The picture above is of the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles.
As well as the textbooks mentioned in previous posts, I have used the Britannica CD ROM (2001) and Christopher Clark's excellent Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 (Allen Lane, 2006)
Update: Go here for an excellent discussion on Bismarck in Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time'.
King William I
The Italian war provided an impetus for the unification of Germany that was to take place under Bismarck's leadership. There were clear parallels between the perceived predicaments of Germany and Italy and between Prussia and Piedmont, both constitutional monarchies with modernizing agendas. There was also a renewal of the French threat as, like his uncle, Napoleon III had successfully challenged the established European order. His invasion of Italy led to the mobilization of 250,000 men in various German states under the authority of the Confederation Diet and an outburst of patriotic feeling across Germany. But there was a difference from 1848-9. German liberals now realized that unification could only take place under the leadership of Prussia.
In 1858 the 62 year old Prince William of Prussia became regent for his brother, Frederick William IV, who had been incapacitated by a series of strokes. A liberalizing ministry took office inaugurating a new era of ‘parliamentary monarchy, enabling the liberals to win a landslide in the Landtag (upper house) elections of November 1858.
In January 1861 Frederick William IV died and William became King William I of Prussia. He was dedicated to the Prussian army, whose uniform he had worn since the age of six. He was also a consistent enthusiast for some kind of German unity under Prussian leadership (though he had not worked out any details). In order to meet the challenges he planned to double the size of the army and to distance the regular army from the ‘people’s’ Landwehr. However this met with opposition from the liberals in the parliament and raised the question of the king’s constitutional position.
The military-constitutional conflict that resulted gradually brought the Prussian system to a standstill. William dissolved the parliament and called new elections but in the spring of 1862 he dissolved his new parliament and by September he appeared ready to abdicate in favour of his son, Crown Prince Frederick William, who was known to be sympathetic to the liberal position. (In 1858, he had married Queen Victoria’s daughter, Vicky, Princess Royal.) But in September he was persuaded by his minister of war, Albrecht von Roon to adopt a measure of last resort, the appointment of Otto von Bismarck, then ambassador in Paris, as minister-president of Prussia. This was the monarch’s last desperate effort to avoid parliamentary sovereignty over the military.
Bismarck: early career
Bismarck was born into the East Elbian Junker class, descended on his father’s side from five generations of landowners. However his mother’s family were academics and Bismarck was much more of an intellecutal than most junkers. As Prussian delegate to the Frankfurt diet of the German Confederation, he had become convinced of the incompatibility of Prussian and Austrian interests in Germany. From 1859-62 he was ambassador to St Petersburg. In May he was appointed ambassador to Paris until he was summoned to Berlin in September.
As a man and a politician he defied easy labelling. He was certainly not a liberal but he never really shared the views of the landed aristocracy. This made him extremely pragmatic and flexible in his policies.
‘Politics is no science, it is an art and anyone without the knack of it should leave it alone.’Here is the historian, Christopher Clark on Bismarck:
The consequences of this understanding of his own place in the world can be observed in his demeanour as a public figure, and particularly in his tendency towards insubordination. Bismarck never behaved as if he had a boss. This was most glaringly apparent in his relations with William I. As chancellor, Bismarck frequently pushed policies through against the monarch’s will; and when the king created obstructions, Bismarck resorted to tantrums and fits of weeping, backing up by the threat…to resign and return to the comfort and peace of his estate. When Bismarck wanted to consolidate his relationship with the monarch, he generally did so but by endearing himself directly to his sovereign, but by engineering crises that highlighted his own indispensability, like a helmsman who steers into the storm in order to demonstrate his mastery of the ship.' (Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, Allen Lane, 2006, pp. 520-1)At a meeting of the budget commission of the Prussian Parliament on September 30, 1862, Bismarck (1815-1898) delivered his famous ‘Blood and Iron’ speech.
‘Prussia must collect and keep its strength for the right moment, which has been missed several times already; Prussia’s frontiers as laid down by the Vienna treaties are not conducive to a healthy national life; it is not by means of speeches and majority resolutions that the great issues of the day will be decided – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by blood and iron.’This was a call for a ‘small German’ (kleindeutsch) nation-state dominated by Prussia.
