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.