“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”-Otto von Bismarck
Holy Roman Empire, Birth of Habsburg-Hohenzollern Rivalry
The Unification of Germany is a story of politics, ideologies,
In the lands now belongs to Germany, Poland, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Czechia, Luxemburg, and France there was a Political Union called Holy Roman Empire. It consisted of more than 400 small duchies, baronies, archbishoprics, counties, and free cities. Highly decentralized, the emperor held little power over its subjects, in fact, Voltaire once called it: ‘’Neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire’’
Calling it a German State is not accurate as:
- It was not a functional state, even in the Medieval times, It didn’t become a unified political entity such as France or Spain
- It consisted of not only Germans but Swisses, Poles, Dutch, Czechs, Silesians and many more people
- The idea of ‘’being German’’ was not present among
mostpopulation in medieval times.
The major political power in this fragmented Empire was the Habsburgs, one of the most long-lasting and influential dynasties in European History. Not only they were the uninterrupted Emperors of HRE
This dominance was challanged by Kingdom of Prussia, ruled by von Hohenzollern dynasty in the 18th Century. Hohenzollerns ruled over northern part of Germany. Even though they ruled over relatively poor land, Hohenzollerns managed to make Prussia one of the majör Powers in Europe.
The Prussia – Austria rivalry sparked in Silesian Wars between 1740 – 1763. Even though Austrian had a larger army and more resources, highly drilled and disciplined Prussian troops defeated the Austrians in several battles and took control of the Silesia region. This rivalry remained an important aspect in Unification as both Powers sought to dominate over minör German States.
19th century brought 2 things to Germans: Nationalism and Napoleon. Napoleon defeated the HRE, Britain and Russia in the Battle of the 3rd Coalition and annexed territories East of the Rhine river. He also declared the end of the Holy Roman Empire, split it’s territory between lesser German states such as Kingdom of Bavaria and Kingdom of Württemberg but most importantly, he created the Confederation of Rhine. Napoleon aimed to create a controllable sattelite so he disbanded most of small duchies, free cities and archbishrophics and merged them into the confederation. This state was abolished after Napoleon’s defeat in the War of the 7th Coalition but, in a way, it sparked the idea of an unified Germany. The defeat and subjugation under French rule had unified the Germanic people under an ‘’German’’ identity and this trend was also fueled by spreading ideas of Liberalism and Nationalism.
After the French defeat at Waterloo in 1815, major European Powers called the Congress of Vienna to discuss the future of the continent. Number of German States were dropped to 39 and splat between Austrian and Prussian zones of influence. The German Confederation, a loose confederation of German states was established and it was dominated by Austria. This fragmantation was advantageus for Austria who wanted to continue it’s domination on German States but it dissapointed the rising nationalists who wanted an unified Germany. Austria’s efforts were to the continuation of the Status Quo as the Austrian Empire wasn’t only populated by ethnic Germans. Still, despite the lack of German population, they held hegemony over lands.
Meanwhile in the North, Prussia was creating it’s own sphere of influence. In 1833, they created the Zollverein, the first customs union in history. Until 1866, almost all German states aside from Austria had been included in the Custom Union, opening up the tolls between borders. The first German Railway, the Bavarian Ludwig Railway, was opened in 1835. It became more popular as time progressed and more lines opened between German States therefore increasing transportation between them. The research of Grimm Brothers about similarities in Folk tales among different regions also inspired many Romantics of the age.
Unrest and Failed Revolution of 1848
Ideas like Liberalism, republicanism and nationalism were spreading like wildfire across Germany. Encouraged by the successful July Revolution in France, German youth and the Intellectuals were getting increasingly discontent as the old Monarchs were reluctant to give away their autonomies and their ancient powers. Demonstrations and insurrections aiming for a unified Germany and liberal ideas were being suppressed by the police and the increasing cencorship. This period between 1830 and 1848 was called Vörmütz.
1848 was an exceptional year for Europe as several uprisings erupted across Europe, inspired by France’s February revolution. All across German countries, people, led by intellectuals and students had rosen up for political rights and unification. In most places, army had to intervene to put down the insurrection. Some monarchs gave some concessions, soon to be taken back. Only the king of Bavaria, Ludwig I had abducated, succeeded by Maxmillian II, who proposed some popular reforms but kept his grip on government.
