World History: Unification of Germany

Germany was a ragbag of 314 states & 1474 estates i.e. total 1789 independent sovereign powers in the medieval times. These were held together by the absolute rule of the emperor and his troops. Here, the local patriotism was a powerful force among Bavarians, Saxons, Prussians, Wurtembergers & others.

Napoleon had won much of the German area. The 1815 Settlement via the Congress of Vienna led to a formation of loose grouping called the German Confederation, still made of 39 states.

This German Confederation was dominated by the two largest states viz. Austro-Hungarian Empire and Prussia.

The state of Prussia had several advantages that eventually helped it to forge a strong German state. The population of Prussia was mainly German speaking, thus the waves of Nationalism actually united Prussia while the Austria-Hungary was tore apart by the ethnic groups.

Napoleon was responsible for interest of intellectuals in German unification because his domination of Germans at will during Napoleonic wars brought wave of nationalistic reaction. This interest was also heightened by the shame of the Germans inability to drive out the French. Most of the states, particularly Prussia remained firmly opposed to Napoleon. Prussia had also shared the glory of victory at Waterloo.

The Revolt of 1848

The Prussian army was one of the most powerful armies of the times. The emergence of Prussia as a strong power coincided with the waves of nationalism. The tide of nationalism led to several revolts, important among them was that of 1848, when the rioters in Berlin forced the Prussian king, Frederick William IV, to call a constitutional convention. The king called a convention to draw the liberal constitution for the kingdom but refused to become a constitutional monarch so the revolts remained a failure in 1848.

Constitutional Crisis of 1861

In 1861, Wilhelm I succeeded Frederick William as King of Prussia. He moved drastic steps in the parliament to reform the army and double the military power of Prussia. But, the liberal parliament refused him these steps mainly because of the question of payment for these reforms. This led to a constitutional crisis in Prussia.

Famous Blood and Iron speech

“The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by its liberalism but by its power … Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for the favorable moment, which has already come and gone several times. Since the treaties of Vienna, our frontiers have been ill-designed for a healthy body politic. Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood (Eisen und Blut).”   From  Otto von Bismarck speech given in 1862.

The refusal of the parliament was seen by Wilhelm as a major challenge to his authority. The King was having support of the strongly conservative Junkers.

Junkers refers to members of Prussia’s wealthy landowning class, who were strongly conservative and opposed liberal ideas.

To solve the crisis, in 1862, Wilhelm chose a conservative Junker named Otto von Bismarck as his prime minister.

Bismarck, who was a master of Realpolitik, declared with King’s approval that he would rule without the consent of parliament and without a legal budget.

Realpolitik is a German term which refers to the politics of reality, where there is no room for idealism in the power politics.  With Realpolitik as his style, Bismarck later became one of the tallest figures of German history.

Thus violating the constitution directly, he said that the major issues will not be solved by majority decisions of the parliament but with Blood and Iron. This 1862 speech is now famous as Blood and Iron speech.

The Seven Weeks War

In 1864, Bismarck formed an alliance between Prussia and Austria.  The declared a war on Denmark and quickly won the two border provinces of Schleswig and Holstein, thus infusing national pride among the Prussians.

The other sections of Germany also gave support for unification of the Germany and for Prussia as head of a unified Germany. After the 1864 victory, Prussia governed Schleswig, while Austria controlled Holstein. But, Bismarck wanted to anyhow curtail Austria and win the Holstein so he stirred up border conflicts with Austria. The border conflicts led to Austria to declare a war on Prussia in 1866, which is now known as Seven Weeks War.

The Kingdom of Italy participated in the war with Prussia, because Austria held Venetia and other smaller territories wanted by Italy to complete the process of Italian unification. In return for Italian aid against Austria, Bismarck agreed not to make a separate peace until Italy had obtained Venetia.

The war resulted in a decisive victory of Prussians over Austria. The Austria lost Venetia to Italy and some other territories including Holstein were taken over by Prussia. In 1867, the remaining states of the north joined a North German Confederation, which Prussia dominated completely. By this time, only a few states of south were independent of Germany. Most of these southern German states such as Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Baden and Hesse-Darmstadt were Catholics and they would resist being taken over by the Protestant Prussians.

Here, using his Realpolitik skills, Bismarck concluded that he might win the support of the southern people if they faced a threat from outside. This outside threat was could be France. In those times, the rise of Prussia as a mighty state in Europe had disturbed the balance of power. France was strongly opposed to the annexation of the southern German states, which would have significantly strengthened the Prussian military. At the same time, Bismarck considered it necessary to have a war with France to arouse the nationalistic emotions among the southern German states.

The Franco-Prussian War

So, a war was manufactured by Bismarck. In 1870, the King Wilhelm I of Prussia was on a vacation at Bad Ems, a resort spa. During one of the morning strolls here, he was waylaid by Count Benedetti, French ambassador to Prussia. The overloads of this French ambassador had instructed him to present the French demand to the King of Prussia. These demands included a promise from the King that Prussia will not put its candidate for the Spanish throne, which was vacant at that time.

The meeting was cool and the King had cordially refused to make any promise for the indefinite future. After the meeting, the secretary of King sent a telegram to Bismarck regarding the accounts of this meeting. This Telegram is called EMS Dispatch. Bismarck altered and edited the language of the telegram and published it in such a way that it appeared that the King insulted the French diplomat. In a reaction to this, France declared a war on Prussia in July 1870.

The most important battle in this war was the Battle of Sedan in which there was a quick Prussian victory and 80,000 men from France including the French Emperor Napoleon III himself were taken as prisoners. Paris did not fall and resisted Prussians for four months but finally hunger forced them to surrender. This was the final phase of the unification of Germany.

As a result of this victory, the nationalistic fever seized people in southern Germany also. They accepted Prussian leadership. On January 18, 1871, at the captured French palace of Versailles, King Wilhelm I of Prussia was crowned Kaiser or emperor. Germans called their empire the Second Reich (First was the Holy Roman Empire). Thus, Bismarck achieved Prussian dominance over Germany and Europe “by blood and iron.