A.3. The Road to National Unification

Germany under Napoleon:
From the 1790s to 1814 French troops successively conquered and occupied the area that later constituted the German Empire. French domination helped to modernize and consolidate Germany and — toward the end — sparked the first upsurge of German nationalism. In different ways (and definitely against his intentions) the French emperor Napoleon I helped German unification. It was important that he encouraged many of the middle-sized German states to absorb huge numbers of small independent territories, mostly bishoprics, church lands, and local principalities. The more powerful German princes, often in alliance with France, seized this chance to aggrandize their lands and flatly refused to restore the annexed units to independence after Napoleon’s defeat. The number of independent and semi-independent German states had been around one thousand in 1790 (with between three and four hundred fully independent units). Twenty-five years later only a little over thirty remained.

This consolidation process, called mediation, led to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and brought the same French legal codes, measurements, and weights to most German-speaking areas, thus helping to modernize them. In 1806 Napoleon defeated the last independent and defiant German state, Prussia. The Prussian royal administration, quite naturally, were concerned about their defeat and started a thorough reform and modernization of the state and army (they “reinvented government”). Reformed Prussia became the hope of many other Germans who started to suffer increasingly under French occupation (which became increasingly repressive and exploiting) and their often forced cooperation with France, which drafted large numbers of Germans into its armies and imposed stifling trade regulations in its efforts to block English goods from the Continent.

Anti-French sentiment erupted when the Russian armies, pursuing Napoleon’s defeated invasion force, approached Germany in the end of 1812, and a popular uprising helped to drive Napoleon out of Germany in 1813. This common fight of people from different German states against the same enemy gave strong impulses to nationalism. A few intellectuals consequently demanded the unification of all German-speaking lands, but they still represented a minority.

Nationalism as a liberal cause:
The Congress of Vienna, striving to restore stability in Europe in 1814-15, created the so-called German Confederation, but this unit disappointed the aspirations of nationalists. The rivalry of its predominant powers, Austria and Prussia, paralyzed it in a way comparable to the effects of Soviet-American dualism on the United Nations during the Cold War. Almost everywhere, moreover, the princes repressed the nationalist movement (which became popular particularly among students and professors) after 1815. The German princes opposed nationalism and national unification because they realized that national unity required a reform or even destruction of the traditional monarchic states. In a united Germany, the princes would have to cede some rights to a central authority. That the nationalists often voiced liberal demands, such as the granting of constitutions and parliaments, further alarmed the princes and their aristocratic supporters. To princes and aristocrats, nationalism smacked of revolution, democracy, and popular unrest – all things that the Congress of Vienna aimed to ban.

The Revolution of 1848:
Following several decades of repression, a strong desire for liberal reform (particularly the introduction of constitutions and parliaments) had developed among the educated and wealthy bourgeoisie, while the peasants resented the feudal dues (inheritable taxes and services the peasants owed to landlords) still prevalent in most regions of the German Confederation. Unemployment among small artisans made them join the revolutionary cause in hopes of secure jobs.

Inspired by an uprising in France, German liberals and peasants started to push for their claims with revolutionary violence in March 1848. Barricades went up in Berlin, Vienna, and many other capitals of German kingdoms and duchies. The princes, frightened and poorly prepared for revolution, granted constitutions and parliamentary assemblies and appointed liberal ministries all over Germany. They also pacified the peasants by canceling the remaining feudal dues. German nationalists called a National Assembly in Frankfurt to prepare the unification of Germany as a liberal constitutional state.

However, the professors, who constituted the largest group in the assembly, found it hard to determine what should become part of united Germany. The multi-ethnic Austrian empire posed the most serious problem. It included the German-speaking Austrian provinces and German lands of later Czechoslovakia, which all formed part of the German Confederation, but it also included many non-German parts (such as Hungary). What should happen with the Austrian Empire’s vast non-German lands if its German provinces were integrated into a German national state? A strong minority in the National Assembly in Frankfurt therefore advocated the exclusion of Austria from the German nation state and the foundation of a smaller (kleindeutsch) Empire under Prussian leadership (kleindeutsch meaning “smaller German,” as opposed to großdeutsch).

The deliberations of the National Assembly, however, soon became irrelevant because it lacked the power to resist the growing tide of reaction. Moreover, it was never clear who the professors in Frankfurt represented (maybe their students?). The position of the National Assembly became precarious when the princes, aware of the power of their still intact armies, started recalling most of their concessions to the liberals in the winter of 1848-49.

The monarchs gathered troops for bloody repression of the liberals, and Prussian armies helped crush democrats in South Germany. In an act of desperation, the National Assembly tried to save national unity at least of the “kleindeutsch” mold by offering a German crown to the Prussian king. The king, however, refused to accept a crown from revolutionaries (which he called a “crown from the gutter”). Prussian troops disbanded the National Assembly, and the bloody failure of the revolution made many liberals conclude that military power would be necessary to unite Germany. The failed revolution was a drawback for the national cause, but the demand for unification revived in the late 1850s as a consequence of industrial and economic development.

