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Gunpowder, Blood, and Fire: The Unification of Germany

At the end of the eighteenth century and up to 1814, Germany was under the power of Napoleon's French empire. Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine, a conglomeration of the fractured north German states. This was the first time that these states had been brought together and as a result a rise in German nationalism began in all the northern states. When Napoleon was defeated in the battle of Leipzig by a coalition of Russia, Prussia, Britain and Austria, the Confederation collapsed.

The Congress of Vienna

The defeat of Napoleon brought about the beginning of the Congress of Vienna. The Congress was called in order to restore the balance of power in Europe and also to ensure that France could never again expand outside of its original pre-war borders. The countries that had participated in the coalition in the battle of Leipzig (Russia, Prussia, Britain and Austria) were the major players at the congress. Lands that were originally parts of the French empire were doled out to the major powers in a way that would make sure that no power became too large. The Grand Duchy of Warsaw was divided between Prussia, Russia, and Austria, but Prussia traded their land in Poland for Saxony (from Russia). The other powers became nervous about the growing power of Prussia, so Prussia, under the threat of a coalition against it, took only 2/5 of Saxony thereby keeping the balance of power intact. The Congress then created the German Confederation, similar to the Confederation of the Rhine, which was placed under the administrative power of Austria. After the Congress of Vienna, the four major powers began the first European Council where they would meet and discuss the keeping of peace in Europe, much like the current United Nations.

Conservatism and the Revolution of 1848

In the period following the Congress of Vienna, the liberal ideas that had begun under Napoleon's rule were squelched under the Metternich system, a conservative reactionary system instated by Klemens von Metternich, an Austrian prince. The nationalism that had begun to rise when the Confederation of the Rhine was discouraged by the conservatives and any movement to unify Germany was put down. The overbearing policy of the Metternich system initially put down liberal ideas but after years of this oppresiveness, liberal ideas began to surface again.

In the German states, violent uprisings of peasants and liberals began, sparked by the strong desire for reform among the various peoples (the educated, the wealthy, the peasants, etc.). The princes of the individual states, unprepared for what occurred, granted parliaments and constitutions to the people, appointing liberal ministries and ending feudal dues along the way. The liberal revolutionaries created the National Assembly, which had the goal of unifying Germany as a liberal, constitutional state. In May of 1848, The National Assembly (or the Frankfurt Assembly) was called together in Frankfurt to prepare for this "unification". After disagreements between Prussia and Austria, Prussia decided to try to unify Germany under their kleindeutsch plan, which would include all of the German states except Austria, with Prussia in control. In 1848, the Assembly finished the constitution, and appointed King Frederick William as the first emperor of constitutional Germany.

Unfortunately, the National Assembly didn't actually wield enough power to carry out all of their plans as hoped. Frederick immediately canceled the constitution and declared his divine right to rule, declaring that he would never accept the "crown from the gutter." While the princes recalled the concessions made to the liberals back in 1948-49, the armies of the monarchy quickly crushed the liberal movement in South Germany. The revolution went mostly the same in Austria. There were violent uprisings, and there was talk of parliaments and constitutions, but much remained as it had been in Austria.

Germany Before Bismarck

In 1834, Prussia, under the leadership of the Junkers (The Prussian landed aristocracy), began a German customs union, Zollverein, in order to make trade and business between German states easier. Before Zollverein, goods passing from one small German state to another required a duty payment, which made it virtually impossible for the German people to carry on business with separate states without paying several "transit duties". With Zollverein, the Prussian government abolished all internal land duties and put a single moderate tariff around all parts of the kingdom. By 1834, most of the German states (excluding Austria and Bohemia) were members, and most of Germany became one free trade common market. The Zollverein greatly hurt the Austrians because they produced high priced goods. A market like Austria's was at a disadvantage because it became cheaper for German countries to trade within the Confederation, and Austria was excluded from the entire German market.

The Industrial Revolution hit Germany extra hard compared to other European areas. During the years 1850 to 1870, the German economy rapidly advanced. Along with new factories, textile and iron production, railroads, coal production, and record exports, the population grew quickly and the middle-class expanded. After lagging behind Western Europe for about 300 years, Germany caught up in only two decades. Luckily for Prussia, it was in control of land that was precious for industrialization, and Prussia quickly dominated Germany economically. Various smaller German states began to adapt their economies to Prussia's.

