Count Otto von Bismarck: Unification of Germany

Figure 1.--German national spirit was aroused by the French invasions during the Napoleonic War. Demands for unification countinued growing throughout the 19th century. This drawing is entitled, "Die Wacht am Rhein" (Watch or Guard on the Rhine). The caption reads, "Ave princeps, futuri le salutant! I have no idea what that means. I am not sure who the illustrator was or when it was drawn. I am also not sure if the flag is the Prussian or German flag. Hopefully our German readers will help us here.

Bismarck for most of his life was not an ardent prpponent of German unification. His love was for Prussia. Interestingly, the movement for German unifications came primarily from democratically minded liberals within Germany and not the Prussian junker class. Perhaps in part because unification was so promoted by the liberals, Busmarck in his early career had no enthusiasm for it. One of the tragedies of German history is that it was not the liberals that united Germany. It could have been very different. Crown Prince Frederick and his English wife Victoria were liberally minded. King Wilhelm's rule, however, was very long and Frderick ruled only a few before dieing of cancer and bdeing replaced by his son Wilhelm II. Germany was, however, united by Bismarck pushing and cajoling the King Wilhelm. Bismarck eventually devoted himself to the task of unifying the German states. This was accomplished through both diplomatic persuasion backed by a series of successful wars, earning him the title of "The Iron Chncellor" and stamping the character of the new German Empire with Prussian anti-democratic military traditions.

Holy Roman Empire: The First Reich(800/962-1806)

German was for centuries unified under the Holy Roman Empire for nearly 1,000 years. It is this considered to be the First Reich, meaning unified Germany. In modern times commonly had a Austrian Haspsburg emperor. In part because of the conflict with the papacy, the Emperor was unable to establish a nified nation state like many other European nations, including Denmark, England, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, and Sweden. And the various Landen once establish pursued national independence as a priority policy. Thus the Germans at the heart of Europe and potentially the most important nation never unified like the other important countries. And the Protestant Revolution only fueked the divisive forces. Napoleon abolished the Holy Roman Empire (1806).

Congress of Vienna (1815)

The Victorious European monsarchies tried to piece Europe together after the defeat of Napoleon (1814-15). The dissaoearance of the Holy Roman Empire inevitably led to the question of a unified Germany after the final defeat of Napoleon (1815). The Congress of Vienna attempted to return to the status quo, but without the Holy Roman Empire structure. German nationalist sentiment had been strongly fueled by French occupation. This was not appreciated at the Congress if Vienna. The German people strongly wanted a unified state, but this sentiment was not as strong amony the ruling German monarchies. Another major difficulty was who would unify Germay. The two major contenders were Austria and Prussia.

Revolutions of 1848

The February revolution in France inspired others all over Europe which collectivally are called the Revolutions of 1848. The European people rose to demand liberal reformns or seek to change recalitrant monarchial governments by force. In Germany the issue of German unification was strongly associated with demands for liberal reform. Both the Prussian and Austrian monarchies were threatened. Germany ws divided into two major states (Austria and Prussia), several small states (Bavaria and Hanover), and a large number of small principalities. These states were loosely associated in the German Confederation. Many Germans were inspired by the French revolutioin with bith liberal and national ideals. The unwillingness of monarchial regimes to implement liberal reforms led in 1848 in riots and disturbances throughout Germany. Many German rulers were forced to agree to liberal reforms. Even in Prussia, King Frederick Wilhelm IV was forced to accept a democratic constitution. The Frankfurt Parliament was organized to draft a constitution for a new united Germany and met in May. Considerable discension developed in the Prliament. The Parliament offered Prussian King Frederick Wilhelm IV thecrown, but he refused because the constitution of the new state would have diluted his power. He dismissed the offer with the comment, "I do not accept a crown from the gutter!" By this time Frederick Wilhelm was in firm control of the Prussian army. The disturbances continue in 1849, including revolts in Baden and Dresden.

