Otto von Bismarck was certainly a great politician, but you cannot place every single bit of German success squarely onto his shoulders. He created the final product, but he also had some great tools at his disposal.
Industrialization had finally begun to take off in the German speaking territories in the 1840’s to 1850’s, especially in his own Prussia. This gave him a strong economy. He also had the best military on the continent by far at his disposal. Albrecht von Roon successfully reformed and expanded the Prussian army.
Voltaire is thought to have said “Most states possess an Army, but the Prussian Army possess a state” which showcases the warrior culture of Prussia. Drawing on the support of the Junkers, who were the aristocratic warrior elite, and on the legacies of Frederick the Great, Roon was able to turn a good military into one that was probably the best in the world. This army was put into the hands of Helmuth von Moltke who was a brilliant strategist and reformer in his own right.
Bismarck’s brilliance came in his use of these tools to form a Prussian dominated German state. To do this, he basically had to do three things:
1.Begin to draw the German people together, awakening pan-German nationalism. He did this in the Second Schleswig War, by creating a conflict with Denmark. It’s more complicated than I would really want to get into here, but essentially Prussia and Austria jointly declared war on Denmark over a minor territorial dispute, which demonstrated Prussian strength and riled up the population to support unification.
2.His second step was to exclude Austria from the proposed German state. He did this by using disputes with Austria over annexed Danish territory. In the Austro-Prussian war Prussia’s new and improved army was led to a quick victory by Helmuth von Moltke. This is where Bismarck had a really good idea. Rather than push their luck, continue the war, and hope to gain more territory, Bismarck successfully pushed for a limited war. Prussia annexed Austrian Holstein and some Austrian allies, but more importantly, Austria agreed not to interfere in German affairs. This lead to the eventual creation of the North German Confederation.
3.Bismarck wanted to turn the strong but still loosely held together North German Confederation into a true empire. He also wanted to add the southern German kingdoms. He regarded war with France as a necessary prelude to German unification. He basically manufactured a political crisis involving a Prussian prince claiming the Spanish throne. The claim was withdrawn, but Bismarck managed to goad Napoleon the Third into declaring war by essentially insulting his envoy. The French declaration of war branded them as the aggressors in the eyes of all the Germans, not just the Prussians. The Bavarians, plus other south Germans, were drawn in on the side of the Prussians. The Prussian victory (brought about by that excellent Army) cemented their position as the center of Germany. The German Reich was declared in the immediate aftermath of war, creating a new continental power.
After Unification, Bismarck continued to act intelligently. In World politics, a balance of power does not always lead to peace, nor does an imbalance lead to war. After unification, Germany was universally regarded as the premier continental power.
Bismarck’s strategy was to isolate the only power with which they had poor relations, France. He managed to keep France basically without allies using his policies. He kept the League of the Three Emperors between Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Germany active as long as possible, and when that fell apart he signed the Reinsurance Treaty which assured neutrality between Russia and Germany. He also avoided challenging British naval supremacy, a policy not continued by his successors.
By not challenging Britain, they mostly maintained traditional British neutrality in continental affairs. But when what was clearly the strongest continental power began building a large fleet, the British lined up with France and Russia, setting up the alliance system that lead to World War 1. Bismarck knew that Germany’s limited coastline and numerous choke points would make challenging Britain directly difficult. When the new Emperor ordered a build up anyway, it led directly to a realignment of Britain on the side of France.
KM Bismarck was the name ship of the largest warship class Germany produced in World War Two (although her sister Tirpitz was slightly larger once completed). He faced two enemy capital ships in battle with only a heavy cruiser for support. He destroyed HMS Hood in that battle (the pride of the Royal Navy for a couple decades) and damaged the battleship Prince of Wales as well. You can read a detailed account of the battle here.
He was a fast ship (about 30 knots at maximum speed, but with a sustained speed of about 20 knots for long range cruising) and powerful enough to threaten any convoys encountered. Unless the convoy was escorted by an old battleship, Bismarck would have forced the convoy to scatter so that some of its ships would escape. (The minimum sustained speed a merchant ship needed to make to be allowed in a fast convoy was 10 knots, otherwise it was restricted to the slow convoys of 8 knots, though in practice the convoys averaged speeds of 0.5-1.0 knots slower than this.) Simulating battles of Bismarck vs another solitary battleship in defending a convoy is a favorite of wargame enthusiasts and much detailed information in comparing the ships is available.
Bismarck’s rudder was jammed by a torpedo launched by a biplane from an aircraft carrier (the critical hit of several scored). This jam was not repairable at sea (going so far as to blow off the rudder with explosives was considered) and doomed the ship. Bismarck again faced two capital ships, and King George V and Rodney scored hundreds of hits while taking none in return, leaving Bismarck in thoroughly ruined condition. Some like to play guessing games as to whether Bismarck sank due to enemy shell fire or due to scuttling by his crew, but this is an artificial argument over semantics.
