Last time we talked about Italy’s process of unification, and I used the opportunity to reflect on bigger historical themes, connecting Italy to Romanticism, Liberalism, and Nationalism, as well as the emerging great power politics in Europe that would soon export a series of problems around the world. Against this backdrop, Prussia’s path to German unification is important for us on two levels. First, its rise to great power status fundamentally changed the map of Europe. From the moment the German Empire was founded in 1871, the rules of international competition changed, as a new and powerful rival entered the game that the British thought they had won. Second, Prussia’s rise came at Austria’s expense. Austria, which had been a great power since the sixteenth century, moved into the second rank. It was now a vassal state, capable only of doing what Germany allowed. So now I want to consider the problem of the German Empire from the perspective of the battle between Austria and Prussia for leadership of the German nation. We will see that once this problem had been resolved, a whole host of new ones appeared.
I will begin with the year 1848. In the German speaking areas of Europe, the eve of the revolution of 1848 witnessed a surge in emigration. This was due in part to the continued political repression that had become characteristic in Germany overall. But it was also due to the economic troubles that much of Europe faced in the mid-19th century. In 1846, 95,000 Germans left their native land; in 1847, it was 110,000. The revolution and ensuing political reaction only intensified this trend. Initially, the number of emigrants was reduced: between 1848 and 1850, they fluctuated between 80,000 and 90,000. After the Revolution failed, however, the flow of emigrants increased again. In 1851 there were 113,000; in 1852, 162,000; in 1853, 163,000; and in 1854, 300,000. One of the central tales of Germany in the nineteenth century is of the German middle class’ reaction to the disappointment of 1848.
This increase in German emigration after 1848 had little economic basis, as the economy had been expanding for a while. The real source of this emigration was political. A large number of liberal leaders left the states in which the old regimes had been restored. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, poets, musicians, and even officers left, taking their fortunes with them, which were collectively worth at least nine hundred million gold marks. These people had agitated for more liberal governments and a national state. Not all of the liberals left, however, and their ideals persisted in German political discourse. These ideals consisted of dreams of unification, a constitution, and even of socialism. But as we will see, nationalism in the German context would change what these words meant, for in Europe’s epicenter of Romanticism, the nation came to embrace all. The new Germany included many aspects of the liberal dream, but in a politically conservative context, and the mastermind behind these changes was Otto von Bismarck, who ultimately unified Germany in 1871.
To all appearances, the development of Germany after 1848 continued along the same old lines. But unification by Bismarck created an autocratic empire that differed markedly from the hopes of 1848. The state Bismarck created was of a new kind, the product of what we might call creative conservatism. Based on Prussian military and industrial power, not the communal explosion and renewal that happened in France in 1789, it combined autocratic means with social programs that alleviated the evils of capitalist production. In fact, Germany under Bismarck achieved a modicum of social progress well in advance of other European states that included broad schooling, medical, work, and old age insurance. Thus, Germany became an odd hybrid. The state was not founded on the same democratic principles that Germany’s liberal revolutionaries had espoused, but its social achievements far outpaced that of more liberal countries.
This hybrid state was a product of a series of competing forces. First, we have the desire of conservatives to maintain control of the state. Second, we have liberals who wanted a liberal constitution and a unified German state. Third, we have the impersonal social and economic difficulties associated with industrialization. Otto von Bismarck placed himself in the center of these forces, seeking to unify Germany without yielding to liberal and socialist demands for more power. In his search for unity Bismarck was always very flexible. Thus, he dissolved the German customs union (Zollverein) when free trade seemed to be the order of the day. Then in 1878, he became protectionist when he needed agrarian support to keep his government in power. German farming had been hurt badly by cheaper imports from Canada, the United States, and Russia, so he put up tariff barriers. In the same way, between 1883 and 1889, Bismarck extended accident, sickness, and old-age insurance coverage to workers, addressing many of their basic concerns. An he did all this while outlawing the Social Democratic Party between 1878-1890.
The middle-class revolutionaries who had demanded revolution in the German nation’s name often accepted Bismarck’s actions. In their view, Bismarck had obviously succeeded where they had failed, since he not only unified Germany but also instituted social policies that they had long advocated. Some of the middle-class yielded to these conditions, others fought them. The point for us to keep in mind, however, is that all the forces we have been tracing clashed most fiercely in Germany. Here we will see most clearly the social and political divisions that helped to make the twentieth century such a bloody one.
Otto von Bismarck had to fight three wars to unify Germany. In 1864, a war with Denmark helped him to consolidate his position in Prussia. Then a war against Austria in 1866 ousted the Habsburgs from Germany for good. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 brought the southern German states under the Prussian eagle and established that France no longer exercised hegemony of over the Continent. After Germany was unified in 1871, the news magazine the Economist opined that, “Europe has lost a mistress and gained a master.”
