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.
Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Nicholas II of Russia. Wilhelm is wearing a Russian Hussar uniform and Nicholas has a German Army Uniform.
Nicholas cared only for himself and nothing for his people. He had a fortune worth billions of dollars while his people suffered. He was an abuser of human rights as well. When people organized a peaceful protest to hand him a petition, he had his soldiers fire upon them. He was a warmonger and lost almost every war he entered. Russia got the worst of WWI, they were destroyed in the Russo-Japanese war, etc. He also had a role in starting WWI by supporting Serbia, and by doing this pulling Britain and France into the war.
As for Wilhelm, he wasn’t as bad, but still incompetent to a degree. He dismissed Otto Von Bismarck, the German Chancellor who dominated European politics and almost singlehandedly built Germany into a world power. He was also a known anti-semite. His gross mishandling of WWI was another factor that leads people to think he was a fool, although Nicholas was the worst of the two.
FUN FACT: They, along with George V of England, were noted for looking remarkably similar (particularly George and Nicholas) because they were all cousins.
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.