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Today Germany is the most populous and economically the strongest country in the European Union. Yet, this was not always the case. Germany was not much more than a geographical expression throughout the middle ages and the early modern period. Although there existed a German state in this period, the Holy Roman Empire, it was neither centralized nor did the empire have any real control over the mosaic of smaller entities that made up the Reich.
The epicentre of the Holy Roman Empire was not in Berlin either. The Austrian Habsburg house was by far the strongest and most influential state in the Holy Roman Empire. The hereditary Holy Roman Emperor was also given by the Habsburg house from the 15th century onwards.
This status quo started to change with the rise of Brandeburg-Prussia in the 18th century. The rising German state snatched Silesia from Austria, and despite many Austria attempts at retaking their rich province, in the end, Silesia remained a part of Prussia.
By the late 18th century, Prussia was strong enough to warrant a seat at the table when its neighbours partitioned up Poland.
After the death of their charismatic and talented ruler, Frederick the Great, the Prussian military went through a rapid decline, which only became clear when Napoleon smashed Prussia in 1806.
Napoleon chopped off a 1/3 of Prussia’s territory when the two sides made peace and forced them to become his allies. The humiliation led to a spirit of reform that allowed the reform-minded men of the military to remake the army, using the more modern methods of Napoleon.
Military reform was not the only consequence of the disasters of 1806 either. The spirit of nationalism swept through the German provinces, and calls for a united Germany started to appear.
After Napoleon’s Russian disaster, Prussia joined Russia in the fight against Napoleon, and together with Austria, they finally defeated Napoleon in 1814.
Prussia acquired the Rhineland as a reward for their fight against Napoleon, a territory that was crucially important for them once the Industrial Revolution arrived on the continent.
The members of the Holy Alliance (Austria, Prussia and Russia) were all conservative states in their nature, so in essence, the allies largely tried to resist the spread of the ideas of the French Revolution.
Despite the efforts of the conservative alliance, the new ideas reached a boiling point in 1848, and revolutions swept through Europe, the German Confederation included. The King of Prussia, in a concession to the Revolutionaries, allowed the formation of a Parliament, but he flatly refused the offer of the Revolutionaries to become the Emperor of Germany.
Both Austria and its ally Russia also pressured Prussia to refuse the offer. Both states and France feared the appearance of another powerful state in Central Europe.
This situation changed after the Crimean War. Austria refused to come to the aid of Russia, and the Russians did not forget or forgive this betrayal. Under its new leader, Emperor Napoleon III, France fought against Austria in Northern Italy. So despite the shared interest of the three powers, after the wars of the 1850s, they lacked the shared will to block the unification of Germany under the possibility of the leadership of Prussia.
The Process of Unification
Many among the conservative elite of Prussia also warmed up to the unification of Germany, but under the leadership of conservative Prussia, which would have neutralised the liberal tendencies of the other German states. Under the leadership of Bismarck, Helmuth von Moltke and Albrecht von Roon, the military machine of Prussia was greatly expanded and improved. At the time, it was probably not yet foreseen, but in a short decade, the Prussian army became the strongest in Europe, even eclipsing the military of France.
The unification sought by Bismarck’s clicked was the Small German model. In short, the nationalist who sought to unite Germany in the 19th century made two theories about the extent of the unification. The small Germany theory excluded Austria from the newly unified German state. The reasons for this were multiple, but the most important was Austria’s huge empire, which was not part of the German Confederation( the “state” that replaced the Holy Roman Empire in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars). The other theory was the unification of greater Germany, which would have included Austria.
Before the 1860s, Austria was the leader and strongest state of the German Confederation. Still, Bismarck was not content with this status quo and knew it perfectly well that he needed to defeat Austria if the Small German Unification was to happen.
Denmark gave Bismarck the perfect opportunity to set a trap for Austria. In 1864 Denmark claimed the duchies of Schleswig and Holsten; both were legally part of the German Confederation, so the gesture demanded a response.
Austria allied with the Prussia of Bismarck, and the combined force of the two easily defeated the vastly outnumbered Danish armies. Denmark was forced to cede the two duchies, which the victorious Prussians and Austrians occupied.
Soon enough after their victory, tensions rose between Austria and Prussia. The duchy annexed by Austria was distant, and their goods had to travel through an economic zone dominated by Prussia and its allies. Bismarck allied with Italy and promised them the province of Veneto in case they together defeated the Austrians.
War broke out when the Prussians occupied the Austrian-held duchy. Austria was soon attacked by two sides. The Austrian armies were successful against the Italians, but their crushing defeat at the Battle of Konnigratz decided the war’s outcome.
Bismarck was magnanimous in victory and only forced Austria to cede the duchy of Holstein and the province of Veneto. Furthermore, the German Confederation was disbanded, and Austria was not included in the newly formed North German Confederation.
Bismarck’s unification was going quite well; however, the southern German states were still not under his thumb.
Fate gave Bismarck the perfect opportunity in 1870. A cadet branch of the Prussian ruling dynasty received an offer to become the ruling dynasty of Spain. Napoleon III was adamant that this could never happen, as he feared that the two branches of the Hohenzollerns dynasty acting in unison could sandwich France and threaten their borders with a two-front war.
Wilhelm was cautious and wanted to avoid a war with France, but Bismarck hijacked his plans. He received a telegram from the emperor; he made some provocative modifications to it and had it published all over the press.
The Ems telegram caused great outrage in France. A reluctant Napoleon III declared war on Prussia. As Prussia was the victim while France was the aggressor, Bismarck banked on the support of the rest of the German states. His plans were spot on, and the rest of the German states followed the lead of Prussia against France.
The superior Prussian army trounced the French during the Franco-Prussian War. By October, German troops were surrounding even Paris.
The regime of Napoleon III fell after the Emperor was captured at Sedan, but the newly founded French Third Republic was determined to fight on. Despite their efforts to reorganize the army and defeat the Prussians, their efforts were beaten, and eventually, they were forced to negotiate a peace deal.
Bismarck wanted to use the military victory to further his plans and proposed to announce Wilhelm as the Emperor of the new German Empire. At first, Wilhelm was reluctant to accept, but eventually, he agreed, and with the acclamation of the German Princes, he became Emperor of the German Empire.
The newly founded German Empire went through rapid industrialization and urbanization and a population boom between the unification and the beginning of WWI. Thanks to the clever politics of Bismarck, they even acquired colonies in Africa, but the conciliatory policies of Bismarck changed when Wilhelm II sacked the Old Chancellor.
Wilhelm’s Weltpolitik left Germany increasingly isolated on the political stages and prepared the ground for the Franco-British-Russian Entente that formed against Germany before the outbreak of WWI.
Clark, Christopher. (2009). Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia. Belknap Press.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler