, Research Paper
Bismark and the Unification of Germany
The New Empire
In 1871 Otto von Bismark, a Prussian statesman, founded the German Empire and served as its first chancellor for 19 years. Bismark gave the German people an identity of their own and unified the 39 German states that made up Prussia in the second half of the 19th century. When the empire was established, he skillfully pursued strict policies in foreign affairs and succeeded in preserving the peace in Europe for two decades. Although he unified the German empire, Bismark failed to unify the people.
Bismarck was born on April 1, 1815, at Sch nhausen, Brandenburg, in the Kingdom of Prussia. The family’s economic circumstances were modest as his father’s farming skills were less than average and Bismarck did not know real wealth until the rewards flowed in after the achievement of the German unification.
In religion beliefs, Bismark believed that a Christian state that received its sanction ultimately from unity. He had nothing but sarcasm for aristocratic liberals who viewed England as a model for Prussia. In 1847 he attended the Prussian United Diet, where his speeches against Jewish freedom and contemporary liberalism gained him the reputation of an isolated conservative.
In 1849 Bismark was elected to the Prussian Chamber of Deputies (the lower chamber of the Prussian Diet) and moved his family to Berlin. At this stage he was far from a German nationalist. He told one of his fellow conservatives, “We are Prussians, and Prussians we shall remain. . . . We do not wish to see the Kingdom of Prussia obliterated in the putrid brew of cosy south German sentimentality.” (Berghahn 98) In 1851 Frederick William IV appointed Bismarck as the Prussian representative to the federal Diet in Frankfurt. This was a clear reward for his loyalty to the monarchy.
In Frankfurt that Bismarck began to reassess his view of German nationalism and the goals of Prussian foreign policy. In 1854 he opposed close cooperation with Austria, arguing that it entailed “binding our spruce and seaworthy frigate to the wormy old warship of Austria.” (Abrams 121) Gradually he began to consider the options that would make Prussia the undisputed power in Germany. A vision of a Prussian-dominated northern Europe and a new course for Austrian power to the Slavic areas in the south took shape in Bismarks’s mind. If necessary, a war with Austria to destroy its dominance was not to be excluded. Implementation of such a policy would be anything but conservative because it would entail drastic changes in the map of Europe as it had been drawn by the conservative powers at Versailles in 1815.
Prime Minister and the Iron Chancellor
In 1859 Bismarck was sent to Russia as Prussian ambassador and in May 1862, he moved to Paris as ambassador to the court of Napoleon III. Thus he had 11 years of experience in foreign affairs before he became prime minister and foreign minister of Prussia in September 1862. Bismark came to know personally the techniques of French, Russian, and Austrian foreign diplomacy.
The Bismarck who returned to Berlin from Paris was not the conservative back in 1848. Having lived in Frankfurt and Paris, he had come to appreciate the growing importance of the educated middle class. Bismarck was transformed to such a degree that he actually returned with the idea of seeking a compromise over the military issue.
In spite of this, there were hints that this was more a dream than reality. Bismarck said that “Prussia must collect and keep its strength for the right moment, which has been missed several times already; Prussia’s frontiers as laid down by the Vienna treaties are not conducive to a healthy national life; it is not by means of speeches and majority resolutions that the great issues of the day will be decided–that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849–but by blood and iron.” (Stern 222) He was giving the opposition evidence that he intended to use Prussia’s military power for the liberal goal of achieving national unification. The liberal opposition however, chose to ignore these hints and on May 22, 1863, by a vote of 239 to 61, they informed William I that they would not deal with his prime minister any further. After eight months in office, Bismarck failed to achieve any agreement with the parliamentary opposition.
War with Denmark and Austria
Bismarck now turned to foreign policy in the hope that success on this front would weaken the Liberal’s desire for political reform. Since 1848 trouble was brewing between the Danes and the German population of the duchies of Schleswig and Holsteinin the north west. When the Danish king acted rashly, Bismarck made sure that it was Prussia and Austria rather than the German Confederation which represented German interests.
A quick successful war against Denmark meant that the fate of Schleswig and Holstein was left up to Bismarck and the Austrians. After much haggling, the Convention of Gastein was signed on Aug. 20, 1865; it provided for Schleswig to be administered by Prussia and Holstein by Austria. Liberals remained relentless toward Prussian military expertise and once again defeated the army bill in January 1865.
