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Otto Von Bismarck: Germany's Unification

Info: 4175 words (17 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jun 2017 in History

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Bismarck could not have unified Germany through his ambition alone; he had to exploit the already powerful existing forces of Industry, Liberalism, Nationalism and the increasing clamour from these groups for Prussia to assert her influence over Germany. The traditional German view from historians such as Heinrich von Treitschke [1] was that German unification was achieved in 1871 as a result of the actions of the “iron chancellor”, Otto von Bismarck, who meticulously planned the events leading to unification. Indeed a large number of pre-1945 German historians were keen to emphasise the role of Bismarck’s diplomacy and military triumphs dismissing other factors such as the economy as ‘unheroic and bourgeois’. [2] The intentionalist approach during this period is hardly surprising given that Germany was very much still in love with the ‘iron chancellor’ and German society as a whole was instilled with Military values and a love of strong leadership as seen with the later ‘Hitler Myth’. More recent historians however like A. J. P Taylor [3] , have argued that Bismarck had no such `master plan’. Instead, Bismarck’s success was a result of his flexibility as a statesman, Prussia’s economic power and its favourable diplomatic situation.

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The actual process of unification was mainly spread over three wars, products of Bismarck’s ‘diplomacy’. However behind the scenes there were indeed many other significant factors before Bismarck’s time and indeed during his time, that contributed, albeit to a small extent, to eventual unification in 1871. ‘The basis of unification had been laid by Prussia before 1840, a basis founded not on political but on economic grounds’ [4] . While social and political movements, such as Liberalism and Nationalism, played a part the people with the power to cause change were much more concerned with their economic ambitions. Economic forces like the Zollverein shifted power from individual rulers of states to the middle classes who realised power and money could be gained from unification, as economist J.M Keynes said ‘Germany was formed from ‘coal and iron’ rather than ‘blood and iron’. [5] 

Adopting free trade, the same currency, weights and measures allowed more cooperation between members of the Prussian Customs Union thus increasing their dependence on each other. The Prussian customs union strived to protect German business from foreign influence by introducing tariffs on raw materials, especially iron and cotton from the industrial power house of Britain. These tariffs coupled with the doctrine of free trade meant wider markets for home-produced goods at cheaper prices. This broke down regional barriers and rivalry between states shifting the emphasis from pride in one’s state to pride in a greater entity, a greater Germany. Initially the PCU did not include many states however the economic success of Prussia impressed smaller northern and central German states. Other states, jealous of Prussia’s success, formed their own unions with the emphasis more on spoiling Prussia’s trade that establishing their own. These unions were unable to compete with Prussia and most German states threw their lot in with the Prussians and the new enlarged customs union, the Zollverein.

The economic union of the Zollverein encapsulated over 25 states with a population of 26 million. The union gave some protection to the German home industries making trade easier for them, it stimulated there economic growth, encouraging the building of roads between Prussia, Bavaria, Wurttemburg and Frankfurt, and as it was founded and ran by Prussia it firmly established them as the economic leader in Germany and despite their reactionary manner many states also regarded Prussia as the natural leader of a united Germany. The Zollverein was in itself a force for unity and therefore a focal point for nationalist sentiments.

The Zollverein also had a political effect in isolating Austria. The Austrians were committed to trade tariffs to protect their agriculture and industry; thus their inability to join the Zollverein served to increase Prussian power in the confederation. During industrialisation Prussia’s exports increased whilst Austria’s decreased. This indicates that even before the appointment of Bismarck, Prussian leadership was successful in stimulating the economy. This economic unity also brought social and political unity to German states. It is not known if the Prussians intended to use the Zollverien as a tool for unification but according to Andrina Stiles Prussian ministers were well aware of the potential political ramifications “those who found financial advantage in an economic union under Prussian leadership might be expected to take a favourable view of similar arrangements in a political union.” [6] Historians critical of Bismarck’s achievements such as Henderson [7] tend to agree with this view of the Zollverein being the greatest contributing factor for the reasons underlined by Stiles.

It is however important to remember that structuralist historians in favour of factors like the economy also have the ability to exaggerate, Henderson claims that the unification of 1871 was merely ‘the formal completion of a unity already achieved in the economic sphere’ [8] . This is a bit of a stretch, while the Zollverein was majorly important it did not bring unity with it, many members of the Zollverein still supported Austria up until the Franco-Prussian war despite the clear leadership of Prussia. It seems that the close economic links had made ‘scarcely a dent in the traditional political hostility’ [9] Overall the Zollverien was more of a German market place as opposed to a national economy.

