Was Bismarck the Key Factor in the Unification of Germany?

by James Graham

Updated: January, 2022

Herr Otto Von Bismarck's iron-man image and unique personality were the crucial factor in the unification of Germany. His skill as a diplomat was unrivalled during his reign as chancellor of Prussia and Germany. The mastery he showed in foreign policy was such that he was able to outwit all other powers and make their leaders look pathetic.

Bismarck inherited the ideas and political principles of the Junker class of which he was born into. Bismarck's father was loyal to the Prussian crown and narrow minded in his outlook, except for his choice in wife. Whilhelmine, Bismarck's mother was from a middle class background and cultured. She passed onto her son her love of music and literature. He was later to become a master in many fields of knowledge through his interest in reading. Bismarck disliked his mother but revered his father. From his family Bismarck gained a highly autocratic, intensively conservative and monarchical outlook on life. He also became a Prussian patriot. Bismarck born into nobility accepted its beliefs as his own.

Bismarck had a mostly typical Junker education that he used to gain employment in the Prussian Civil Service. Bismarck started his education in Berlin at the spartan boarding school Plenum Academy where religious and physical exercises dominated. He later transferred to the Gymnasium (high school) at which he learnt foreign languages. In 1832 he entered the University of Gottingen and studied law. Gottingen was one of the centres of German liberalism and a strange choice for Bismarck. He rarely attended lectures preferring instead to drink, duel and womanise. A dabbling in Liberal literature and German philosophy took up the rest of his time. Liberalism had no appeal to him so he changed universities to the University of Berlin where he passed in 1835. As Bismarck himself put it "mob interference with political authority conflicted with my Prussian upbringing and I returned to Berlin with less liberal opinions than when I quitted it." After reluctantly serving his compulsory year in the military as a Gardejager (sharpshooter) Bismarck entered the Prussian Civil Service. He disliked following other people's policy and left the Civil Service in 1839 to look after his estates. Bismarck lived a restless life on his estates but did manage to marry Johanna von Puttkammer. His first political break came in 1847 when he was appointed in place of an ill man to the United Diet. It was in the United Diet that Bismarck emerged as a defender of the monarchy and a Junker reactionary. Bismarck's reactionary stance and anti liberalism endeared him to the Prussian government. In 1851 he was appointed Prussian representative to the restored German Bund as a reward for his stance in the United Diet. During his time in the Bund Bismarck formed an anti-Austrian view point. He insisted on equal status for Prussia and Austria and emphasised it by smoking at the Bund. This violated diplomatic procedure as only Austria previously smoked. Regent William sidelined Bismarck in 1859 for his anti Austrian views and sent him to St Petersburg. As Ambassador in the Russian capital he formed a great respect for Russian strength. In 1862 he was made Ambassador in Paris. Bismarck's views and attitudes saw him hold a series of political posts.

The constitutional crisis brought Bismarck to power. William I now King of Prussia was by training a soldier and was convinced the brief mobilisation of 1859 had revealed inadequacies in the Prussian military. In collaboration with the Minister of War von Roon and the Chief of General Staff Moltke William presented proposals to the Prussian parliament to increase the size of the army and various other army reforms. The Liberals dominated the parliament and were determined to exercise one of the few powers that the constitution of 1849-50 had given the parliament. That is control over the budget. The expansion of the army naturally involved considerable expenditure that would entail an increase in taxation of 1.5 million pounds a year. The Liberals were opposed to this since they would have to pay the extra taxation. Also another of the reforms was to consolidate the Landwehr a small middle class militia into the Junker dominated Prussian army. By an overwhelming majority the proposed army reforms were rejected and a class struggle ensued. On the verge of abdication William turned to Bismarck for help whose appointment meant no compromise. Von Roon sent Bismarck the famous telegram "Delay is dangerous. Hurray." This was the opportunity Bismarck had been waiting for and he acted quickly making William tear up his abdication document. He drove liberals from office, gagged the press and encouraged William to create the new units by collecting existing taxation. This is an example of Bismarck's Realpolitik, the pursuing of realistic goals by any available method instead of the pursuit of an ideology. Bismarck never wanted to have enemies for long and hoped to pacify the Liberals with foreign policy achievement notably the unification of Germany. With an expanded army Bismarck resolved to achieve unification with "iron and blood" rather than with Liberal methods. The Liberals rejection of the army reforms forced William to play his final card, the appointment of Bismarck as Minister-President of Prussia.

The Schleswig Holstein war was manipulated by Bismarck to the advantage of Prussia. Schleswig and Holstein were populated by Germans and had for centuries been ruled by the Danish King. In 1863 the Danes formed a new constitution intended to incorporate Schleswig and Holstein into Denmark. Nationalist sentiment erupted all over Germany and Bismarck saw his first great opportunity. The Confederation Diet voted to send troops to Holstein in support of the German prince Augustenburg. Bismarck did not want to be seen as the aggressor so sent Saxon and Hanoverian. Troops. From the outset it was clear Bismarck wanted to annex both duchies, to do this meant war with Denmark. He set about ensuring that no one could help Denmark. Russia was sympathetic due to Prussia's help during the Polish rebellion of 1863, France was bribed by hints of compensation in the Rhineland and Austria was persuaded to form an alliance with Prussia. Britain stood firmly behind Denmark and Palmerston stated "if Denmark had to fight she would not fight alone." Bismarck demanded Denmark submit the matter to a European congress, Denmark encouraged by Britain refused. He correctly called Palmerston's bluff and together with Austria invaded Denmark in February 1864. Isolated the Danes had no chance and were soundly beaten. Bismarck's secondary reason for attacking Denmark was to gain support from nationalists and Liberals at home. This he achieved and his heavy handedness over the army reforms was forgiven and forgotten. Prussia and Austria initially tried a joint rule of the duchies but this fell apart by deliberate design of Bismarck who had ordered the annexation of Kiel. The Treaty of Gastein in 1865 let Austria administer Holstein and Prussia Schleswig. Bismarck now new he could pick a fight with Austria when the need arose. Using diplomatic skill Bismarck ensured Denmark's defeat and laid the foundations of war with Austria.

