The dominant position of France in Europe was purely a result of the complete disunity of the rest of Europe itself. This disunity also deeply suppressed the entire European economy and everyone understood this because England in particular and France showed everyone the value of an united home market.
Luke Harding in Berlin
Tue 22 Aug 2006 12.09 BST
German chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Photograph: Getty
He was the man who famously unified Germany and ended France's domination of Europe. But new documents found in a dusty town hall reveal that the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck nearly drowned while swimming at the French seaside resort of Biarritz, an event that could have profoundly changed the course of European history. Records found in the archive of the local swimming committee show that a quick-thinking French lifeguard, Pierre Lafleur, plucked a floundering Bismarck from the waves. Lafleur also rescued Bismarck's mistress - 21-year-old Katharina Orloff - who had also got into difficulties during the trip in August 1862.
"The weather was good and the ocean was calm. But somehow Bismarck got swept out to sea by a strong current," Monique Beaufils, archivist at Biarritz's town hall, told the Guardian yesterday.
The rescue of Bismarck - then Prussia's ambitious ambassador in Paris, in his mid-40s - would prove costly for France. Eight years later, in 1870, he masterminded Prussia's swift, crushing defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war, ending French primacy in Europe. The Iron Chancellor went on to unify Germany, something that had eluded its kings and rulers since Charlemagne.
French patriots yesterday said it might have been better if Lafleur had let Germany's future chancellor sink. "If only they'd let the chap drown then France would have been spared a lot of suffering," mused the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, which reported the discovery.
The story, meanwhile, didn't end happily for Lafleur, a lighthouse keeper. He drowned in the Atlantic four weeks later. Bismarck agreed to be godfather to Lafleur's baby son, while his mistress - the wife of an elderly Prussian war hero, Prince Orloff, who apparently tolerated the affair - became godmother.
Bismarck recalled his time in Biarritz, where he met the French emperor Napoleon III, as the happiest of his life. "I have lost the illusion, that we can be happy again in Biarritz," he wrote later to his ailing mistress, who died in 1875 at 35.