The Unification of Germany

Under the terms of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the German states had been reorganized into a new German Confederation, consisting of thirty eight sovereign states. Frederick William IV of Prussia had attempted to unify Germany "from above," but had been blocked by Austria with the support of Russia. Tension between Austria and Prussia exacerbated as each sought to block the other from gaining power within the confederation. As a result, a tense stalemate existed in the 1850’s. At the same time, rapid industrial growth occurred within the German Zollverein (customs union). The union had developed gradually under Prussian leadership after 1818, and was officially founded in 1834 to stimulate trade and increase the revenues of member states; but it did not include Austria, a factor which played heavily in the Austro-Prussian rivalry.

Tariff duties within the Zollverein were substantially reduced which prevented Austria from joining, since its industries were highly protected by tariffs. In retaliation, Austria tried to destroy the Zollverein by inducing the southern German states to leave it, but failed to do so. By 1853, all German states except Austria were members, and as businessmen and merchants enriched themselves, the economic reality of German unification excluding Austria seemed more and more a de facto reality. Since Prussia was the largest member state, it had a substantial advantage over Austria in the rivalry to control German affairs.

In 1858, William I replaced Frederick William IV who had ruled as his regent, and became King of Prussia in his own right in 1861. He and the German people were profoundly affected by events in Italy in 1859. In Prussia it seemed inevitable that great political change, and possibly war with either Austria or France was inevitable. William wanted to double the size of the Prussian army and reduce the reserve militia, a semi-popular force created during the Napoleonic wars. To increase the size of the army meant higher taxes, of course, and a larger national budget, and at this point, he ran into opposition. Prussia’s parliament was dominated by the liberal middle class who wanted Prussia to be less militaristic, not more. They wanted also to establish once and for all that parliament, not the king, had ultimate political power; and to ensure that the army answered to the people’s popular representatives, thus not becoming a "state within a state." Parliament rejected William’s military budget in 1862, and liberals triumphed in new elections. King William then called upon Count Otto von Bismarck to head a new ministry and defy the parliament. Bismarck soon became the most important figure in German history between Martin Luther and Adolf Hitler.

Bismarck was born into the Junker class, given to duels and drinking bouts as a young man. He had a strong personality and a ravenous appetite for power, yet was extraordinarily pragmatic and flexible. He once commented that "one must always have two irons in the fire." His policy was soon known as Realpolitik: "practical politics." He was not adverse to changing tactics or policy to attain his goals. At a meeting of the Prussian budget commission on September 30, 1862, Bismarck emphatically demanded a small German nation-state dominated by Prussia, and rejected demands for liberal reform. His speech became his most famous:

Germany is not looking to Prussia's liberalism, but to its power; Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden may indulge liberalism, and for that reason no one will assign them Prussia's role; Prussia has to coalesce and concentrate its power for the opportune moment, which has already been missed several times; Prussia's borders according to the Vienna Treaties [of 1814-15] are not favorable for a healthy, vital state; it is not by speeches and majority resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided – that was the big mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by blood and iron.

Bismarck was given to similar intemperate speeches, and seemed impervious to criticism. He left a strong impression on people, but frequently an unfavorable one. His position reeked of "might makes right." He insisted that the Prussian government continue to collect taxes even though Parliament had refused to approve the budget, and reorganized the army. From 1862 to 1866, Prussian voters expressed their opposition to his policies by sending large liberal majorities to Parliament, but he was not dissuaded.

Bismarck was convinced that for Prussia to completely control the northern Protestant part of the German Confederation, he had three choices: he could work with Austria to divide up the smaller German states between them; or he could combine with foreign powers, possibly France or Russia, in a war against Austria; or he might ally all the German nationalist forces against Austria and expel it from the German states. After carefully considering his options, he chose the last.

The Austro-Prussian War, 1866: Bismarck instinctively knew that the answer to opposition at home was success abroad. The opportunity presented itself when the King of Denmark tried to annex the provinces of Schleswig-Holstein into a centralized German state against the will of the German Confederation. Prussia joined Austria in a brief successful war against Denmark. Bismarck, however, was convinced that Prussia needed to completely dominate the northern German confederation, which meant expelling Austria from German affairs. Bismarck’s first task was to make sure there was no alliance against him. He had no problem gaining support from Alexander II of Russia, as Prussia had helped Russia crush a Polish uprising in 1863. He then charmed Napoleon III with vague promises of territorial gains along the Rhine River which he had no intention of keeping. Bismarck, in fact, had no great respect for Napoleon III. He once referred to him as the "sphinx without a riddle." Then when Austria refused to give up its role in German affairs, Bismarck was ready.