With Zollverein and the advancement in industry, Germany became economically united and partially culturally united before 1871. German states became linked by railroad and telegraph wires, and Zollverein allowed for an even greater sense of unity. The Austrians, because of their exclusion from the Zollverein and the German infrastructure, were perceived more and more by the German people as outsiders.

Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898)

In 1862, Otto von Bismarck became the Prussian chancellor, and he had big plans for his country. He intended to unite Germany under Prussian rule while stopping any liberal advances at the same time. He hated liberalism, democracy and socialism. Bismarck believed that he could achieve his goals by controlling the people and manipulating them for his purposes, through the use of charismatic leaders, the granting of limited power, or even the use of the army, if necessary. Otto wanted to gain the support of the lower class and gain a popular vote that he could use against the liberals and Austria. Bismarck based this tactic on Napoleon III's strategy of granting limited power or suffrage to get what he wanted from the people. The manipulation and use of the leaders of other countries was also a key part of initiating his ultimate goal, German unification. Bismarck was an extreme loyalist who was willing to stop at nothing to attain the goals of Kaiser William. In fact, he was such a loyalist that he was even willing to trick William in order to accomplish the very things that William sent him to do.

Bismarck believed in power. In a famous speech, he declared that "iron and blood" (meaning war and industry) would gain unification, not speeches and declaration as in the revolution of 1848. His campaign called for an active foreign policy, and emphasized that Prussia had to keep its power together at all times, because the people of Germany didn't look at Prussia's liberalism, but at its power.

"I want to play the tune the way it sounds to me or not at pride bids me command rather than obey"
-Otto von Bismarck

Germany At War

Bismarck knew that to achieve his goal of a unified Germany under Prussia, he was going to have to get the people on his side and stop other countries from forming a coalition against Prussia. War was inevitable to reach his goal, but using the Prussian army to attack others would make Prussia look like it was striving to become "too powerful". Europe had just recently dealt with Napoleon's France and would not allow something like that to happen again. So Bismarck had to provoke the others to attack him.

In 1863, Denmark tried to take away the autocracy of the two northernmost German states, Schleswig and Holstein. Bismarck announced that this was completely unacceptable to the German Confederation, and together Prussia and Austria went to war with Denmark. Secretly though, it gave Bismarck his chance to achieve victory over Denmark while working along with Austria. During this time and against the Frankfurt Assembly's wishes, Bismarck increased the size of his army significantly, hoping to quickly be victorious in the war. He hoped that a victory would justify his defiant domestic policy and give him the upper hand on his enemies, the liberals. As he had hoped, Bismarck's superior army along with Austria defeated Denmark, and the two states were split between them. Prussia took Schleswig, and Austria took Holstein. Though Bismarck achieved the victory he wanted, the liberals continued to be angry with him and continually tried to defy him.

In 1866, Bismarck ordered his troops to advance to the Austrian state of Holstein, and attempted to provoke Austria into declaring war. He made sure that Austria was diplomatically isolated and would be able to receive no help from Russia, France, Britain, or Italy. To finally bring Austria against him, Bismarck sent a message to Italy that was intended to be "intercepted" by Austria. The message stated that Prussia wished Italy to help them in a defensive war against Austria. Bismarck then initiated the most clever part of his plan. He sent a letter to the French king. This letter was much like the one sent previously to the Italians, saying that he was willing to trade German land for France's neutrality if Austria declared war on Prussia. The French ambassador to Prussia agreed to the deal and drafted an agreement that basically said "We the French demand South German land in return for remaining neutral in Prussia's war against Austria." The trick was that Bismarck did not sign the document, and the French fell for this trick. This document would go towards angering the French and also cause Austria to get more and more worried about what Prussia was planning. Bismarck's last step in getting Austria to declare war on him was to make a declaration before the Frankfurt Assembly. This declaration stated that he intended to form a unified Germany under the kleindeutsch plan. One of the key points about this plan was that it specifically excluded Austria from the union. The Austrians, first seeing that Prussia appeared to be preparing for a war against them, and then hearing that Bismarck intended to kick them out of German affairs, assumed that he was going to attack them. Austria, taking a logical step under the circumstances, launched a "preemptive strike" against Prussia.