Conflicts with the Liberals
Bismarck’s initial policy as minister-president was to secure an understanding with the deputies over the size of the army and the powers of the crown. But when compromise seemed to be getting nowhere, he abandoned the policy and switched to open confrontation, designed to demonstrate to the king his loyalty and indispensability. The military reforms were put in train and taxes collected without parliamentary approval and civil servants were threatened with the sack if they did not comply.
At first the policy seemed to be failing. The elections of 1863 reduced the number of pro-government deputies. The political stalemate undermined Prussia’s standing in the German Confederation just at the time when Austria was proposing reforms that would breathe new life into that body (and cement its own influence). It was not clear that Bismarck was going to last as a politician. But he hoped that a successful foreign policy would weaken the desire for political reform.
The Schleswig-Holstein question
The death of Frederick VII of Denmark in the winter of 1863 re-opened the very complex question of the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein which lay between Denmark and Germany. Most of the people of Schleswig spoke Danish but there was an area of ethnic and linguistic diversity in south Schleswig and the people of Holstein largely spoke German. Holstein was part of the German Confederation, Schleswig was not. The problems raised by the duchies involved the nationality rights of the German minority in Schleswig and the Danish minority in Holstein as well as the rights of succession of various branches of the Danish royal family.
See here if you have the brain power, stamina and mental stability to pursue the question. I haven't.
In January 1848 Frederick VII became king of Denmark and announced his intention to incorporate Schleswig into the Danish unitary state. On 21 March, Schleswig was annexed. On 23 April at the authorization of the Frankfurt Parliament, (largely) Prussian despatched troops into Schleswig in spite of protests from Britain. The war dragged on until 1850 when Prussian troops were withdrawn. In 1852 the London Protocol temporarily settled the dispute by demanding that the German Confederation return Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark and that Denmark keep the duchies together.
In November 1863 Frederick VII died - the last common male heir to both Denmark and the duchies. Prince Christian of Glücksburg became Christian IX . (His daughter Alexandra, had married the Prince of Wales six months earlier). The new king announced his intention to absorb Schleswig into the Danish unitary state (thus separating it from Holstein), a move which was denounced as a provocation by German nationalists.
The Danish-Prussian War
In December 1863 a small Confederation force occupied Holstein but was unable to proceed to the heavily defended Schleswig. Prussia and Austria then declared that they were prepared to invade Schleswig but in their own right as European powers. It was a rare show of unity, but in fact they wanted different things from the war. Austria wanted to reassert its dominance of the German Confederation and to prevent Prussia from annexing Schleswig; it was also demonstrating to France that in spite of its defeats in Italy it was still a great power.
Bismarck’s ultimate objective was to annex both duchies to Prussia. He was persuaded (probably by the Prussian Chief of Staff, Helmut von Moltke the Elder) that if the duchies were allowed to be independent they might become a Habsburg satellite. The agreement to work with Austria was therefore a temporary device.
On 1 August 1864 the Danes were forced to sue for peace. King Christian ceded all rights to the duchies to Prussia and Austria and they passed under joint Austro-Prussian military occupation pending a decision on their future by the German Confederation. But Bismarck’s objectives had not changed. He still planned to annex the duchies and offered many provocations to Austria over the next twelve months.
On 14 August 1865 Prussia and Austria signed the Convention of Gastein: there was to be joint Austro-Prussian sovereignty in the duchies, while placing Schleswig under Prussian and Holstein under Austrian control. But this was an interim arrangement – a papering over the cracks.
Below is a photograph of the three leaders of Prussia in the 1860s: Bismarck, Albrecht von Roon and Hermann von Moltke the elder.
The Austro-Prussian War (the ‘Seven Weeks War)
This is one of the most decisive wars in German history.