In 1866 Bismarck nonetheless continued his efforts to divert liberal interest from the budget conflict and toward the success of Prussian arms. He repeatedly told the Austrians that their future lay in the south and that they would be wise to yield dominance in Germany. Yet in both cases, his words fell on deaf ears. Bismarck then clearly decided to play the German national card in order to achieve a Prussian-dominated Germany. After making sure that Russia would not intervene and after gaining an alliance with Italy, he set about staging a conflict with the Austrians. He stirred up Hungarian nationalism against Austria-a policy which showed how radical means could be used in the service of his own conservative ways. On June 9, 1866, Prussian troops invaded Holstein. A few days later Austria, supported by the smaller states of Saxony, Hesse-Kassel, and Hanover, went to war. Within six weeks Prussia inflicted a major defeat on the Austrians at K niggr tz (Sadowa). Bismarck then ceased any advancement so that Austria would not be humiliated. Against a king and generals who wanted to march to Vienna, he urged a quick end of hostilities, recognizing that other powers might intervene if the war continued. Europe was stunned since within a few weeks time Prussia transformed the distribution of power in central Europe. Austria, a major power in Germany for centuries, was now relegated to secondary status.
Triumph in the Making
Bismarck now showed both ruthlessness and determination. The Peace of Nikolsburg scarcely demanded anything from Austria. But Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, Nassau, and Frankfurt, all of which had fought against Prussia, were annexed, to the shock of conservatives. The king of Hanover, the ruling house in Hesse, was removed from power. While conservatives were appalled at the German civil war between the two powers who had been opposed to revolution, the Liberal middle class flocked to support Bismarck. Their goal of German unification seemed close at hand. Bismarck moreover, now apologized for his view over the issue of the military budget and offered a truce to the liberals. The party was divided over Bismarck’s offer. He had achieved one of his major goals: Gaining a large part of the middle class to see the Prussian monarchy as their ally.
Although Bismarck voiced doubts whether unification would occur in his lifetime, he actually set about tying the southern states to the north almost immediately. An all-German customs Parliament was proposed, joint military training was negotiated, and a plan was proposed which entailed that the southern states recognize William as German emperor. All these efforts failed because of strong opposition in the south. Bismarck then sought to propel history a bit faster by instigating a conflict with France. If he could not bring the south into a united German nation by reason, he would rely on the passions aroused by war. Ever the master mind, he worked behind the scenes to ensure that neither Russia nor Austria would intervene in such a war. Nor did he have to work hard to produce a conflict, because the French emperor, Napoleon III, was angry at the sudden emergence of Prussia.
In 1869 when the Spanish throne was offered to the king’s cousin, Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Napoleon III perceived this as an effort to over throw France. He sent his ambassador, Vincent Benedetti, to the Prussian king at Bad Ems. The first time to demand that acceptance of the offer be withdrawn and a second time to demand that under no circumstances should a member of the Hohenzollern family accept the Spanish throne in the future. The king politely refused the second request. Bismarck received a telegram from Bad Ems giving a detailed account of the interview between William I and the French ambassador. He proceeded to edit and show for the press in such a way that the French appeared to seek a humiliation of the Prussian monarch and the monarch’s rejection of Napoleon’s demands seemed insultingly blunt to the French. The French responded by declaring war on Prussia on July 19, 1870. When the French were decisively defeated at Sedan in September, it appeared as though Bismarck would be able to score a third rapid victory in seven years. But guerrilla warfare broke out and Paris held out despite the capture of the emperor. Bismarck however, stirred anti-French passions to such a fever pitch that in January 1871, the four southern states joined the North German Confederation to create the German Empire. The lesser German solution, with seven million German-speaking Austrians excluded, was the result of Bismarck’s three wars. He was showered with honours and hailed as a national hero.
The peace treaty with France was harsh. Alsace and part of Lorraine, two French provinces with sizable German-speaking populations, were occupied. Also, a five-billion-franc payment was exacted. While Austria and Denmark quickly forgot their defeats, France did not. Regardless of whether Bismarck occupied the provinces in response to German public opinion or for other reasons, French hostility was to haunt the German Empire until the provinces were returned to France in 1918.
Until his resignation in 1890, Bismarck had a relatively free hand in the conduct of foreign policy. After three successful wars, he saw his task as promoting peace and gaining time so that the powerful German Empire would come to be accepted as natural. Bismarck’s two areas of concern were the Balkans, where the weakening of the Turkish empire could easily lead to conflict between the Habsburg monarchy and Russia; and France, where the desire to avenge the defeat at Sedan was strong. In each area a general European conflict could flare up and involve Germany. In 1873 Bismark embraced a Pacific foreign policy when he negotiated the Dreikaiserbund (Three Emperors’ League) with Russia and Austria-Hungary. But the alliance did not survive the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. When the Austrians and British threatened war over a Carthaginian peace imposed on Turkey by the Russian victors, Bismarck called for a peace congress in Berlin. The German chancellor succeeded in getting the Russians to moderate their gains, and peace was preserved.
The Triple Alliance
But a European conflagration had barely been averted. Soon after the conference, Bismarck negotiated a defensive alliance with Austria-Hungary, which remained in effect through World War I. Although in the mid-1860s he had rejected such an alliance as harmful, Bismark now considered it advantageous. Because he feared that the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy would lead to Russian expansion into central Europe, he sought the alliance to gain leverage in Vienna.