Most German states joined Austria to fight the Prussian army, believing that Austria was the defender of their independence. Once again, however, Bismarck's superior military force won the war. Hoping to keep Austria as an ally rather than a future enemy, Bismarck quickly made very fair peace treaties with Austria and the South German states. The Treaty of Prague was signed on August 23rd, and it allowed Austria to keep all of its land except Venetia, which had been promised to Italy so that they would stay out of the war. In order to insure that the Austrians were harboring no further resentment towards the Prussians, Bismarck gave the Austrian king Hungary's throne, instating the dual monarchy. There was no occupation of Austria, and only a modest indemnity. Prussia, however, was allowed to annex all of the North German states to form the North German Confederation. The Austro-Prussian war was much like the Persian wars. Persia had always been a part of Greek, especially Ionian, affairs until the Greeks beat them in three wars. The Persians, like the Austrians were forced to with Germany, were then made to withdraw from all European affairs.

The North German Confederation was formed in 1867, making a new and powerful German state. Bismarck granted equal manhood suffrage and allowed the Parliament to control the budget. The German states were allowed to keep their own governments. These governments were still responsible to the Prussian king, however, who still retained the real power. The support for the liberals was weakened after the success of the army they had opposed strengthening, though they still approved of the new Confederation because it was a step towards their goal of German unification. Bismarck further contented the liberals by asking them to formally approve the military expansion and spending that he had done without their agreement. On the other hand, Prussian conservatives also liked the new Confederation because it increased the overall power and stability of Prussia.

It is interesting to note that five years before German unification, the German states had been at war with each other.

The Franco-Prussian War

During the Austro-Prussian war, Otto von Bismarck promised territory to the French in return for their neutrality- territory he never intended to actually give. He secured this for the French in writing, but he never actually signed it.. In actuality, Bismarck was readying for his final step to unification: a war with France. Bismarck had to manipulate the parties involved in order to keep support on Prussia's side, so that Prussia would rule a unified Germany.

The Spanish crown opened up for succession, and Prussia immediately placed a Hohenzollern family claim on it. However, pressure from the French (Napoleon III also made a claim to the Spanish crown) made Prussia decline, at least for the time being. The French took this as a victory and, on July 14th, 1870, sent the Ems Dispatch to Prussia in order to demand that no Prussian prince ever again try to claim the Spanish crown. This worked out perfectly for Bismarck. He responded harshly to the French, sending them a letter reportedly from William. This letter, which consisted of nothing but mockery of the French, was sent to the French newspapers on Bastille Day. When the French people read this letter, they were deeply offended and clamored for a war against its makers, the Prussians. Bismarck was certain that a patriotic war against France would unite Germany. The second thing he did was show the South German states the French king's demand for land in exchange for neutrality in the Austro-Prusisan war. When the South German states saw this, they were convinced that the only way to survive an attack from France was to unify with Germany. Bismarck could also use this letter to prove to the German states that Prussia had been their protector in the Franco-Prussian war.

"Never believe in anything until it has been officially denied."
-Otto von Bismarck

On July 19, 1870, Napoleon III of France declared war on Prussia, severely underestimating Germany's might. Combined with the South and North German states, Prussia defeated the French army. Thanks to Bismarck's fair peace terms in the Austro-Prussian war, Austria stayed out of the conflict. In May of 1871, the Treaty of Frankfurt was signed to end the French conflict, and harsh peace terms were given to the French. They were forced to cede both Alsace and Lorraine to Germany, as well as pay high reparations until 1875. The Germans treated the defeated French quite harshly, occupying Paris for a number of months and also humiliating them with the peace treaty. While these actions were designed to make sure the French would never attack Prussia again, in the end it probably caused the French to stand up to the Germans in World War One. This treaty had much the same affect as the Treaty of Versailles had on the German people. It caused them to want another war instead of a long lasting peace.

Unification Achieved (January 18, 1871)

As planned, the Franco-Prussian war gave Bismarck the support he needed to unify Germany. After the war, he won the consent of the German princes to unite Germany (excluding Austria) under the Prussian king as German Emperor, though several princes still retained limited autonomy. On January 18, 1871, in Versailles, the king proclaimed the German Empire. William I became Kaiser, and Otto von Bismarck became chancellor.

