How did modern Germany come about? A very short history of German unification under Bismarck

Many people don’t realize that modern Germany, as a political entity, is a comparatively recent creation (1871). So where did it come from, and how did we get there?

How far back in the mists of dawn shall I go? All the way to Charlemagne (Karl der Große), arguably the first Holy Roman Emperor? Yes, the “First Reich” was the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) — “not holy, not Roman, and not an empire” as Voltaire famously quipped. 

The 300+ German principalities of the Holy Roman Empire

Let us fast-forward to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the overlapping European Wars of Religion, chief among them the particularly bloody and traumatic Thirty-Years War.  Many political scientists use the term “Westphalian sovereignty” for the modern conception of state sovereignty.

At that point, the Holy Roman Empire was a patchwork of some 300 principalities, all tributaries to the Holy Roman Emperor (a title held from 1438 until 1806 by the head of the House of Habsburg, and by its Austrian branch since the 1556 abdication of Charles V). It looked something like this:

The Holy Roman Empire in 1648

The principalities varied widely in size, from the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Archduchy of Austria all the way down to several “Free Cities” like Hamburg, Bremen, and Frankfurt. 

One provision of the treaty (which actually reaffirmed a provision of the 1555 Augsburg Peace) was cuius regio, eius religio, i.e., that each principality would acquire the religion of its ruler, be it Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist. Indeed, the Catholic principalities included several not-so-small Prince-Bishoprics, where the Bishop or Archbishop was both spiritual and temporal ruler: e.g.,  the Prince-Bishopric of Münster, the Prince-Bishopric of Liège/Luik/Lüttich in present-day Belgium, and the like.  

This system persisted, with various internal rearrangements, through the French Revolution, until Napoleon I became its final undoing. This had been the map on the eve of the 1789 French Revolution.

Holy Roman Empire (1789)

Following Napoleon’s victory over the Austrians at Austerlitz in 1805, the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II (subsequently Francis II of Austria) dissolved the HRE by decree on August 6, 1806.  Concomitantly, twin processes of “mediatization” and “secularization” took place. The confusing term “mediatization” in context means that smaller principalities lost their privilege of “immediacy” (answering directly to the Holy Roman Emperor without intermediaries) but were made subject to one of the larger principalities. “Secularization” in context means that Prince-(Arch)Bishops were stripped of their temporal authority, and  that their former dominions  were either converted into secular principalities or attached to an existing larger principality. 

From 1806 until 1813, many of the newer states were part of a French client-state union called Rheinbund/Confederation of the Rhine.

From 300+ down to 39: the German Confederation (1815)

Following the final defeat of Napoleon I at Waterloo outside Brussels, the European power brokers met at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, where they laid down a blueprint for the postwar order. (Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich was the “midwife” of this congress, if you like.)

For the German-speaking realm, its major consequence was the restructuring of the Rheinbund, Prussia, Austria,… into a loose German Confederation with “only” 39 member states. Four of these were actually ruled by foreign monarchs in personal union: the Duchy of Holstein (by Denmark), the Archduchy of Luxemburg (by Holland), the Duchy of Limburg (also Holland), and the Kingdom of Hanover (by England). Four others were the Free Cities of Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, and Frankfurt. By far the most powerful members were Catholic Austria and Lutheran Prussia.

German Confederation

The failed 1848 revolution and the rise of Otto von Bismarck

1848 was a year Europe was shaken by revolutions, including  the  German confederation. (This is also when the great immigration wave from the German Confederation to the USA took place.) Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV was able to hold on to his throne, but saw himself forced to introduce some democratic reforms, including the creation of a Landtag (parliament).

One of the loudest anti-revolutionary voices in the Landtag was a former civil servant named Otto von Bismarck, born from a Junker [=squire, the lowest rank of nobility] family. He caught the eye of Friedrich Wilhelm IV and in 1851 became his envoy to the Diet of the German Confederation at Frankfurt. There, the future “Iron Chancellor” proved his mettle as a crafty diplomat and negotiator, with the Austrian envoy as his primary foil. 

Otto von Bismarck (1873)

In 1857 Friedrich Wilhelm IV was permanently put out of commission by a stroke. Until his death in 1861, his older brother Wilhelm acted as regent, then he ascended to the throne himself as Wilhelm I. (His queen was Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter.)

Wilhelm at first distrusted Bismarck and looked down upon him as a “Landwehrleutnant” (Home Guard lieutenant), but had continued to rely on him for key ambassadorial positions, first to St. Petersburg (1859) then to Paris (1862). A domestic political crisis broke out over the budget (which included major rearmament spending): Wilhelm threatened abdication in favor of his son Crown-Prince Friedrich, but the latter did not want the job and instead cajoled his father into appointing Bismarck as Chancellor. Bismarck’s two most important allies in Berlin were Minister of War Albrecht von Roon and the Chief of Staff,  Field Marshal Helmut Graf von Moltke [the Elder].

