Enter Bismarck, arise Prussia: The Road to German Unity 1862-66

Despite the failure of the ‘experiment’ of 1848-49 and the repressive and reactionary climate which followed, it can be argued that in the long term the seeds of Liberalism (and as it is Germany of the mid-19th Century, Nationalism by association) had been firmly planted to blossom at a later date. And whilst Prussia – with its fast-growing industrialised economy which fed into a burgeoning and increasingly self-confident middle class – may have seemed the most likely candidate in picking up the torch of German unity and progressive political reform, the man who would come to be regarded in time as the figurehead and architect of it all was as far removed as could possibly be in the early 1850s from the leader who would bring Germany together.

Only two things matter for Prussia; to avoid an alliance with democracy and to secure equality with Austria.

Bismarck looking through a counter-revolutionary prism, 1848

Otto von Bismarck had been in many ways an unremarkable, stereotypical son of the Prussian nobility junker class; spoiled, idle and failing to live up to the potential his silver spoon existence had laid out for him. However Bismarck simply wasn’t challenged enough by such an existence, his non-conformist approach to authority and society’s expectations combined with a maverick attitude to life meant that he was unfulfilled by merely following in the perceived righteous path of his class. Amongst a prolific career of womanising, gambling and enjoying the trappings of a hectic social life, Bismarck entered Prussian politics – and public view – as the revolutions of 1848-49 were coming to the boil. He was at first an avowed and unashamed counter-revolutionary, fuelled by ideals of reactionary conservatism and a devotion to the Prussian monarchy who loathed liberalism and the concept of a unified German state in equal measure. His unwavering devotion (and pride) to all things Prussia meant that when he became the Prussian envoy to the revived Diet of the German Confederation the focus of his resentment and disdain shifted from hating on liberals and other assorted progressive types to picking fights with and making life difficult for that other Germanic ‘superpower’ of the age, Austria.

Whilst the majority of his fellow Prussian (and wider Germanic) conservatives saw Austria as the natural ally of conservatives and counter-revolutionaries (and with good reason given their track record over the 19th century!) in the fight against political and social change, Bismarck saw the overbearing presence of Austria in German politics as a hindrance to Prussia and its interests. A loud, brash and intelligent personality, Bismarck agitated within the Frankfurt Diet to undermine Austria’s position as the pre-eminent German power in the 1850s. He obviously touched a raw nerve somewhere as he was summoned back to Berlin and shunted off to St Petersburg to act as Prussia’s ambassador to Russia in 1859. The complex yet brilliant political talents of Bismarck were thus sidelined until the Prussian throne itself was threatened by the constitutional crisis of 1860-62 saw him called back as an almost last resort by William I.

Bismarck’s combination of steadfast resolve, adept manipulation and innate self-confidence avoided the collapse of the Prussian monarchy in the face of political impasse brought about by disagreements on how best to proceed with reform of the Prussian military. The crux of the problem lay in a liberal-dominated Berlin parliament refusing to approve army reforms which would see a much larger and efficient fighting force. The argument became entrenched along the lines of the King wishing for the Prussian army remaining independent of parliamentary control/interference whilst the liberals in parliament argued that the army should be answerable to its own people, and by extension themselves in parliament who would have control over the army’s budget. Such a proud, elitist military culture as Prussia took such matters very seriously and the forces of tradition and conservatism clashed with those of progressive and modern ideals of democracy and citizen rule. The impasse lasted 2 years, with William I turning to his last card on the advice of war minister von Roon and recalling the strong-willed force of nature Bismarck back from his Russian posting. Bismarck navigated a course through the crisis by simply bypassing parliament and funding army reform through increased taxation of the public. Whilst such acts (and his general persona/reputation as a reactionary dinosaur) drew the ire of the majority liberal Landtag, Bismarck calculated that even with all the anger and disgust flying his way there would be no repeat of the violence of 1848-49. Pragmatism, self-assuredness and a knack for being successful were to characterise Bismarck’s political career thereafter.

The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by it 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

Bismarck’s famous ‘Blood & Iron’ speech to the Prussian Landtag, September 1862

For Bismarck, the end always justified the means, and no stone would be left unturned in pursuit of such. He was a pragmatic, dogged and quick thinking leader who was able to manipulate and influence friends and foe alike. Bismarck’s intuition at choosing the right option and balancing the competing forces of Prussian traditionalist conservatism and the growth of progressive Liberalism came to be known as Realpolitik. Along with his contemporary Cavour in Italy, Bismarck was alive to the changes sweeping European politics and society at the time and in particular that of nationalism. Whether Bismarck was at heart a Prussian nationalist/expansionist or a German nationalist is a key question from the unit; however it is clear he came to see Prussian and German interests as one and the same. And Prussian interests in the 1860s invariably rubbed up against those of Austria, which Bismarck exploited expertly to bring the disparate sides of the German political landscape together under a common cause.

The immediate goals for Bismarck in the aftermath of his handling of the 1860-62 constitutional crisis was to dislodge Austria as the pre-eminent German political power, and extend Prussian influence/domination over the wider North German region. An opportunity arose when a succession crisis broke out over the twin duchies of Schleswig-Holstein in Northern Germany. Whilst the region was predominately German populated, Schelswig had a sizeable Danish minority and the Danish King had historical claims to the territory. Not for the last time (!), Bismarck exploited the growing trend of German nationalism and its strong emotive appeal to announce Prussia as the champion of pan-Germanic causes when he faced down the Danish claims to the territory and won a short sharp and one-sided war. What he did next is realpolitik at its finest; he agreed with Austrian to split the duchies between both of the major German powers and thus create a point of contention in which Prussia – bordering the newly won territories in contrast to the distant Austrians – held all the aces. The Austrian territory of Holstein – German, Protestant and naturally aligned with Prussian values – would act as the catalyst for the next piece in Bismarck’s jigsaw, the Austro-Prussian war of 1866.