The new Germany kept roughly the same constitution as the North German Confederation had, but a few things were changed. A national Parliament, the Reichstag, was elected by the people. It had budgetary rights, but it could not overthrow the government. The federal council, Bundesrat, was the conservative's check on the influence of the Reichstag. The Bundesrat consisted of princes. The various German armies remained separate for each German state, but they had to follow the common Prussian command. So, basically, Bismarck had succeeded in making Prussia in control of all decisions. Not only were all of the armies loyal to Prussia, but the Bundesrat, headed by Prussian princes, made sure that the Reichstag never went against the will of Prussia. The Reichstag couldn't do much anyway, because all decisions of the Reichstag had to be approved by the Bundesrat.

The unification caused quite a stir in the rest of Europe. The Russians assumed a hostile attitude towards the new unification, and it was feared that if Germany became powerful, they might cut off Russia from the rest of Europe. France was hostile to the Germans in the first place due to the treaty that followed the Franco-Prussian war. The general consensus around Europe was that the new unified Germany would throw off the European balance of power.

Bismarckian Germany - The Constitutional Order

The new unified Germany became a mixture of a Prussian dominated and federalist state. Prussia was, by far, the most powerful state in Germany, as Bismarck had intended. Though Austria-Hungary was not part of Germany, Bismarck intended to preserve a good relationship between it and Germany. He feared actually allowing Austria-Hungary's Catholic-dominated population into Germany for fear of religious conflict, since Prussia was mostly Protestant.

"Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made."
-Otto von Bismarck

In 1871, a new German constitution was written, and it basically declared that Prussia was in control and could largely defy the Federal Council (Bundesrat or Reichstag). The new constitution granted universal and equal manhood suffrage. The Imperial (Federal) Government was given control of all common problems such as national defense, foreign affairs, tariffs, and commercial matters. The head of the Imperial Government was the Kaiser, who happened to be the king of Prussia. He was not an absolute monarch, but he had lots of power. The Kaiser could appoint the chief executive officer and the chancellor, and he could wage defensive or offensive wars simply from his own authority.

The constitution also stated that the government would appoint the upper chamber (the Bundesrat), which would check the influence of the lower, popular elected chambers (the Reichstag). The Bundesrat itself contained fifty-eight members, seventeen of which were appointed by the king of Prussia. This allowed him to block changes to the constitution and defeat any amendment he wanted. The Reichstag, the second house of the legislative branch, consisted of about 400 members elected by popular vote. The Bundesrat and the king held power over the Reichstag, so it was unlikely that it would be able to pass any liberal democratic laws. The only thing that kept the Bundesrat and Prussia from having complete control was the fear that if they were forced to constantly used their veto power, the people would become angry and revolt.

To ensure stability, conservatives were appointed to the bureaucracy, the army, and the education system. The German Constitutional order after 1871 was not directed "by the will of the people"; Bismarck made sure he could take back anything that he had allowed.3 He had made absolutely sure that unified Germany was in Prussian control. This became less true towards 1890 due to social changes. Though Bismarck was wise enough to reform in order to ward off Socialism as long as possible (he hated Socialism), the next king, William II of Prussia, was very anti-Bismarck and dismissed him as chancellor. Post-Bismarckian shifted more power over to the Socialists.

Life in Bismarck's German Empire

The Empire was founded on the unity provided from the war with France, and it didn't take long for that unity to die down. Though Prussia's power appealed to non-Prussians and lessened the appeal of Austria, the unity became unstable for many. There were many different kinds of people living in Germany, and many of them had different views about how the Empire was run.

The Prussian landed aristocracy, or the Junkers, was the group Bismarck belonged to. They supported militarism and authoritatism and were the first picks for the Prussian army, but they didn't like universal suffrage because it was dangerous to their way of life. They were loyal to Prussia but only reluctantly loyal to German nationalism, since it conflicted with the way they lived.

The South German states adopted more liberal constitutions than Prussia, and the democratic movement was stronger there, but other than that the South Germans were, on the whole, the same as the Prussians.

