The Unification of Germany
In 1815, what would become Germany was 39 separate kingdoms. They sometimes worked together in the Germany Confederation, which had been created by the Congress of Vienna. The Confederation was dominated by the Austrian Empire dominated this organization, through Prussia competed for influence. Prussia was the largest and most powerful of these kingdoms and, just as elsewhere in Europe, German nationalism began to spread in the mid-1800’s.
In 1861, Wilhelm I became the king of Prussia. He appointed Junker Otto von Bismarck as his prime minister. Bismark was a shrewd and powerful politician. Bismark was a very aggressive man and his nature was central to way in which he did his job. He practiced tough, power-politics with no room for idealism—an idea called “realpolitik.” He did away with the Prussian parliament so he could do things his way. He claimed that the “issues of the day will be decided… by blood and iron,” by which he meant though military might and even war. And the issue of the day was the expansion of Prussian power, ultimately resulting in the unification of Germany.
Bismark recognized that wars caused a rise in nationalism. He used wars to strategically increase German nationalism and eliminate Prussia’s rivals for power. The first of these wars was in 1864, when Bismarck led an alliance with the Austria Empire in a war against Denmark (called the Second Schleswig War). The quick victory caused a spike in German nationalism.
Bismark and Prussia’s wartime ally, the Austrian Empire, found themselves at odds over how to administer the territory they had won from Denmark. In 1866, this erupted into the Seven Week’s War (sometimes called the Austro-Prussian War). The cause of the war was a rouse. Bismarck—realizing the Austria stood in the way of German unification—tricked the Austrians into declaring war on Prussia (because it always looks better to the rest of the world if you are forced to fight a war to defend yourself versus starting a war). Bismark knew this was his opportunity to remove Austrian influence from the German Confederation.
Despite most people’s expectations, the upstart Prussians easily won the Seven Week’s War due to their superior military—better in both training and equipment. The Prussians annexed the German kingdoms that fought with Austria and the resulting peace disbanded the Austrian-dominated German Confederation, replacing it with the North German Confederation, dominated by Prussia and fully excluded Austria.
In 1867, Bismarck again used a war to increase German nationalism and complete German unification. Bismark tricked the French into declaring war of Prussia in 1870, starting the Franco-Prussian War. The remaining, independent German kingdoms allied with Prussia against the French. The Prussians again achieved a quick victory due it their superior military. At the war’s conclusion in 1871, Germany had been unified, creating the German Reich, or Empire. It’s ruler was Kaiser Wilhelm I (the title being a derivative of Caesar, like the czar in Russia). Bismark was appointed Chancellor.