Political ideologies thrived throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, challenging the old world feudal lords and absolute rulers. Spawned from the fires of the French revolution and the ideas of “liberty, fraternity and equality” nationalism and liberalism were forces to be reckoned with. The development of the railways, much like the autobahns later, inspired much nationalist feeling. One German economist described the network as ‘the firm girdle around the loins of Germany binding her limbs together into a forceful and powerful body’ [10] . The railways made Germans more mobile which contributed to the breakdown of local and regional barriers. The appeal of Nationalism was rising among Germans, stimulated by poetry, music, history, philosophy and threats from foreign governments. In the face of this threat Germany’s press threw their weight behind the nationalist upsurge and songs such as ‘Deutschland uber Alles’ were scribed .

The French invasion of Germany by Napoleon made the inhabitants of the 39 German states very aware of their military weakness as independent states. Germans who were normally content to be Bavarians, Westphalians or members of other states became discontented at the fact that Germany would be unable to stand against foreign oppression with much nationalistic feeling being generated throughout Germany in the face of a threat from the ‘old enemy’. This nationalistic feeling coupled with the effort to eventually drive the French armies out would draw the German people together with much clamour for a strong unified Germany.

Liberal movements in Germany proved detrimental in dissolving the old feudal system of Germany. The removal of regional leaders such as the Duke of Brunswick meant that the states were no longer constrained by the will of a single ruler and could easily unify with other states if they so desired. A greater freedom of the press also allowed the Nationalist ideas to spread through Germany when before they would have been censored or put down by reactionary governments. The death of King Frederick William III of Prussia, in 1840, also helped to liberate Germans. His son who succeeded him acted much more like a constitutional monarch, abolishing censorship, releasing political prisoners and extending the powers of provincial diets. He also did not have the association with Austria that his father had held enabling him to stand out more as an independent German King.

Together these factors began to generate pressure for unification even before Bismarck became involved in politics in any serious way A single unified Germany seemed all the more inevitable and by late 1840 there was an increase in clamour for the establishment of a unified Germany. However it is wrong to state that Germans were besotted with the idea. Most liberals were concerned with developments within their own state, not in the situation in Germany as a whole. German nationalism tended to be sporadic- erupting during periods of perceived danger and the subsiding again as seen with the French in 1840 and during the Schleswig-Holstein incident in 1846. Also, not all nationalists could agree on the true extent of the German nation-state they wished to create, these divisions would prove to a serious obstacle in 1848. There was also a divide culturally, between the more industrialised and liberal west and the agrarian, autocratic east. So while important, the social ideas of the time were not as nearly as significant as the economic forces moving across Germany.

The failure of the Frankfurt Parliament to lead a successful revolution and create a united country in 1848 has led to harsh criticism. German Historian Eric Eyck [11] who dismissed the Frankfurt Parliament as a ‘lawyers parliament’ holds the view that the Frankfurt parliament were a bunch of inexperienced intellectuals who wasted valuable time debating trivial issues rather than taking action to bring about a United Germany. This is rather harsh as there was very little prospect of there even being a successful revolution in 1848. The liberals who assumed the leadership of the revolt based their strategies on false assumptions, most notably the illusion that parliamentary government and national unity could be achieved through agreement with the princes. When the princes made clear their refusal to abide by the resolutions of the Frankfurt Parliament the parliamentarians had no alternative strategy in mind. They didn’t consider a revolt against the princes because they, being middle class liberals, valued order and prosperity as much as the landowning aristocracy.

German philosopher Karl Marx argued that it was the failure of the revolutionaries to build a strong base of support which ensured their failure. Taylor [12] echoes this view saying that it was the ‘divorce between the revolutionaries and the people that determined the happenings of 1848’ unfortunately Taylor held staunch left-wing views and so his view that this almost exclusively middle class revolution failed simply because of its omission of the working classes must be taken with a pinch of salt. Popular unrest did result in outbreaks of street fighting, but these were sporadic and confined to the main cities in a territory where most of the population lived in the countryside. Monarchy in Prussia and Austria retained control crushing political initiatives within their own states. Once the revolutions in Berlin and Vienna had been crushed the Frankfurt parliament had little prospect of being a respected legislature.

