The Unification of Germany as guided by Bismarck
During the summer of 1849, and into the summer of 1850, the Prussian Government invited other north
German States to enter into a fresh "Erfurt" union on the basis of a new Constitution -
to be that accepted by the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848, but altered so far as might be found
necessary. The union was to be a voluntary one.
Had this policy succeeded, the Prussia that was most dear
to Bismarck's heart would have been no more. Otto von Bismarck was a Prussian aristocrat and was,
as such, opposed to this policy of
the King of Prussia and his ministers. He took the extreme
particularist view; he had no interest in Germany outside Prussia;
Würtemberg and Bavaria were to him foreign States. In all these
proposals for a new Constitution he saw only that Prussia would be
required to sacrifice its complete independence; that the King of
Prussia would become executor for the decrees of a popular and alien
Parliament. They were asked to cease to be Prussians in order that they
might become Germans. In a speech to the Prussian Assembly on 6 September Bismarck said:-
"We all wish that the Prussian eagle should
spread out his wings as guardian and ruler from the Memel to the
Donnersberg, but free will we have him, not bound by a new
Regensburg Diet. Prussians we are and Prussians will we remain; I
know that in these words I speak the confession of the Prussian
army and the majority of my fellow-countrymen, and I hope to God
that we will still long remain Prussian when this sheet of paper
is forgotten like a withered autumn leaf."
The possibility of Habsburg Austria gaining more influence in the
Germanic Confederation, to Prussia's detriment, was very much to
the front of Bismarck's mind. He had entered political life
almost by accident, having been deputised in the place of another
who had been taken ill. Originally prepared to respect Austria,
as a champion of conservatism, he had come to view Austria as
being a dedicated rival of Prussia with this rivalry only being
open to being resolved to Prussia's advantage by the humbling of
Austrian claims to predominance in the affairs of the German
Throughout his career, subsequent to his coming to resent Austria,
Bismarck devoted his considerable
efforts to performing several difficult tasks including that of
the exclusion of Austria, ( as being Prussia's rival ), from
German affairs and that of the preserving of the
Prussian tradition from being eroded by the effects of both
Nationalism and Democratisation.
German-nationally minded liberals in northern Germany were inspired by the career of the
chief minister to the House of Savoy, Camillo de Cavour (who had, in the summer of 1859, achieved a greater degree
of integration of northern "Italian" territory under the leadership of the Victor Emmanuel II), to form, in
November 1859, the
Nationalverein or National Union. This soon grew into being a liberal-national movement actively supported
by several thousand parliamentarians, professors, lawyers and journalists who exerted their diverse efforts
towards the establishment of a more unified and powerful "German" state.
In these times Bismarck was serving as a diplomat in the Prussian service and had been accredited to the Court of the
Tsar in St Petersburg since the early months of 1859. In March, 1860, whilst on leave in Berlin, Bismarck paid courtesy
calls upon the leaders of the Nationalverein in Berlin.
Early in 1861 King Frederick William IV, whose mind had failed,
was replaced as King of Prussia by his brother, who had been serving as regent, but who now came to the throne as
King Wilhelm I. Bismarck prepared a memorandum on the German question for the consideration of King Wilhelm I, this
was delivered to the King at Baden-Baden at the end of July 1861. In this so-called "Baden-Baden Memorial" Bismarck
advocated that Prussia should attempt to exploit the growing sentiment of German patriotism by supporting a demand "for a
national assembly of the German people".
In March, 1862, Bismarck received a new diplomatic posting that led to
his becoming Prussian ambassador to France. From his base in Paris Bismarck took an opportunity to cross the English
Channel, in June, 1862. This visit was ostensibly for the purpose of visiting an Industrial Exhibition but Bismarck
met several senior British statesmen including Disraeli, leader of the Opposition, to whom he outlined his proposal
for bring a form of unity to Germany under Prussian leadership even if this involved a degree of conflict with the Austrian Empire.
Disrali was heard to remark "Take care of that man! He means what he says!"
In September 1862 there was a crisis in Prussia where the Prussian Landtag, or lower
parliamentary house, was refusing to approve increased military spending in defiance of the King's wishes. Wilhelm I
was advised by his Minister of War, Roon, to send for Bismarck as a
formidable personality who might secure the passing of the budget and the associated military reforms in the Landtag.