Representatives from all German states met on Frankfurt and established the ‘’German National Assembly’’ It claimed to represent all German States and a drafted a constitution for a unified German State. This draft was offered to the Prussian King Frederick Wilhelm IV with the chance of being the king of all Germans. But he rejected the offer, calling it a ‘’pig’s crown’’. The legitimacy of the assembly was solely on goodwill of the monarchs and as their proposal was rejected, they disbanded themselves. Overall the Revolutions of 1848 failed all over Germany but still, dream of an unified Germany was alive and well.
Erfurt Union and Punctuation of Olmütz
In the year 1850, Prussian Chief Minister Joseph Maria von Radowicz suggested a new union of German States. With initial support from Saxony and Hannover, they called the heads of German States for a meeting in Erfurt to form a new parliament for a new union with Prussia and Austria sharing power. A draft constitution brought for election in Parliament but ended up as a disaster. Democrats boycotted the election and Saxony and Hannover pulled back their supports. The constitution was accepted with a minority vote and never had a serious effect.
Meanwhile Austria was recovering from some problems such as an insurgence in Hungary and resignation of their masterful diplomat Klemens von Metternich during 1848 revolutions. They encouraged the Princes to abondon the Erfurt attempt and resurrect the German Confederation. Meanwhile a dispude regarding the Electorate of Hesse caused Prussia to mobilise against Austra but their ally, Russia’s intervention caused them to back down.
On November 29th 1850, Treaty of Olmütz was signed between Prussia and Austria. Prussia accepted the restoration of German Confederation undur Austrian dominance and gave up the idea of Erfurt Union and demobilised. This treaty is also known as Humiliation of Olmütz by Prussians as they simply accepted Austrian dominance and this situation raised hostilities between two nations.
‘’The German Question’’ was a debate that had been argued over best way to achieve unification. Two different proposals were made: Grossdeutschland and Kleindeutschland. Grossdeutchland was proposed by Austria, suggesting that the von Habsburg dynasty was ruling over Germany for more than 400 years therefore they were best suited to rule an unified German Nation. The Kleindeutschland plan, backed by Prussia, suggested that the Austrian Empire was not a native German state as lots of diffrent peoples such as Poles, Hungarians, Czechs were living in the Empire. Prussia on the other hand, was the most powerful country with a almost native German population therefore they were suited to rule over an Unified Germany and Austria should be excluded from it. This debate was more political than intellectual in nature and it was resolved in battlefield as a new actor who played a pivotal role in unification stepped in: Otto von Bismarck.
‘’The Iron Chanchellor’’
Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck was born in 1st of April 1815, Schönhausen. Born into a rich and well connected family, Bismarck studied in varius Universities in Germany. His political career had begun when he was chosen as a representative in Vereinigter Landtag, provincial assembly. In 1861, King Wilhelm I appointed Bismarck as the Minister-President of Prussia.
Bismarck was a conservative politician, he believed in rule of god rather than rule of the people. In his famous speech on 1862 in Prussian Chamber of Deputies, he said: ‘’…The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood.’’ Bismarck had changed the nature of the unification idea from an progressive and liberal character of 1848 revolutions to more conservative concept of ‘’Reelpolitik’’
Bismarck believed in power, both in external and internal policies. He once said: ‘’In politics, no one does anything for another, unless he also finds it in his own interest’’ Rather than acting according to ideals, Bismarck created policies according to situations all aiming for the goals. He believed that the moral duty of a statesman is to promote state’s interests and increase it’s power both internally and externally, somewhat in a Machiavellian way.
Wars and Politics of Unification
Aside from being a militaristic patriot, Bismarck was also a shrewd diplomat. He knew that if he wanted to unite Germans, he needed an external threat, something to bound them together. 3 wars had been fought between 1862 – 1871: Second Schleiswig War against Denmark, Austro – Prussian War against Austria and Franco – Prussian War against France.