To achieve Kleindeutsch under Prussian control Bismarck had to defeat Austria. Bismarck once decided on a war with Austria set about trying to isolate her. Russia was already hostile with Austria, Britain was overjoyed at the thought of war between Austria and Prussia as was France who was also bribed with more hints of compensation at the secret Biarritz Conference. Unwilling to fight the war alone he forged an alliance with the Kingdom of Italy. A promise of the Austrian territory of Venetia to Italy ensured the alliance. The Prussian invasion of Holstein failed to start a war and forced Bismarck to use other methods. To obtain the support of the Liberals both in Prussia and the other German states Bismarck proposed universal suffrage in a new German Diet that would replace the old Confederation Diet. Austria was to be excluded from the new parliament. This move was a masterstroke by Bismarck as it won him support and forced Austria to declare war on Prussia. Austria encouraged nine states including the all the large states to take its side and Prussia six states. The north and centre states were defeated by Prussia with little resistance. Austria and Saxony were defeated in an overwhelming victory at Konniggratz. The Austrians were entirely successful against the Italians but this failed to change the course of the war. With the road to Vienna open Bismarck arranged an armistice. Bismarck's true diplomatic genius is evident here as he robbed France any chance of claiming advantage out of the war. The Treaty of Prague expelled Austria from the German Confederation and Venetia was seceded to Italy. The extraordinary lenient treaty was designed so that Austria did not remain an enemy of Prussia. Prussia annexed Hanover, North Hesse, Schleswig and Holstein and formed the North German Confederation out of these states, Prussia and Saxony. Only Napoleon III attitude and local feeling prevented the confederation including the southern states. Bismarck through military might and diplomatic brilliance defeated Austria allowing Prussia to become dominant in Germany.

To complete German unification Bismarck had to deal with France. Napoleon III failed to receive compensation for his neutrality during the two previous that made him desperate to acquire some territory to increase his flagging support at home. France tried unsuccessfully to buy Belgium and Luxembourg. The British stopped the former and German public feeling the second. Realising France was hostile enough to start a war Bismarck implemented his tactic of isolating the country diplomatically. Russia was hostile to France and Austria reconciled with Prussia over the lenient Treaty of Prague. Britain was offended over French intentions over Belgium which Bismarck had disclosed at a crucial time. Italian friendship had been bought with Venetia. The south German states were drawn into a military alliance with Prussia by Bismarc'ks publication of Napoleon's intentions towards the states. Bismarck encouraged a Hohenzollern relative of William I to stand as a candidature for the vacant Spanish throne hoping to encircle France. France was incensed and demanded the candidature be removed. William agreed against Bismarck's wishes. The French not satisfied sent the French Ambassador Benedetti to the spa of Ems to obtain an assurance the matter would not be revived. Benedetti accosted William in the street. William furious sent a telegram to Bismarck who edited it to make it sound like a Prussia snob of France. The telegram was released publicly and caused war fever to sweep France. Bismarck ordered a Prussian mobilisation that caused France to declare war. Prussian mobilisation utilising railways was much quicker than the French and the Prussian army soon encircled the main French army in the fortress town of Metz. Before long Paris was encircled and Napoleon overthrown. The republic of 1848 was re-established and fought on. Metz and Paris were eventually starved into surrendering and the defeat of France complete. The Treaty of Frankfurt made France pay 5000 million francs in reparations and secede Alsace Lorraine to Germany. The harsh treaty was not Bismarck's idea but rather Williams and the army's. Prussian military and industrial strength guided by Bismarck's isolation of France ensured Prussia victory in the Franco-Prussian War.

Bismarck achieved his main goal of German unification under Prussian leadership. Ten days before the armistice was signed Bismarck proclaimed the German Empire at the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles on 18 January 1871. Prussian victory had conjured up feelings of patriotism right across Germany and with a bribe of Ludwig II King of Bavaria unification was sealed. Bismarck's uncompromising personality helped to squash liberal opposition and save the Prussian monarchy. A united Germany was achieved by the defeat of the two powers that stood in its way, Austria and France. Prussian industrialisation had ensured victory but Bismarck brought forward the triumph. Bismarck outmanoeuvred Austria and France diplomatically allowing the isolation of the two powers essential for Prussian military victory. With astute political moves namely the war against Denmark Bismarck increased support for unification at home. The German Empire was proclaimed by Bismarck who did much to aid its creation.

Bismarck's iron man image and unique personality was a major factor in German Unification. Born and brought up as a Prussian Junker he pursued his nationalist ambitions and united Germany. His diplomatic skill was a major pre-requisite of Prussia's military victories. By manipulating events to his advantage Bismarck was able to proclaim a united Kleindeutsche under Prussian control.