On the 17 September
the crisis had reached such a pitch that King Wilhelm I seriously considered abdicating his throne. That evening Roon
sent by telegraph to Bismarck suggesting that he, Bismarck,
should hurry to Berlin and that there was danger in delay. The message in French and Latin read :- Depechez-vous;
Periculum in mora.
On 22 September Bismarck met King Wilhelm I and assured him that he could form a ministry and carry through the army
reforms desired by the king, if necessary against the will of the deputies in the Landtag. Given this assurance the
King decided not to abdicate. Bismarck was appointed acting chief minister to the House of Hohenzollern.
made an appearance before the Landtag on the 29 September where he spoke expressing his regret at the hostility of
the deputies to passing of the military budget and stressed the need for progress to be made on the military proposals
favoured by the king. The next day at a meeting of a Budget Committee Bismarck went perhaps further than he his better
judgement might have intended in asserting that:-
" The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined
by its liberalism but by its power ... Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for
the favourable moment, which has already come and gone several times. Since the treaties of Vienna,
our frontiers have been ill-designed for a healthy body politic. Not through speeches and majority
decisions will the great questions of the day be decided - that was
the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 - but by iron and blood".
This somewhat aggressively phrased speech caused alarm to liberal opinion in the Germanies and beyond.
This was in part attributable to subsequent reportage amending its
wording to read more pithily as " blood and iron ". This speech has since become known
as Bismarck's Blood and Iron Speech.
As Minister-President of Prussia Bismarck arranged things such
that the increase in the size of the army took place despite the
opposition of the Landtag. The existing practices of the Prussian
state allowed Bismarck to continue in office provided the King
was willing to remain favourable to his ministry.
Popular Nationalism was seen by Bismarck as being potentially erosive of his desired future for the Prussian Kingdom. This nationalism being a liberal German nationalism which offered
to seek to incorporate Prussia, along with other German states, into an extensive "constitutional-liberal" German state.
Bismarck began to devise schemes whereby the Prussian king and kingdom could better hope to receive the respect of many of those in Prussia, and more widely in the German states,
who held German liberal-nationalist-constitutionalist sympathies. He came to see that the prestige Prussia already enjoyed in Germany, both as a notably powerful and somewhat
constitutional state, and as the central power to a pervasively influential "Zollverein", or Customs Union, could be exploited to secure the acceptance of policies embarked
upon by a Prussian government to promote German unification.
It being understood by Bismarck that such promotion of German unification was to be on terms acceptable to a Kingdom of Prussia where the king retained his sovereignty.
If there is to be a revolution, we would rather make it, than suffer it.
In January 1863 the Poles in Russian administered Polish territories again attempted to forcefully win
concessions of change from a reluctant Tsar-King. Russia regarded
the retention of its Polish lands as a principal aim of policy. Whilst
several western states, including France, lost the Tsar's good opinion by offering
moral support to the Poles, an offer of assistance to Russia made
by Bismarck, that was initially thought presumptuous, left an
abiding impression with Russia that Prussia was a state that it
should view with favour.
Otto von Bismarck
Bismarck's support for Russia was practical as well as strategic. Prussia had annexed Polish lands during her
own participation in the Partitions of Poland. Bismarck considered that a revived Polish polity might well contest
continued hold on some of the lands so annexed.
Russia was to take some time to recover from this expense of
resources in what proved to be protracted efforts to retain
control over Poland.
In 1863 Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, proposed that a
reform of the Germanic Confederation be discussed by the German
Princes in a meeting to be held that autumn in Frankfurt. Franz Joseph urged agreement between the
Princes of Germany as the best way of preserving a German Confederation under the leadership of its historic dynasties
whilst containing the revolutionary tides of liberalism, democratisation and
socialism that were pressing for diverse radical changes.
In the lead up to this proposed conference Franz Joseph met the King of Prussia on 2 August at Bad Gastein and
felt encouraged, during a personal interview, that the Prussian king would be agreeable to reforms. Many of the
most prominent princes of Germany convened at Frankfurt and authorised
one of their number, the King of Saxony - a notably cultured individual who was on terms of personal friendship
with the King of Prussia, to personally convey an invitation to attend on behalf of the assembled rulers to
the king of Prussia.
