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4.5: Germany

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  • In Prussia, it was an official similar to Cavour, but far more memorable, the chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, who was personally responsible for unifying Germany for the first time. Bismarck was ruthless, practical, and completely amoral in his service to the Prussian king. He was the inventor of “Realpolitik”: a political philosophy that insisted on being completely pragmatic and realistic, rather than pursuing empty goals like "glory" or pulling punches in the name of moral rectitude. He was such a pragmatist that he ended up introducing social reforms to blunt the growth of socialism, even though he was an arch-conservative (and thus detested the very idea of reform). He was from an old Prussian noble family, a Junker, and he had no time for romantic nationalist drivel, yet he directly brought about German unification. He once said that “the great questions of the time are not determined by speeches and majority decisions – that was the error of 1848 – but by iron and blood.”

    After 1815, “Germany” was nothing more than the “German Confederation,” a free trade zone containing a number of independent kingdoms. German nationalism, however, was very strong, and in 1848 it culminated in the roughly year-long standoff between the elected group of self-understood German nationalist politicians in Frankfurt and the kings of Prussia and Austria (and those of the smaller German kingdoms). Despite the fact that the revolution failed to create a “Germany” in 1848, it was now clear that a German state probably would come into being at some point; the question remained, however, of whether it would be a “greater Germany” under Austrian leadership or a “smaller Germany” under Prussia.

    During the eighteenth century Prussia had risen from being a fairly poor backwater in the north, lacking natural resources and remote from the centers of intellectual and cultural life farther south, to being one of the great kingdoms of Europe. That was thanks largely to its royal house, the Hohenzollerns, who relied on a combination of ruthless administrative efficiency and a relentless focus on building up Prussia’s military. Whereas the other royal houses sought to live in the style of the glorious French kings, the Hohenzollerns lived like reasonably well-off nobles, pouring state revenues into the army and insisting on brutal discipline. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Prussia was an established Great Power, part of the coalition that had defeated Napoleon, a military equal with Austria, and was poised to exert an even greater role in Central Europe.

    Map of the Holy Roman Empire before being dismantled by Napoleon.
    Figure 4.5.1: The Holy Roman Empire in 1789. While many of the smallest states of the region vanished during the Napoleonic period, “Germany” remained nothing more than an idea in the early nineteenth century.

    Otto Von Bismarck was an inheritor of these Prussian traditions, a Prussian conservative who served in various diplomatic posts in the Prussian kingdom before being promoted to chancellor by the Prussian King Wilhelm I. Bismarck did not have a master plan to unify Germany. His goal was always to maintain or, preferably, increase Prussia’s power (in that sense, he was a lot like Cavour in Piedmont-Sardinia). He became highly skilled at manipulating nationalist passions to inflame popular support for Prussian wars, but he was, personally, deeply skeptical about a “national spirit” animating the need for unification.

    Bismarck achieved German unification through war. He egged Austria on in a conflict over control of a region in northwestern Germany, recently seized from Denmark, and succeeded in getting the Austrians to declare war on Prussia. Prussia’s modernized and well-trained army smashed the Austrians in a few months in 1866. Significantly, however, Bismarck convinced the Prussian king not to order a march on Vienna and the occupation of Austria itself; the goal for Bismarck had been to knock Austria out of contention as the possible governing power of Germany, not to try to conquer and control it. Conquest of Austria, he thought, would just lead to more headaches for Prussia since the Austrians would resent the Prussian takeover. This decision - not to conquer Austria when Prussia could have - was a perfect example of Realpolitik: a bloodless, realistic, coldly calculating approach to achieving greater political power without succumbing to some kind of ill-considered quest for “glory.”

    After defeating Austria, Bismarck essentially tricked France into going to war. Bismarck had toyed with Napoleon III, ignoring French demands for territory if it came to war between Austria and Prussia. In the aftermath of the war itself, the Spanish throne suddenly became available because of a coup, and Bismarck sponsored a Prussian candidate related to the former Spanish ruling line, none other than the Bourbons of France. Even though Napoleon III was not a Bourbon, this was a direct attack on France’s sphere of influence. Napoleon III was infuriated - Bismarck even humiliated Napoleon by leaking a memo to the press in which Napoleon’s machinations for territory before the Austro-Prussian War were revealed. Feeling both threatened and belittled, Napoleon insisted that France declare war on Prussia.

    The ensuing Franco-Prussian War was short and sweet for Prussia; it started in late 1870 and was over by early 1871. Napoleon III foolishly led the French army into battle personally (sick with the flu and without an ounce of his famous uncle’s tactical expertise) and was subsequently captured in the field. French forces were poorly led and could not stand up to Prussian training and tactics, and every important engagement was won by the Prussians as a result. In one fell swoop, the myth of French military supremacy, a legacy from the first Napoleon, was destroyed, and Europeans were confronted with the fact that a new military power had asserted its strength in its stead.

    In the aftermath of the Prussian victory, a new German empire was declared at Versailles, with Wilhelm I taking the title of Kaiser (emperor) of the German Reich (empire). The various smaller German kingdoms renounced their independence and pledged themselves to the newborn state in the process. France lost two important eastern regions, Alsace and Lorraine, and had to pay a considerable war indemnity, inspiring an enormous amount of resentment among the French (and leading to a desire for revenche – revenge). The German Empire became a constitutional monarchy in which all men over 25 could vote for representatives in the Reichstag, the parliament, but an unelected federal council held considerable power and the emperor held more. Thus, even though Germany was a constitutional monarchy, it was hardly the liberal vision of a democratic state.

    In one of the more bizarre historical episodes of the time, the city of Paris refused to concede defeat and fought on against the Prussians for a short while before the Prussians simply fell back and handed off the issue to the hastily-declared Third Republic of France (Napoleon III went into exile). Paris declared itself an independent city-state organized along socialist lines, the “Paris Commune,” and for a few months (from March through late May) the French army besieged the communards in the capital. In the end, a French army stormed the city and approximately 20,000 communards were executed.

    While Italian unification had redrawn the map of Europe and disturbed the balance of power at least somewhat, German unification utterly destroyed it. Germany was not just Prussia, it was Prussia and most of the rest of what once had been the Holy Roman Empire. It had a large population, a rapidly industrializing, wealthy economy, and proven military might. The period after German unification, from 1871 until the start of World War I in 1914, was one in which the European great powers jockeyed for position, built up their respective military strength, and scrambled to seize territory overseas before their rivals did. Long gone were the days of the Congress System and a balance of power based on the desire for peace.

    Map of Germany after unification.
    Figure 4.5.2: Germany after unification. Note that the color-coded regions were the states of the German Empire: they retained considerable autonomy despite now being part of a single unified nation.
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