The Austro-Prussian War, often called the Seven Weeks War, was fought in 1866. The Prussian army moved troops by rail and also used breech loading needle guns gain maximum fire power, and decisively defeated the Austrians in Bohemia at the Battle of Sadowa. At this point, Bismarck displayed his mastery of Realpolitik by offering Austria generous terms, as he well knew that he might need the neutrality, if not cooperation, of Austria in the future. Austria paid no reparations and lost no territory to Prussia, although it was forced to cede Venice to Italy; but the German Confederation was dissolved and Austria agreed to withdraw from German affairs. The states north of the Main River were grouped into a new North German Confederation led by Prussia. The mostly Catholic states of he south remained independent, while forming alliances with Prussia.

Bismarck next turned to the Parliament. He realized that nationalism was his chief weapon to bring Parliament around to his position, and during the attack on Austria in 1866, he increasingly tied Prussia’s fate to the "national development of Germany.

He drew up a new federal constitution for the North German Confederation in which each state retained its own local government, but the king of Prussia became president of the confederation and the chancellor—Bismarck—answered only to the President. The federal government (literally William I and Bismarck) controlled the army and foreign affairs. There were two houses of the legislature; one appointed by the states, the other elected by universal male suffrage. He then secured his flank in Prussia by asking the Prussian Parliament to pass a special indemnity bill to approve (after the fact) all the government’s spending between 1862 and 1866. Here, Bismarck’s successes in uniting the northern German states and in creating a legislature where all could participate paid off. The liberals saw success beyond their wildest dreams and were anxious to cooperate. As a result, many liberals repented their "sins." Perhaps none repented more devoutly than did Hermann Baumgarten, a professor of history and member of the liberal opposition who wrote an essay, A Self Criticism of German Liberalism. In it he commented:

We thought that by agitation we could transform Germany….Yet we have experienced a miracle almost without parallel. The victory of our principles would have brought us misery, whereas the defeat of our principles has brought us boundless salvation.

Bismarck had triumphed. The German middle class respectfully bowed to Bismarck and monarchial authority. In the years before 1814, the virtues of the aristocratic Prussian army officer increasingly replaced those of the middle class liberal in public esteem and social standard.

The Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71: In 1867, Bismarck formed an alliance with four south German states and changed the Zollverein into a customs Parliament. The south German states were unwilling to go further because of differences in religion and political traditions with the North. Bismarck, ever the pragmatist, realized that a war with France, (as John Hay called the Spanish-American War, a "splendid little war") would be the very bait to bring the south German states along and unify them with Prussia. The French rather foolishly gave him the opportunity he needed.

The spark to set off hostilities developed when Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern, the nephew of King William I, was offered the throne of Spain. Leopold at first accepted but withdrew his acceptance when the French government protested. At a meeting in Ems, Germany, the French ambassador requested William’s guarantee that Leopold would never seek the Spanish throne. William refused. Bismarck, intent on provoking war with France, published the King’s recollection of the conference and carefully edited it to make it appear inflammatory. His scheme worked, and France declared war on Prussia.

Bismarck had done his homework. By reason of his generosity to Austria in the Seven Weeks war, the Austrians remained neutral (just as the French had done in the previous war!) German forces smashed the main French army at Sedan on September 1, 1870, and Napoleon III himself was captured. He was humiliated and forced to surrender his sword to William I, which he did while weeping frequently. Three days later, French patriots proclaimed a new French republic, and vowed to keep on fighting; but five months of fighting left Paris starving. The city surrendered and France was forced to accept Bismarck’s peace terms which were exceedingly harsh. (He saw no reason to be generous to the French as he had been to the Austrians, as he had no further need of them).

As Bismarck had planned, the south German states quickly joined Prussia in the campaign and united with it in forming a new German empire. William I (the German is Wilhelm) was crowned Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles with the title of Kaiser. Ultimate power in the new German empire was vested in the Empire and the lower house of the assembly was elected by universal male suffrage. Bismarck, in recognition of past services, was named Chancellor, a title later held by Adolf Hitler.

Bismarck was anything but lenient with the French. France was forced to pay an indemnity of five billion francs (a colossal sum) and to cede the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. The ostensible reason for the annexation was that the area would provide a buffer zone and enhance military security, plus the Alsacian people spoke a German dialect as well as French, and really wanted to join the fatherland after they had been separated from it for 200 years. Both arguments were fishy, and the French people were outraged at the rape of their country. Bismarck’s actions in 1871 poisoned French-German relations for the next hundred years.

The Franco-Prussian war released an enormous amount of patriotism in Germany. Germany, once a series of small states had become the most powerful state in Europe in less than a decade. Most Germans were proud and somewhat drunk with success, imagining themselves in a Social Darwinist sort of way as being the fittest and best of the European species. They also embraced a new authoritarian conservatism based on nationalism.