The Prussian King was inclined to accept this pressing invitation personally delivered as it was
by a King on behalf of more than thirty German rulers. In
order to prevent the formulation an agreed approach to the reform
of the Confederation Bismarck went to very great lengths, even to
the point of reducing the King to tears and himself to nervous exhaustion, in order to persuade
the King of Prussia,
very much against his own inclination, not to attend. Austria had
a preponderance of influence in the Confederation and any agreed
reform would probably have been broadly favourable to the
Austrian interest. With the absence of Prussia, which was, after Austria herself, inherently the second most
powerful state in the confederation, nothing could be fully decided upon.
Prussian domestic elections of October 1863 saw only thirty-eight deputies being returned who could be relied
on to support Bismarck's policies. King Wilhelm I was greatly dispirited by these results and even suggested
to Bismarck that he, the King, might possibly expect to be guillotined in the Palace Square. Nevertheless
Bismarck continues to follow the military and other policies which had alienated public opinion.
The Emperor of Austria also had domestic troubles to contend with during these times. A so-called
February Patent of 1861 had instituted a limited form of parliamentism that was supported mainly by Germanic
"liberals" who were comfortable with an autocratic centralism effectively run by the Germans of the Empire
largely in the interests of those same Germans. The parliament was largely boycotted by the Magyars, Poles
and Czechs who felt themselves to be excluded from real power and representation.
Schleswig and Holstein again loomed to the forefront of
European affairs in that the resolution internationally agreed
after the difficulties that become critical in 1848 was breaking
down. That resolution as enshrined in a Treaty of London of 1852 had envisaged these territories remaining
separate from Denmark, but with the Danish King being Duke of
Holstein and Duke of Schleswig. Holstein was predominantly
peopled by ethnic Germans, whilst Schleswig had an ethnic German majority in
its southern areas.
This attempted resolution of 1852 over Schleswig and Holstein featured an early
example of the powers proposing that an eventual settlement
should be consistent with the nationality of the person's
affected rather than on dynastic claims or treaties.
Denmark undertook to respect the rights of ethnic Germans in the Duchy of Schleswig.
Holstein and the tiny Duchy of Lauenburg were to remain in the German Federation with equal
recognition of German and Danish nationality.
In 1863 the Danish King moved to break the
traditionally recognised link between the two Duchies and to
incorporate Schleswig fully into Denmark. Such a move was supported by the Eider Dansk Danish Nationalism of
the ethnic Danish majority in the north of Schleswig. In November 1863 the
demise of the then King of Denmark allowed a new succession issue
to further complicate an issue which Bismarck fully intended to
exploit to Prussia's advantage.
Although the Diet of the German Confederation authorised the
actual sending of federal forces to intervene in the Duchies Prussia and Austria preferred to act as joint-principals
rather than as agents of the Confederation in an extensive intervention that was
characterised as being undertaken in support of existing treaties.
A so-called Danish War ensued and by February 1864 both Schleswig
and Holstein had substantially fallen to Prussian and Austrian
forces and a conference of Vienna of October assigned Schleswig,
Holstein, and a small territory of Lauenberg to joint Prussian
and Austrian control.
Bismarck was not alone, in these times, in hoping to take measures, broadly exploitative
of populist sentiment, which
would enhance the position of a German Kingdom.
In January 1864 Odo Russell, nephew of the British Foreign Secretary and
a quasi-official British representative in Rome, in a private audience with the Pope was told that:-
"The example of Italy" (i.e. where the House of Savoy was annexing, with local popular consent, the territories
of other Princes) will be the ruin of the smaller Princes of Germany and I think very ill of the condition of that
country. Each of the smaller sovereigns hopes to aggrandise his Kingdom at the expense of his neighbour
and all will be swept away like the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, Modena and Parma were in Italy. The King of Bavaria was
here and I did what I could to convince him that he was running great risks but he could not see it. His idea
is that the House of Wittlesbach should be as powerful as the Houses of Hapsburg and Hohenzollern, and if he had
his own way he would begin by annexing Baden and Würtemberg to Bavaria."