Industrial take-off, 1850-1870:
After 1850 the industrial revolution in Germany entered its decisive phase (take-off). New factories were built at a breath-taking rate, the production of textiles and iron soared, railroads grew and started to connect many distant regions, and coal production and export reached record levels every year. These advances profited from a high level of education, the result of an advanced school and university system. For a long time Prussia (along with Scotland) had the highest literacy rate in Europe and exemplary schools (this was partly a consequence of the reforms in the wake of the Prussian defeat against Napoleon).

Industrialization was accompanied by rapid population growth and urbanization, the expansion of the middle classes and of the proletariat (the industrial working class), which began to constitute independent organizations. After having lagged behind Western Europe for three hundred years, Germany caught up economically within two decades.

Economic progress was most powerful in Prussia and less impressive in Austria. Through the Vienna peace settlement Prussia had received areas that turned out to be enormously precious for industrialization (the Ruhr district, the Rhineland, and parts of Saxony – all with rich coal deposits). Prussia now started to dominate many of the smaller German states economically, and the smaller states — often hesitantly — adapted their economies to Prussia. Prussia also developed great interest in facilitating trade with other German lands. This was to some extent a geographic issue since Prussia remained divided into two major regions: the large lands of traditional Prussia from central Germany to the borders of the Russian Poland and the smaller, but economically very powerful, area of the Rhineland and Ruhr district in the west. To facilitate trade between its own unconnected parts, Prussia had lower trade barriers with other German states located in between its territories. This process led to an inconspicuous economic unification of Germany on the basis of a customs union (Zollverein), founded already in 1834 but expanded to most area later belonging to united Germany. Austria, watching the Prussian economic policies in Germany with mistrust and finding little to gain from participating in the customs union, stood aloof. Railroad building followed the lines of trade, and so Germany — within the “kleindeutsch” borders of the later Second Empire — was economically well on its way to unification already before 1871.

In the 1850s and 60s Austria, caught in its double role as a multi-national empire and German state, still hoped to preserve a loosely united confederation in Germany. Yet Otto von Bismarck, who became Prussian Minister President in 1862, accepted the necessity of national unification without Austria and was determined to bring united Germany under the hegemony of the conservative, anti-liberal Prussian monarchy. To Bismarck, unity might be a good thing if it strengthened Prussia and took the wind out of the sails of the liberals, who he had provoked by funding army increases in defiance of the Prussian parliament’s liberal majority.

Bismarck was a conservative landlord, a Junker. His loyalty was above all Prussian; he was no German nationalist and hated liberalism, democracy, and socialism. Above all, he detested the liberals who were pushing the Prussian king to strengthen the power of parliaments, work toward German unification, and limit military spending for the army (the force against the revolution in 1849). With their majority in the Prussian parliament, the liberals seemed close to success in 1862. Bismarck, however, sought a way of uniting Germany militarily while cutting back liberal power. Believing that charismatic leaders could become popular among the industrial and rural masses, he reckoned that parliaments elected by universal and equal manhood suffrage could be limited in influence and that government propaganda and electoral manipulation would ensure pro-governmental majorities. Bismarck therefore sought an alliance with the masses in order to isolate and undermine the liberals, who had much power under the restricted, property-based Prussian franchise but would be outnumbered by the industrial and rural masses in a system based on universal suffrage. If this strategy failed to tame the liberals, Bismarck was willing to use repression through the basis of conservative power, the army.

Bismarck thus adopted universal and equal suffrage in his constitutional settlements of 1867 and 1871; but this step, welcomed by democrats and many socialists, was meant to work as a weapon against the liberal bourgeoisie and also against conservative aristocrats and the Austrians. This strategy was inspired by the French Emperor Napoleon III, who had established an autocracy which often resorted to plebiscites (Bonapartism). By granting universal male suffrage while limiting the power of parliament, Napoleon III had often appealed to the people – with success.

Bismarck probably had no long-term scheme for German unification, although it appears so in retrospect; he practiced Realpolitik, an opportunistic and pragmatic approach to politics. He always insisted on the importance of power: unification would not come about through speeches and declarations but by “iron and blood.” But this widely quoted martial phrase (usually misquoted as “blood and iron”) obscures the astuteness with which he managed German unification and overcame the domestic conflict with the Prussian liberals.

The wars against Denmark and Austria:
As in almost all parts of the German Confederation, political order was complicated in the northernmost German-speaking lands. The duchies of Schleswig and Holstein had a predominantly German population, except in the very north of Schleswig. Both duchies were affiliated with the Danish crown and had strong historical ties to each other. Holstein, the southern province, was a member of the German Confederation, but Schleswig was not. In 1863 the Danish government, aiming to consolidate its lands, proceeded to make Schleswig an integral part of Denmark. The violated international conventions and provoked the diet of the German Confederation to call for an all-German war against Denmark. Bismarck, though unwilling to wage war in the name of the German Confederation, had the Prussian army fight side by side with the Austrians against Denmark.