The situation in Denmark highlights how nationalism united liberalism and conservatism. Liberal sentiment in Germany had always wished to separate Schleswig-Holstein from Denmark. These two regions were duchies that had come under control of the Danish Crown. Holstein was entirely German and Schleswig was mostly German, with a significant Danish minority in the north. In 1852, in order to deal with rising German opinion against Danish control, an international agreement was signed that allowed the Danes to run the duchies as long as they did not attempt to integrate them into the Danish state. The Danes, however, violated the agreement by integrating Schleswig into the Danish monarchy. Bismarck then used the Danes’ behavior as a pretext for aggression.
Because the Schleswig-Holstein question was a German issue, Bismarck brought in Austria to legitimize his attack. On January 16, 1864, the two powers issued an ultimatum to Denmark that demanded the Danes withdraw within 48 hours, or face military action. Denmark, counting on the support of the European Powers, rejected the ultimatum. The English were sympathetic to the Danes, but refused to act alone. The French had no desire to attack Prussia, since they saw it as a weapon against Austria. Thus, the great powers did nothing. A brief attempt at mediation failed, and Denmark yielded to Prussian and Austrian military force.
In the Treaty of Gastein (August 1865) Prussia and Austria disposed of the acquired duchies. The two powers would rule the two duchies jointly, with Austria administering Holstein and Prussia administering Schleswig. Prussia was given certain military roads through Holstein and command of Kiel, which was to be a port for the German Confederation, in which both Prussia and Germany were members. (You will recall that Klemens von Metternich had set up the Confederation in 1815.) Both duchies were compelled to join the German customs union, which was to Prussia’s benefit since she controlled it. But that was not all. Prussia also annexed Lauenburg, though she paid 2.5 million thalers for it. The German claimant to the throne of the two duchies, Prince Augustenburg, was completely ignored. All this seemed fair enough, though Prussia obviously got the better end of the deal, as it solidified Prussian control over northern Germany, and became the foundation for future aggression. Unfortunately for everyone, Bismarck had no intention of leaving things as they were.
Bismarck believed that war with Austria was inevitable. His entire policy from 1863 to 1866 was predicated on this belief. He had assured that Russia would not intervene in this impending conflict by sympathizing with Russia’s brutal repression of a Polish revolution in 1863. He maneuvered Napoleon III of France into a favorable position by all kinds of vague promises for territorial aggrandizement. An alliance with Italy was even made in April 1866, through Napoleon’s assistance, which stipulated that Italy would come to the aid of Prussia, if a war with Austria broke out within the next three months. All told, Bismarck manipulated every major statesman on the Continent into an awkward diplomatic position. When war finally did come with Austria, he defeated the Habsburgs without any outside interference.
Bismarck then moved towards the showdown by accusing Austria of arming Bohemia. He called it "seditious agitation" and further accused Austria of supporting the unlucky Prince Augustenburg. Strangely enough, when the Prussian king pressured Vienna, Austria seemed willing to disarm, but false rumors that Italy was arming scared Austria and moved her in the opposite direction. So Austria mobilized first and, at the same time, brought the various minor problems which had developed over Schleswig-Holstein before the Federal Diet, in order to gain the support of the other German states.
Bismarck immediately cried that this was a breach of the Gastein Convention. When Austria shortly thereafter convoked the Holstein diet, Prussian troops marched into Holstein. Austria called on the armies of the Confederation to act against what it called illegal actions of Prussia in Holstein. Meanwhile Bismarck presented a new plan for the reorganization of the Confederation. This was laid on the table about the same time that Bavaria proposed to choose a commander for the Confederate armies and to mobilize the forces of the smaller states. When the Bavarian proposal won by a vote of 9 to 6, the Prussian delegate declared the Confederation dissolved and announced a state of war.
It was a quick war--three weeks in duration. Sadowa or Königgratz, which is in Bohemia, was the crucial battle that turned into victory for Prussia, thanks to excellent organization and the famous needle gun. (This gun made it possible for the Prussians to fire seven rounds to every single round from the Austrians, though the gun’s influence on the battle has been overrated.) The Prussian king, who had been hesitant about the war now wanted to invade Austria. But Bismarck, the ever-calculating diplomat, demurred. He knew the value of restraint and was not interested in crushing Austria, only in removing her from German politics. Instead, Bismarck formed something called the North German Confederation, annexing various smaller states and pulling the larger states north of the Main River into Prussia’s orbit. Contemporary observers thought the whole thing was a revolution. What Liberals had dreamed of for five decades, Bismarck achieved in three weeks. The important point here is that success turned many of his former enemies into friends and admirers.