The situation within the lands of the Habsburgs where the parliament, as elected under restricted rules of
suffrage, was particularly supported
by the Germans of Austria, of Bohemia, and of Moravia, and was largely boycotted by other nationalities was
not entirely as Emperor Franz Joseph would wish and after some consideration, and against the advice of
most of his ministers, he responded positively to
an article published in the spring of 1865 by the prominent Magyar liberal, Ferenc Deak, that outlined
conditions under which the inherently powerful Magyars would find it possible to co-operate more fully with
his own exercise of sovereignty. These conditions
amounted to a restoration of the Hungarian constitution of 1848 and the virtual establishment of two
distinct states - one largely German-Austrian and one largely Magyar - that would co-operate fully and
that would together
the outside world as a single power.
A Convention of Gastein of August 1865
Holstein, (the more southerly Duchy actually bordering Prussian territory), as being under the administrative control
of Austria whilst Schleswig was to be administered by Prussia. A small Duchy of Lauenberg passed absolutely to
Prussia after the payment of a steep purchase price.
Prussia, which had previously no major sea-port under its control, was given rights to exploit the potential of the
important port of Kiel on the "Baltic" coast of Holstein and was authorised
to plan and execute an ambitious "Kiel Canal" from the Baltic coast across Holstein to the North Sea coast. Holstein
was also allowed to enter the Prussian led Zollverein customs union.
Austria had reason to believe that Prussia was still not satisfied in relation to Holstein and
that Italy was not satisfied in relation to Venetia. In September Bismarck secretly sounded out Napoleon III
at Biarritz as to his possible reaction to an open conflict between Prussia and Austria. In November Austria
received offers of very substantial sums from Italy, if Venetia would be
transferred to Italian control, and from Prussia, if Holstein would be transferred to Prussian control.
Austria declined both these offers probably deeming it dishonourable for any dynastic state to sell off
In late December 1865 Prussia and Italy entered into a commercial treaty and in January King Victor Emmanuel
was invested with the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle. Bismarck continued to work towards securing
the Prussian King's permission to
enter into a formal military alliance with Italy that would prejudicial to the
Austrian interest. It was contrary to the basic principles of the
Germanic Confederation that any member would ally with an outside
power against any other member of the Confederation. The fact
that Prussia intended to secretly ally with Italy shows the seriousness
with which Bismarck was pursuing his own version of reform of the
For Bismarck the great question of the Austrian-Prussian relationship in Germany was inextricably interwoven with the domestic conflict he had fought since coming to power. The progress
he had achieved towards a more united Germany by the victorious war against Denmark was splitting the liberal movement in Prussia and in Germany. Nationalists could not but applaud
the fact that the whole of Schleswig-Holstein had finally been wrested from the Danes; liberals could not but abhor the way the two great German powers had ridden roughshod over
the wishes of most of the inhabitants of the duchies. For the sake of German defence and security the predominance of Prussia in such a strategically sensitive area was inescapable, but
no liberal would happily hand over the Schleswig-Holsteiners to the repressive, reactionary Bismarck regime. These dilemmas were particularly painful for the liberal movement itself, but
the point had been reached where liberals would relent sufficiently in the opposition to Bismarck to make a deal on his terms possible.
Edgar Feuchtwanger, Bismarck, Routledge 2002, p. 120
In these times Bismarck advised Benedetti, French ambassador to Prussia that:-
"I have succeeded in persuading the King of Prussia to break off the intimate
relations of his House with the Imperial House of Austria; to make an alliance with revolutionary Italy;
to make arrangements for a possible emergency, with the French Emperor; and to propose at Frankfurt the
revision of the Federal Act by a popular parliament. I am proud of my success. I do not know whether
I shall be allowed to reap what I have sown; but, even if the King deserts me, I have prepared the way
by deepening the rift between Prussia and Austria, and the liberals, if they come to power, will
complete my work."
The alliance between Prussia and Italy was
finalised in April and promised Venetia to Italy in return for
her participation in a war against the Austrian Empire. The
alliance was to hold for only three months. Within days of the
Italian alliance having been concluded Bismarck challenged
Austria by having the Prussian delegate to the Confederal Diet
propose reforms of the Confederation that would be deeply
prejudicial to the Austrian interest and also voicing complaints
about the way the Austrian administration of Holstein was being
conducted. Austrian diplomacy, meanwhile, indulged in
some provocations of Prussia including that of requesting that the Federal Diet should
adjudicate on the future of the Duchies. A Prussian force was sent into
Holstein on Bismarck's orders. A "Seven Weeks War" between Austria and Prussia
ensued in which the Prussian interest convincingly prevailed despite Austria also being supported by
several other German states.
