German Unification (1862-1871)

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Notes and exercises – see sections 6,7 and 8
Section 4 – The Unification of the German states 1815-1871


Probably the best way to understand the complex background of German unification (which is the section of German history we are most interested in, is to read something that outlines the big picture of German history and then explore the period between 1815 and 1848. A good introduction is provided by Bob Whitfield:

The following readings outline the background to German history, the crisis that brought Bismarck into power in 1862 and the Wars of Unification that followed:

Iron and Blood
As envoy to the Bund, Bismarck made it his business to rile the Austrians. In October 1857 Frederick Wilhelm IV suffered a stroke. Bismarck’s early attempts to persuade Wilhelm I of the ways in which Prussia could abide by the letter of the Confederate Law whilst simultaneously aligning the other states against Austria led to Wilhelm sending him out of the country – to become Prussia’s envoy in St Petersburg and Moscow, where Bismarck remained until 1862, when he was brought out of ‘cold storage’ to become Minister President of Prussia in the middle of the constitutional crisis of 1862 in which von Roon’s reforms were rejected by the Landtag. Wilhelm was ready to abdicate and Bismarck – at von Roon’s suggestion – was as last resort. The video explains the continuation of the 1861 budget under Bismarck – the loophole in the constitution – allowing the government to reform the army, and then the Alvensleben convention – in which Prussia offered to support the Russians put down a Polish revolt; the congress of princes – which Bismarck persuaded King Wilhelm to snub (despite his attendance being a feudal obligation to his liege lord, the emperor:

The Iron Chancellor
This contains a really good explanation of the Schleswig-Holstein question and how it was used by Bismarck to sucker Austria into an alliance and then a dispute. Having stirred up an argument with the Austrians, Bismarck secured an alliance with Italy and the neutrality of France (by meeting Napoleon at Biarritz and suggesting the latter might receive the Duchy Luxembourg in return). The video also explains the role of Moltke the elder in adopting a strategy that reflected new conditions of warfare in the face of technological development of guns and the size of armies requiring greater autonomy for subordinates to lead: ‘no plan survives the first contact with the enemy’. Actually these were anticipated in von Roon’s reforms, but Motlke’s big innovation was the use of strategic railways. The video also explains Bismarck’s moderation in convincing the king not to march on Vienna.

Prussia Ascendant
‘Enemies were as useful as friends’. Explains the use of war with France to create the diplomatic conditions for German unification under Prussia. Napoleon was irritated by Bismarck’s failure to fulfil his promises over Luxembourg, and agitated by the Hohenzollern candidature to the Spanish throne. Prince Leopold von Hohenzollern – was Bismarck’s candidate, despite the opposition of Wilhelm I and Leopold himself(!). It was designed to provoke France into declaring war. To Bismarck’s disgust, Wilhelm I instructed Leopold to withdraw his candidacy. Wilhelm refused Napoleon’s further demand – relayed to him by the French ambassador – that Prussia never again put forward a Hohenzollern to the Spanish throne. Wilhelm refused to give this assurance and sent a telegram to Bismarck about the incident, asking him whether his response should be published throughout the courts of Europe. Bismarck edited the telegram to make it look as though Wilhelm had insulted the ambassador. Napoleon III meanwhile needed a war because his regime was in difficulty. As a result of the French invasion, Prussia was able to rally the southern states and the railroads were employed once again as they had been used against Austria. Despite the superiority of the French Chasse-pot rifle over the Prussian needle gun, and heavily outnumbered, the Prussians with southern support was able to overcome the French by means of a cavalry charge. The encirclement of the French forces at Metz resulted in the capture of Napoleon III which prompted revolution in Paris, depriving Bismarck of his hopes for a French surrender.

Bismarck argued that Prussia should shell Paris. Eventually, the government of national defence in Paris gave Bismarck everything that he wanted. Besides Alsace-Lorraine, the stationing of German troops on French soil and an indemnity, he got the French to recognise Wilhelm II as German emperor. April 18th 1871 – Wilhelm I was acclaimed emperor by the princes of the states of Germany. Bismarck had the constitution of the North German Confederation adapted for the new Germany. Bismarck’s philosophy is described as ‘revolutionary conservatism’. It sounds pretty, pretty, pretty goooood.

Listen to:
Difficult to know how long the following will remain available:

Germany Unified.

Radio 4’s In Our Time

Bismarck: Discussion between Melvyn Bragg, Richard Evans, Christopher Clark (author of ‘Bismarck’

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