In 1864 Bismarck pursued a policy of renewing the Zollverein. By the summer the new free trade area included Thuringia, Brunswick, Baden and Hesse-Cassel. In September the pro-Austrian Bavaria, Württemberg, Hesse-Darmstadt and Nassau joined because they could not survive without access to the north German markets. Having expelled Austria economically from Germany, he was prepared to complete the task militarily. He repeatedly told the Austrians that their future lay in the south and that they would be wise to accept Prussian domination of the north. But Austria refused to listen. After the Treaty of Gastein, she supported a rival claimant to Schleswig-Holstein in an attempt to reassert her dominance within the Confederation. This gave Bismarck his excuse for war.
In April 1866 Bismarck concluded an alliance with Italy and entered into negotiations with Hungarian nationalists. It is possible that he bought French neutrality with the (vague) promise of compensations in Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of the Rhineland. Having made himself even more secure by the certainty of Russian neutrality, he mobilized the Prussian army.
On 9 June Prussian troops invaded Holstein, encountering no resistance from the Austrians, who withdrew into Hanover. On 14 June the Confederation Diet, fearful of Prussian expansionism, backed an Austrian motion denouncing the occupation of Holstein as illegal. The Prussian ambassador walked out declaring the Confederation dissolved. On 19 June Italy declared war on Austria.
Most informed commentators predicted an Austrian victory. Austria had reformed its armed forces following the disasters of 1859 and it enjoyed an important strategic advantage – most of the middling German states, notably Hanover and Saxony, opted to side with Vienna against Berlin, which forced Prussia to fight the war on several fronts. But though the Austrian army was well equipped, the armies of her allies performed poorly. The Italians were defeated at the second battle of Custozza, though their entry into the war provided an important diversion.
Moltke's strategy was to break up the Prussian forces into small mobile groups. It was a modern conception of warfare, requiring the sophisticated use of railways, roads and the telegraph. In addition, Prussian infantrymen were the best armed in Europe, and were equipped with the rapid-firing needle-gun.
The decisive battle of the war took place on 3 July 1866 between the river fort of Königgratz and the Bohemian town of Sadowa. On 22 July Franz Joseph capitulated to the Prussians. On the right is the memorial to the dead.
The North German Confederation
The Austrian Emperor was forced to pay an indemnity of 40 million florins, and to agree to the dissolution of the German Confederation and the creation of a new North German Confederation north of the river Main. Schleswig and Holstein were annexed along with Hesse-Darmstadt, Hanover, Nassau and the city of Frankfurt, all of which had fought against Prussia. Four and a half million people now came under Prussian dominance. These annexations were immensely popular. The old liberal-left opposition to Bismarck was in disarray and the nationalists were triumphant, with many liberals now converted to nationalism.
This marked the end of the long struggle between Prussia and Austria for the dominance of Germany.
The Confederation constitution was, on the surface, progressive as it established manhood suffrage with a secret ballot. But Bismarck allowed this because he believed that Prussian conservative voters greatly outnumbered liberals. The Lower House, the Reichstag, had the power to reject bills, but in practice its powers were circumscribed in the areas of military and foreign policy. Ministers were chosen by and responsible to the king not the legislature.
The Compromise of 1867 (the Ausgleich)
The war cost Austria its influence in Germany; she also lost Venetia. This forced her to turn her attention to the non-German parts of the Empire, especially the Hungarians, who previously had seen themselves as second-class citizens. In 1867 Franz Joseph reached an agreement with the Hungarian leadership to turn it into the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. It was ratified by the Hungarian parliament in May 1867 and approved by the Austrian Reichsrat in December. Under the compromise only three ministries remained common to the Hungarian and Austrian halves of the Empire. There was also a customs union and a sharing of accounts. The compromise benefited Hungary as it secured Magyar control over Hungarian affairs.
The Franco-Prussian War
By 1867 only the south German states of Bavaria, Baden, Hesse-Darmstadt and Württemberg remained outside the Confederation. Though Bismarck expressed doubts about whether German unification would occur in his lifetime, the southern states were increasingly tied into the Confederation when they were forced into new Zollverein treaties. The only obstacle, from Bismarck’s point of view, was that at this juncture the southern states were opposed to unification.
What were Bismarck’s aims at this stage? He recognized the dangers of a conquest of the south German states: it would alienate France and bring more Catholics into a predominantly Protestant state. However, he saw unification as necessary because otherwise these states might ally with Austria and France. His caution provoked nationalist impatience. In 1870 he provoked another war, this time with France.