Bismarck had to strenuously and extensively use his powers of persuasion to restrain the forces of Prussia and
her allies from making too many claims on an humbled Austria.
In his personal
outlook Bismarck was not a German Nationalist - he was more truly first minister to the House of Hohenzollern.
In his view it was necessary to avoid the possibility that
a coalition of powers that might otherwise be formed to aid a severely threatened Austria.
Should Habsburg Austria be critically damaged it was an open
question as to what settlement would spring up in its
place - it would be possible that Austria's non-German territories deprived of their admittedly weak bond through
the historical sovereignty of the Habsburgs could be
re-constituted as a number of unstable, and even radical, small republics.
It would also be likely that if the Habsburgs
were more intimately involved with German affairs through the incorporation of German Austria into an extended German
state they would routinely rival Prussian influence in political affairs
with the support of a coalition of lesser german state interests.
Bismarck considered that a preserved Habsburg Austria,
although somewhat humbled in these disputations,
could be a possible diplomatic and military ally in the future.
Although largely excluded
from German affairs in the West it was in Prussia's interest that Austria should nonetheless be allowed an
opportunity to re-establish herself as a power to the east.
We had to avoid wounding Austria too severely; we had to avoid leaving behind in her any unnecessary bitterness of
feeling or desire for revenge; we ought rather to reserve the possibility of becoming friends again with our adversary
of the moment, and in any case to regard the Austrian state as a piece on the European chessboard. If Austria were
severely injured, she would become the ally of France and of every other opponent of ours; she would even sacrifice
her anti-Russian interests for the sake of revenge on Prussia. . . .The acquisition of provinces like Austria Silesia and
portions of Bohemia could not strengthen the Prussian state; it would not lead to an amalgamation of German Austria
with Prussia, and Vienna could not be governed from Berlin as a mere dependency. . .
Prussia did annexe territories at this time - Schleswig and Holstein, the Kingdom of Hanover,
the Electorate of Hesse-Nassau, and the City of Frankfurt together with some smaller territories. Austrian
agreement was secured for the formation of a Prussian-led North German Confederation with the inclusion of the
independent Kingdom of Saxony. The Austrians secured Prussian agreement that Northern Schleswig
could return to Danish sovereignty should the population there so decide in a plebiscite.
Otto von Bismarck
The conflicts with Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein and between
Austria and Prussia are sometimes referred to as "Wars of German
Unification" but they were at that time more truly "Wars of
Prussian Consolidation". In the wake of these two availing
conflicts that had been, in large part, subtly fomented by
Bismarck as the champion of "traditional Prussia", and which led
to the formation of a North German Confederation in 1867, the
Landtag was encouraged to bestow retrospective immunity on
Bismarck's unconstitutional acts.
Such retrospective immunity was not the only "reward" that fell to Bismarck at this time as he was
raised to the nobility as Count Bismarck and invested with the prestigious Prussian Order of the Black Eagle.
In the wake of the defeat in the "Seven Weeks War" the Austrian Emperor, whose position had been
agreed a Compromise (Augsgleich) with the Magyars that re-established the Austrian Empire as Austro-Hungary - an
Imperial and Royal
"Dual Monarchy" comprised of an Austrian Empire and an
Hungarian Kingdom - under a single monarch and with common ministries of Foreign Affairs, War and Finance.
From these times the Austrian aspect of this state developed
along lines that showed a preparedness to be somewhat liberal in accomodating its powerful minority peoples
the Hungarian Kingdom the Magyars tended to moreso work towards cultural assimilation of the numerous
Slav minorities domiciled in the "lands of the Crown of St. Stephen" but offered many social and civic
concessions to those who assimilated themselves to an officially Magyar state. The Magyars thus gained a
whilst retaining assurance that their King would seek to defend the Hungarian Kingdom with Austrian as well as
The North German Confederation operated under a Constitution dictated by Bismarck. The Federal Presidency was
vested in the Prussian Crown. The Prussian Minister was to be Federal Chancellor. A degree of
democratisation was allowed in relation to the election of a lower parliamentary house - partly as a means
of breaking down the traditional German particularisms in a Confederation that was being formed of
historic dynastic states that continued to convene local assemblies.