The Catholics in the empire felt uneasy about living in such a Protestant state, especially since the Church condemned such states as Germany. To support themselves, the German Catholics formed the Center Party. They gained 58 seats in the Reichstag and drew support from all the elements that had opposed Bismarck's work. In response to the Center Party, Bismarck instated Kulturkampf, a program that imposed restrictions upon Catholic education and worship. Bismarck hoped to keep Germany all around Protestant. The liberals did not support him in this venture, since it went against the equality and freedom they wanted. Through Kulturkampf, Bismarck expelled Jesuits and insisted that the state should train and license priests. Priests and bishops who didn't conform were put in jail. Bismarck's goal was to shift the control of religious education from the church to the state. It was clear by about 1875 that Kulturkampf was not working, and Catholics and Protestants alike hated Bismarck's attack on religious teaching, so he abandoned Kulturkampf and tried instead to win the Center Party's parliamentary support. Apart from church issues, the Center Party supported Bismarck.

The liberals helped in the unification of Germany, because it fulfilled their main political goal. They also helped pass anti-Catholic legislation and welcomed the free trade policy. In 1869, workers started a Socialist party along with trade unions. Bismarck felt threatened by this and passed anti-socialist laws. He banned Socialism, banned the printing of Socialist ideas, and banned Socialist meetings. He then tried to win the support of the middle-class workers by offering social security, insurance, retirement benefits, and pensions; he manipulated them so that he would not receive Socialist retaliation. Socialists were not satisfied though, instead they wanted to be equal partners of the employers. Bismarck's "Steal the Socialist Thunder" policy tried to help the working men so that the Social Democrats would lose support. He basically reformed Laissez-faire capitalism.

The national minorities (the Poles, French, Danish, Jews, and other non-Germans) technically had the same political and civil rights as Germans, but they were forced to minimize the importance of their individual cultures. For instance, only German could be spoken in offices and classrooms. Women were also treated in a rather degrading manner. They were considered to be an insignificant partner of their husbands.

All in all, though, life in the German Empire was moderately tolerant, safe, and livable. The economy continued to grow and thrive, and the tariffs protected farmers from the influx of food from Russia and the United States. Germany had only as much poverty and social misery as other countries of its time, and there was no large-scale hunger. All Germans had basic rights and protection, too.

Bismarck's Foreign Policy

After unification, Germany was the strongest military power on the continent. Germany's position geographically was between large military powers, so diplomacy had to be carried out very carefully. Otto von Bismarck had to be as sure as possible that no one would attack Germany, at least no coalition. First, in 1879, Bismarck made a secret alliance with Austria-Hungary. In 1881, Bismarck signed a tri-treaty with Russia, Austria, and Germany: the Alliance of Three Emperors. In 1882, Italy joined this alliance, making a triple alliance along with Austria and Russia. With the new acquisition of land in other regions of the world, all of these countries wanted defensive treaties in Central Europe. Germany stayed out of the race for African and Asian territories for the most part, in order to not anger other powers. Germany did take some African land and some Pacific islands, and though England was a bit peeved, Germany's defense treaties protected them. Bismarck's anti-imperialistic policies helped placate Russia.

"I am bored. The great things are done. The German Reich is made."
-Otto von Bismarck

Under Bismarck, Germany maintained a stable and reliable foreign policy, because Bismarck maintained an anti-imperialistic stand and maintained diplomacy. Germany managed to stay on good terms with just about everyone but France, who was still mad about its defeat in 1870. Bismarck's anti-imperialistic approach kept the European states that were already imperialistic from becoming angry and making a coalition against Germany.

The New King of Prussia and the End of Bismarck

In 1888, King William II was appointed king of Prussia, and much of what Bismarck had done was quickly changed. William II undid the law to oppress Socialists to win the support of the lower class. In the 1890's, Social Democrats were elected to Parliament, and Socialism increased throughout Germany. Bismarck and William disagreed on several issues, especially imperialism, and Bismarck was soon forced to resign so that the king could "rule in his own right". German policy then changed, mostly for the worse. William II did not see the logic behind Bismarck's anti-imperialism and began to expand overseas. This caused the cancellation of Germany's nonaggression treaty with Russia, which led to a treaty between Russia and France, trapping Germany between to hostile countries. William II's thoughtless blundering would eventually cause the downfall of the Germans.