Second Schleswig War:
Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein were located in Jutland Penninsula between German States and Denmark and had been vassal to the Danish Crown since 13th century. These areas, especially Holstein, was mostly populated by ethnic Germans rather than Danes, therefore the Duchy of Holstein was included in German Confederation but still was a subject to Denmark – along with Schleswig. This situation bore the ‘’Schleswig – Holstein Problem’’. This issue was further complicated by nationalists from both sides and diffrence between inheritance rules in countries. British statesman Lord Palmerston is reported to have said: “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”
Danish attempt to incorporate Schleswig resulted in a German uprising, supported by Prussia. In First Schleswig War lasted for three years (1848-51) and resulted in Danish victory. London Protocol was signed and Danish King formed Personal Union over Danish fief Schleswig and German fief Holstein, ruling over them but kept them as independent duchies.
The Danish Constitution which was accepted in 1863, considered the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein as part of Denmark. German Confederation protested as this was a violation of the London Protocol. Danes refused to step back and Second Schleswig War had erupted between Denmark and German Confederation, mainly Austria and Prussia. Combined German forces swiftly defeated the Danes and forced them to renounce their claims over Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein.
Fate of the duchies were decided with Convention of Badgastein. Prussia recieved Schleswig and Austria Holstein. This situation was prone to create further tension between them, which Bismarck exploited perfectly.
Austro – Prussian War:
Immediately after Second Schleswig War, problems over administration of Schleswig-Holstein erupted. This gave the oppurtunity that Bismarck wanted, a Casus Belli against Austria to challenge their dominance over German lands.
In 1863 incresing complications over logistics for ruling the Holstein had caused Austria to call the Confederate Diet – only organ of German Confederation- to decide the issue. Bismarck considered this as a violation of the Convention of Badgastein therefore declared the agreement nullified and occupied Austrian domain of Holstein. This was considered an aggression and when Confederte Diet agreed on partial mobilization against Prussia, Bismarck declared that German Confederation had ended.
It’s not clear if Bismarck had orchestrated all this just acted according to events. Bismarck had always been realistic on international relations. He never simply declared war but used diplomacy to provoke the opposing party to attack him and pose the Prussia as a defender rather than aggressor. This policy repeated and orchestrated even more masterfully against France in the Franco-Prussian War.
“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win” Sun Tzu wrote theese words on his masterpiece, The Art of War. Before the war, Bismarck set a perfect diplomatic stage for war. He allied himself with Italy who was fighting against Austria for decades. He made sure that no foreign power, particulary France and Russia, was in intention or shape to intervene in war. As an authoritarian leader, he kept control over media in Prussia and perfectly united it’s population behind him by showing itself as a victim of Austrian agression, even though he was the one who actually wanted war.
Most of the Southern German Princes rallied behind Austria with the intention of keeping their thrones, meanwhile Prussia managed to ally himself with several minör duchies in Northern Germany. Alliances roughly looked like this when the war began:
Battle was decided in Battle of Königgratz where Prussian forces decisively defeated Austrian and Saxonian forces. The details of the battle and overall the war is out of our subject but to summarise, Prussia owed his victory to superior organisation, training and leadership under Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke and their trump card, Dreyse needle gun, first breech loading rifle. It reloaded much faster than Austrian Muzzle Loading rifles and could be reloaded in cover therefore enabled Prussian army to pack much superior firepower.
Aftermath of War
After the Battle of Königgratz, Austria understood that the war could not be won and called for peace. The Peace of Prague was signed 23 August 1866.
According to peace deal Austria was to cede the province of Venetia to France ( Which later tranferred to Italy according to a secret agreement ) and paid a war indemnity of 40 million thalers. They also lost all their influence on Souther German states, left them independent. Aside from annexation of Holstein, Prussia didn’t demand anymore land which caused some tension between Prime Minister Bismarck and King Wilhelm I. King Wilhelm could’t simply understand why Prussia marched on Vienna and demanded territory as they simply won the war. But Bismarck thougt much further. He understood that Austria could be a valuable ally and without them, Prussia could be alone in case od an hostility with a foreign power. That’s why he kept Austria intact and avoided to humiliate them. Argument between King and Bismarck escelated and only by threatening the King of resignation convinced the him on his terms.