Prussian originated institutions - army, postal service,
the Zollverein (Customs Union) etc., - were effectively
extended towards giving the new Confederation a Prussian character.
In order to provide the North German Confederation with an acceptable and distinctive flag Bismarck,
in 1867, sponsored the adoption of a Black-White-Red tricolour flag. This flag
is widely accepted as being derived from the black and white colours traditional to Prussia in combination with
the white and red associated with the Hanseatic League - this being an historic trading bloc
with which many states and cities in the Germanies had celebrated traditions of involvement in earlier times.
The adoption of this, unprecedented, emblem tended towards the avoidance of possible ill-will through giving
a prominence to the Prussian flag that might prove unwelcome to other German states. It also
side-stepped issues associated with the inherent claims of the Black-Red-Gold tricolour
emblem of the popular "liberal and constitutional" German tradition. (This Black-Red-Gold emblem had, moreover,
been adopted as the common flag of the alliance of South German states led by Austria during the War of 1866!!!)
Croat nationalism continued to be a powerful centrifugal force such that in 1868 the Magyar
dominated Reichstag at Pest agreed to recognise the Croatian Landtag as
having competence to consider Croatian domestic matters.
Prussia had long hoped to be dominant in the Germanies north
of the river Main, this was now achieved but a groundswell of
Germanic sentiment supported the establishment of a more
territorially extensive German nation state. Bismarck was keen to preclude threats to Prussian
influence in the German lands and was also
open to achieving yet more expansions of the
territory of Prussia-Germany. In strategic terms the France of
Napoleon III was a presumptive opponent of any increased influence being exercised by
the Prussian dominated North German Confederation over the states
of Southern Germany.
The diplomatic position of France was in one most important respect to the
advantage of Bismarck's expansionary policies. There was a
tradition of competition and cultural misunderstanding between north
and south Germany. That being said there was also a more intense
tradition of rivalry between German Europe and French Europe. In
the nineteenth century alone Germany had fought a "War of
Liberation" against Napoleon in 1813, whilst in 1840 there was a
crisis, which blew over, featuring widespread, and popularly
supported, German alarm when it appeared that the French intended
to seize territories south of the Rhine. Bismarck hoped to
exploit German rivalry in relation to France to precipitate
cooperation and solidarity between north and south Germany and
also increase acceptance of the Prussian dynasty.
In these times, at the Biarritz meeting and later, Napoleon III of France had more or less hinted
to Bismarck that in return for French neutrality at the time of
the recent Austro-Prussian War France should expect
"Compensations". France had remained neutral, largely out of the
belief that the war would be more protracted and expensive of
lives and resources than it had been. Napoleon III seemed to
anticipate that the position of France would have been relatively
enhanced by the exhaustion of Austria and Prussia and had even expected that Prussia would
be defeated. France hoped
that a third Germany, apart from Austria and Prussia, could be
formed based on the South German states. The unexpectedly brief
conflict, and decisive outcome in favour of Prussia, with no
compensating advantage to France, meant that France, formerly the
power of note in Western Europe, had lost much advantage as a
result. Napoleon reminded Bismarck that he expected some sort of
In efforts to attain this compensation the French sought part
of Belgium but met with British and other opposition, and then
the Palatinate on the Upper Rhine but met with Germanic
opposition. Bismarck was able to get a written copy of these claims on the Palatinate.
Then the French agreed a compact with the King of
Holland whereby the French could gain Luxembourg by purchase and
Bismarck although initially prepared to accept such a transfer was subsequently made aware of a groundswell
of popular "German" opposition to the acquisition of "Germanic" Luxembourg by France and decided to
encourage such popular opposition. In the Reichstag
Bismarck deplored the willingness of a prince "of German descent" to
sell to France territory which "had been German at all times".
