enemy. While undoubtedly controversial it was also hugely successful, with numerous reprints, letters to the newspapers and even music-hall songs. Most other works copied this same template, though HG Wells chose to subvert the genre with his science-fiction invasion adventure, The War of the Worlds, in 1897. However the most influential publications of the era were probably the 1903 novel, The Riddle of the Sands, by the Irish author and later freedom-fighter Erskine Childers, and William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 (first serialised in 1906). The former, at least, remains in print to the present day.
Oddly, as Brexit paranoia devours mainstream discourse in the contemporary United Kingdom, with ministerial and press talk of malevolent conspiracies among the nations of Europe to thwart the UK’s desire for global influence, the country’s cultural hue is slowly coming to resemble that of its pre-Great War past. The suggestion by some Brexiteers that a period of financial hardship caused by a no-deal withdrawal from the European Union would be an edifying thing for the British people brings to mind the claims of politicians in the early 1900s that a damn good war was needed to put some fire into the belly of England’s callow and feckless youth. To remind them of their ascendant place in the natural and man-made order of things.
In any case, here is the YouTube cultural-commentator Lindsay Ellis with an interesting take on some modern examples of invasion literature. Albeit, of the cinematic variety.