Pruso-Danish War (1864)

Danish King Friedrich VII died in 1864. Many European royals were the soverign of more than one kingdom or principality. Often these territorities were not united and were separated phyically and by differentlaws, customs, and even lnguage. When Friedrich died, the personnell union of Schleswig-Holstein with the Danish crown had to end, because his successor Christian IX was not a direct descended and, as a result, not entitled to inherit the principality of Schleswig-Holstein. Bismarcks's first step was to gain an Austrain alliance to deal with this situation. Prussia did not need an Austrian alliance to defeat Denmark, but diplomatically it was essential.

German Civil War/Austro-Prussian War (1866)

Bismarck than used Schleswig-Holstein as an issue to quarel with Austria. The Prussian stategy in the War was mastemined by Bismarck. He used the War as an opportunity to rearrange the map of Germany and establish itself The Prussiand not only declared war on Austria, but all of the German states in the Federation that had remained neutral. (Some Germans thus call the War th German Civil War or the Prusso-German War.) Bismarck succeeded in defeating Austria and excluding it from the rest of Germany. Without Austria, Prissia was the dominant force in Germany.

North German Confederation (1866)

After the victory over Austria, Bismarck organized the North German Confederation in 1866. It was composed of Prussia and 17 small northern German states. Each of these small states were dependent on Prussia. The states like Hannover and Hesse-Kassel that had not joined the Prussians in the War against Austria had been annexed by Prussia. The remaining Gerrman states were eventually forced to join, including Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and Hesse-Darmstadt. Bismarck was now ready to taken on France.

Franco-Prussian War (1870-71)

The Franco-Prussian War is the 1870-71, conflict between France and Prussia that permitted the unification of a united Germany under the Prussian kingdom, overwealming the more liberal traditions of some other German states. The War was largely provoked by Bismarck as part of his carefully crafted plan to unify German under Prussian leadership. The French defeat in the War led to the declaration of the German Empire (Deutsches Reich) in 1870 and the proclamation of King William I of Prussia as German Emperor in Versailles in 1871. This result was a huge, poweful state imbued with Prussian militarism and with the power to aggressively persue the new Germany's imperial ambitions. This fundmentally changed the European power ballance. The defeat and capture of Louis Napoleon by the Prussians in 1870 brought the Third Republic to power in 1871. One of the reforms they introduced were smocks for schoolboys, part of the new Republican ideal to reduce the influence of class and privlidge. The two northeastern provinces of France, Alsace-Loraine, were ceded to Germany in the Treaty of Frankfurt. Bismarck advised against taking the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine from France. These were both border provinces and there were already large numbers of German-speakers in both provinces, especially Alsace. The population was, however, largely French orientened--even some of the German families. The loss to France was so heart-felt in France that it almost made another war inevitable. One impact on boys' clothing was that when the Third Republic in 1871 mandated smocks in French schools, Alsace-Loraine were no longer part of France.

Bismarckian Diplomacy

The hard terms of the peace imposed on France by the Germans is often compared to the soft terms offered the Austrians in the Austro-Prussian War (1866). The generous terms offered Austria helped make policy friendly relations and alliances after the war. The heavy indemnity and esspecially the annexation of Alsace-Loraine made France an impalcable enemy eventually leading to World War I. It is interesting to assess why two such different policies were pursued. Austria was a German state and a hard piece against a fellow German state would have been unpopular within Germany. As it was, the Prussians annexed several German states such as Hanover, Schleswig-Holstein, Hessen-Kassel (Kur-Hessen), Nassau, a part of Hessen-Darmstadt aswell as the Free-city of Frankfurt/Main. They had sidded with the Austrians. Interestingly King Wilhelm had been reluctant to launch the war, but once won he had to be disuaded by Bismarck from triumphly entereing Vienna and demanding a large indemnity. This caused sonme illwill, the King feeling that he had been cheated, With the Franch, Bismarck had no great interest in Alsace and especially Loraine. It was German public opinion that demanded that Alscace be annexed. German newspapers insisted that Alscae be annexed "as a guarantee against a future attack by our hereditary enemies". [Ludwig, p. 353.] The Army wanted Loraine because of the fortress at Metz. [Ludwig, p. 359.] Bismarck sensed future danger here. Before the War he had told a colleague, "Besides, if Prussia were to gain the victory over France, what would be the result? Suposing we did win Alsace, we would have to maintain our conquest and to keep Strasburg perpetually garisoned. This would be an impossible possition, for in the end the French would find new allies--and then we might have a bad time." [Ludwig, p. 356.] Despite these misgivings, Bismarck gave in. He was able disuse the King and generals in 1866 after defeating the Austrains. This time there would be no stopping them. [Ludwig, p. 353.] On this issue he did not want to take on German public opinion and the Army. Had Bismarck prevailed here he would now have been known as the greatest diplomatic genious in European history. Instead the future Kiaser Wilhelm II would manage to undo his great work in a single generation.