An international situation resulted from the Spanish being
prepared to accept a Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen cousin of the King of
Prussia as the successor to their vacant throne. France, which
had historical reason to consider itself the foremost power on
the western Europe continent, considered that the presence of a cousin of the King of Prussia
of the Spanish throne would "disturb ... the present equilibrium of forces
in Europe" and sought to ensure that this
Hohenzollern related candidacy was not merely withdrawn, but was
withdrawn in such a way as making it seem that Prussia had
climbed down somewhat under French pressure. The disputed
candidacy was initially withdrawn without much appearance of a
climb-down but French diplomacy persisted in efforts to produce
such an appearance. It was in these circumstances in 1870 that
Bismarck as Minister-President subtly added Prussian provocations
to those of France by editing a so-called Ems Telegram, (that had been sent to Bismarck by the Prussian king
outlining an interview that the Prussian king had had with a French diplomat), in order
to let it seem that the French diplomat had been
disrespectfully treated by the Prussian King. Bismarck ensured that this edited version
was published in a special newspaper supplement. France for her part
had been seeking a contest of arms in which it hoped to prevail. The "Ems Telegram"
provided material which led to a declaration of War. The
French Emperor spoke of entering into this war "with a light
heart". In the event the Prusso-German interest prevailed in this
war and received some support from the states of South
The outcomes of an ensuing "Franco-Prussian" War, which is
also referred to as a War of German Unification, included the
formation of a federal German Empire. This "Second German Reich"
was proclaimed after the King of Prussia was persuaded to accept
the Imperial Crown that had been offered on behalf of all the German Princes by King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
The actual announcement taking place in the fabulous Hall of
Mirrors in the sumptuous palace of Versailles outside
The Second German Empire was a Confederation composed of clearly separate constituent states
(4 kingdoms, 5 grand duchies, 13 duchies and principalities, and the free cities of Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen). Within this Confederation the
inherently powerful Kingdom of Bavaria was able to retain its own army, which would fall under Prussian command only in times of war. Bavaria could
also retain its own railways, its own postal system, its maintain its own diplomatic contacts.
As with the now defunct North German Confederation the Presidency was
vested in the Prussian Crown and the Prussian Minister was to be Imperial Chancellor.
Imperial Germany was to
operate as a federation with strong central control. Both the short-lived North German Confederation and the
subsequent German Empire functioned under constitutional
arrangements which, whilst including a Federal Parliament, or
Reichstag, elected by universal suffrage, did not concede
effective power to that Reichstag. Authority over the duration of
administrations, central finances, and the armed forces, residing
moreso in a Bundesrat of State delegates dominated by
The outcome of the Wars of German Unification considerably
altered the European political scene. France deplored the seizure of
Alsace-Lorraine by Imperial Germany after the Franco-Prussian War and
Bismarck thereafter strove to diplomatically isolate France
denying her the opportunity of winning back her lost provinces as
an outcome of war. Aside from this limitation on alliances that
might threaten Imperial Germany Bismarck hoped that France would
progress and be reconciled and was prone to encourage her to
direct her energies towards extending sway over parts of North
Africa. The German Empire's establishment inherently presented
Europe with the reality of a populous and industrialising polity
possessing a considerable, and undeniably increasing, economic
and diplomatic presence.
This Otto von Bismarck & The Wars of German Unification page receives many visitors!!!
Popular European History pages
The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy
of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is
illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by
nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest,
the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every
faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in
appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact;
all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law
in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of
nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole
encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in
one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie
folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp,
kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application
of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.
Popular European History pages on this site
We strongly recommend:
Europe in 1848 : A seed-plot of History?
In relation to the European Revolutions of 1848 the historian Eric Hobsbawm has written:
"There have been plenty of greater revolutions in the history of the modern world, and certainly plenty of more successful ones.
Yet there has been none which spread more rapidly and widely, running like a bushfire across frontiers, countries and even oceans."
In 1806 the Habsburg Emperor, who held the "Holy Roman" Imperial title and exercised direct dynastic authority over many lands stretching from Poland to the Mediterranean,
was hard-pressed by the activities of Napoleon Bonaparte, and accepted the termination of the Holy Roman Empire (due to sweeping reforms instituted by Napoleon in western
parts of Germanic Europe), and adopted the title of Emperor of Austria.
