Notes on Bismarck and German Unification


This massive statue of Prince Otto von Bismarck stands guard outside the Deutsches Museum in Munich;
Photo courtesy Marie McDowell.

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There is so much detail online in just the few websites that I have indicated below, and there are literally tens of thousands of pages in books, about Bismarck's unification of Germany in the nineteenth century. One might wonder what I can add in a few paragraphs about the life's work of the iron chancellor. I already have background notes on Bismarck himself.

Let's start with the fact that you should remember that Prussia had been a major player in Europe, since before the eighteenth century, and the tiny kingdom's power had increased dramatically during the reign of Frederick the Great (1740-86).

Let's also remember that during the nineteenth century many new nations came into existence throughout Europe: Germany, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, and more.

Now let me also add that there were two parts to the nation creation/unification process. Part 1 was the physical creation of a new state with new boundaries, and that's what I write about here with respect to Germany. But the much harder part was part 2, what came after the physical unification. Suddenly a country's leaders had to create a national culture that could actually unite all the different peoples, religions, social classes within the new country and prevent separatist tendencies from tearing apart the new country. For example, in Germany, both Catholic and Lutheran regions had to cooperate. In Italy, an industrialized north had to coexist with an agricultural, impoverished south. In France there were different linguistic areas in the north (langue d'oïl) and the south (langue d'oc). Building a sense of loyalty to a brand new country also took some doing.

This part 2 process was further complicated by sweeping industrial economic changes that were occurring in the late nineteenth century. Rapid industrialization and urbanization were shattering the remnants of the traditional social class structure. This put real pressure on the new states, which were often the creation of old elites, but those old elites were now being challenged for economic and political power by a new urban bourgeoisie. All of this part 2 process is sometimes called the modernization of nations (the creation of the modern, bureaucratic state).

So, getting back to Germany, which, in many ways, took the lead in these two processes. Now there had always been a German region, or "Germany," in Europe, but there was never a single, formal country of Germany. There was the Austrian Empire, which comprised German speaking territories; and there were other individual German princedoms; and there was the Kingdom of Prussia. They were all German.

By the early nineteenth century, German intellectuals had begun to state the desire for a real Germany. Germans began to feel that somehow Germans were missing the boat by not having their own country. But the question lurked, what would provide the kernel to build a new Germany? Would it be Austria or something else? Eventually, by about 1848/1850, after a Germany had failed to emerge from the "revolutions" of 1848, the question focused on whether it would be Austria or Prussia as the center of a new Germany.

It fell to Prussia and Bismarck to create a Germany. Let me note now that Bismarck brought certain crucial personal advantages to his position as minister president of the kingdom of Prussia that allowed him to craft the unification of Germany. Bismarck had been ambassador to Russia, and he had been ambassador to France. That gave him crucial first-hand, diplomatic experience that he was able to use to good effect in dealing with Prussia's two main rivals to the east and west.

So, in 1863, there was this little "problem" with Schleswig-Holstein that arose. No one really cared about these minor duchies ,which were kind of, part of, the kingdom of Denmark, but which were also technically not part of the kingdom of Denmark. Surprisingly Prussia and Austria went to war against Denmark to liberate these duchies--you can guess who won. Prussia got Schleswig, and Austria received Holstein (as if that was going to work since Holstein is pretty far away from Austria). When after some more back door dealing and technicalities, Prussia occupied Holstein, war with Austria resulted. The key here was Bismarck's deal with Italians to remain neutral. (France and Russia also stayed out of the conflict.)

The Seven Week War of 1866 led to a quick Prussian victory that took everyone in Europe by surprise. The key battle was Sadowa. The Austrian defeat led to Prussia annexing more German territory, increasing the size and power of Prussia, which also set up a "North German Confederation" of states north of the River Main. This confederation was dominated, of course, by Prussia, which also now had treaty ties to Bavaria and other important western and southern German states.

Having diminished the power and influence of Austria, and having kind of created a Germany, Bismarck now turned his attention to dealing with France, because it was France that most feared a rising German state on its eastern border. It is kind of weird, even amusing, to read the chain of diplomatic events that led to the Franco-Prussian War: confusion over who controlled Luxembourg, confusion over who would inherit the throne of Spain, and confusion over what the French ambassador and the king of Prussia said to each other (the "Ems telegram"; that such a strange little incident could provoke a war is indeed amazing). On 19 July 1870 the French declared war against Prussia, and the war quickly went bad for France. In September, Napoleon III and his army surrendered to the Prussians at Sedan. In January, Paris surrendered. Peace followed in March 1871, when the French National Assembly agreed to pay a war indemnity and cede the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany.

Oh, yes, along the way, Germany had come into existence. On 18 January 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors in the palace of Versailles (Louis XIV's spectacular creation), Wilhelm, King of Prussia, declared that he was now Emperor Wilhelm I, Emperor of Germany. The country stretched from beyond the Rhine River in the west to beyond the Vistula River in the east. Germany was technically a federal union of states (many of these states still retained some forms of internal autonomy, but it was the empire that controlled the army and foreign affairs).

Now, having created the state of Germany, Bismarck and the emperor embarked upon the second part of the process, the actual creation of a German culture centered on Germany.

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I have some resources for further study listed below.