Bismarck had been a late convert to the cause of German unification, but on 30 Sept. 1862 he gave the “Blood And Iron Speech”, which ended on the following peroration:

“Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for the favorable 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 (Eisen und Blut).”

By “Iron” he did not just mean “arms”, by the way, but industrialization more generally. 

The Second Schleswig War

In 1863, King Frederick VII of Denmark died heirless, creating a succession dispute between rival branches. Christian IX was crowned king and the new constitution asserted Danish authority over the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, but pro-German Duke Frederick VIII was supported by German-speaking separatists in said duchies.

Bismarck saw the “favorable moment” he had been hoping for, and convinced Austria to wage war against Denmark on the side of Prussia. The Danish army was no match for especially the Prussians; in the 1864 Treaty of Vienna, Danmark saw itself forced to cede all of Holstein and much of Schleswig to joint Austro-Prussian sovereignty.

The 1866 Unification War: And Then There Were Five

A dispute with Austria over the administration of the new provinces was seized upon by Bismarck as a casus belli for a war with Austria. Prussia make a military alliance with Italy, then invaded Holstein. The dispute was brought before the German Diet, which declared mobilization against Prussia. In response, Prussia declared the Diet “finished” and invaded Hanover, Saxony, and Hesse on June 15. Italy then attacked Austria on June 20.

Roon and Moltke had turned the already formidable Prussian army into an even more powerful fighting machine, and after a crushing victory at Königgratz, the Austrians called it quits — especially once it became clear that Bismarck had zero interest in any Austrian territory. (Reportedly, when Wilhelm I insisted the Prussians march on Vienna, Bismarck threatened to instead jump from a 4th-floor window, at which point Wilhelm backed down.)

At the August 23, 1886 peace of Prague, the German Confederation was dissolved. The former Habsburg province of Veneto (i.e., Venice and the surrounding mainland) was ceded to the French, who promptly passed it to Italy. 

Five days earlier, Bismarck had created the North-German Confederation in the map below. The many small states inside were now wholly dominated by Prussia (in blue). In fact, Schleswig-Holstein, the Electorate of Hesse, Nassau, the Free City of Frankfurt, and the Kingdom of Hanover were annexed outright to Prussia itself.

North German Confederation (1866)

Bismarck set about creating a federal parliament (the Reichstag), with representatives elected based on local laws. It sat as a constituent assembly at first, discussing and amending a draft federal constitution. Then federal elections took place and the new constitution went in force.

Left outside the North-German Confederation were Austria’s Southern German allies: the kingdoms of Bavaria and Württemberg, and the Archduchy of Baden. (The small Principality of Hohenzollern, an enclave inside Württemberg, was the origin of Prussia’s reigning Hohenzollern Dynasty and remained a Prussian exclave.)

So we are now down from 300+ German polities via 39 to just five.

The 1870 Franco-Prussian War and the birth of the Second Reich

The abdication of Queen Isabella II of Spain had created a succession crisis there.

After a while, a German prince from the house of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen emerged as a possible successor. Napoleon III of France now feared his “Second Empire”  would be the meat in a German sandwich. He demanded that this German candidacy be withdrawn and sent the French ambassador to Prussia to present this demand to Wilhelm I, who was vacationing at Bad Ems. Wilhelm was polite but noncommittal; Wilhelm’s secretary Abeken sent a telegram summarizing the meeting to Bismarck. The latter promptly set about “embellishing” this Ems Dispatch before releasing it to the press, in ways that were calculated to goad Napoleon III.

The latter took the bait and the French declared war on Germany, thus giving Bismarck the excuse he craved. Within six months, the French army suffered a series of humiliating defeats culminating in the siege of Paris (which saw Parisians reduced to eating their pets and their zoo animals). The Second Empire collapsed, Napoleon III was supplanted by the French Third Republic, France was forced to to pay a huge indemnity and to cede Alsace and Lorraine to Germany.

More germane to our subject, the war proved enough for the Southern German holdouts to throw in their lot with Wilhelm, thus completing German unification.

On January 1, 1871, the combined four polities became the [Second] German Reich, with King Wilhelm I of Prussia being upgraded to Kaiser/Emperor Wilhelm I. Bismarck stayed in office as Reichskanzler until after the Kaiser’s death in 1888 and the 99-day reign of his already moribund son Frederick III, until finally dismissed by Wilhelm I’s ambitious grandson Wilhelm II in 1890. 

As a footnote, the Spanish ultimately crowned the 2nd son of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy as King Amadeo I. He abdicated a year and a half later,  then was replaced by Alfonso XII, the eldest son of the exiled Queen.