Bismarck worked both openly and behind the scenes in a political and diplomatic sense in setting the scene for the inevitable showdown with the Austrians; using their governance of Holstein as stick with which to beat the Austrians in Prussian and wider German domestic politics and shoring up support (or at the least an indication of neutrality) from other European states in the event the bubbling tension exploded and the Prussians and Austrians resorted to war. Bismarck gave his tacit support to the Italians – also fighting a war of unification against the Austrians – in exchange for a reciprocation of similar back-up and sought assurances from French Emperor Napoleon III that French neutrality would be counted upon too, laying the foundations for conflict. The impending war would not only decide who had control over the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein but also who would be the pre-eminent German power for generations. Bismarck lit the touch paper for war in his proposals to reform the German Confederation in 1866, listing demands which he knew Austria would never agree to (universal male suffrage, continual Austrian exclusion from the Zollverein amongst others) as well as invoking the terms of the Treaty of Gastein and accusing Austria of breaking them. The Austrians, with far larger supply lines, wider territory and a more disparate and diverse population and being farther away from the actual hot conflict zone in Northern Germany, were the first to mobilise (another masterstroke from Bismarck since to the naked eye it was the Austrians who acted first as opposed to Prussia) and the Seven Weeks War began.

Prussia had no right to expect to beat Austria in a war – after all Austria was a larger state, had more political and diplomatic influence and could mobilise more soldiers if needed – and definitely had no right expect the whole thing to be done and dusted in 7 weeks. However a combination of Prussian modernity in its military-industrial infrastructure, access to railways to get troops and materiel moving faster and superior leadership and tactics in battle led to a crushing and humiliating defeat for the Austrians, who were in many ways everything the Prussians were not (poorly led militarily, inferior weaponry, one railway as opposed to the Prussians size and also fighting wars on multiple fronts given their problems with the Italians). Despite this the only major battle of the war – the Battle of Sadow on 3rd July – was equally balanced for a while before Prussian creativity and boldness in military tactics resulted in an eventual rout of the Austrian forces. Neither side had the stomach to fight on much after this; the Austrians obviously exhausted from multiple wars and conscious of the effect humiliating defeats would have on their fragile, multi-ethnic empire and the wider balance of power at a European level, a concern shared by Bismarck who saw the dangers of an Austria which would be too embittered and revenge-ridden to act as an Prussian ally in future as well as the power vacuum a collapse of the Austrian Empire might create.

“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.”

Bismarck on the Seven Weeks war

Treaty of Prague & Aftermath

Despite initial reluctance in some sections of Prussian society and politics at waging war in the first instance, it was the cool-headed and rational Bismarck who stood in the way of complete Prussian annihilation of Austria in the wars aftermath. Reasoning that Austria would be more likely to side with their fellow Germans over say France or Russia, he exercised restraint and compassion whilst all around him were calling for a march on Vienna and annexation of Austria into Prussia. Whilst Austria only lost the duchy of Schleswig (and Northern Italy), Prussia was able to annex other German territories by swallowing up all German States north of the River Main, creating a contiguous German state from the Baltic to the Dutch, Belgian and French borders. Bismarck exploited the general atmosphere of triumph and positivity by making liberal concessions in the constitution for the new North German Confederation, where although King and Army were untouchable there was universal male suffrage for Reichstag elections and laws could only be passed by agreement of parliament (two houses) and crown. Liberals who once loathed the very existence of Bismarck now found themselves in grudging (or open!) admiration and a centre ground between moderate liberals and flexible conservatives was reached, giving Prussia consensus politics and a mandate for one day unifying the rest of Germany under the one flag and constitution.

Its debatable as to whether Bismarck set out to unify Germany or extend Prussia, but what is certain is that he set out to limit Austrian influence over wider Germanic affairs, and as such his actions in the years 1862-66 were an unquestionable success. Bismarck now stood astride either side of the Prussian political spectrum and for the most part had support from either, as well as from those in the newly annexed territories. Prussia had gone from a bastion of reactionary conservatism promoting absolutist rule to a politically progressive and industrially dynamic state in less than 20 years since 1848-49. Prussia had achieved this whilst still being widely regarded internationally as a 2nd rate power – definitely not one which merited a place at the very top table of nations (UK, France, Russia) – although its inexorable rise was being noted by Bismarck’s next target – France.

Key Takeaways

  • Bismarck the man was multi-facted, talented, ruthless and intuitive. He was a man of his time and realpolitik was his method of plotting a course through the resistance and detractors who surrounded him.
  • Examples of his realpolitik in practice are many – from his handling of the 1860-62 constitutional crisis through his handling of the diplomatic situations both pre- and post-Austro-Prussian war. However, despite the general trend not everything he did was a success!
  • A gambler/opportunist or a brilliant long-term strategist? A Prussian or German nationalist? Bismarck has been analysed from all angles and its you call as to what really drove him
  • And what really drove him in this period was dislocating then marginalising the Austrians from mainstream German Confederation politics. Despite a natural tendency towards to conservatism in both Berlin and Vienna the two German ‘superpowers’ differed greatly in many other aspects (religion, industry, demographics and in the case of Bismarck leadership) and Prussia were the upwardly mobile new kids on the Great Power bloc whilst Austria’s star was on the wane.
  • Even though German nationalism was occurring by force, Bismarck and Prussia had the broad support of opposing sides of the German political spectrum as well from most Protestant / Northern German States.

Media and Resources

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