By late spring 1848, the Habsburg Empire looked like a hopeless case: the monarchy's northern Italian possessions in revolt, invaded by a Piedmontese army
and largely cleared of Austrian troops; three different "national" governments in Vienna, Budapest and Zagreb each claiming sovereign authority; Polish, Romanian,
Slovenian, Serb, Czech, and Slovak national movements aspiring to a similar sovereign status; a mentally incompetent monarch and his court in flight from the
capital to the provinces; a state treasury completely bare.
Jonathan Sperber, The European Revolutions, 1848-1851, p. 203
In February 1948, the British historian Lewis Namier delivered a lecture commemorating the centennial of the
European Revolutions of 1848.
In this lecture Namier presented facts about the historical developments, themes, and events evident in 1848 and reached the
"1848 remains a seed-plot of history. It crystallized ideas and projected the pattern of things to come; it determined the course of the following century."
We are pleased to make available a series of informative pages about the highly significant and, we would venture to suggest,
the prodigiously historically instructive European Revolutions of 1848:
The events of 1848-1849 arose from the strong emergence into the Socio-Politico-Economic History of nineteenth-century Europe of populist forces such as Liberalism,
Constitutionalism, Nationalism and Socialism.
- 1 The European Revolutions of 1848 begin
- A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events in
Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and Prague.
- 2 The French Revolution of 1848
- A particular focus on France - as an Austrian foreign minister said "When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".
- 3 The "Italian" Revolution of 1848
- A "liberal" Papacy after 1846 helps allow the embers of an
"Italian" national aspiration to rekindle across the Italian Peninsula.
- 4 The Revolution of 1848 in the German Lands and central Europe
- "Germany" had a movement for a single parliament in 1848 and many central European would-be "nations" attempted
to promote a distinct existence for their "nationality".
- 5 The European Revolutions - reactionary aftermath 1848-1849
- Some instances of social and political extremism allow
previously pro-reform liberal elements to join conservative elements in
supporting the return of traditional authority. Such nationalities living within
the Habsburg Empire as the Czechs, Croats, Slovaks, Serbs and Roumanians,
find it more credible to look to the Emperor,
rather than to the democratised assemblies recently established in
Vienna and in Budapest as a result of populist aspiration, for the future
protection of their nationality.
The Austrian Emperor and many Kings and Dukes regain political powers.
Louis Napoleon, (who was a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), was elected as
President in France offering social stability at home but ultimately followed
policies which resulted in dramatic changes to the wider European structure of states and their sovereignty.
These populist forces were promoted by various interest groups within and between the pre-existing dynastic Empires and Kingdoms of Europe, often challenging the
continuance of dynastic authority and governance and proving to be competitive, in that popular aspirations expressed by some interest groups often proved unpalatable
to other interest groups within and between the pre-existing dynastic states of Europe.
Radical socialist reformers sought justice for the "disinherited" classes, the peasants and the factory workers, while more moderate political reformers were concerned
with protecting and increasing the influence of the middle classes, the bourgeoisie and the professional groups. The radicals in general favoured a republican
form of government while many moderates were prepared to accept constitutional monarchy as a satisfactory substitute …
… Many of the revolutionaries, especially in the German Confederation and Italy, wanted to transform their homeland into a strong and united country, but
their aims contradicted the nationalist aspirations of minority groups.
From the opening chapter to "Revolution and Reaction 1848-1852" by Geoffrey Brunn
Middle class liberals, who had favoured constitutional rather than dynastic governance, were amongst the first of the previously pro-reform aspirational groups to
return to supporting dynastic authority when it became plain that other populist interest groups favoured wider extensions of democracy than they themselves wished
to see adopted.
Rural dwellers were often largely satisfied with reforms to systems of land tenure and the reduction of obligations to provide assistance, through labour-services, to their
landlords. Once such reforms were put in place in the Austrian Empire, country dwellers, although often relatively materially poor, tended accept the suppression of
urban radicalism and the re-establishment of dynastic authorities.
All in all a "united front" failed to become established amongst those seeking reform and gradually proved possible for dynastic authorities to re-assert themselves
often with the aid of their pre-revolutionary military forces.
The historian A. J. P. Taylor later referred to the events of 1848 as being "a turning-point when history failed to turn" nevertheless "The Future" was put on notice that
such populist-aspirational forces were capable of making pressing claims in relation to Socio-Politico-Economic developments.