It would be impossible to tell the story of German Unification without giving Bismarck’s role due prominence. Between 1862 and 1871 the map of Germany was altered radically, and Bismarck played a key role in the events, which led to the foundation of the new Reich, but his success was due to a combination of factors, not simply his own skill and genius as a politician.Bismarck was a Junker landowner who first made his mark in Prussian politics as a reactionary defender of the status quo, when he was elected to the united diet in 1847. During 1848-9 he gained his reputation as a defender of the old order. He also learned from the experiences of 1848 that ideal have to be made practical through compromises with reality.
He was beginning to develop and refine his own political philosophy, “Realpolitik”. The essence of this was summed up in the statement he made: “The only sound foundation of a great state… is state egoism… and not romanticism.
.. it is unworthy of a great state to fight for something in which it has no interest.”As a Prussian and a loyal servant of the Prussian king, he placed the interests of the Prussian state at the top of his list of priorities. His overriding aim throughout the 1850s and 1860s was to establish Prussian dominance in northern Germany, which would inevitably involve a struggle with Austria.
He was not, however, hell-bent on provoking a war with Austria. War was always one effective solution, but Bismarck regarded it as a last resort to be used only when all other options had been exhausted. Bismarck was recognised in the growth of nationalism after the setting up of the “Nationalverein” in 1859, a force, which could be enlisted on the side of Prussian in the struggles, which lay ahead.During the 1850s Bismarck served the Prussian state as its representative at the Confederation Diet and later as ambassador to Russia. After the Prussian attempt to establish the Erfurt Union and the humiliation of Olmutz, relations between Prussia and Austria were severely strained. The Austrians abandoned the policy of close co-operation with Prussia and opted to reassert their predominance in Germany. Bismarck’s response was to adopt an aggressive policy of obstructionism towards the Austrians in an attempt to force them to treat Prussia as an equal.
When he was appointed minister president of Prussian in 1862 it was not his policies which were his main qualification for the job so much as his reputation as a strong man who was capable of defying the opposition.When he took over control of Prussian foreign policy in 1862, there was no dramatic change of direction. His policies of challenging Austria, and to establish friendly relations with France and Russia, had been pursued by his predecessor. His first year in office was a failure. His intervention in the polish revolt in an attempt to cultivate Russia’s friendship, only served to antagonise the Russian. Relations with Austria were already strained when Bismarck took office and he made the rift even deeper by thwarting the Austrian plan to reform the German confederation. This at least was Bismarck’s aim to challenge Austria in Germany. Relations with Austria continued to deteriorate from this point.
It was the issue of Schlewsig-Holstein, which brought relations between Prussia and Austria to a crisis point and led to war in 1864. It was the Danes who precipitated the crisis by attempting to incorporate Schlewsig into Denmark. Germany was swept by a wave of popular national feeling, which crystallised into a demand to defend German interests. Bismarck was unmoved by the demonstrations. Prussian self-interest, not popular sentiment, was the basis of his policy. He kept possibility of annexing Schleswig-Holstein in mind but other solutions were not ruled out. The worst possible outcome for Prussia would be the establishment of an independent Schleswig-Holstein under Austrian influence.
Allowing the Duchies to remain under Danish rule would be preferable to having greater Austrian influence in northern Germany.Bismarck believed that an indispensable quality in a statesman was patience, “we can set our watches, but the time passes no more quickly because of that and the ability to wait while conditions develop in a requisite of practical policy”. He kept open many possible solutions (strategy of alternatives) to political problems, each of which could be explored until the moment of final choice. In that way he could weigh up the possible consequences of each course of action and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents. He also believed that there were critical moments in foreign policy, which never come again and at those moments it was the statesman’s duty to act decisively and make the most of the opportunities.His cautious approach in the early stages of the Schleswig-Holstein crisis kept Prussian policy within the bounds of the 1852 treaty of London so that other powers would not have a pretext for intervention, the alliance with Austria gave the impression that Prussian ambitions had been contained whereas Austrian support had been enlisted to further Prussian interests. These aspects of Bismarck’s policy show the dexterity (strategy of alternatives), an approach, which he employed with great skill to manoeuvre the situation to Prussia’s advantage.
Danish intransigence removed the possibility of finding a compromise that was unfavourable to Prussia; Austria’s defensive approach allowed Bismarck to take the initiative. He was also fortunate in facing an exceptionally favourable international situation. No great power was prepared to fight for Denmark and relations between the powers were very fluid.Relations between Prussia and Austria had reached a critical point after the Danish war. Bismarck never lost sight of his basic aim of forcing Austria to concede the leadership over northern Germany to Prussia, but he preferred no war. In Bismarck’s mind was the possibility that Austria might be persuaded to concede if sufficient pressure were applied. Due to war with France in 1859 Austria bankrupt and there was the possibility of another war over Venetia, and the Austrian empire was isolated within Europe, thus, whilst increasing the pressure on Austria through diplomatic links with France and an alliance with Italy, Bismarck pursued a careful approach towards Austria. It was Austria, which gave Prussia a pretext for war by breaking the Gastein Convention when Austria failed to effectively rule the Duchies.
The war of 1866 may appear with hindsight to have been the inevitable and planned result of Bismarck’s policies over the previous two years, but not all of the factors, which led to the outbreak of hostilities, were within Bismarck’s control.War with France was the final step on the road to German Unification. Bismarck believed that the unification of the southern stated with the North German Confederation was inevitable, but he had no firm plans: how this could be accomplished. With strong resistance to unification in the South, unification did not appear to be a possibility in short term. Once again Bismarck was prepared to wait for an opportunity. The French government feeling strongly that France had suffered as a result of the Prussian victory in 1866 was determined to resist any further expansion of Prussia.
After the Luxembourg crisis of 1867 relations between Prussia and France deteriorated. War was a possible outcome of this tension, but Bismarck was not looking for war. The potential for future conflict between the two powers were useful to Bismarck because he could exploit the tension to arouse national feeling in Germany and to persuade the southern states to accept closer military co-operation with Prussia.When Bismarck supported the Hohenzollern candidature for the Spanish throne he was well aware that this would provoke a hostile reaction from France. He considered diplomatic humiliation for France would serve his purposes. The development of the crisis to the point where war became inevitable was due to the incautious way in which the French handled the issue. Napoleon 3, facing a decline in his personal popularity, needed a diplomatic triumph to strengthen his position.
The French, therefore were not content to accept the mere withdrawal of candidature, but pressed for guarantees that it would never be renewed.Wilhelm 1 regarded their demand for guarantees as a slur on his honour. Bismarck suffered a serious diplomatic defeat when the candidature was withdrawn, but the French blunder over the guarantees issue and Bismarck ‘s opportunistic behaviour in editing the elms telegram enable him to turn it into a triumph. Pressure from outraged members of the French chamber pushed the government into declaring war on Prussia. The victory of Prussia, its alliance with the southern states and the unleashing of a wave of popular nationalism across Germany led to the creation of the new German Reich in 1871. This outcome highly satisfied Bismarck because it was not something, which he could have planned or predicted.
It is impossible to explain the process of German unification without emphasising the role played by Bismarck. In the complex political and diplomatic situation of the 1860s both inside Prussia and in its dealings with the German states and other European powers, Bismarck displayed great diplomatic skill and dexterity. He had a clear view of his aims and the absolute conviction that his methods could be justified by the extent to which they served the interests of the Prussian state.
However Bismarck was not infallible. He made mistakes in his first year in office and his diplomacy was not always successful. The Hohenzollern candidature nearly ended in humiliation for Bismarck, but he was rescued by the blunders of the French and his own opportunism.