There has been some detailed analysis (and much under-informed debate) of why HMS Hood exploded after a handful of hits, but Bismarck didn’t after hundreds. The short answer is that battleship caliber shells designed before and soon after World War One were incapable of penetrating heavy armor and then exploding inside their targets. This meant that capital ships of that era (Hood, Rodney, Kirishima, and others) were designed and built to take heavy exploding shells on their outer surfaces. Technology had improved by the time the battleship holiday had finished so that the shells designed and used in World War Two were capable (at least under some conditions see immunity zone) of piercing heavy armor and detonating inside. This produces hugely more damage and could send fragments into critical areas of the ship (the magazines and engine spaces). For this reason, ships designed after the battleship holiday also included thinner armor inside the ship, to keep these fragments from reaching the critical areas. This meant that a new battleship fighting an older one had a large hidden advantage (the new ship could survive hits that would much more easily cripple or kill the old one).
These are only some of the reasons Bismarck is a significant ship. There are other aspects: the underdog fighting the entire enemy navy, the “lucky hits” on Hood and torpedo on Bismarck, the potential “what ifs” (Bismarck is not hit in the rudder (actually dual rudders) and makes port in occupied France or faces a single BB in attacking a convoy), as well as the relatively few members of her crew to survive (though Hood only had three survivors).
Germany was late to unify. By the time Germany was “Germany” and not a collection of tiny kingdoms to be pillaged at semi-regular intervals by the armies of the great powers of Europe, most of the 19th century had already slipped away. The rush for overseas colonies was over and done with and Germany, though a great power in terms of her military and economy, didn’t feel much like a great power.
She lacked colonies, she lacked seniority in the international system, she was an upstart in a community of real powerbrokers.
It took a war against France (the Franco Prussian War) to really galvanize Germany’s unification and while Bismark was able to build an elaborate and brilliant system of political fakes and double fakes to improve Germany’s position in Europe, that system suffered in that it needed Bismark (or someone as clever as Bismark) to run it.
And so, once Bismark had been kicked to the curb, it wasn’t too terribly long before his elaborate system was ruined by lesser statesmen and WWI broke out.
The problem with WWI was mobilization. The Germans had thought long and hard about how they would survive a two front war in Europe in which both France and Russia conspired against them (Bismark’s solution was to never allow Germany to stand with the minority of the five major European powers) and it depended upon Russia’s railways running East-To-West rather than North-To-South. Russia had trouble mobilizing its army and so the Germans figured they could thump the French (again) and turn around and sucker-punch the Russians before they could get their army into uniforms and deployed to the front.
To do that though, Germany had to jump the gun on war; the moment the Russians started their call to arms the Germans were on a clock and unless the French were prepared to pledge non-aggression, the German army was tempting fate every day Paris wasn’t on fire. The French knew this — everyone knew this — and so they’d fortified the heck out of the border between France and Germany and if this is all sounding rather a lot like how WWII went down that’s because it is.
In any case, Germany rolls through Belgium in order to get around the French defensive because they have to, the international community gets very very very upset with Germany over invading a neutral power (and will paint them as warmongers for the better part of the next 50 years) and the entire war gets blamed on them.
So now WWI is over and it was a long and horrible war. France, in particular, has been scared by the conflict and the experience only compounded their resentment towards Germany after the treaty which ended the Franco Prussian war (in fact, the Germans were forced to sign the treaty ending WWI in the same location they’d forced the French to sign the treaty ending the Franco Prussian War). The terms offered Germany are humiliating and debilitating – arms controls, war reparations, the Versailles treaty piles it all on. The result is that shortly after the war the German economy is in tatters and being kept afloat by the Daws Loans from the US which help to manage the war debt and keep the government solvent. Then, suddenly the floor drops out from under the world economy. The loans are recalled and Germany is thrust into the jaws of the Depression in a way that’s much much uglier than what happened in the USA.
The thing with everything up until this point is that it’s all big forces and sweeping changes which have driven Germany into its state of wretchedness. Even to very powerful and very influential members of the German government there seems very little that could have been done differently. Bismark’s system could not endure long without Bismark; shooting first in World War I was a strategic necessity for Germany; invading through Belgium was preferable to being smashed against France’s fortifications; and Germany was well and truly beaten on the field of battle — surrender was a real necessity. Yet in the midst of all this is this extremely eloquent and impassioned politician who keeps telling everyone that it wasn’t supposed to BE like this.
Germany is great, he says. Germany is worthy, he says. Now anyone can look around and tell you that the German government has, worthy, great, or otherwise, taken some pretty hard knocks and that the German state has failed almost completely in almost every measure by which we might judge a country’s greatness. Still with no colonies to speak of, still an “upstart” power, now shamed with the guilt of a world war and millions dead, still suffering economically under the crushing burden of war debt Germany is far FAR from the great nation that it imagined itself, bright eyed, before the Great War.
So Hitler says that the German people are great, the German race is great. Screw the government – it’s been sabotaged from within by the Jews, he claims. Hitler takes the institution of the German government and lays its failures — the surrender in the war, the economy, everything — at the feet of the people who are not, in his view, of the German race: “Aryan.”