Bismarck wasn’t that gentle towards Austra’s allies however. Duchies of Hannover, Nassau, Hesse-Kassel and Frankfurt were annexed by Prussia. Others such as Saxony were spared by annexation. The German Confederation was disbanded.
This was a majör shift of balance as von Habsburgs lost all their power on German lands, later they were excluded from an Unified Germany, leading to victory of the Kleindeutschland idea.
The North German Confederation
During the Austro-Prussian War, Bismarck secretly sent a dispatch to the Prussian envoys in German countries which containing the first draft constitution of North German Confederation. After the Battle of Königgratz and 5 days before peace of Prague, on 18th of August, the agreement was signed by 22 German states and laid the foundation of North German Confederation. According to the agreement, all sides were to form a Reichstag which will have the authority to accept the constitution. With the acceptance of the Constitution by Reichstag at 1st of July 1867, the North German Confederation officially became a federal state.
The North German Confederation had two main legislative organs: Reichstag, whose members were elected by Universal Suffrage ( every male over 25 ) and Bundestag, whose delegates were appointed by Member States. The State was legally a Constitutional Monarchy with King of Prussia as the head of the State.
North German Confederation was far more unified than previous German Confederation, it’s constitution and organs were far more powerful an even thought it was called a confederation, after 1st of July 1867, it was a Federal German State with a constitution.
Austria was kept out of the State. Prussia made pressure on Southern German states to join their customs union, which succeeded. They were now the ultimate leader of Germans and the only thing Bismarck needed to unify Southern Germany is an external threat, which he created perfectly against their soon to be rival: France.
Last war on the Unification of Germany was the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.
Having defeated the Austrians and established dominance over Germany, Prussia shook the Balance of Power in Europe which had been set in the Congress of Vienna. France, who had been the dominant power in mainland Europe saw his dominance being matched by the Prussians. Their dissapointment towards the Peace of Prague, where they were promised the duchy of Luxemburg for their neutrality but instead Prussia declared it’s independence, caused distrust between two Powers.
Following their military organisation in 1866, the French were confident in their military capabilities. A war against Prussia was not something that France would shrink from, in fact it can be said that a victory against Prussia would be something that French Emperor Napoleon III sought of as his popularity was dwindling in the State. Bismarck knowing this, saw this as an oppurtunity to unite the remaining Southern German states, particularly the Kingdom of Bavaria. They were reluctant towards an unification mainly due to protect their sovereignity and partly due to religous concerns as the Southern Germany was predominantly Catholic while Northern Population was Protestant.
As with Austria before, Bismarck sought to create the diplomatic athmoshphere to create best possible situation for Prussia. And again like Austria, it is not totally correct to say that Bismarck orchestrated the whole issue but rather exploited the situation to achieve his political goals.
Even though France was in good shape, she was isolated diplomatically. Negotiations with an alliance countering Prussia with Italy and Austria-Hungary had failed as they were bitter rivals with each other. Great Britain had a rivalry against France and Russia was reluctant towards a European war, they were also unsyphatethic towards France due to Crimean War. Bismarck on the other hand had a secret alliance with Southern German States against a France aggression.
The diplomatic situation was set but Bismarck didn’t want to just declare war. Instead he aimed to provoke France to attack Germany to be seen as a victim thus gaining support of all German peoples. The oppurtunity presented itself in Spanish throne.
The Ems Telegram
Spanish Revolution in 1868 ( also known as Glorious Revolution ) ousted the Bourbon Queen Isabelle II and established a Constutional Monarchy. Since the Spanish throne was now empty, Spainards sought after a suitable candidate. Their preferred choice was Leopold, the eldest son of Prince Karl Anton of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, the Catholic branch of the Hohenzollern family headed by King Wilhelm of Prussia. France reacted to this with extreme hostility as a Hohenzollern on Spanish throne could mean a anti-French alliance between Prussia and Spain. Under diplomatic pressure from French, Karl Anton ( Leopold’s father ) agreed that they withdrew their claim on Spanish throne. But France also demanded a guarantee from Hohenzollerns not to make further claims on Spanish throne.