The Luxembourg crisis: In August 1866 Napoleon III had privately proposed a French annexation of the independent duchy of Luxembourg in return for French acceptance of German unification and been given a vague encouragement. In the spring of 1867 Bismarck leaked news of the emperor’s designs to the German press, knowing these would provoke a wave of nationalist outrage.
The Hohenzollern candidacy: In 1868 a revolution in Spain deposed Queen Isabella and the victorious liberals were looking for a new monarch. (She abdicated in June 1870 in favour of her son, Alfonso XII.) Early in 1870 they invited Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a Catholic south German, related to the Prussian royal family and with a Portuguese wife to take the trhone. Bismarck knew that this would infuriate the French and would strengthen his hand domestically and so became an ardent supporter of the Hohenzollern candidacy. In June he persuaded a reluctant Leopold to accept.
The Ems Dispatch: This provoked a wave of nationalist outrage in France. In a bellicose speech the inexperienced new Foreign Minister, the Duc de Gramont, promised the French that Leopold would never ascend ‘the throne of Charles V’. The French ambassador Vincent de Beneditti, was despatched to the spa town of Bad Ems to confront William I. William responded in a conciliatory manner, and the whole business might have ended there if France had not overreached itself.
Gramont persuaded Napoleon to insist on a Prussian guarantee that no Hohenzollern would ever be put forward for the Spanish throne but when Benedetti accosted William again, the king told him that the affair was closed and that he would never accept an ultimatum. He then telegraphed Bismarck to inform him of the event.
On 13 Bismarck lightly edited the telegram and published it. In the revised version the king’s refusal was made to appear a rude rebuff. The wording caused great outrage in France and a wave of patriotic feeling in Germany including the south German states. On his return from Bad Ems, William was mobbed by cheering crowds.
As in 1864 and 1867 Bismarck showed his skill in exploiting dynastic politics and the growing forces of mass nationalism. But he was not completely in charge of events. He had been prepared to abandon the Hohenzollern candidature and to accept the French diplomatic victory. He did not plan the Franco-Prussian war though when it came he saw it as his great opportunity.
The defeat of France: On 15 July France declared war on Germany not realizing how isolated she had become in Europe. Austria had no desire for another war, Alexander II of Russia loathed Napoleon because of his support for the Poles, and he was won over by Bismarck’s promise that Prussia would support St Petersburg in revising the most burdensome stipulations of the Crimean peace settlement. Britain had come to accept the idea of a united Germany.
The war was a disaster for France and a triumph for the Prussian war machine under von Moltke. In August Prussia and its German allies launched an attack through Alsace and Lorraine trapping one French army round Metz and another on 1 September at Sedan. On 2 September General Patrice MacMahon surrendered at Sedan and Napoleon was taken prisoner along with 104,000 men. The news from Sedan brought the Parisians out on the streets. The Empress and the Prince Imperial fled to England. On 4 September the rump of republican deputies proclaimed a republic in France.
From 15 September Paris was besieged by German troops. On 29 October the French army at Metz surrendered. On 28 January the government signed an armistice with the Germans after a horrific four months in which 40,000 people died.
(Napoleon III accompanied William into Germany. He was released and died at Chislehurst, Kent, in 1873.)
The great symbolic moment was reached in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles on 18 January 1871, where the King of Prussia was pronounced Emperor (Kaiser) William I and the German Empire (map below) officially came into being, with Bismarck as imperial chancellor But united Germany had been in existence from the end of November by which time all four southern states had signed treaties joining the Reich.
On 10 May the final treaty was agreed at Frankfurt. Alsace and most of Lorraine were annexed and an indemnity of the equivalent of £200 m. was imposed on France. By the treaty France lost a population of nearly a million and a half and the iron mines and metallurgical industries of Alsace and Lorraine.
Disraeli (quoted Clark, p. 552):
‘The war represents the German revolution, a greater political event than the French. There is not a single diplomatic tradition that has not been swept away.’Who could disagree with that?