In a constitutional quarrel with the Prussian liberals over military expenses, Bismarck had earlier ignored the Prussian parliament and increased the army without necessary parliamentary approval. He gladly embraced the opportunity for a victorious war, which might justify his defiant domestic policy. After a quick victory against Denmark, which did indeed mitigate liberal criticism of his high-handed practices, Bismarck signed a settlement that let Prussia govern Schleswig and Austria Holstein.

Two years later, however, conflicts between Austria and Prussia over occupation rights escalated. Bismarck, who did everything to magnify this conflict, made sure that Austria was diplomatically isolated: Russia was in domestic trouble following the great reforms of 1861, France was involved in a political adventure in Mexico, and Britain was committed to non-intervention on the Continent; Italy, a newly united state, was lured into a covert alliance with Prussia by the prospect of gaining some Italian lands from Austria). Thus prepared, Bismarck ordered Prussian troops to occupy Holstein in 1866, a blunt provocation; Austria demanded a German Confederation expedition against Prussia, and most German states joined Austria against Prussia.

Within seven weeks the Prussians defeated all enemies due to their own superior military organization and equipment. Prussia smashed the German Confederation, annexed many German states north of the Main River and formed a new union with the remaining ones: the North German Confederation (1867). Bismarck drafted a constitution that granted universal and equal manhood suffrage to the parliament of the North German Confederation. The parliament got the right to vote the budget, but the government remained responsible only to the Prussian king, who headed the North German Confederation.

This constitution was a precursor to the settlement of 1871. The democratic concession of universal manhood suffrage mitigated proletarian hostility to the state for a while, but it bothered the upper bourgeois liberals and the Prussian conservatives; many liberals, however, welcomed the North German Confederation as a step toward national unification, while the Prussian conservatives rejoiced in the aggrandizement of Prussia.

To win his enemies as future allies, Bismarck imposed mild peace treaties on Austria and the South German states. The latter agreed to a defensive treaty with Prussia. Military victory also solved the constitutional dispute in Prussia in the government’s interest. The liberals, having fought Bismarck’s army increases and having insisted on their right to fund the army, now appeared as petty-minded and unpatriotic and began to split up.

Although passions soon calmed down, we should take note that the Prusso-Austrian war was nothing less than a German civil war (at about the time of the American Civil War – though much shorter and less bitter). Five years before unification, German states had been at war against each other.

The Franco-German war:
The outcome of the Prussian war against Austria and its South German allies came as a bad surprise mainly to France. For centuries French policy-makers had aimed to keep Germany divided and weak; suddenly a strong German power had been allowed to expand through much of Germany. Alarmed, France tried to renew its traditional ties with the South German states, but to no avail. Even the relatively liberal and anti-Prussian South Germans had become too nationalistic and economically involved with Prussia to ally with a foreign power against it.

International tension heightened when a revolutionary Spanish government invited a cousin of the Prussian king to become king of Spain in 1870. In reaction to French pressure, the Prussian candidate refused the offer – much to Bismarck’s disappointment. This was a French success, but the French government went further and demanded a guarantee that no Prussian prince would ever accept the Spanish Crown, an unnecessary and humiliating demand. Bismarck, in turn, published the diplomatic communications in provocative fashion; the hawks in the French and the Prussian government felt insulted and demanded war.

Napoleon III, hoping for a military victory to stabilize his weakening régime, declared war on Prussia on 19 July 1870 – the biggest mistake of his life. France was isolated, and its declaration of war compelled the South German states to aid Prussia according to the defense treaty. The well-organized Prussian army with its allies destroyed the main French army in early September and took Napoleon prisoner. While the German troops were beleaguering Paris, Bismarck won the consent of the other princes to unite Germany (excluding Austria) with the Prussian king as German emperor. Several princes, mainly the kings of Bavaria and Württemberg, insisted on retaining some autonomy, and Bismarck granted them their own postal service, railroads, and foreign representation.

At Versailles on 18 January 1871 he had his king proclaim the German Empire. The constitution of the new state was almost identical with the one of the North German Confederation. A national parliament, the Reichstag, was elected by universal, equal manhood suffrage and received budgetary rights but lacked the power to overthrow the government, which was solely responsible to the emperor. A second chamber, the Federal Council (Bundesrat), consisting exquisitely of the representatives of the German princes, functioned as a conservative check on the influence of the Reichstag. Armies remained partly the matter of the single states but were bound to follow a common Prussian command at wartime (the emperor was the supreme warlord). The war with France was concluded by the Treaty of Frankfurt in May 1871. France had to cede its eastern provinces Alsace and Lorraine to the new empire and pay high reparations until 1875.

Go on to B.1.