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The years following the 1848 revolutions were turbulent for much of Europe, with new governments tentatively trying to rebuild their power. Austria’s first mistake following her diplomatic victory over Prussia at Olmütz concerned the Crimean War. Russia was trying to expand her interests in the Ottoman Empire to the strong disapproval of Britain and France; and despite a tradition of cooperation with one another, Austria showed open hostility by mobilising her army along the Danube. In this way Austria lost her most powerful and consistent ally, as was demonstrated in 1859 when Russia failed to help Austria against France when defending her Italian possession of Piedmont. It is easy to see the beginnings of isolation through inept diplomacy, particularly after such reckless abandonment of Metternich’s cautious, cooperative policy, which attempted (with proven success) to implement Austrian policy through a Concert of Powers. The mistakes continued, and soon Bismarck would be in a position to exploit them.

The Prussian constitutional crisis occurred in 1860-62 over the passing of a bill that proposed that military expenditure and resources should be increased significantly. Prussian army reforms were an essential element leading to unification. Bismarck’s handling of the constitutional crisis in 1861 not only gained him promotion but it gave the Prussians the opportunity to reform their army to such an extent that it would become, in time, the most powerful in Europe. The army was doubled in strength, conscription increased to three years, and new weapons introduced. It can be argued that the reform of the army was Bismarck’s first step on the path towards unification. This was essential if unification was to be achieved through force. Bismarck set Prussia on a war footing. The role of Bismarck and the Army after 1848 has been stressed by many historians. Gall [13] and Craig [14] both place Bismarck at the centre of the story .This is understandable since the declaration of the German Reich in 1871 followed the victories of the Prussian army over Austria in 1866 and France in 1871, events it seems Bismarck engineered.

Even Bismarck in all his wisdom would have failed had his policy attracted the attention of the great powers., he was lucky that Britain had interests away from the continent and that Russia had abandoned Austria. Indeed Mosse explains that Bismarck’s ‘skill alone is insufficient to explain the absence of hostile coalitions’ [15] . Bismarck proceeded to woo Napoleon III of France by promising him concessions in the Rhineland if France would stay out of an Austro-Prussian war. Napoleon also tried to twists circumstances to favour France by secretly negotiating a treaty with the Habsburgs. Bismarck’s next step was to certify that Italy would not be a threat, and he ensured her cooperation in return for Venetia on the event of Austria’s defeat. The last country that Prussia had cause of concern over was Russia. Luckily Austria had already alienated her over the Crimean War and Russian neutrality was easily assured by the Alvensleben Convention of 1863. In this way we can see Bismarck systematically isolating Austria, according to Mosse, Bismarck had demonstrated great skill in the exploitation of his opponent’s weaknesses but he had also operated in what was an exceptionally favourable European diplomatic environment. [16] 

Bismarck soon manoeuvred Austria into the second of his so called ‘Wars of Unification’ [17] (The first being the war over Schleswig-Holstein). The Seven Weeks War between Austria and Prussia seems both a natural and obvious progression of the events of the 1860’s, and a necessary preliminary for the national unification of Germany. The Prussian armies were superior to that of Austria in almost every way. Prussian mobilisation was extremely fast thanks to new train lines. Furthermore Prussia’s General von Molke was military strategist of genius, certainly in relation to Austria’s Benedek who was working with a minimal military budget due to economic limitations. A victory both territorially and diplomatically for Bismarck, Prussia took the Elbe duchies and also the territories of Hanover, Saxony, Hesse-Kassel, Nassau and the important city of Frankfurt. By this point in 1867, Prussian hegemony was already clear in Germany, yet despite nationalist feeling peaking Bismarck did not desire unification. Instead he formed its precursor – the North German Confederation. Taylor has argued that ‘Bismarck had no clear aim after the victories of 1866’ [18] 

The final military success Bismarck needed to engineer in order to secure Prussian supremacy in Germany (and therefore, indirectly, over Austria), was to cripple France. Austria’s defeat came as a bad surprise to Napoleon III who feared a strong united Germany – a fear that was quickly being realised. Tension mounted when a new Spanish government invited a member of the Prussian King’s family to take the Spanish crown in 1869. France, appalled at the prospect of the Hohenzollern dynasty at both its east and west borders, managed to stop the candidate from accepting the offer, a candidate who it is now apparent was only put forward due to pressure from Bismarck himself. Here we can see, once again, Bismarck attempting to engineer the politics of Europe to benefit Prussia. Bismarck’s crafty escalation of the crisis through the Ems Telegram forced France to declare war in 1870, and therefore secured the help of his defensive allies in the southern German states. Through superior technology and leadership the Prussian armies defeated Napoleon III after six months bitter fighting and the Napoleonic Second Empire collapsed. The defeat of France brought Prussia new territories and wealth and played the ultimate role of bringing about Kleindeutschland [19] .

Arguably the Prussian Military was the most important factor in German unification. While many would argue that the military strength of Prussia would not have been attainable without Prussian economic success it is important to note that territorial gains were only made as a consequence of the military action in Denmark, Austria and France. Economic success while important didn’t bring about unification, as the southern states loyalty to Austria proved. It wasn’t until Austria’s defeat to Prussia in 1866 that Germans realised that Austria was no longer a viable alternative to Prussia and Unification. Bismarck’s sabre rattling was only a viable method thanks to the reforms of Roon and the military leadership of Moltke. The use of the military was so crucial to Bismarck’s plans that had it not been in the state it was Bismarck probably wouldn’t have even been that important in the general scheme of things. Having said that, historians have played down the role of Bismarck and the military approaching the story of German unification from different perspectives, seeing it as the culmination of a long process in which the rise of national consciousness [20] and the growth of Prussia’s economic power [21] have been given greater prominence.

Germany may have been politically unified in 1871 however it was far from united. Bismarck struggled to control his own unified Germany that he had fought so hard to create. Bismarck was constantly dependent on the Reichstag majority in order to pass legislation, therefore needing allies, which sometimes required drastic changes. Although Bismarck claimed that his ultimate aim as Chancellor was ‘the creation and consolidation of Germany’, his domestic policies included a number of attacks on Reichsfeinde , which included minority groups such as Poles, Jews and socialists, not to mention the biggest group being the Catholic Church. His failure to weaken the Catholics and Socialist groups emphasise his lack of control over German domestic Policy, as does his fall from power in 1890 due to a new Kaiser’s very different ideas for Germany.Having said that, class divisions, religious differences and regional variations were not unique to Germany. Conflicts between traditional forces and those pressing for the modernisation of society are common features of any society undergoing rapid political, social and economic change as Germany was during the years 1871-1890. The anticlimax of Bismarck’s time in office in no way diminishes his achievement the fact remains that despite these divisions in society it was unlikely that the country would ever politically divide again simply on the whim of a few disgruntled liberals. Indeed it took a second world war to achieve that.

It seems clear that Bismarck played an integral part in securing Prussia’s dominance over Austria and ultimately in bringing about the unification of Germany. But the question of ‘how much’ is a topic of great debate. Bismarck’s policies were not unique or original. In his advice to the monarch he frequently referred to the traditional rivalry of Austria and Prussia trends of which dated back to the 18th century and Frederick the great. Also Prussia’s ability to challenge Austria lay in its military strength and economic resources both of which had been built up by previous Prussian governments. It is also sometimes easy to overlook the fact that Bismarck was a patriot of Prussia and not Germany. Throughout his time in power, his first priority was always Prussia – the unification was a means to glorify Prussia. Austria’s time had come to an end two decades earlier at the end of the Metternich era: doomed to a period of unclear leadership, muddled direction and a complete lack of the nationalist identity required to excite such unification.

It is essential to note that although Bismarck is presented – not least by himself in his Memoirs – as a diplomatic genius who did not make mistakes, and who had a Prussian-led German unification mapped out at every stage years in advance, there are some important considerations that should be taken note. In his foreign policy, he was often an opportunist rather than an engineer. His diplomatic outmanoeuvring of Denmark owed much to a Danish miscalculation of support from Britain and France. Furthermore, the Austro-Prussian war was essentially a German Civil War which initially made Bismarck a villain and not a hero in the eyes of many nationalists. It was also a huge gamble that may have only paid off due to Austrian incompetence and inept leadership. Finally, it is also important to note that though Bismarck may have had a grand design for unification, he had no clear means to see how, how far, or at what pace Prussia might defeat Austria and unify the states.


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