King Wilhelm was at BadEms for a health vacation as this place was famous for its water sources. French Ambassador Count Vincent Benedetti came to King Wilhelm about their demand. King Wilhelm was fluent in French and politely refused. The telegram informing about the meeting was wired to Bismarck. Bismarck intentionally changed the content of the Telegram, making it more offensive to French but keeping the meaning intact.
The telegram was published in French newspapers on the following day and it made the effect that Bismarck had intended as a ’’…effect of a red flag ona Gallic Bull’’ French declared war on 19th of July. Bismarck succeeded to side with Southern German States.
Franco-Prussian War and Proclamation of German Empire
The war was a disaster for France. Germans swiftly advanced through Franco-German border, surrounded a considerable amount of French forces on Metz and dealt a decisive blow on Sedan, capturing the Emperor Napoleon III himself. Road to Paris was open and Germans besieged it on 19th of September. After the defeat in Sedan, Second Empire in France was toppled by popular uprising in Paris and the Third Republic under National Defence came into force. They tried to organise a defence a guerilla style warfare but failed. An armstice was authorized by government to negotiate a peace deal.
After their crushing victory in Sedan, Bismarck turned to his Southern allies and began pressuring them to join the German Empire. Negotiations were concluded in November Treaties as Duchies of Baden, Hesse and Württemberg and Kingdom of Bavaria ( with some concessions ) agreed to join the North German Confederation. The new constitution was accepted in 1st of July 1871, but the actual Proclamation took place on 18th of January 1871 in the Palace of Versailles.
One last argument between Bismarck and Wilhelm had erupted over a title issue. Wilhelm wanted to be titled as ‘’Emperor of Germany ( Kaiser von Deutschland )’’ but he was to be crowned as ‘’German Emperor ( Deutscher Kaiser )’’. Bismarck worried that the term would alienate the German Princes while Wilhelm thought that the term German Emperor would mean that he would be a mere figurehead. The issue was solved by a smart move by Grand Duke Friedrich von Baden who was to acclaim the German Emperor. His speech was ‘’Long live his majesty, Kaiser Wilhelm ( Es lebe seine Majestat Kaiser Wilhelm )’’ Wilhelm was not satisified but had no choice to accept his title. He showed his dissatifisaction bu not shaking Bismarck’s hand during the ceremony.
France capitulated soon after. Treaty of Frankfurt was signed on 10th of May 1871. The new German Empire annexed the territories of Alsace and Lorrained and France had to pay a huge war indemnity. The treaty was signed in Palace of Versailles and according to one provision, German forced were to make a victory parade in Paris. The last to were a humiliation to the Proud French People and bore the German-French Rivalry which lasted until Second World War.
Germany became the most powerful military and economic power in mainland Europe. After unification Germany experienced an economic boom, nearly tripled it’s GDP in 30 years. With Bismarck in Office until 1890, Germany secured his position with a set of alliances in Europe. He consolidated his rule in interior politics by eliminating his political opponents by persuasion; started first accident and pension insurences, enacted the Kulturkampf aiming to eliminate Catholic influence in social life. Both were made the pacify socialists and liberals, his opponents.
Disagreements with new Emperor, Wilhelm II caused Bismarck to resign from his Office. He died on 30th of July 1898. He left behind a superpower in Europe with his strong economy, military and alliances. He is regarded as a masterful statesman and diplomat, man who achieved something that Germans sought for over hundred years; on the other hand he is also remembered as a authoritarian militarist tyrant who continiously suppressed opposition and left-liberal ideas against him. Still, many monuments are erected in his name and he is still considered as a national hero. After his dead, reckless policies of Wilhelm II ruined Germany’s dominant diplomatic position, caused them to lose the WWI. Hitler and Nazis also used his name to create a myth about German Superiority. If either of them had followed his idead and policies, both World Wars could have been prevented, some say.
Bismarck and the Foundation of the German Empire – James Wycliffe Headlam
Ramage, B. J. “Prince Bismarck and German Unity.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 7, no. 4, 1899, pp. 444–468. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27528067
Holborn, Hajo. “Bismarck’s Realpolitik.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 21, no. 1, 1960, pp. 84–98. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2708000.
Bismarck and Germany ( 3rd Edition ) – David G. Williamson