The country known as Germany today was not always a united nation. It started as a confederation of thirty-nine German-speaking states created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The confederation was backed by Britain, who believed its creation would limit the powers of France and Russia within Europe and maintain the balance of power on the continent.
However, the confederacy was weak, with the constant struggle for supremacy between Prussia and Austria. It prevented the unification of Germany as a nation-state and eventually disintegrated due to many factors. This essay examines the emergence of a united German state, emphasizing the main cause of German unification.
The Role of Bismarck
If there is a person who could claim credit for Germany’s unification, that person is Otto Von Bismarck. He was appointed as the President Minister in 1862, from that year till 1890, he was a dominant figure in German politics. Using his skill in international relations and realpolitik diplomacy, he was able to instigate events that eventually lead to the unification.
Before his appointment, Austria held the most influence within the loose German confederacy. Bismarck changed this by establishing Prussia, then focusing on unifying the German states and consolidating its power domestically. This was achieved with diplomacy, wars, and by taking advantage of German nationalism. (Lumen)
The Significance of the Wars
Three wars defined the emergence of Prussia as the dominant power within the German Confederacy and the eventual unification of the empire under it. These wars are:
The Second Schleswig War
This war also called the Prussia-Danish War, started due to the integration of the Duchy of Schleswig by Denmark and its violation of the London protocol. It was fought with Austria’s alliance, and even though the other states within the confederation were against it, they were not powerful enough to oppose the two allies.
This war established Prussia’s position as a significant force within the confederacy, allowing it to trust the other states who noticed its improved military strength. It was a victorious war that ended with a peace treaty in favour of Prussia and Austria, as the king of Denmark had to renounce its claim to the duchies. The result was a common perception among German states that only Prussia could protect them against any acts of external aggression.
The Austro-Prussian War
Eighteen months after the war against Denmark, this war, also called the Seven Weeks War, was fought. It established Prussia as the dominant force in the German confederacy and eventually meant the end of the confederation. The administration of territory won from Denmark was the original cause of the war. Both states had agreed to joint administration, but an act of the Austrian Governor ran contrary to what Prussia called the Principle of joint sovereignty. This dispute escalated into a full-blown war in 1866.
Bismarck was able to secure the alliances of Italy for the war. This proved to be a masterstroke as Austria could not obtain any support from other European powers whose hands were tied by internal problems or other alliances. Most northern states sided with Prussia while the southern ones sided with Austria, while the middle ones were split in their alliances. The military, economic, and transportation system of Prussia also proved to be advantageous as it allowed for quick mobilization of forces and superior firepower.
Prussia emerged victoriously, and the war ended one month and eight days after it started.
This war resulted in the dissolution of the German confederation and the peace treaty that followed excluded Austria from all German affairs, therefore making Prussia the only major German power. It also allowed the annexation of some German states that allied with Austria during the war. The North German Confederation was formed after that by Prussia, with most German States becoming members.
Franco Prussian war
This was the final strategic move in Bismarck’s plan for the unification of Germany. Having seen the powers acquired by Prussia through the Northern German Confederation. France was determined to prevent the alliance of the remaining independent German states with the confederation, as this could cause a shift in the balance of powers within Europe. Bismarck played on this fear, using it to provoke France into a war that started with France’s invasion in 1870.
What France wanted to prevent happened as the war brought the remaining four independent southern German states into the confederation. France’s invasion made Prussia invade northern France, it effectively defeated France, even capturing the emperor Napoleon III, thereby ending its second republic. A Government of National Defense declared a third republic, and the war extended for five more months before the eventual capitulation of Paris in 1871. Afterwards, in the Palace of Versailles in France, the German States declared their union as an empire under King Wilhelm of Prussia on 18 January 1871. Bismarck became the Chancellor, a position he held till 1890. (Lumen)
The main cause of German unification can be found in how Bismarck exploited the spirit of nationalism of the German people. In a speech, he gave at the Prussian House of Representatives now known as the Blood and Iron speech. He employed the German people’s collective experience to rally them and make his point, which, in this instance, was to get approval for the budget so the government can be militarily prepared. Also, the Wars were not merely fought to expand Prussia’s territory or dominance, but to encourage the German nationalism spirit with a united cause against a common enemy.
By relying on the shared history of external aggression, victimization, and exploitation of the German people and their lands by other nations, he was able to bring together this group of people scattered over a vast expanse of land. Who had only the common language and a shared history of external oppression? (Lumen)
Otto Von Bismark was a consummate diplomat and statesman who united Germany and was also able to maintain peace with other European powers after the unification. Using wars that were important enough for morale but easy enough to be won, he brought the German people together under the umbrella of a one-nation state. Although not without his many faults as an almost autocratic leader, by prioritizing German unification and consolidation of power domestically, he laid the foundation for what is now the arguably the most influential European state.