But much like Italy in 1861, Germany was not yet fully unified. The South remained outside the fold and here is where France and Napoleon III came into the picture. Traditionally, the French policy toward Germany had called for the French never to allow a large state to appear in Germany, lest it become a threat to France. Napoleon modified this policy, because he wanted to use the forces of nationalism against Austria. This strategy was two-fold. On the one hand, Austria was a multi-national state, and setting up a German rival would, theoretically, weaken Austria’s foundations. On the other had, Napoleon seemed really to believe some of the nationalist rhetoric. This led him down a cul de sac, since he could never decide what was more important: his belief in national self-determination or the need to keep France stronger than a new Germany would be.
Bismarck helped Napoleon III to decide by outmaneuvering him on a series of diplomatic issues. The disappointments that Bismarck inflicted on Napoleon made him yearn ever more for a major diplomatic triumph. This meant that French policy in the 1860s was jittery and erratic, reflecting Napoleon’s uncertain position at home. The French government made premature threats of war and impudent demands for submission from the Prussians. Its actions in Italy had made the British nervous, which meant they were not going to support Napoleon against Prussia. Moreover, French public opinion began to turn on him as the economy worsened, intensifying the perceived need for a war. Napoleon did not know it, but he was leading France into a war that it could not win.
Strange as it may seem, the Franco-Prussian War actually began in Spain. The Spanish Queen, Isabella, was dethroned by a military coup in 1868, and the Spanish parliament began to look for a replacement. Prince Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, head of the Hohenzollern family’s southern branch, became one of the candidates. Bismarck became the prince’s chief promoter, since he believed it would bring on war. The news of Leopold’s acceptance of the Spanish crown hit France like a bombshell on July 2. Gramont, the French foreign minister, immediately began making vague threats in the French Corps Legislatif, saying things such as, "We should know how to do our duty." Such bluster only made it seem to others as if France was coming unhinged again.
On July 9 the French ambassador Benedetti interviewed King William, who was then in Bad Ems, in Southwest Germany enjoying the baths. Apparently, Benedetti persuaded William to force Leopold to retract his candidacy. On July 12 Leopold recanted, being a good and obedient member of the Hohenzollern family. The matter should have rested there. But the French began to blunder, and Bismarck's ingenuity tricked them into a war. Gramont was not satisfied with Benedetti's accomplishment, so Benedetti was sent to see the king again to demand an unequivocal promise never to allow Leopold to renew his candidacy. Gramont was out for a big diplomatic triumph. But such a diplomatic need is usually a cover for domestic weakness. Napoleon III needed something to restore his weakening grip on power. Both Gramont and Napoleon were, thus, engaging in a very risky game. If they won, they would stay in power. A loss would, however, mean the end of their state. Unfortunately for France, the government’s fervent need for diplomatic success blinded its leaders to the trap that Bismarck had laid.
On July 13, as the king was taking a stroll through the park, Benedetti suddenly materialized from among the trees and accused the king of dishonesty. He demanded a definite promise that Leopold never be allowed to renew his candidacy. The king refused to make such a promise, and a report of the affair was sent to Bismarck in Berlin. Bismarck cleverly abridged this now famous Ems Telegram in a way that made it look like an outright provocation on the part of France. He then had it published in the newspapers, saying that it would have the effect of a red cloth upon the Gallic bull. That is exactly what happened, since the French considered the doctored telegram a provocation and on July 19, France declared war on the North German Confederation.
Bismarck’s previous diplomacy now paid dividends. Among the German states, only Bavaria hesitated to join Bismarck’s war. Russia promised neutrality. England became neutral after Bismarck published Benedetti’s secret plan for annexing Belgium, which had been worked out with Bismarck’s benign approval right after the Battle of Königgrätz. This war did not last long either. The fortress of Sedan fell on September 2, 1870, and the Emperor Napoleon walked across the German lines with his hands high in the air. Now a revolution broke out in the city of Paris, which refused to surrender until January 28, 1871. The Peace of Frankfurt was concluded on May 10. It was a harsh one, requiring France to pay an indemnity of 5 billion gold francs, in addition to stealing back Alsace and Lorraine, territories that the French had successfully stolen two centuries before. Although Bismarck initially showed no great enthusiasm for taking these lands, some industrialists convinced him that they had both economic and military value. (Lorraine had massive iron deposits.) This latest thievery poisoned Franco-German relations right through the First World War. Northern France was occupied until 1873, when the indemnity was completely paid.
The new Germany was built on French national humiliation. On January 18, 1871 William I was crowned as the Emperor of Germany in the French Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. This was, no doubt, adding insult to injury, and it laid the groundwork for future wars. At the time, Victor Hugo predicted that France would, one day, retake Alsace and Lorraine and make Germany a republic. He got it half right. France did get back Alsace and Lorraine, but this was for two reasons. First, Britain and Germany could never reach an accommodation in their global rivalry. Second, an even greater power was forced to enter the European scene as a result. This was United States of America, and we will trace these two themes over the next few lectures.