Imperial German State: The Second Reich

Imperial Germany was built around Prussia and the Prussian monarchy. It is thus cinsidered to be the Seconf Reich, the second unified German state. Imperial Germany had a federal structure, not the highly centralized organizatiomn of France. As part of the arrangements by which the dufferent German states unified to form Imperial Germany, the different states retained considerable authority which included laws, education, police, and many other functions. The klarger states even retained army units, rather like the Natuinal Guard in America. The Kaiser at the head of the Empire and Reichstag controlled foreign policy and the great bulk of the new Imperial Germany Army based on the Prussian Army. Many of the states that united to form the German Empire had much more liberal traditions with a less mikitarized society. It ws the Prussian tradition, however, that had the grratest influence on the natuiinl level because the Hohenzollern Prussian monrchy became the imperial monarchy. The Kaiser was not by any means a dictator. He was a constitutional monarch, although one with enormous power. The Reichstag was the legislature of imperial Germany which theoretically had budgetary powers. The powers of the monarchy, however, enabled the two kaissers to doinate the Reuchstag. The Empire consisted of 27 constituent territories (mostly royal principalities). The Kingdom of Prussia which was substantially enlarged after the Napoleonic Wars continued to exist as a federal tate like Bavaria was by far the largest andcmost populace state of the Empire. Germany began to rapidly industrialize after the mid-19th century with the same foundation of coal and iron (leading to steel) and railways that laid the foundation of the indistrial revolution in Britain and America. Germany build an impressive chemical industry, outdistanting Britain. Prussia was an indudtrial leader which was a major reason why it was able to defeat Austria, its rival for German leadership. Led by Prussia, Germany became highly urbanized and urban nation. In contrast Austria (later Austrioa-Hungary) except for Bohenia remained largely agricultural. German industrialization differed from tht of Britain and America. Rather than the result of individual activity largely uncoordinatd by the Government. The Prussian Government and the subsequent Imperial German Government played a major role in directing industrial expansion. And a major element in that policy was in increasing the country's military capacity. Although an area retained by the states, a common element througout Germany was aespect for scholrship and as a result Germany developed the most advanced public school system in the world. (It is no accident that the Japanese adopted Prussian cadet uniforms s a school uniform. The United States adevelooed a less rigirous academic education ystem, but more briadly based.) Thus Imperial Germany at the heat of Europe developed as a military, industrial, technological and scientific giant. When the nobel prices were established, Germans won more Nobel Prizes in science than Britain, France, Russia and the United States combined. This would not changed until the NAZIs drive out Jews and began to weaken academic standards. Count Otto von Bismrck managd the course of the German Empire with rare political acumen. It was a conservatibe leadership, but Bismarck introduced important sicialnreforms like old age insurance, the first important country to do so. He also deftly managed the Reichstag, restricting the power of the Socialist parties tht gradually gined considerable influence among the working class. .


Gall, Lothar. Bismarck: The White Revolutionary. 2 vol. (1986).

Hoffman, J.H. Otto von Bismarck, 1998.

Ludwig, Emil. Bismarck: The Story of a Fighter (Little, Brown, and Company, 1927).

Pflanze, Otto. Bismarck and the Development of Germany. 3 vol. (1990).

Taylor, Alan J. Bismarck. The Man and the Statesman.


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Created: July 2, 2002
Last updated: 5:04 AM 8/22/2012