The Unification of Germany

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Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Unification of Germany

In 1862, Wilhelm I of Prussia appointed Otto von Bismarck prime minister. Bismarck’s name has become closely identified with the term Realpolitik, or “the politics of realism.” Like Richelieu of France and Cavour of Italy, Bismarck was a very able man, both pragmatic and determined. Bismarck’s focus was on a united Germany with a strong monarch.

Bismarck’s belief in a strong monarchy made him a political conservative, and in the 1860s he was faced with a hostile liberal majority in Parliament. Therefore, Bismarck directed the nation’s attention to foreign affairs. This would allow him to maintain control of the domestic policy, since civilian populations always accepted special government controls and restrictions during wartime.

Prussia and Austria together fought Denmark over control of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein; the result was joint Prussian-Austrian rule of the duchies. In 1866, Bismarck led a successful war against Austria, which quickly gave up its share in the affairs of Schleswig and Holstein. Prussia had now formed what would be the nucleus of a united Germany.

In 1867, as a result of Bismarck’s diplomacy, Prussia annexed three more states and the free city of Frankfurt, thereby bringing all the German-speaking states north of the Main River under Prussian control.

The opportunity for the final step in German unification arrived in 1870. Bismarck decided to go to war with France, believing that the other German states would come to Prussia’s aid. He changed the wording of a press release so that it gave the appearance of a deliberate insult from the Prussian king to the French emperor. On reading the statement, Napoleon III immediately declared war on Prussia. As Bismarck had calculated, the southern German states allied themselves with Prussia against their common enemy, France.

The war can accurately be describe as “Franco-German” rather than “Franco- Prussian” because many German states besides Prussia played a major role in defeating the French. The efficiency and superior strategy of the German military brought the French to a speedy surrender. The peace treaty gave Germany control of Alsace and Lorraine, and provided for a compensatory payment to Prussia of 5 billion francs. Although Prussia had provoked the war, France had technically been the aggressor, and at any rate was on the losing side. This peace settlement created deep resentment in France; this resentment would become an issue during and after the First World War .

On January 18, 1871, Wilhelm I of Prussia was officially crowned emperor of Germany. In a final insult to the French, the Germans held the ceremony in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

European History The Unification of Germany Map

The legislative assembly of the new German Empire was similar to the British Parliament; it was bicameral, with a Federal Council (Bundesrat) of hereditary nobles and an Imperial Diet (Reichstag) of popularly elected representatives. All men age twenty-five and older had the right to vote for their representatives in the Reichstag. The princes in the Bundesrat, of course, inherited their seats, just as the British peers inherited their places in the House of Lords. Both the Bundesrat and the Reichstag had to pass any given bill in order for it to become German law. The king of Prussia became the emperor, or kaiser (from the Latin Caesar ), of Germany. Although Wilhelm I found such a pompous title silly and personally embarrassing, it was a source of pride among his subjects. The imperial title suggested a connection between the German Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, although in fact the Holy Roman emperors had ended up as the ruling family of Austria, not Prussia.

Nationalism was a major force in the creation of the German Empire. Both the nobles and the common people supported unification; troops were strongly motivated by nationalism during the Franco-Prussian War. It was nationalism that motivated the leaders to press Bismarck to demand heavy reparations from France at the end of the war, despite the minister’s belief (which would be justified by future events) that the demand was vengeful and unwise.

Prussia had worked toward control of a unified German state since 1640; unsurprisingly, it became the most powerful province in Germany. The Prussian king became the hereditary German emperor; Prussian generals were in charge of the German army; the efficient Prussian bureaucracy administered the civil service; and the Prussian capital, Berlin, became the capital of Germany.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Germany and Italy Unification Practice Test

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