From expansion to consolidation

Significantly, the last nineteen years of Bismarck’s tenure were a time, not of military adventures, but of consolidation and nation-building. 

Unlike the future Wilhelm II, or the genocidal madman at the head of the still-later Third Reich, Bismarck was above all a consummate realist. In the already then existing dispute in the German nationalist movement between Greater Germany and Lesser Germany factions, he emphatically sided with the latter, as he feared the acquisition of Austria or of Austrian-held Polish territory (both with mostly Catholic populations) would dilute the Protestant Prussian complexion of the state beyond repair. 

Instead, he set about carrying out a series of modernizing reforms. His political vision can be described as a paternalistic Obrigkeitsstaat [authority state]: be a faithful servant of the state, and the state will look after you. The Health Insurance Bill of 1883 (which formalized the system of Krankenkasse or “sick funds”), Accident Insurance Bill of 1884, and Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889 laid the foundations for what is arguably the oldest welfare state in the Western world (for better or worse).

Was he a Prussian socialist? The idea would have been anathema to him. Instead, he saw the rising support for the emerging SPD (Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands) and attempted to “take the wind out of its sails” with such social provisions. Indeed, in doing so he leaned on what previously had been his opponents in the Kulturkampf: political Catholicism.

The term Kulturkampf (“culture struggle”) was the term first coined in Germany (by Bismarck’s ally in this matter, Rudolf Virchow [*]) for a struggle of wills between the secular state and religious forces (in this case the Catholic Church). Specifically Bismarck’s insistence on secularizing or supplanting religious schools brought him on a collision course with the Vatican. He broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See over its rejection of an ambassador (himself a Catholic prelate who had questioned the Infallibility Dogma), banned the Jesuits and several other religious orders, and introduced a Standesamt (civil registry) on the French model, enabling civil marriage and divorce. Basically, Bismarck strove to restrict the influence of the Catholic Church to the personal spiritual domain, while Pius IX and his partisans fought to preserve as much of the status quo as they could.[**]

Ironically, Bismarck created the very thing he least wanted: in reaction, the Zentrumpartei or [Catholic] Center Party emerged and became a political force to be reckoned with, until the Third Reich. [The postwar CDU, Christian-Democratic Union, is the joint successor party to the Center Party and its Lutheran counterpart.) 

The Kulturkampf petered out through a confluence of three factors: the demise of Pius IX and his succession by the more conciliatory Leo XIII; a military alliance with the Catholic Habsburg Empire; and the need for parliamentary support for Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws and a series of protective tariffs. Bismarck, always a Realpolitiker, ended up gradually walking back some of his Kulturkampf policies in a series of what he termed Mitigation Laws, and Leo XIII returned the sentiment. Eventually, Bismarck became the only non-Catholic ever to receive the Vatican’s highest decoration, the Supreme Order of Christ.

Bismarck’s End and Legacy

1888 entered German history as the Year of the Three Emperors. Wilhelm I passed away just short of his 91st birthday. His heir Friedrich III was already moribund from throat cancer and reigned for a mere 99 days: upon his death, his eldest son Wilhelm II became the last Kaiser  for the next 30 years.

Wilhelm I had been content to let Bismarck rule on his behalf, but Wilhelm II was not content with a quasi-constitutional monarch role and asserted his authority over Bismarck. When the latter proved inflexible, he was told via an emissary to come bring his resignation letter. Characteristically, Bismarck sent it by messenger instead.

(Punch cartoon by Sir John Tenniel, 1890)

Bismarck lived on for another eight years at Friedrichsruh near Hamburg. In his dotage, he wrote his memoirs and published newspaper articles criticizing his successor.

 I should write another essay on Wilhelm II and the origins of the First World War. Would it have broken out if a man like Bismarck had been Chancellor? Suffice to say for now that Wilhelm’s militarist expansionism was a dramatic departure from Bismarck’s realism and “Little Germany” nationalism, and Bismarck criticized this relentlessly to deaf Imperial ears.

One year before his death, Bismarck uttered the prophetic words:

“One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”

[*] Dr. Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) was a public health pioneer and prolific medical researcher generally regarded as the father of modern [medical] pathology. He was also the co-founder of the German Progress Party and one of its Reichstag delegates. Bitterly opposed to some of Bismarck’s policies, he supported him in the Kulturkampf. He was also one of the first vocal opponents of pseudo-“scientific” racism.

[**] Bismarck’s Germany was not the only country to engage in a form of Kulturkampf in the latter part of the 19th century. France’s Third Republic did so, as did the Belgian government of Frère-Orban. And of course some of the founding fathers of the Italian Risorgimento were so fiercely anticlerical that they made Bismarck look like a Jesuit in comparison.

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