Having a solid ally, Bismarck demonstrated his virtuosity by negotiating a revived Dreikaiserbund in 1881. He now had influence in St. Petersburg as well as in Vienna to prevent a Balkan war. In 1882, Italy, fearing French hostility, joined the Dual Alliance, making it into the Triple Alliance. On the surface Bismarck had triumphed. France had no allies for a war of revenge and for the moment, a Balkan war seemed unlikely.
However the brief nature of all these alliances soon became apparent. A crisis in Bulgaria inflamed Russo-Austrian relations, leading to a breakup of the revived league. Once again a war was avoided with Bismarck’s intervention, but his efforts could not reconstitute the league. He then negotiated a separate secret treaty with Russia, while maintaining the 1879 accord with Austria-Hungary.
Between 1870 and 1890 Bismarck earned the respect of European leaders for his earnest efforts on behalf of peace. Apart from a few colonial acquisitions in the mid-1880s, Germany had acted as a neutral power. All of Bismarck’s considerable tactical skills had been successful in creating a powerful German Empire in his first decade in power. For the next two decades these same skills maintained the peace.
From the defeat of Austria in 1866 until 1878, Bismarck was allied primarily with the National Liberals. Together they created a civil and criminal code for the new empire and accomplished Germany’s move toward free trade. Just as they had earlier written off Bismarck as an arch-conservative, liberals now viewed him as a comrade–a man who had rejected his conservative roots. Many conservative leaders agreed with this assessment.
Bismarck did not count on the emergence of new parties such as the Catholic Centre or the Social Democrats, both of whom began participating in imperial and Prussian elections in the early 1870s. Along with the left liberal Progressive Party, he labeled them all enemies of the empire. Each in its own way rejected his vision of a united Germany. The Progressives found the empire too conservative and its elite essentially feudal; the socialists questioned its capitalist character; and for the Centre the empire was Protestant and too centralized. Bismarck’s aim was clearly to destroy the Catholic Centre Party. He and the liberals feared the appeal of a clerical party to the one-third of Germans who professed Roman Catholicism
Ever since the Commune of Paris of 1871, Bismarck had developed an hatred for socialists and anarchists. Although only two socialists sat in the Reichstag in 1871, their number and support grew with each election, until they had 35 seats in 1890. As early as 1876 Bismarck had sought legislation to outlaw the party but failed to get a majority. After two assassination attempts against William I, he suspended Parliament and ran a campaign in which the socialists were blamed for the failed efforts to kill the emperor. The conservative parties triumphed and the Social Democratic Party was banned in 1878.
Bismarck’s strategy to destroy social democracy was the introduction of social legislation to persuade the workers away from political radicalism. But Bismarck’s strategy to win the workers for the conservative rule did not succeed. Support for the Social Democrats increased with each election.
The Beginning of the End
The election of 1890 was a disaster for Bismarck. The Centre, the Social Democrats, and the Progressives, the parties that he had termed enemies of the empire, gained more than half of the seats in the new Reichstag. Seventy-five years old in 1890, Bismarck resigned with a sense of failure. The anti-socialist law was not revived, and the new government set out to win the workers to the regime. Bismarck retired to his estate an angry man. For the next eight years before he died on July 30, 1898, Bismark issued sharp critiques of his successors. Elected to the Reichstag, he chose not to take his seat. He wrote his memoirs and they became best-sellers. To some extent he orchestrated the Bismarck legend that was to dominate German historical writing for the next half century.
Bismarck was a towering figure. When he became prime minister of Prussia in 1862, the kingdom was universally considered the weakest of the five European powers. Less than nine years later Prussia had been victorious in three wars and a unified German Empire had emerged in the heart of Europe arousing envy and fear among its rivals. When Bismarck left office in 1890 after 28 years as Prime Minister of Prussia and 19 as Chancellor of the German Empire, the map of Europe had been changed dramatically. The European centre, characterized by a weak mixture of small and medium-sized states for centuries, was now home to the foremost military and industrial power on the Continent.
In striving for German unification Bismarck did not simply resort to “blood and iron.” His moves were carefully prepared diplomatically as he ended his wars as soon as his immediate objectives were obtained. Bismark was less restrained in domestic affairs. He deepened existing political and social policies and created tensions by questioning the good faith of his adversaries. As a result, Bismark helped lay the foundations for a cynical ruthlessness which culminated in the Nazi regime and in the end destroyed his own great achievement-a unified Germany.
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Berghahn, Voler. Imperial Germany, 1871-1914. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1994.
Flanze, P. Bismarck and the Development of Germany.
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Stern, Fritz. Gold and Iron: Bleichroder and the Building of the German Empire. London: McLaren Press Inc., 1977.
Tuchman, Barbara. The Proud Tower. New York: Manmillan Co., 1966.