Thursday, October 25, 2012
The Unification of Germany Part I
Although not without a degree of ‘storm and stress’ the unification of Germany was surprisingly easy. There are many reasons why it could have been much, much more difficult. Like Italy there were powerful foreign countries which opposed German unification and there were differences in language (or at least dialect) from one region to another. Yet, unlike Italy, the area that became Germany was much more politically divided with three Free Cities, seven Principalities, five Duchies, six Grand Duchies and four Kingdoms. Nor was there religious unity. The large majority were Protestants (mostly Lutheran) but there was a sizeable minority of Catholics and a smaller Jewish minority as well. Germany also did not have any ancient history of unity to look back on for inspiration. Spain had the Visigoth Kingdom of Spain that existed prior to the Muslim conquest and Italy had Imperial Rome but the area that became Germany had never been firmly under one government at any point in history. The closest was the Holy Roman Empire but for the vast majority of time that it existed, actual central control was only temporary and for the most part the constituent states ruled themselves and bargained with the Emperor rather than submitting to his authority unconditionally. Besides which, though the legacy of the Holy Roman Empire would at times be claimed, the memory of the “First Reich” was a rather problematic one.
Tensions between Austria and Prussia long predated the movement for national unification and, from the very beginning, it was usually Austria that lost and Prussia that gained. In the days of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the unity was more symbolic than factual and especially toward the end, no one even pretended that the Emperor in Vienna actually ruled the Empire beyond the borders of Austria and Hungary. The Prussians had first challenged imperial authority simply by claiming royal status. First the local monarch became “King IN Prussia” and in a later concession “King OF Prussia” and at times Prussians and Austrians went to war such as during the conflict between Emperor Joseph II and King Frederick the Great of Prussia. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars gave them someone else to fight but the old tensions remained. Also as a result of Napoleon (whether by agreements with him or conflicts against him) each made gains but Prussia gained amongst the German people whereas Austrian gains were mostly amongst non-German peoples, mostly Italians and also some Slavs by gaining Tarnopol from Russia. This, combined with the already sizeable Magyar and Slavic populations within the Austrian Empire further served to set Austria apart from the rest of the German-speaking world. However, Hapsburg preeminence remained due to the size of the Austrian Empire and the historic legacy of the House of Hapsburg.
Things began to change in a big way after the accession of King Wilhelm I of Prussia and the rise of Otto von Bismarck to political supremacy in Berlin. More conservative Prussians were coming around to the idea of German unification, provided it was under Prussian leadership. Considering that Prussia had a strong economy and, arguably, man-for-man the strongest army in Europe, that might not have seemed too tall an order. However, there were obstacles. One was the King himself. Wilhelm I was quite content being the King of Prussia who owed his throne to God and had no interest in becoming an Emperor of Germany who would owe his throne to a political agreement or elected assembly. Another problem was the Austrians whose emperors continued to serve as presidents of the German Confederation and who had the benefit of legitimacy when it came to pan-German leadership from their history as Holy Roman Emperors. Austria would be sure to resist any effort to unite Germany under Prussian leadership (just as Prussia would likely have resisted any similar effort under Austrian leadership). Another problem was the south German states which were more Catholic, closer to Austria and whose royal families owed their “royal” status to Napoleonic France and thus could be problematic for Prussia. There was also the “problem” of the House of Hohenzollern itself and how unification would be achieved and what sort of a united Germany it would be.
To be concluded in Part II