Friday, October 26, 2012

The Unification of Germany Part II

(continued from Part I)

Otto Von Bismarck
It is usual to see the final years before German unification as being totally masterminded by Bismarck. This is not entirely true. Certainly, Bismarck had a gift at turning events to his advantage, and so that of Prussia, but he was often reacting to events that he had nothing to do with instigating. For example, for Prussia to dominate the process of unification, it was clear that the two countries which stood to lose would be Austria and France. Prussia, despite a strong army that had recently been modernized and improved yet again thanks to the brilliant minds of Graf von Molte and Graf von Roon, would stand little chance of victory against France and Austria together. It was simply good fortune for Bismarck that France and Austria each took steps to isolate themselves. To the horror of Prince Metternich, Austria allowed herself to be provoked into making the first aggressive move in a war against France in Italy. Later, when Austria could have used help in dealing with Prussia, France would remain neutral just as Austria would remain neutral when the French had their turn at a war against Prussia (in that case, one in which it was France that allowed herself to be provoked into making the first aggressive move). Bismarck engineered none of this but took full advantage of such events which allowed Prussia to take on only one major enemy at a time.

Prussia proved how modern and efficient her military forces were in a war against Denmark alongside the other members of the German Confederation, including Austria, in 1864. This area would provide the excuse for Prussia finally going to war with Austria only a few years later in 1866. It seems more likely that Bismarck was at least largely responsible for orchestrating this, possibly after being less than impressed with the capability of the Austrian army when compared to that of Prussia. By this time, the great Austrian commanders of 1848 were gone and the penny-pinching government in Vienna had failed to keep the Austrian military modernized and up-to-date whereas the Prussian forces were positively state-of-the-art. Once again, events conspired to keep Austria largely isolated in this conflict. Although most of the south German states allied with Austria, other than Saxony they proved to be of little consequence and no outside help came for a number of reasons. France still bore ill-will against Austria and, in any event, did not expect Austria to have any trouble defeating the Prussians. Italy allied with Prussia over continued Austrian rule of Venice and Russia, previously helpful to Austria, remained neutral due to resentment over Austrian neutrality during the Crimean War (something Russia was especially touchy about considering that they had come to the rescue of Austria during the Hungarian rebellion in 1848).

Kronprinz Friedrich at the battle of Koeniggraetz
The final course of German unification was therefore decided by a seven week conflict which determined that Prussia would dominate the German nationalist movement and Austria would be excluded. Prussian advances in weaponry and logistics made short work of the Austrians and soon Austria sued for peace. Prussia was not overly demanding in reaching a settlement, anxious to avoid having an embittered Austria as a future enemy. There was also little Austria had that Prussia wanted, they simply wanted Austria out of the way in the drive for German unification under Prussian leadership. Austria was excluded from German affairs and the old German Confederation was officially abolished, replaced by the short-lived North German Confederation which was simply a stepping stone to the united Germany. France helped negotiate the peace and one cannot help but wonder if Emperor Napoleon III realized that he was next on the Prussian menu. He was confident that his forces could defeat Prussia alone but he hoped Austria could keep the south German states from joining in. Again, however, events far beyond the control of Prussia worked together to isolate France.

Bismarck, naturally, did his best to encourage this by playing up French interest in certain south German territories but for the most part it was French policy which ensured they would remain friendless in the next war. An alliance was proposed consisting of France, Italy and Austria to contain Prussian expansion and, on the surface, it seemed easy enough to accomplish. The Austrians were eager take back pride of place from Prussia and Emperor Francis Joseph agreed to the demands of the Hungarians, thus creating the Dual-Empire of Austria-Hungary in the hope that this would quiet unrest and allow him to concentrate on the Prussian enemy. As tensions increased between France and Prussia, Napoleon III certainly seemed open to the alliance but it fell apart over the situation in Italy. King Victor Emmanuel II expressed support for the alliance (eager to nullify the threat of Austria) but the public remained adamantly opposed so long as French troops remained on Italian soil, referring to the garrison Napoleon III kept in Rome to maintain Papal rule over the city. So long as the French remained in Rome, Italy would not ally with France and if Italy would not ally with France, Austria would not risk taking her eye off of them and so would not ally with France either. Napoleon was stuck. He had gained little from garrisoning Rome but he did not want to risk Catholic anger by withdrawing his soldiers without the consent of the Pope and the Pope was not about to consent to such a thing as the presence of French bayonets were the only thing maintaining his authority over the Eternal City. The Austria-Hungary settlement also did not work out quite as planned for Emperor Francis Joseph as the Prime Minister of Hungary opposed any intervention with France against Prussia.