In this way Hitler takes all of the failures and catastrophes above and he pins them, not on Germany or Germans but on a group that he more or less makes up within German society. He draws a bright line between them and says that the folks on this side of the line — the Aryans — are good, honest, hardworking, nobel, superior people to whom the good things they deserve have been denied by the people on that side of the line — the Jews, Gypsies, undesirables, etc.
And that renders the German race – the Aryans – blameless in Germany’s fall.
Being Aryan was a big deal to the Germans because being Aryan meant that everything that had gone wrong in the last generation or so wasn’t their fault; it meant that there was someone to blame for the suffering of their nation, someone to fight, something to do. It took away helplessness and gave purpose to people who were serious need of it.
Being Aryan meant being, not part of Germany disgraced, but part of Germany ascendant, Germany reborn, and Germany triumphant.
It’s a very powerful trap.
Bismarck played an important role in the unification of Germany and hastened the process, but he did not unify Germany single-handed, nor did he start the process of unification. He sought compromises with the existing German states, liberals and, of course, Wilhelm I (King of Prussia).
I’ll (1.) give a brief overview of desires of German unification before 1862 (when Bismarck took office), then (2.) I’ll talk about how he compromised with the German states in 1866 and 1871, and how he worked with liberal and nationalistic movements in order to facilitate German unification.
- Before 1862, there were many attempts at German unification and most would revolve around a Greater-German solution — A Germany with all Germans, incl. Austrians. The opposite was the Little-German solution, the Germany of 1871. — You can see the Greater-German solution in the German Confederation — map — Most ideas for unification revolved around changing the German Confederation of 39 states into a single unified Germany. During the revolutions of 1848, the Frankfurt Parliament was able to draft a constitution and offer the crown of a unified German state to the King of Prussia Frederick William IV. The constitution of the Frankfurt Parliament was open ended about which solution (Greater-German or Little-German) the new Germany was going to take — Austria did not want to be included in a unified Germany, but the parliament included Austria as a part of Germany. In short, 1848 was a dead letter because the existing German kings and princes did not want a unified Germany. The failure of 1848 discredited, but didn’t eliminate, the Greater-German solution as a possibility. During the 1850s and early 1860s not much happened in case of German unification — it’s one of the least studied eras of 19th century German historiography — but both solutions seemed possible, the Greater-German and Little-German solution.
- When Bismarck took office in 1862, he wanted to maintain Prussia’s position in the German states. One way he saw that was to unify Germany. He knew that outright annexation of the all of the other German states was not unfeasible, for the risk of rebellions and anti-Prussian sentiment. Bismarck thus proceeded to make a series of compromises with existing rulers and states in order secure Prussia’s power in the German states, but at a cost of outright Prussian hegemony. He did so through three wars: The Second Schleswig War , The Austro-Prussian War and the Franco-Prussian War These wars were used by Bismarck to rally support from the other German states. The Austro-Prussian saw Prussian annexation of Hanover, Hesse, Nassau and the city of Frankfurt, and the removal of Austrian influence in the affairs of the German states. The annexed states were not immediately absorbed into Prussia, but retained a special status — See, Hans A. Schmitt “From Sovereign States to Prussian Provinces: Hanover and Hesse-Nassau, 1866-1871.” Journal of Modern History 57, (1985) By removing Austria from the picture, the most likely candidate for German unification was the Little-German solution. In 1867, The Northern German Confederation (NGC) — the proto-German Empire — was founded. Some non-annexed states were members of the NGC and they retained considerable independence, with the exception of foreign policy, which was decided by Prussia. At the same time, he was also compromising with liberals and nationalists. He made concessions to the voting franchise — The NGC, and the German Empire has universal manhood suffrage. For nationalists, Bismarck argued that a unified Germany –under Prussian auspices– is a strong and safe, from foreign attack, Germany. He argued this for both the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian war. In 1871, Bismarck did the same act. He compromised with the southern German states, who were very afraid of Prussian ascendancy, in order to achieve a unified Germany. The German Empire which was declared in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was probably not the Germany that Bismarck wanted, there were a lot of compromises he made with the other German states in order to secure Prussia’s position in Germany.
Older historiography, and what most people think, is that Prussia’s spectre haunted all over Germany; that the German Empire of 1871 was a greater-Prussia. That is not true, but it is equally untrue that Prussia was at the same level as the other German states. It was much more powerful than the other parts of the German Empire, but Prussia’s machinations could be stopped — see Weichlein, Siegfried. Nation und Region:Integrationsprozesse im Bismarckreich. Düsseldorf: Droste, 2004. The chapter on the Reicheisenbahnplan.
You should think of Bismarck not as a “great unifier,” but as the “great mediator” of German unification.
Breuilly, John. Austria, Prussia and Germany, 1806-1871. Harlow UK: Pearson Education, 2011
Williamson, David. Bismarck and Germany 1862-1890. Harlow UK: Pearson Education, 2011.
Both books are filled with information and have excellent bibliographies.
*Between 1862 and 1871, Bismarck’s took a “meh, close enough” approach to German unification.