Austrian Kaiser Franz Joseph
The southern German states had also, over the course of the wars with Denmark and Austria, come to see Prussia as the rising star in Europe. If they had to be the friend or enemy of Prussia, they would prefer to be friends. There were also worries that they could lose a great deal in any peace settlement between Napoleon and Bismarck if they held aloof. So, despite the hopes of Napoleon, when war came in 1870 the southern states joined with Prussia in invading France. This, of course, was after the doctoring of the famous Ems Telegram by which Bismarck tweaked the Napoleonic nose, provoking France into making the first aggressive move. The war was a triumph for Prussia and the other German states and a stunning defeat for France, ending with the collapse of the Second French Empire, riots, revolution and widespread suffering. However, Prussia achieved the goal of establishing the united Germany in the way the conservative faction wanted (and, happily, France rebounded rather quickly anyway).

At the famous Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed the first “German Emperor”. This was significant. He was not “Emperor of Germany” (though many mistakenly use the term) but rather “German Emperor” which was a distinction to calm the fears of the other German monarchs that their rights might be violated. In some cases it took some effort but the German princes who had mostly opposed unification in the past, under Prussian leadership decided to get out in front of the nationalist movement rather than fighting against it. Despite his reluctance, Wilhelm I was persuaded to accept the crown of Kaiser because it came about in a way that was far removed from what had been offered to his elder brother or even what his son would have favored. German unity was not achieved by a popular vote or government legislation. It was achieved by the German princes coming together and agreeing to unification on their own terms with the imperial crown going to Prussia which had led the way. No one lost their throne over it (other than Napoleon III and that was ultimately due to his own people) and the united Germany was one of united monarchies as well as united people. Not every non-Prussian monarch was always happy with what came after but the structure established that was known as the German Empire endured until the disaster that was the First World War and no doubt would have continued had not that conflict intervened.

Wilhelm I proclaimed German Emperor at Versailles
The deeper question though, is whether or not this was the best way for German unity to be achieved or should it have been achieved at all? The second question is taken for granted. The united Germany achieved a great level of success it had never known before. As to the first, the way Germany was united was certainly preferable to the sort of unity which had been earlier sought by the Frankfurt Assembly, based on the consent of the German monarchs rather than abstract, liberal ideals and passing trends. Perhaps a more difficult question is whether Prussian leadership was preferable to Austrian in this movement toward unification? We cannot, of course, ever know the answer for certain. I am, admittedly, partial to the House of Hapsburg but I do not think I am being unreasonable to say that history might have unfolded for the better if German unity had been achieved based on the historical legacy of the House of Hapsburg rather than the military might of the unquestionably superb Prussian army. True, one could point to later examples of Austrian adventures as a source of trouble, but all of these came about after Austria had been excluded from German affairs and was forced to focus on the problematic Balkans to find a new place in the world for herself. It is a debatable point and we cannot know the answer. Hapsburg leadership seems to have been the better option to me, but that’s just one monarchists’ opinion.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you for another great post, MadMonarchist. I've truly enjoyed reading this post on the unification of Germany. I wish there was the possibility to have formed a federal monarchy in unified Italy in the same vein as occurred in Germany. However, different circumstances forced out different outcomes.

    What poor Germany has lost when they lost the monarchy. Now they are a broken country wallowing in self-pity and self-guilt.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...